I learned a rather important lesson during an interview in London, at the outset of the 90’s recession, having just been made redundant. When the Managing Director of the advertising agency of the moment, stated at the end of an otherwise delightful chat that, “you’d either be bloody brilliant at this job, or bloody useless (long pause) … and I can’t decide which,” I should NOT have replied after an equally long pause, “I know, I can’t decide either.” I’d applied for a senior “suit” role, that, as a “creative”, I was unreservedly un-qualified for. We laughed, stood and bade each other a fond farewell. I completely and utterly needed that job. That pause gave me the perfect opportunity to convince him that there was absolutely no doubt that I was the only creative in the universe who could jump disciplines. I’d just turned down an offer to move to New York with the agency that had made me redundant, and I had rent to pay on the gorgeous basement apartment I was sharing with a girlfriend in Chelsea, with a quintessential English pub on the corner (which we raced to on our first night, only to be met by lots of chaps in chaps, who couldn’t have been less interested in us).
But, should I have lied or at the very least, oversold myself, to get what I wanted? It was a senior role, handling hard fought for and prized large accounts. If I were anything less than stellar, I would have jeopardised not only the accounts, but also other roles within the agency. I don’t think ambition and integrity should be mutually exclusive. I was most likely hoping the agency MD would have the time and money to take a gamble with me, having managed his expectations. He clearly didn’t, but I still reckon that is one of my favourite job interviews, as it was so open. No game playing, just a frank exchange, that in this instance, didn’t go my way.
Out of work and hoping to stay in London, my mother suggested that she’d always thought being a PA would be a wonderful career for me. (I don’t think any of my assistants would agree with her. In the slightest.) I lined up an interview with a recruitment firm, where I was led to, and left to complete a competency test in a tiny room with a computer, phone and note pad. When the young woman came back forty minutes later to see how I did, she was shocked to discover that I hadn’t done anything. Still reeling from the last failed interview, I had no choice but to be honest again, because in this case, there was firm evidence of my lack of capacity. When I told her that I couldn’t actually “do” anything, she was flabbergasted and stormed off to get her boss, who was male, as she clearly thought I might need escorting off the premises, as I was an unhinged Australian. (There were a few in London at the time.) He came in demanding to know what I wanted, and I told him that I wanted “to sit in a gorgeous, gigantic reception, like the ones you see in the movies, and greet people.” He squinted at me, and enquired if I was being serious. I replied that I was being totally serious, and that I could picture the glorious marbled scenario. The next day, I started greeting people on the executive level at UBS, which was situated in Broadgate Circle - home to plethora banks filled with bankers. I was like a clownfish in a shark pool. I quickly worked out a system where I’d seat guests according to their respective views of my best features. It was a very different role and pay packet to what I’d enjoyed up until the recession, but it was a privilege to have work and like every situation I find myself in, I threw myself into it with gusto, as a sign of goodwill, professionalism and choosing to enjoy whatever I decide to do. It was a bizarre case of opposites attracting, and the reserved Swiss bankers led by an internationally lauded scion (whom I’d find sitting at the reception desk holding the fort if I was a tad late for the ludicrously early 7:30 am shift - bankers keep very different hours to advertising types) ended up offering me several roles within the bank. The money was incredible, as was the opportunity, particularly given the economic climate, but I just knew I wouldn’t love banking. I cannot imagine not feeling passionate about my work, so I left to find or create something that I would feel passionate about. (I absolutely understand that not everyone has the luxury of feeling passionate about their job. I’ve been there. What I found helpful though was to find at least something I could feel positively energised about, even if it’s the commute. Even the most miniscule positivity can create a powerful contagion.)
I’ve been the interviewer and interviewee many times since then, and in every instance I’ve ensured that my personality, unconventional way of thinking and values are evident, in order for both parties to gauge compatibility. That sometimes means that I haven’t gotten the role, and that’s okay. In fact, without exception, each “rejection” was in hindsight, the best outcome for me. I remember a woman once telling me to think like a man, before I went to interview for a Board role at a top 50 company. Frankly, I found that rather tricky. When I met with the Chairman in his office, he showed me a well-stuffed folder containing the CV’s of highly qualified individuals. Then, more than ever, I realised that it was vital for me to maintain every iota of my individuality, otherwise, how could I possibly stand out from that or any pool of more than capable candidates.
Get your personal elevator pitch ready. What drives you? What moves you? What do you value? What makes you, you? I was actually rubbish at formulating my own, until I read Adam Grant describe “Shapers” in his brilliant book, “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” – “Shapers are independent thinkers: curious, non-conforming and rebellious. They practice brutal, non-hierarchical honesty. And they act in the face of risk, because their fear of not succeeding exceeds their fear of failing.” It was bizarre to me that a brilliant stranger could so deftly articulate “me”. (And it kind of sucks that I’m clearly not as original as I thought.) I’m sure friends and colleagues may have made similar summations, so if you get stuck, ask a friend.
I go into interviews with goodwill and in good faith, fully frontal me, with the intention of honest self-promotion, rather than spin. I initiate an open conversation to see how aligned our values are. And once I learn more about the company, I decide whether I might become a passionate and dedicated asset, and if I would really contribute to the business. And whether it would be fun. I definitely like to have fun at work. Who doesn’t? I still reckon that agency MD and I made the right call. Though, it would have been fun for a while.