The recruiter sounds very excited on the phone: “I’ve scheduled you for a panel interview with our managers next Tuesday a.m. I look forward to meeting with you. Do you have any questions for me?” You hear “panel interview” and you freeze. Handling one interviewer at a time is a task, so a panel interview is not exactly the best news. But hold on, before you sweat the phone out of your hand. Understand a bit more about panel interviews to know how to ace them.
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A panel interview is generally scheduled when the role you are applying for works with multiple functions, has a matrix reporting structure, or because the hiring manager is in a hurry to fill the position. So that’s good news on three different counts: a) you get to complete four to six interviews in one sitting, getting rid of all the nervousness through this one interview, instead of building on the anxiety and stress through multiple interviews, b) you get to meet most of the people you will be working with and a sense of how the teams work together by deliberating on the kind of questions being asked, and c) the offer may be made faster.
Of course, you could completely stress out and ruin the interview, but that’s a scenario that you can avoid by following these tips:
1. Know who’s on the panel.
When the excited recruiter calls, make sure you get the name and role of the people on the panel. Google them and learn more about them. Check in with their profiles on LinkedIn and try to understand their responsibilities. Try your best to memorize their names and roles. On the day of the interview, although there’s a chance that a few members may have nominated backup interviewers, it helps to know at least some of the interviewers. Ask if you can take notes and write down the names and roles of panelists. If you do mix up names, apologize when corrected, and try not to repeat the error again.
2. Introduce yourself to everyone.
No matter how many people are on the panel, make it a point to shake hands with everyone and introduce yourself individually. Make eye contact and a solid connection.
3. Be aware of your body language.
If the traditional interview has just one set of eyes watching you, in a panel interview, you are continuously being watched and by multiple persons. So stay calm and control your body language.
4. Pace your answers.
Just because there’s a volley of questions thrown at you by different people, doesn’t mean that you can give incomplete answers. Answer thoroughly and patiently respond to the next question. Do not ignore anybody. If you need a question repeated, ask for clarification. Even when you are answering one interviewer’s question, make sure you look at everybody.
5. Research and prepare relevant answers.
If you know who’s on the panel and what they do, you also get a sense of how their roles are influenced by yours and how your role is influenced by their function. Prepare intelligent answers that can engage and involve all interviewers. If possible, connect the threads in the question asked, and make it relevant to all the interviewers. Example: “I manage my team by ensuring that they are aware of the role they are in and its impact on other departments. I am a strong proponent of cross-functional projects and opportunities.”
6. Don’t obsess about one point or one person in the interview.
In interviews like these, there’s a chance that you will be meeting with at least one poker-face or one counter-question guy. Understand that he is just doing his job (or has a natural personality like that). If you feel you are unable to break through to him, don’t obsess over convincing him. He may have already decided in your favor — the poker face may just be misleading. In any case, it’s a group consensus and chances are he will be convinced when the rest are. Similarly, don’t end up in an argument over a point you are passionate about. State your point, listen, smile, and move on.
7. Prepare questions to ask.
When they ask, “Do you have any questions for us?,” if you are able to prepare one intelligent question that addresses the roles of all the interviewers, you’ve done a great job. However, this may not always be possible. If you must ask just one question, assess who you want to ask, and ask wisely.
8. Thank the panel.
In person and via email. Collect business cards, if you can, and send out thank-you notes for their time. This is not only a courtesy, it also helps establish contact with the panel.
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