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My job is to interview CEO’s… and I love it!

INTRODUCTION

One of the classical research techniques, one-to-one interviews is a mainstay for garnering crucial business insights from senior level respondents. In several research scenarios, there is rarely another avenue to tap into the wealth of experiential knowledge possessed by opinion leaders and CXO’s. Some of the most highly sought-after research studies and consultancy reports seek to integrate and heavily rely upon the views of thought leaders, industry veterans, subject matter experts and other such hard-to-reach audiences. However, harnessing the time and attention of these individuals to draw upon their observations and judgment, is a challenging and arduous task. A significant investment of effort and sharpness of mind is needed for capitalizing on the experience of such stalwarts. The two key cornerstones of fruitful interviewing are planning and astuteness. While a plan may be developed with training and supervision, astuteness is a state of mind and needs to be cultivated over time.

THE SPEED OF THOUGHT

“But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d;”

In this verse from Measure for Measure, Shakespeare beautifully exposes the foibles of human prejudice borne of presumption and ignorance. The irrationality of human behavior can present itself as both, pitfalls and opportunities for the interviewer. Astuteness of mind begins with an admission of the limits of one’s knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, the presumptions one might be entertaining. “The respondent would somehow sneak in time for me if I could just plead enough with them,” or “I have already told the secretary who I am, where I work and why I’m calling their office. Now it’s her job to present it to her boss in the most favorable light,” or “I’ve already sent a very detailed document about myself, my affiliation and the study. They have all the information. There is no reason for them to not get back to me,” are the sort of wrongful presuppositions that a researcher might be harboring, while trying to elicit a positive reception for their study. They are mistaken because they do not account for the reality of human behavior. The hallmark of adroit researchers is the persistent effort to refine one’s approach through a diligent questioning.

In fact the foibles of human behavior can be just as easily be leveraged in the process of interviewing hard-to-reach audiences. The researcher could use simple 101-level insights from psychological research to boost the probability of realizing maximum value from these interactions. For instance, one could set the tone or use a set pattern for the interview, by leveraging the power of defaults and by establishing with the respondent that almost everyone else subscribes to the same, both of which have been repeatedly demonstrated in human behavior research. Then, reaching out to people when they’re likely to be most receptive will increase the possibility of getting a response. Again, there has been a lot of research on this subject around different channels. Then, simplifying the message and adding visual elements has been shown to be effective strategies for enhancing people’s engagement with the content. Of course, how this is to be done will be subject to some readily agreeable attributes of the respondent. For example, using a golden or purple template for any collaterals (emails, briefs about the study) and highlighting the exclusivity aspect of a research involving interviews with high net worth individuals (HNWI’s) would attract better reception from the average member of this audience. Also, in multiple social-psychology studies, it has been evidenced that consciously mimicking or mirroring someone’s body-language, tone of voice or behavioral presentation greatly promotes the likelihood of winning their favor. This has a direct applicability in interviews.

The researcher should, therefore, dive into an interview armed with a seasoned sharpness of mind and an almost-instinctive spirit of enquiry.

THE SHAPE OF AN INTERVIEW

The other important aspect of successful interviewing, planning, requires creating a framework which clearly outlines a tailored approach for various stages of the interview process.

1.Preparation: The groundwork for a successful interview is laid with preparation on two fronts — the theme of the interview and the person being interviewed. It would serve to greatly enhance the quality of the interview if the interviewer were to be versed with the subject-matter, albeit broadly. In any case, the interviewer would need to study the topic of the research in some detail so as to develop a rudimentary understanding which can aid the interview process. The interviewer should also spend some considerable time in creating a persona of the targeted respondent. This would entail in researching micro-level contextual data, besides an overview of their historical profile, and include a study of their previous engagements, their publications, their social media activity, et cetera.

2.Impression: The planning also extends to concerting the perfect first impression upon contact, which conveys a hint of professionalism and purpose. The gatekeeper should be imparted with a sense of seriousness and importance, so they are impelled to prioritize and expedite the interview. This would not only require meticulous planning on various fronts, but also call for gravitas in the approach and presentation. One way of achieving this would be by creating outreach collaterals before reaching out to the offices of senior management or CXO’s. Since most senior executives have a limited attention span, these should be succinct and have a visual element that balances appeal and professionalism. As a rule of thumb, the higher a person is on the hierarchical ladder, the more fragmented would be their attention and more scant their consideration. Moreover, these would need to be personalized to the person from whom one is trying to elicit a response, as this would greatly increase the likelihood of them answering the call. These could be individualized by finding a connection between the respondent and the theme of the study, which demonstrates their engagement with the topic. This could, for instance, be achieved by the inclusion of references from the respondent’s public statements, blog-posts, articles, memos, et cetera. Also, these collaterals should contain a profile of the interviewer including their professional experience or understanding of the topic, for this would reassure the person on the other side that the request has come from a legitimate and sufficiently qualified professional. The idea here is to get past the gatekeeper, and confidence is the key in doing so. The interviewer should refrain from any loose call-backs as they dilute credibility and ask for specific times/dates, instead of submitting to vague assurances. Furthermore, they should request for mutually blocking time on a calendar, whether with the gatekeeper or the respondent, because senior executives almost always honor their time commitments and their personal staff is bound to the same.

