What’s My Line? The ‘trick’ to securing an Executive Senior Role

About a Zillion years ago, there was an old radio programme called ‘What’s My Line?’ Participants would introduce themselves and the panel would have to guess their job. It was good fun. People with unusual jobs would be invited onto the programme.  The trick was for the listeners to guess the person’s job before the panel did.

New Game: A reverse version of this game is now played out in almost all senior level appointments. In the current mode, people who are applying for jobs have to guess exactly what the job is about and convince a panel of interviewers they are on the money. In most cases, successful interviewing is not about telling your history– it’s about predicting your future (sometimes, in an industry or an organization which you have zero experience of).

How does it Work? Picture the scene. You’ve applied for a senior level role in an external company.  You’ve got through the screening interview with the headhunters and overcame the psychometric tests. Phew! Then you get a letter informing you that you have to do a 10-minute presentation about ‘what you’d do in the first 100 days in the new role.’  After briefly considering abandoning the entire process, you settle down and start to think about your pitch.

Playing Safe: One possibility is to play safe. There are tons of books about how to manage the first 100 days – and they mostly offer the following formula. 1stmonth = get to know the business e.g. spend time in the field. 2nd month = consolidate your thinking;  sort Shark from Minnow issues into some logical hierarchy.  3rd month = build a change plan, socialize this internally and get people on board. So far, so boring.   Selling that process at an interview is about as riveting as talking about the decline of mass attendance with your local Parish Priest.  The conversation needs more bite.

What’s my Role?  On face value the question about your future role looks deceptively simply. It’s anything but. Understanding your new role presupposes that you have invested enough time in researching the organization to identify the BIG issues. Then you need to ‘take a punt’ about what you will bring to the party.  Can you answer (succinctly) exactly what you want to achieve in the role?  Will it be a strong focus on customer service?  Will you tackle employee engagement?  Do you intend to lower costs, eradicating every single piece of fat in the organizations’ processes? Or perhaps you’ll major on business growth? And please don’t say = “I intend to do all of the above” because that’s bullshit.

Personal Branding: A couple of year’s back I was contacted by a politician to help with a re-election campaign in Dublin. Intrigued by the contact (I’ve never been directly involved in politics) I went along to the initial meeting.  Having explained my lack of knowledge, the person reassured me that I’d been contacted to help ‘craft a compelling message.’  The candidate understood politics; my job was communications. So, I asked the person to tell me what they stood for – the issues they were passionate about. The reply: “The issues are driven by constituents.  What I want isn’t important. My job is to reflect the issues in the area that I represent.”

On face value that sounds quite democratic. But, as I know the geographical area quite well, I wondered how he intended to bridge very diverse local issues (this suburb of Dublin is mixed – with a swathe of Local Government housing sitting almost ‘next door’ to some of the most expensive real estate in Ireland).  So, I tried again to push for the BIG issues that he felt passionate about e.g. taxation, crime, homelessness and so on.  It’s fair to say that the conversation took a difficult turn at this point as I was ‘reminded’ that the job was to reflect the issues local people wanted to ‘fix’. About 20 minutes into the conversation I announced: “I think I have a really good slogan for your campaign.” 

I could see that my new political friend was impressed with my speed of thinking – so I just laid it out straight:“Vote for me. I’ll improve everything.”  My new BFF didn’t think that was funny. Neither did I.  We agreed to disagree and parted company.  It was probably the shortest political career in history. I didn’t want to work with someone who had no idea what they stood for (that’s a political, not a moral judgement).

Back to Real Life:

Q: So, how do you make a successful pitch at an interview – when you are not fully sure of the facts?

A: You have to demonstrate enough knowledge about the industry/organization to convince the interviewers that you are a serious candidate and you didn’t just ‘rock up’ for the coffee and free scones.

How? There’s 2 approaches and (depending on what exactly you have been asked to do) you can use both.  The first is to ‘codify’ exactly what you’ve done in the past.

