Oh the masks we don, and the personas we project, in the quest for that plum job. These stories are mostly, but not exclusively, from the early phases of my career, when I was not just finding my feet, but also finding myself.
I was quite skilled at being interviewed. It involved a mix of telling the truth about myself – to the extent I knew it – and, for some predictable questions, telling them what they wanted to hear.
They all wanted the same dedicated-to-the-mission doer-achiever who would heroically break through all barriers, even run over people if necessary, to achieve his goals. Here are some examples of how I cast myself in that role, and the truths that were lurking beneath the facade.
Interviewer: “We want someone who is driven to get to the finish line, no matter what it takes.”
Me: “As a goal-oriented person, results are what I care about the most”
The truth: I care about how I get there just as much, perhaps more, as actually getting there. Goals are indispensable, but reaching them by placing unreasonable pressure on a team and sapping them of morale gives me no pleasure. After all, the experience of how we live our lives is our most precious finite resource.
While results are never guaranteed in startup environments (where I have spent much of my career), the right team dynamics and ways of working improve the odds of success dramatically.
Top sportspersons often talk about the importance of focusing on process. Focus exclusively on outcomes, they say, and the resulting pressure impedes performance. The same applies at work.
Interviewer: “We like hiring smart people and then getting out of the way so they can get on with it.”
Me: “That sounds like exactly the independence I would want”
The truth: I value a high degree of autonomy in my work, but have never really understood the idea of “getting out of the way”.
As a leader, your role is to enable the team’s success, not detach yourself from their work. The new hire needs your coaching, support and feedback. If you are simply getting out of the way, what are you getting paid for?
Doers, not Dreamers
Interviewer: “As a company, we value action above all else. We want doers”
Me: “That sounds just like me.”
The truth: What truly excites me is coming up with new ideas and brainstorming creative solutions. Of course, these must be accompanied by action, but there are other people more skilled than I am at operational execution.
The media and pop-management theory have perpetuated a myth that a company must be filled with doers to succeed. In an era of rapid innovation, a mix of talents and personalities is essential, as this McKinsey view suggests.
Interviewer: “This is a hard driving, 24×7 role. I assume you won’t mind late evening conference calls”
Me: “I understand that is part of the job – happy to take it on.”
The truth: I hate night calls, and I suspect most people feel the same way. They take away from family and social time, and the post-call ticking mind has trouble falling asleep afterwards.
Having read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which paints a grim view of the health prospects of the sleep-deprived mind and body, my aversion to late night work has deepened further.
I am happy to start the day at 8 am, or even earlier, but night calls, I hope, are consigned to my past.
Interviewer: “Tell us about your weaknesses.”
Me: “I take on too much at times”
“I am bad at self-promotion”
“I am not good with internal politics”
The truth: These are all well-worn ways of not really answering the question. More importantly, the question itself is flawed. I don’t believe in strengths and weaknesses any more. People have attributes which can be strengths in some situations and weaknesses in others.
The go-getter can come across as abrupt. The creative thinker may not move fast enough when prodded. The organised project manager can seem bureaucratic and inflexible.
A more nuanced answer would be to talk about one’s personality, and explain in which situations those traits work well, and when they don’t.
Why this Role Play?
At least for business roles, why do so many companies tend to seek out a singular caricature of a person? The answer lies partly in the hype around entrepreneurship in our media and culture, and the stories of heroic and relentless pursuit of the goal and the gold.
Companies are suffering from entrepreneurial envy. If only they could fill their ranks with relentless, action-oriented go-getters, their problems would be solved.
The reality is that while startup founders make the headlines, the varied personalities at every level that contribute to success, do not. Nor are quieter stories of competent and impactful careers, unaccompanied by multi-million dollar payoffs, ripe material for news articles.
The answer lies in managerial anxiety as well. There is more pressure than ever to grow faster, respond nimbly to competitive and environmental threats, and ‘make it’. Under pressure managers want subordinates who can ‘just get it done’, relieving them of their long to-do lists and accompanying anxiety.
Focus on Diversity and Strengths
Things are changing and today, managers are making more of an effort to assemble a diversity of talents and personalities, with a greater focus on putting people into roles that leverage their particular strengths.
It also appears that millennials and older Gen-Z’s are more keen to find a role that suits them, rather than undergoing contortions to try and squeeze into a role. Here’s hoping for fewer lies and more of ‘that’s not for me’ in job interviews.