Conducting a Great ED Interview

Interviewing someone for an executive director position is not as easy as hiring for any other position in a nonprofit (or business for that matter). Making a good hire is critically important to the organization. It’s frustrating when I see board members rush through the process or assume it is easy to do.

I’ve shared a number of resources previously including How to Make a Good Hire, the Advantages of Using an Executive Search Firm, and the Value of Using an Interim Executive Director.

Here I provide some sample questions you can use in initial screening interviews and second-round interviews.

Screening Interviews

For screening interviews, it is important that the same questions are asked each time to help you fairly compare each candidate. For some applicants, these screening interviews will serve to confirm that they’re a great candidate. For others, you might find someone you weren’t sure about who convinces you that they are a great fit. Or you might hear some red flags.

1. Tell me why you are interested in this position

2. Please tell me what your perception is of our organization and its programs

The first two questions are critical to finding out if the applicant is truly interested in your organization. Look for in-depth answers with multiple points.

3. What are you really good at professionally?

4. What are you not good at or interested in doing professionally?

These two can give you a broad overview of what they think their skills are, and what skills they think they should highlight in an interview for an executive director position.

5. If we talked to your previous direct reports, what would they say about your leadership style?

This question helps to understand one of the most important facets of an executive director – how they lead.

6. Please tell me about a time where you effectively used your skills in ____________. (Fundraising, strategic planning, problem solving, etc.)

I always ask about one or two critical skills in a screening interview. I choose them from the top priorities that the board identified. It helps me begin to compare skill sets. Asking about past performance is always the best way to predict how they will act in the future, so I ask them for examples.

7. It’s six months into your tenure. How will we know we made a great hire?

Another great question to see how interested they are in the job.

8. What questions do you have for us?

An essential question, which should result in some great questions from a quality candidate.

Second Round Interviews

After you have narrowed down your candidate pool, you can get more in-depth on each person’s skills and experiences in the second round. Again, you will want to have a base set of questions, though follow-up questions can often help clarify information shared. A standard set of questions reduces bias in the hiring process and helps you compare individuals. The second round usually involves more committee members and should be the same group of people for each interview.

1. To get us started, please give us a very brief thumbnail sketch of your career as it leads up to your interest in this position. (Follow-up question if needed: Why this position at this time?)

2. Please tell us more about your position at ______. What were your most significant accomplishments? What were your biggest challenges?

I usually ask for more about their most recent job, but if they haven’t been there long, I may choose an older, more significant position. Having them discuss one position in depth helps you see their overall approach to a position and to working with people. To help you assess their performance, ask them to compare it to a prior year, their goals, or their peers.

3. Describe your experience managing significant budgets. What have been your experiences with tough decisions regarding budget cuts or reallocating resources?

4. In what type of work environment are you at your very best? In what environments have you been frustrated and less successful?

5. Could you give us an example of a problematic relationship that you turned around or one that you couldn’t turn around and what you learned from that?

6. As chief executive, what are the key things that you will expect from the board, and what should they expect from you?

7. Tell us about a time when you took over a team that had been under another person for a long period of time. What did you do to build trust quickly?

8. What do you believe would be your biggest obstacles to succeed as the next CEO? What development needs and gaps in skill/experience will you need to pay attention to, and how will you address them?

9. At this point in your personal and professional life, what are the issues/factors that will most influence your next career move?

10. How would you describe the personal values and philosophy that would guide you as you provide leadership in this position?

You may not need all of questions 3-10 but they are focused again on specific skills to help you assess the candidate’s potential. Feel free to add to them, as well.

Close out the interview by asking them if there is anything else they would like to share or ask. The committee’s next step is to focus on thorough reference checks.

Hiring an executive director takes careful thought and significant amounts of time. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the process, feel free to contact me for help at or 402-730-2532. I have resources to help you along every step of the search process.

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