Example A: I recently worked with a senior HR Director applying for a new role.  It was a big job and the candidate had an excellent track record.  But, by his own admission, he was poor at telling his story.  So, we crafted an A2 page – with 10 headings (Organization Development, Culture, Performance Management, Talent Acquisition and so on).  Under each heading we codified his expertise.   When the final output was desktop published – he began to look like the world-class candidate that he is. You need to tell your story – just tell it brilliantly well.

Example B: An internal candidate was making a ‘pitch’ for the CEO role.  So we tackled 4 key questions: (a) the organization context – what other companies are in a similar space– highlighting some mission overlap/confusion (b) what are the key internal challenges  – staff turnover, underfunding and so on (c) what are the key ‘resolution’ projects that need to be undertaken (d) the skills (and development needs) that specific candidate brought to the table (suggest: Skip your ‘Superman’ complex).  We ‘packaged’ all of the above into a very neat ‘booklet’ which he gave to the interviewers.

Low Arrogance: I’m continually amazed at the arrogance of some executives.  They show up for interview knowing very little about the organization. They expect the interviewers to have done all the legwork (“Did you look up my LinkedIn profile?”), hoping that their greatness will be uncovered.  They need to learn a lesson about marketing from the great Lord Leverhume (founder of Lever Brothers).  More than 100 years old, this poem is still potent:

“He who whispers down a well

About the goods he has to sell

Will never make as many dollars

As he who climbs a tree and hollers.”

Want a BIG job? Get cracking on the homework and packaging! Because you will need both.


PS For a couple of reasons I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to stop writing blogs. You are not ‘off the hook’ just yet. I’ve a couple of ideas to work on over the next month or so and then we will say goodbye to this particular Chapter.  Will explain the rationale in more detail – just wanted to give you a heads up.  Thanks for keeping up  –  it was a great buzz seeing so many people reading this stuff. I will shortly be publishing 2 books of the ‘best blogs’ – will provide the details shortly. 

PPS Lighter Notes: Some interview-related Tweets:

‘I murder drifters and use their hair to make little dolls. Oh, you meant at work! Sorry about that. My biggest weakness is probably that I’m a perfectionist.’

‘I hate when the other guy goes for a handshake and I go for an open-mouth kiss and oh great now I probably didn’t get this job.’

Interviewer: So tell me why you want this job.

Me: I have no money and I prefer when I have money.


HR: What’s your best asset?

Me: I have an excellent memory.

HR: Give me an example.

Me: Of what?


Interviewer: ‘So where do you see yourself in 5 years time?’

Me: ‘My biggest weakness? Probably not listening properly.’


DOG: I think that job interview went really well! Then looks in mirror and sees ear was inside-out the whole time.  “Son of a bitch!”

For our USA Audience…

Mama bear and Papa bear are getting a divorce. The judge asks baby bear, “Who do you want to live with?”

Baby bear says, “ I don’t want to live with mama bear. She beats me”

Judge says, “Okay, so you want to live with papa bear?”

Baby bear says, “No, he beats me too!”

Judge (frustrated at this point), “Well then, who do you want to live with?”

Baby bear: “I want to live with the Chicago Bears! They never beat anybody”

Check our website http://www.tandemconsulting.ie or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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3 Responses to What’s My Line? The ‘trick’ to securing an Executive Senior Role

  1. omckenna02 says:


    Many thanks for the blogs and words of witty wisdom. I’ve appreciated them over the years and even used a couple of your ideas!

    And I’m about to start looking for new role – so your interview prompts are well timed. If you hear of any big roles with lots of money and little work – I’m your man!

    P.s. I Love the Chicago bears joke.


    On Mon 31 Dec 2018 at 06:17, Confessions of a Consultant wrote:

    > Tandem Consulting posted: “About a Zillion years ago, there was an old > radio programme called ‘What’s My Line?’ Participants would introduce > themselves and the panel would have to guess their job. It was good fun. > People with unusual jobs would be invited onto the programme. The t” >

  2. Laurence Mc Givern says:

    Paul ,I will miss your blogs . They made for interesting reading on monday mornings. Hope 2019 is a good one for you and all the family

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