Leadership

How to survive a team interview

You're up for a position with a big consulting firm and you're about to face a jury of your peers, your potential boss, maybe even the company head. How do you handle it? Here's some advice on navigating team interviews.

Today’s corporate culture has transcended the era when one executive or personnel rep hired new staff. Especially in the IT consulting and services industry—where staff work on project teams—deciding who to hire is typically a democratic process.

That means that if you’re going through the drill of hunting out your next consulting position, that all-important milestone in the recruitment process—the interview—will probably be with your potential future boss, coworkers, and other company officials. In this article, I’ll tell you what to expect from a team interview and offer pointers on acing one.

What to expect in a team interview
A team interview typically involves several interviewers who gather at the same place, at the same time, in order to get a broader perspective on the candidate’s experience, skills, and personality. Depending upon the type and level of job you are seeking, the interviewing panel may consist of a hiring manager, a human-resources specialist, and staff members who would be colleagues.

Team interviews may be conducted in several different ways:
  • The candidate will go through a series of one-on-one interviews, after which, using common criteria tools, the interviewers gather to assess the information from the individual sessions, share their reactions, and arrive at a consensus regarding the candidate’s performance.
  • Several interviewers will meet an applicant at the same time. This model is generally used when a future hire will be working directly for several managers.
  • The assessment center is where a candidate will be evaluated by a group of hiring experts and may also be asked to take psychological tests, to role play, or to solve problems associated with the available position.

Although the notion of a team interview may seem formidable, it has definite advantages: It’s a time- and money-saver for out-of-town candidates since meeting several interviewers in a single setting eliminates the need to fly back two or three times. And albeit a high-stress affair, this type of interview can be used to showcase your ability to think on your feet in response to fast-paced questions and to score points from the visibility gained when an "audience" watches you. According to Matt and Nan DeLuca, authors of the bestseller Best Answers to the 201 Most Frequently Asked Interview Questions, a team interview could actually raise your chances of getting the job. “One of the exciting aspects of a team interview is that the odds are more likely that at least one of the interviewers will be impressed with you,” they point out. “In a one-on-one, either the person and you hit it off, or you don't.”

Acing a team interview
Whichever model of interview you are faced with, some basic do’s and don’ts apply. Here’s how you can wow the interviewing panel and walk away with the job:
  • Make a good first impression. As in any other type of interview, the first few minutes are critical to the formation of end impressions. Since the interviewers are evaluating the candidate during these initial exchanges, the importance of external items—clothing and mannerisms—cannot be emphasized enough. In an article written for CareerJournal.com, Marlene Caroselli—a corporate trainer and speaker based in Rochester, NY—writes: “The way you enter the room, your clothes and accessories, the way you shake hands, and your voice tone all create an impression.”
  • Don’t crack under pressure. Team interviews are often stressful since you are faced with a rapid-fire round of consecutive questions and have very little time to frame your response. Remember that this kind of pressure is a deliberate ploy to ascertain your composure under stress. Additionally, if you feel yourself losing focus under the barrage of questions, take a deep breath and ask for clarifications. Chances are that your ability to display grace under pressure is more important in this situation than the content of your answers.
  • Pay everyone equal attention. A common dilemma involves an interviewee’s behavior towards the rest of the team while answering the question of one interviewer. The golden rule is to make direct eye contact with each interviewer and not just the one who asked the question. You can start with directing your attention at the beginning and end of your answer to the person who asked you the question, but in between, be sure to look at each of the other interviewers in turn. Matt and Nan DeLuca, who also answer questions about interviews at Job-Interview.net, advise “rotating your eye contact so that throughout the interview you make eye contact with each of the interviewers. Avoid favoring or avoiding the one or ones that you don’t like or who are not asking questions.” Also, they recommend that wherever possible, you “try to link one question with another asked earlier. It helps to keep everyone involved, and it shows that you are a good listener.”
  • Don’t focus on identifying the “head honcho.” An important skill in tackling team interviews is trying to gauge who calls the shots amongst the interviewers. Sometimes it’s unclear what role or position a person holds; in such cases, it’s wise to be respectful of everyone present. If possible, obtain the names of the interviewers prior to starting and use them during the conversation. According to the career experts at TechieGold.com, “Simply ask for everyone's name and title at the beginning of the interview. This questioning is not only acceptable, it's probably expected. It is also completely appropriate that you ask who your direct manager would be. This person will likely be the person you want to zone in on but don't make it obvious, as it will alienate the other interviewers. The bottom line is that you should look to impress everyone in the interview because group interviews usually indicate a ‘consensus’ decision-making process. You'll likely need everyone's vote.”
  • Speak the interviewers’ language. If you are called back for interviews with different managers, be sure to find ways to make the same information sound different. It wouldn’t do to give a “stock” answer to everyone—count on the fact that they will be comparing notes. Remember: A technical interviewer will tune in to techie talk, and an HR representative will want to hear about your interpersonal skills. Identify who’s who and tell each one what they want to hear.
  • Be yourself. It can be disconcerting to find interviewers giving off different vibes. In this situation, the question that begs an answer is: Should you modify your behavior to remain formal with everyone if one interviewer seems formal and another casual? Across the board, all experts advise that the best thing to do is to be yourself. “By being yourself,” say the TechieGold experts, “you will be at your most comfortable and presumably most effective. Keep in mind that they may want to hire someone that will bring something new to the team, not necessarily someone like themselves.”
  • Don’t be intimidated. “Team interviews are an exciting alternative to one-on-ones,” point out the DeLucas. “If any organization feels you are worth that kind of attention, appreciate the compliment and enjoy it.”
Have you been through a team interview process? Was it successful? What advice would you give your peers on surviving team interviews? Post a comment below or send us a note.
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