The executive interview: Why company leaders must tell a good story

The world’s biggest brands understand the importance of a strong leader with a good story. Starbucks has Shultz, Apple’s got Cook, Nike ….who? (John Donahoe is President & CEO of NIKE, Inc). OK, so not every leader enjoys household name status. Still, no amount of product innovation or design brilliance satisfies our thirst for a glimpse of the human architects steering the brands in our lives, even when their names are a mystery.

When Zoom meetings, click-and-collect, bots, and virtual collaboration have stripped away so much humanity from working life, leaders with a good story have never had so much appeal. They are the human face reassuring followers that they’re hitched to right company and the journey will be rewarding.

Which brings us to the executive interview – that rare opportunity for leaders to talk, via news media, to a receptive audience; to reveal something hitherto unknown about themselves to beef up their humanness. But it’s a delicate process and a tough one to do well.

The journalist is not your friend. Across the table they sit, jaded and resentful at the prospect of conducting yet another interview likely to capture little more than practiced soundbites and bland observations.

Sitting opposite, the nervous executive fidgets, unfamiliar with interviews and unsure just what material will used, how they will be quoted, and even the likely nature of the story if and when one is finally published. Little wonder the final output is so unrewarding for both parties.

So, when things click and the resulting story makes everyone happy, it is worth taking a closer look at the story elements to understand how they might help you prepare for your next interview.

Paul Smith, media and telecommunications editor at Australian Financial Review, on his LinkedIn feed recently expressed his pleasure at sitting down with interview subject, Accenture’s new local boss Tara Brady.

“I interview a lot of tech execs in my job and am frequently left scratching my head about how to turn bland and generic musings into an article that anyone would want to read. So it was a pleasure to sit down with Accenture’s new local boss Tara Brady and get an honest appraisal of the local market and the challenges he expects in his new gig. …. And I’m not just saying nice things about him because I saw the video of him boxing either honest!”

The resulting article is behind the AFR paywall. However, I have created a copy for diagnostic appraisal – nothing more – and encourage you to throw some change at the AFR.

The story is instructive, providing a template of sorts for the messages you should be primed to deliver in an interview.

Tara Brady’s executive profile in the AFR:

Opens with a bold statement/promise: “Accenture’s new Australian boss, Tara Brady, has pledged to poach the best partners from the firm’s rivals and put a rocket under Australia’s pedestrian banking technology sector in his first interview since arriving from London.”

Backgrounds the appointment: “Brady was parachuted in last September amid some disquiet among local staff and clients about the extent of COVID-19 inspired redundancies across the company.”

Provides a personal insight: “With video footage of him throwing punches in a mixed martial arts fight included in a write-up of his appointment in The Australian Financial Review, local consultants could have been forgiven for wondering what was about to hit them.”

Covers first impressions of the local market: “While Aussie businesses, and banks in particular, have keenly presented themselves as tech leaders for at least a decade, Brady says his initial impression since arriving from London is of a market that favours a strong defence over making knockout blows. Brady says it is too early to call any recovery yet, and suggests that government, like Accenture, will be relying on corporate Australia discovering its courage.”

Includes an assessment of his new workplace (Accenture): “While he rejects suggestions that morale was low inside Accenture due to commercial under-performance, he says he is in Australia with a mandate to change things and more aggressively take the fight to rival consulting firms like the “big four” Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC.”

Details early changes/developments: “Since arriving, Brady already has brought back senior consultants into the firm, including cloud computing expert Matthew Coates, and finalised the acquisition of cloud migration provider Olikka and SAP specialist Zag.”

Captures personal reflection: “The community’s relative willingness to lock down in Melbourne in order to protect others elsewhere in the country is, he says, something that would be unimaginable in the England he has left.”

Ends with a personal mission: “If I leave in five or 10 years I want to feel like I’ve contributed. I’m a guest in this country and everyone has been accommodating, so I feel it is a duty for me to do my best.”

Do your homework. Be open, honest, and original.