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June 23, 2022

7 AEC interview challenges and solutions

  • Selection panels are returning to face-to-face interviews as COVID-19 restrictions lift.
    Johnston Training Group


    After two-plus years of mostly virtual or masked, socially distanced interviews, selection panels have returned to evaluating teams in person (mostly). For those out of practice or participating face-to-face for the first time, AEC interview challenges can be daunting: less time between notification and interviews, COVID-19-fueled date and personnel changes, and teammates who are working remotely and not able to practice in person.

    Based on coaching more than 16 teams in the past year, here are seven challenges and solutions for those returning to, or facing AEC interviews for the first time.

    Challenge: Congratulations, you've made the short list! Now here's your first challenge: The panel is not picking “the best team.” It is deciding who it wants to work with.

    Solution: All the short-listed teams are qualified, so spending precious interview time restating your qualifications or saying the same thing the other teams will say is not time well spent. You must stand out. Do you have a “secret sauce” (aka your big idea on how to save time and money, deal with a challenge, etc.)? It should have been developed for the proposal but often doesn't come together until the interview prep. Find your secret sauce, and make sure the panel knows what it will get only from you.

    Challenge: The team gets stuck in an endless loop of content revision right up until interview time.

    Solution: At a certain point, continuing to tweak the presentation and using notes to talk it through has diminished returns. The best use of limited time is to practice, with team members recording themselves, playing the rehearsal back, and making refinements based on what they see. Agree in advance on a time when you will stop rewrites and commit to a “stumble-through” that allows time to make changes based on the playback.

    Challenge: Your people are experts in their roles, but poor delivery skills prevent them from connecting with the panel.

    Solution: Technical professionals often struggle with nervousness, filler words, lack of eye contact, and poor body language that get in the way of conveying their expertise. The time to fix delivery skills (and they are fixable) is before the pressure of an interview. Use video so team members have an accurate picture of how they come across, and keep suggestions positive. After watching the replay, ask presenters what they thought was well done and what they would change. In JTG's experience, to improve, people need to see themselves and make the decision to change their habits first. Then they can receive guidance on how to fix the problem.

    Challenge: Team members use boilerplate visuals (usually a PowerPoint deck) to cover the same topics in every interview.

    Solution: Interviewing with the same visuals every time makes it too easy to give the same general pitch on safety, diversity, estimating, and so forth. Instead, start by asking yourself, “What work can a visual do that I can't do myself?” That means fewer words and more images, site plans, or drawings. You should be the leader, and your visuals should support you, not the other way around. Set up slides by telling the panel what it is going to see; then bring the slide up and pause for a few seconds before continuing. The client is hiring you, not your visuals!

    Challenge: The panelists don't interact but sit stone-faced.

    Solution: Interviews without interaction are rarely winners, so develop a plan to get the selection panel talking. At the beginning of the interview, ask the panel members to share their biggest concerns. Give the panel a taste of your big idea in your introduction to pique its interest. Bring questions that show you are a strategic partner, and use open-ended questions to get more than a “yes” or “no” in response. Then you can deliver your content as a response to their concerns instead of putting on a dog-and-pony show.

    Challenge: Principals or others speak for less-experienced team members.

    Solution: From our very first selection panel interview in 2001, we have heard time and time again that panels want to hear from the people doing the day-to-day work. A principal (or anyone else) who speaks for a team member is undercutting that person's expertise. Ensure that less-experienced team members have the information they need to represent their role, including guidance from principals, early on. Then let team members speak for themselves in their own words.

    Challenge: The team members memorize answers to questions they guess will be asked in the Q&A.

    Solution: The Q&A is the most important part of the interview, and yet teams often devote the least amount of time to it in prep. While evaluating what questions may be asked is essential, memorizing answers only works if the panel asks the exact expected questions. When your team moves from content creation to the practice step, start with the Q&A. Decide on a process for how you will manage the questions: Who will be fielding them? How will you work your secret sauce into your answers? How can you connect your answers to the client's long-term goal? Use a group of mock panelists to ask likely questions and record your team answering them. Watching the playback will provide eye-opening feedback about how long answers are, team chemistry, and whether team members are answering the exact question.


    The key to making the most of your limited interview prep time is to implement process improvements and train your people well before the big interview. That way, they are ready to dive into preparation and don't need to reinvent the wheel every time an interview comes along. Follow these strategies and your AEC team will deliver an authentic, unique, and engaging interview and be the team the selection panel wants to work with.

    Scott Johnston, Associate DBIA, leads the Johnston Training Group programs that enable technical professionals to present powerfully, write purposefully, and facilitate seamlessly. He also leads the JTG Selection Panel research, conducting in-person interviews with selection panel members from numerous public and private organizations.

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