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Career Advice

From Marc Cenedella
Marc Cenedella

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Interviewing

Master the Panel Interview

Some say panel interviews feel like inquisitions. Follow these steps to get through the final round.

By John O'Connor
Interviewing

What if you were in the hot seat? You’re a six-figure job seeker, an executive. The search took a little longer than you thought, but now it’s time to close the deal. The last stage is the panel interview at the company’s headquarters. Now you have the sharks in a room, circling, ready to select or eliminate you. It’s the panel interview, and you’re in the shark cage.

Imagine: At approximately 7PM on a Friday night “Jayson Kindall,” who asked that his real name not be used, received a call for what he thought would be the final interview with a major technology company in the Boston area. “It was a bit of a surprise,” Jayson says. “I mean who calls you on a Friday night about a job interview? But I was as excited as I could be. There would be one more stage to the interview process they said – the panel interview. That threw me.” His nerves were shaken that Monday-morning in the panel meeting with the CTO, CFO, VP of Human Resources and two project managers.

Here are the basic elements of the panel interview that he needs to know to be successful in this final stage:

Research the panel judges

Often, you have been informed as to the makeup of the panel. Some of the people may have met you in person and done a one-on-one interview.

If you have been informed about the makeup of the panel, then you may have been given hints about the kind of questions you will receive. In fact, many hiring managers and human resources representatives have read the riot act to panel interviewers to keep their questions for each candidate consistent. This helps establish a pattern and reduces the risk of candidates feeling singled out or discriminated against.

Be calm in the storm

The key to success is connecting with the personalities at the panel interview. Remember that each panel may have different kinds of attitudes and energy. Different personalities and body languages permeate a panel interview.

To separate yourself from the other six-figure candidates, it’s important to dialogue and hold a conversation with them. It takes a grounded candidate to be calm in what can seem like an aggressive inquisition. The interviewers remember that quality.

Art Burke, a senior human resources consultant agrees: “You want people who are at the executive level to interact with you and let you and your leadership team know that they sync with the company’s point of view but have a point of view and perspective of their own. I look for people whose values and integrity align with the company I represent.”

Have a question to ask each interviewer at the end

Frank Lyons, a veteran HR-compensation expert and veteran of the Fortune 500 HR world thinks the questions you ask are key. He said, “You want people who come in as thinkers not just doers, as communicators not just technicians, as high character people, people with a vision of the future. That’s why the best panel-interview preparation includes a thought process on the kinds of questions that the interviewee should ask.”

Tell them a story

To lock in the last stage panel interview you need to know that hiring managers want to see how you think not what you have done. Make sure you develop stories that follow a Situation, Task, Action and Response/Achievement pattern throughout your panel interview.

If they can envision your tactics in certain situations, they can see you in their company more easily.

Reiterate how your skills fit into the job description

Use the initial job listing to make certain points. If they asked for a technology-focused executive in their initial job description, tell a brief anecdote about your social-media savvy.

This is an important point. Develop in-depth stories based on core elements you heard from the beginning of the application and interview process. Remember, it’s a competition.

Engage even the silent ones

Don’t play to any one person on the panel. It’s sometimes the quiet note-takers that have high influence. Use silence. Sometimes looking down and taking a moment to answer the question is the best strategy. Sometimes smiling, nodding and laughing with the panel or a panel member at an awkward moment makes you seem more human.

Take notes, sparingly

Ask if you can take notes during the panel interview but do so sparingly if you do. Try writing down the names of each interviewer first so that when you look up you can address them. One client did this in an interview and one of the panel members commented on it by saying, “I see you are writing down our names.” The client replied, “Yes, I am. It’s all a part of a memory course I am taking.” The panel laughed. It broke the ice. He got the job.

These interviews can feel like war rooms. Jay Drake, the former director of personnel for the Naval War College, can relate: “Of course in the Navy or throughout the military we sometimes have the reputation of panel-interview toughness. I know it feels like an interrogation. But I was always impressed with people who asked, interracted and utilized their thinking to ask great questions of us, the so-called interrogators. Those are the people who close the deal for me.”

Survival is key. But winning the job is better. Panel-interview sharks smell blood when you are not prepared. There are no hard and fast rules of the panel-interview cage but the tips above can help you differentiate yourself from other candidates. Perhaps they will even help land your next outstanding, six-figure opportunity.

John M. O'Connor, MFA, is the President of Career Pro of NC, Inc., a comprehensive career services organization specializing in Executive Outplacement, Corporate Outplacement, Federal/Military Career Transition and Consulting. He was appointed to the Board of Directors (2006) for Raleigh-Wake Human Resources Management Association (RWHRMA.org). He is also a Certified Career Coach (CECC), Certified Resume Writer (CRW) and Credentialed Career Master (CCM).

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