Recruiters and interviewers use check-lists to identify the skills and attributes of the ideal candidate. You should do likewise. What type of organization, team, culture, and situation
comprise your ideal role? Then, craft interview questions of your own, customized to the circumstances and within the context of what you learn from your research.
Purpose and strategy – What is the organization’s purpose, mission, and vision? Is there a clear strategy to achieve the vision? How is purpose and strategy distilled down through the organization, and can the people you meet
articulate the purpose and strategy? How does the company intend to grow? What are the most pressing economic, competitive, or regulatory issues? By gaining an understanding of the situation, you can decide whether it is a fit for you.
Culture – Ask every interviewer to describe the culture and office environment. Ask which corporate value resonates most with them and how culture and values are demonstrated throughout the organization. A sense of work/life balance
can be gained from questions about culture. Expect to hear only positives from people trying to attract you to the position, but note if the responses are consistent. The corporate values should seem authentic and more than just words on a website.
Organizational structure – Go beyond questions about direct reporting relationships to understand the broader organizational dynamics. To what extent is the company centralized or decentralized, and how are the various functional
areas organized across business units or locations? What are the dynamics of the team you will be joining or leading? Does the level of talent support ongoing or planned initiatives? Are you coming in over someone else that may have wanted the position?
If so, what resulting dynamic can you expect?
Operations – Questions designed to understand the company’s operations are dependent upon the nature of the business and industry. Topics that may cross industries include revenue streams, cost drivers, key customers and suppliers,
etc. If there have been any recent acquisitions, what is the status of the integration? Try to gain insight into the information technology environment – not just the accounting system. What is the overall infrastructure like, including recent
or planned implementations?
Financial profile – When interviewing for an accounting or financial position, it stands to reason you will want to understand the organization’s financial profile. Try to assess financial viability and clearly understand
the financial challenges you might have to address. A private company may be unwilling to share financial information, but you can still ask general questions, such as how margins compare to the industry. Ask about the capital structure, covenant
compliance, seasonal working capital requirements, available liquidity, etc. Once you receive an offer, ask to review the company’s financial statements; offer to sign a confidentiality agreement if necessary.
Governance – Questions in this area are important for assessing the professionalism, credibility, and viability of smaller, owner-managed, or entrepreneurial businesses. What is the composition of the board of directors? Who are
the accounting firm, tax advisers, and legal counsel?
Specific challenges and objectives – Every position has specific challenges and objectives in addition to its day-to-day responsibilities. A newly created position may be a response to prevailing issues or planned initiatives; an
existing position may be vacant because a predecessor did not work out. I once interviewed for a CFO position where a private equity firm had recruited a CFO who lasted only six months. I asked everyone I talked to for their perspective on what had
gone wrong and what would define success for a new CFO. You need to determine if you will inherit problems that need to be solved. What previous solutions were tried, and why did they fail? What is the appetite for spending on solutions that require
new technologies or talent?
Working styles – Asking your potential new boss and other colleagues how they like to work will lay the foundation for good working relationships. For example, what are their preferred modes and frequency of communication? How is
remote work managed? If you are replacing someone, what worked well and what didn’t in that relationship?
Select from your list of open-ended questions, as appropriate, for each meeting. Revise and refine the list as you move through the process and gain more information and perspective. It is perfectly fine to refer to your list during interviews and take
notes on the responses.
Don’t be that person who says “No” when asked, “Are there any questions I can answer for you?” Repeating questions that you may have already asked others is not only appropriate, but necessary. Consistency of responses, especially
on matters such as culture and values, is as revealing as the answers themselves.
James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is chief financial officer of J. Knipper and Company | KnippeRx in Somerset, N.J., and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.