3.First Base: During the introduction, it is important for the interviewer to remember that this is meant to be an intellectually stimulating exercise which should be reflected in their speech. Not to get too carried away, though, in a display of enthusiasm, one must always maintain a sense of purpose about their way.

4.Actual Conversation: While a passion for the subject might carry one through the initial pleasantries, the actual discourse calls upon the interviewer to muster curiosity. Although the respondent has committed their time to the conversation, they need to be animated into opening up and allowing the interviewer access to their thoughts. For this, it is vital that the interviewer appear naturally inquisitive. The respondent would only be interested in sharing their mind if the interviewer is excited to learn about the subject. However, a situation might also arise where the respondent starts wandering from the topic at hand and launches into a monologue over something unrelated to the research. Digressions can be enlightening, even productive, but one must be polite and assertive all the same, while moderating the conversation. It is important to note that, once the timeslot earmarked for the interview has elapsed, the respondent wouldn’t allow one to overrun other engagements in their calendar. A conversation with experienced professionals might expose the researcher to related ideas or perspectives that they hadn’t anticipated. In such instances, they ought to rise to the opportunity and ask follow-up questions, which is possible only if the interviewer has been listening actively. Tenacity and clarity of purpose are essential attributes which the interviewer should cultivate. The confidence to reword or re-ask questions, to overcome the natural hesitation can only come with practice and preparation. Also, it is of primal important that the interviewer has ingrained a sense of confidence and charm. While the former can come with preparation, the latter is only cultivated through practice. One ought to remember that they are smart and have a diverse but far-reaching understanding of the topic, by way of the assorted insights they have gathered through previous interviews. Needless to say that they should not feel bogged down by the stature or position of their respondent and, least of all, by the weight of expectations. It may seem obvious but needs mentioning, for it is a blunder committed by many a diligent researcher that the interviewer must never stray from a natural tone in their address, throughout. It is crucial to impart this engagement the semblance of a conversation; at no point should it seem like a survey or an interview or, God forbid, a business transaction.

5.Ego-massaging: Another mistake, often perpetrated by interviewers, also relates to their manner of address. Here I am thinking of instances when they resort to the use of hyperboles in their approval of the respondent’s knowledge, understanding of industry trends and what have you. If entreaties fall on deaf-ears, it is hardly surprising that this sort of “ego-massaging” is also ineffective. To use an analogy, senior executives are something akin to the queen bee in a beehive, and are regularly pampered with superlative by their underlings. If anything, exaggerated praise would only serve to further distance the respondent. However, the case with professionals further down the hierarchical rungs would be reversed, and one might be reasonable in expecting subtle flattery to work on a manager.

6.Cultural Nuances: It goes without saying that, in such a context, one shouldn’t make a mention of cricket to Americans or ask someone in Belfast about the weather. While these may seem like obvious, perhaps even stereotypical examples, a deeper understanding of cultural nuances is needed to avoid those pitfalls that are lesser apparent to non-natives. Consider, for instance that, in England, one would seem crass in addressing someone as sir unless they’ve been knighted and that, on average, Germans don’t like to talk about religion. Furthermore, the interviewer should also invest some time in developing a general understanding of the culture that their respondent hails from.

7.Closure: In concluding the conversation, the interviewer should bear in mind that this is not a one-off engagement and could lead to repeat or more substantial discourses. One should, therefore, attempt to build a rapport with the respondent and sow the seeds of a relationship that may come to fruition in time. The respondent might, for instance, agree to another interview, consider a deeper engagement on the subject, connect the researcher with other industry leaders or give the interviewer their hotline so they don’t have to go through the gatekeeper again. So, the interviewer should never compromise their acquaintanceship with the respondent and should, instead focus on advancing the same by, as a start, acknowledging the impact their inputs will make on the research being conducted and taking down their contact details for forwarding a report on the study once it has been formalized.

8.Follow Through: There is a clear imperative for the interviewer to follow through on this conversation, in order to advance a professional relationship with the respondent. Initially, a simple way of doing this would be by reaching out to them with a copy of the findings from the study for which they were contacted. One could even engage with them on social media, so long as it is clear that they use it for professional interactions. Moreover, one would do well, here, to be mindful of the boundaries of decorous behavior.

The traditional approach of one-to-one interviews is perhaps the best or, at least the most widely accepted practice for getting a peek into the minds of hard-to-reach audiences, such as high net worth individuals (HNWI’s), CXO’s, subject-matter specialists, et cetera. The most fundamental reality of such interviews, particularly in the consulting and market research profession, is that one has little to offer in return for the person’s time and exertion. Given this, it falls squarely on the researcher to induce the respondent with an inclination to share their thoughts and allow the interviewer a window into the wealth of their experiential knowledge. To the aid of researchers come the fundamental human propensity to communicate and the penchant for sharing our perspective over areas where we have invested substantial time and effort, or have a demonstrable interest. The interviewers need only find a connection between the information they’re seeking and this underlying human impulse. However, communicating this connection and enticing people to cross the threshold of their reluctance is both a science and an art, which requires approaching the respondent with a plan that draws them in and an astuteness of mind that inspires them to help.

ABSTRACTED SUMMARY

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