The Ultimate Interview Guide for Hiring Executive Directors

The Ultimate Interview Guide for Hiring Executive Directors

Finding a new executive director can be one of the biggest challenges that HR directors, HR managers, and recruiters face in their careers. Executive directors drive businesses and nonprofits forward as the head of the board of directors. They’re tasked with making the big decisions that determine whether or not an organization succeeds or fails.

Properly vetting candidates helps ensure that the right executive director for the job aligns with the company’s values and priorities, as well as using this synchronicity to create a bright future for the company.

Businesswoman shaking hands with a candidate during a job interview, with a male observer.

Knowing the right executive director interview questions to ask is the best way to find the ideal person for the job. Some of the skills needed to thrive in an executive director role include the following:

When looking for interview questions for executive director positions, focus on inquiries that assess the candidate’s aptitude with the role’s necessary skill sets. The best executive director interview questions open up opportunities to discuss an organization’s past, present, and future. Ideal executive directors do their research. 

Anyone tasked with interviewing them should look for a familiarity with what the business or nonprofit does, its history, and how to build on that history in a way that honors the overarching mission while simultaneously incorporating new ideas and concepts. 

Consider some of the following questions when designing an interview for an executive director.

What opportunities for change do you see for the company, and how will you implement them?

A good executive director doesn’t get complacent. An answer like, “Don’t fix what isn’t broken” or “I think you’re doing fine as is” doesn’t speak to a commitment to positive change. Look for candidates who come prepared with well-researched information about the organization—including its pain points. This shows that they actually care about acknowledging and addressing the issues at hand instead of pretending that everything is fine. 

Follow up with an inquiry into how they expect to put their plans into motion. Concepts are not enough. Executive directors also need to understand how to apply their ideas practically and within the limits of available resources.

Why It’s Important

Wanting the best for a nonprofit or company means keeping a constant eye out for growth opportunities. These executive director interview questions help hiring managers gauge a candidate’s commitment to improvement, as well as their eye for spotting and solving problems early on, before they become extremely difficult to fix. 

In addition, questions regarding how they expect to move forward eliminate candidates who show that they can’t think ahead. Not having an answer prepared or holding unrealistic and/or flexible expectations reveal that they may not have the experience or foresight necessary to lead the organization into the future. 

What does your decision-making process look like?

This question is just as important when asked of an executive director as it is when asked of an entry-level worker. All employees should be able to articulate what goes into their decision-making process and know what to do when faced with challenges to said process.

There is no one correct way to approach decision-making. Hiring managers shouldn’t prioritize a standard way of thinking when searching for the right executive director candidate, especially since companies thrive on diversity over uniformity. Rather, look for mindsets tempered with flexibility, self-awareness, and a willingness to shift gears if another approach is needed. Have them give previous examples of using this process in an actual work environment, or give the candidate a sample problem and ask them how they’d work through it.

Why It’s Important

Executive director is a nimble role; it requires a nimble person for maximum efficacy. Any list of interview questions for executive director roles should include a few that peer into how they solve problems. The right candidate will be able to break their processes down into their component parts and explain each one and why it’s important to form the final conclusion.

Again, it’s less about how they make decisions, and more about the ability to self-reflect, analyze, and even alter their mindsets when presented with new information and challenges. Rigidity harms the role more than it helps, and puts the company or nonprofit at risk of stagnation.

How do you handle conflict during the decision-making process?

Conflict resolution and general “people skills” are a must for every executive director. Even the most amiable boards still have their disagreements, and an effective leader understands how to step in to mitigate the big opinions and, often, big personalities that may arise. Anyone in a position of authority needs to understand and respect the heft of their responsibility, and oftentimes their true character emerges when asked to step in to resolve interpersonal and company-wide issues.

As with questions regarding the details of the decision-making process, HR directors and managers tasked with hiring should ask for real-life examples of how the candidate addressed conflict. If time permits, give them a fictional scenario to work through in real time as well.

Why It’s Important

The archetype of a wise, even-tempered leader may be a cliché, but it exists for a reason. These two characteristics go far when mediating between board members, ensuring that the issue is resolved peacefully, practically, and logically. Keep an eye out for answers that may indicate potential abuse of power, aggression, or an unwillingness to listen to other perspectives before finalizing a decision. 

Similarly, these questions can also show how they react when their authority is questioned. A good executive director allows workers to provide feedback and makes a concerted effort to sincerely listen to and implement it. Organizations need to change over time in order to succeed, and the leaders themselves have to make that personal commitment as well.

How do you assess risk and build on that to influence your strategies?

Answering to a board of directors also means answering to people with big stakes in the business. Savvy executive directors understand risk/reward ratios and how to balance respect for the investments board members have made in the company against new growth opportunities. Risk assessment and management needs to be a part of any candidate’s decision-making process; the degree to which depends on the situation.

Why It’s Important

It may sound paradoxical, but executive directors have to both play it safe and take risks. The right candidate balances the two with expert care in order to make sure all employees get to keep their jobs and investors receive their returns, but also that new opportunities open up along the way. It’s a difficult balance, of course, and every executive director handles the responsibility differently. What matters most is that they handle it in the first place, and with professionalism and grace.

What were some of your most successful projects? What were some of your biggest failures and what did you learn from them?

No matter where they work in a company’s hierarchy, employees have to be able to look at their roles objectively. Victories should be celebrated and failures should be acknowledged and considered as a learning opportunity. A candidate who shies away from answering inquiries into their failures sends up a few red flags. They’re hesitant to be honest with the very HR professionals tasked with holding them accountable and do not place value on being seen as a person of integrity.

Why It’s Important

Beware of the perfect candidate. Everyone wants to look good in their interviews, of course, but a hiring team tasked with finding the right executive director needs to prioritize someone who understands how to embrace failure as an opportunity. Failure isn’t an excuse to blame others or give up. Any candidate with such an attitude is not right for the executive director role. 


Hiring an executive director shouldn’t be taken lightly. Such a significant and influential role can’t be filled by a candidate lacking the skills required to succeed. We created this interview guide for hiring executive directors to help you find the right fit for your organization. For more insight, download our free ebook on How to Conduct Virtual Interviews.

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