Panel Interviews Help Hone Executive-Recruitment Process

By John Gilmore Mar 14, 2014
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Time is the enemy of every recruiter, and this is especially true in executive recruitment. Given how much time it typically takes to hire an executive—and the always daunting task of scheduling busy senior leaders so they can participate—it makes sense for hiring teams to simplify the labor-intensive interviewing process. One way to do this is to schedule panel interviews for candidates who’ve made it to the late stages of recruitment.

Panel interviews put candidates who appear perfectly credentialed on paper through a well-defined, rigorous process with the C-suite to more efficiently determine top contenders. This style of interviewing is highly structured to foster the most valuable comparisons between candidates. In some cases, in fact, implementing this process can save up to 30 days in the hiring process.

“If [candidates] are going to be interviewing with four or five different people, they can come in for one to two hours and see everyone, as opposed to doing multiple individual interviews,” said Betsy Livesay, manager of organization development at Louisville Gas and Electric Co., based in Louisville, Ky. “In addition to demonstrating respect for a candidate’s time, [this] approach conveys the importance the hiring team places on the interview process.”

Interview Setup

Typically, the panel is composed of the organization’s chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operations officer and other key stakeholders who will regularly interact with the new executive. Interviews should be scheduled over one or two days so that the executive team can compare the candidates back-to-back, and they should take between 60 and 90 minutes.

Ideally, these interviews should foster collaborative conversations between company executives and candidates. Panelists should have 10-12 experiential, behavioral and leadership questions prepared for the interview, and they should assign themselves questions based on their area of organizational expertise. The queries should be challenging enough to require critical thinking and sharp insight. Examples of thought-provoking questions are:

  • What are the most important values you demonstrate as a leader? Please share a story that demonstrates how you convey these leadership values in the workplace.
  • What might your management team and some of your major clients collectively agree are your strengths? Areas that need improvement?
  • What type of work culture do you excel in?
  • What motivates you? What irritates you or gets you down?
  • In your experience, have you ever transformed a “B” player into an “A” player?
  • How do you deal with people who cannot perform at an acceptable level?
  • What’s the most challenging issue you’ve faced in your career? How did you come to your decision for resolving the matter? Thinking back, how might you have handled the situation differently?

The responses to these questions will be far more valuable than those you get from yes-or-no questions or questions that clearly lead to a positive response, such as, “Are you a hard worker?”

Note that each applicant must be asked the same questions so that the hiring team that handles the subsequent candidates’ assessment can best compare and contrast their responses. The combination of the panel interviews and the assessment should clearly reveal the top two contenders who will be asked back for more in-depth discussions with the executive team and/or the board of directors.

Assessing Candidate Competencies, Synergies

During a panel interview, job candidates have a chance to assess the management team they may be joining.

“Candidates [get] the opportunity to really see the synergies among our people from different disciplines and how well they are connected and interact,” said Mark Smolik, vice president, general counsel and compliance officer at Exel, a 150,000-employee division of Deutsche Post DHL, which conducts such interviews.

Likewise, the executive panel can evaluate and compare how well candidates react under pressure.

The best executives expect and thrive in situations that require high-level thinking and analysis. In fact, the opportunity to display these skills in the interview can mean the difference between the acceptance and rejection of an eventual offer. So the line of questioning should be probing and convey “how seriously [the company] takes the process and how much value [it] places on the candidate understanding what the job entails,” said Ken Schaumburger, manager of law administration at Chevron.

Panel interviews also give the executive team the opportunity to sell desirable candidates on the company and position.

“I’m trying to convince candidates to join our team, so it’s an opportunity for us to showcase ourselves while candidates are showcasing themselves,” added Smolik.

Still, it’s a grave mistake for interviewers to spend too much time selling the company and position and not enough time asking challenging questions, as this may prevent them from gaining a deep understanding of candidates’ backgrounds and make it difficult to fully gauge their capabilities.

Hedging Interview Disasters

Though many high-performing leaders enjoy challenges and deliver impressive results in this type of interview, others perform poorly in this format.

“The pressure from the panel interview could hinder some, making them so nervous that they won’t be able to think things through and present themselves in the best light,” said Livesay. “Some [candidates] also have difficulty with a group discussion, focusing only on the person who is asking the question. A lot of people get more nervous with a panel than they do one-on-one.”

Thus, it’s important to let interviewees know upfront that they’ll be meeting with several members of the executive team. In addition, they should be given a bio or summary of each panelist.

Tell candidates to come prepared with specific examples of their experiences, along with personal stories that convey, for example, what motivated them to choose their line of work. This kind of information can help panelists understand a person more thoroughly and foster deeper conversations.

Prep panelists for the interviews, too. The human resources department or general counsel should help the panel brush up on what topics are considered off-limits or illegal in an interview; this is especially important for panelists unfamiliar with the role of interviewer.

It’s also important to create a welcoming, cordial atmosphere during the interview. “I’ve seen instances where, if not managed appropriately, a panel interview can actually turn into a deposition—if not an inquisition,” Smolik said.

By ensuring that the initial stages of the interview process are thorough and efficient, and elicit the most valuable information and comparisons, hiring teams can be more confident that the perfect match has been made between candidate and assignment, increasing the likelihood of long-term success.

John Gilmore is the managing partner of executive search firm BarkerGilmore. He can be contacted at and at (585) 598-6555.

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