Top Interview Questions for Finance & Accounting Leaders

Among other areas of industry focus, Nicole Coe, SPHR, CPC, CPP, in her role as Principal – Team Leadership and Full Cycle Recruitment, TRG Search Partners LLC, recruits finance and accounting leaders in the real estate development, manufacturing and public accounting space.

Some of the challenges Coe faces in recruiting this type of candidate include identifying individuals who can pick up the pieces from some sort of failure. This is because “managing people tends to be an area where many individuals have not been adequately trained/mentored,” says Coe.

“Many inherit a (management-level) role based on quality skills in the industry, good work habits or other areas where they have been stellar and also when someone has departed. So, the next person in line moves up, which is not always a win-win,” explains Coe.

Amid a plethora of questions Coe asks during candidate interviews, one particular interrogatory stands out. She asks, “Tell me about your ego.” Her desire to unearth intrinsic and extrinsic candidate motivators compels this type of query as she believes “the connection happens here,” which employers value. 

Moreover, these 10 questions help Coe pinpoint finance and accounting candidates who offer career muscle, ensuring a win-win outcome for both the candidate and employer.

Question #1: Please give me a one-minute elevator pitch about your role as a ______________?

According to the University of California, “An elevator pitch is a clear, brief message or ‘commercial’ about you. It communicates who you are, what you’re looking for and how you can benefit a company or organisation.” General length is 25-30 seconds, 80-90 words and 8-10 sentences.

Why It Works: “This is going to tell me exactly how the candidate views themselves as either a technician or a leader,” expounds Coe.  “From here, I can understand how an individual can sell themselves and their value.”

Question #2: Please give me a one-minute overview of your current company.

Why It Works: “This is going to tell me how a finance candidate could describe the organisation in terms of product and service and to the marketplace when hiring and managing others and how they could sell the organisation to prospective investors / buyers.

A CFO or senior-level finance individual will be managing individuals that close the books and manage the day-to-day, and this individual will often be the oversight and will operate in a cost-reduction special projects capacity,” explains Coe.

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Question #3: What do you see as the toughest challenges facing finance professionals today?

One of the goals for asking this is to unearth a candidate’s experience in spotting and handling an economic shift. For example, while Bloomberg’s recent model predicts only a 29 percent chance of a recession in the next 12 months, the fact that another downturn eventually will occur is near-certain. Companies—in particular their finance leadership—must possess the savvy to identify and address such events.

Why It Works: “This tells me how in tune they are with street rhetoric vs. fact-based interpretations of economic standing,” says Coe. “A good example of this is how to approach the word ‘recession.’ This is a big core area as the industries I focus on can be hit hard when the ‘R’ hits. So, I want to understand if they can recognise one when they see one and how they prepare.  I look for key examples of what they have actually experienced.”

Question #4: Recall a time you helped executive leadership avoid a bad financial decision. What tools did you use to back up your data? How did you approach resistance?

“This question separates bean counters and record keepers (all very necessary) from seasoned problem solvers,” states Coe.

Why It Works: “Here, I want to understand how willing the candidate could be with overcoming objections,” Coe expounds. “This may show me how the candidate feels about that for which he/she is actually responsible.”

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Question #5: Give me a time you had to present financial information to a non-financial person?

Being able to translate financial complexity and/or unfamiliar industry-speak to those who are not similarly immersed is particularly needed in our hypercompetitive, digitally connected world where data is continually being dumped into our headspace. 

Why It Works: “This may tell me how well the candidate is at working with all levels within an organisation as well as angel investors or other external individuals that may not speak the same lingo.”

Question #6: What project have you been most proud of and why?

Why It Works: “This may yield full development projects or new product analysis. Budget and expense management are key here. It will also tell me how they measure their own success, which tells me much about how they view their contributions and role in an organisation.”

Question #7: Tell me about a time that you faced an ethical dilemma in your role, and how did you deal with this?  

According to Wikipedia, ethics (or moral philosophy) “is a branch of philosophy that involves systematising, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.” Coe’s two-pronged approach to this question underscores the importance of ethics in the accounting industry.

Why It Works: “For accountants in leadership, this tells me to the level they are willing to go to exercise pushback. This tells me much about what they are willing to do for whatever the ‘carrot’ is, good or bad. This tells me about ethics in this industry, which is everything,” asserts Coe.

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Question #8: What is the biggest mistake you’ve made under your leadership? How did you handle it?  What did you learn?

The intention of this question is less about the magnitude of, or type of mistake the candidate has made but rather, focuses on the humanistic leadership attributes that helps separate leadership wheat from leadership chaff. 

Why It Works: Explains Coe, “I want to know here if the candidate can accept responsibility and how they handled moving forward more than the issue itself.”

Question #9: Tell me about your management style? What was your biggest management success and something that you consider your biggest failure?

Why It Works: “This is particularly useful in determining fit,” begins Coe. “I want to understand how the candidate can problem-solve in an area of an organisation that requires improvement.  I want to understand how they are as a leader.”

Question #10: What would be the one or two things you would change about your current company if you could?

The rich value of this final question encompasses candidate motivation, company culture and compensation, helping illuminate the culture connectivity, or lack thereof, between the hiring company and the candidate. This is particularly relevant, as three-quarters of people assess company culture before applying for a job, according to a survey by Glassdoor. The candid conversation sparked by this question will help sort through both the practical and emotional aspects of making a jump to a new company. 

Why It Works: “This tells me about motivators to leave a current company, but it also ensures the client company is perhaps a better fit, culturally,” says Coe. “All candidates should understand what their motivation(s) are to be very certain of their decision to look elsewhere. 

Often, change is not about compensation, but candidates can be swept up with a swanky new comp package, or a lacklustre comp package can disappoint. So, it is important to remember what prompted the candidate to pursue the new opportunity in the first place.”

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