I had my first job interview since taking redundancy at the end of the summer towards the back end of last year. I must have applied for well over 50 positions in that time, most of which didn’t even bother to respond. I suspect benchmarking exercises for internal candidates, rather than real roles. Fairly despicable in the circumstances. Anyway, the interview held a disproportionate degree of importance to me personally. To not be rejected from the outset. To pass the screener interview with the HR senior talent lead. To make it onto the shortlist with four others. It was a result in itself.
It was a big role too. Global, senior and in a growing enterprise well established digitally in its category. I spent the week prior to the interview preparing, preparing more, worrying and doing yet more preparation.
Not just doing my due diligence on their strategy, competitors and overall reported performance. Nor simply reviewing the role specifications and matching my experience to them with the infamous STAR (situation, task, actions, results) stories – ensuring I could demonstrate how I overcame various relevant challenges, and delivered great results. No, the most energy-sapping, nerve-wracking, hand-wringing time was spent on working out how to do an interview by video conference.
Gilbert, my outplacement mentor, focused me on the opening few minutes before the interview proper begins. “Try to make a great impression,” he advised. “Show them how personable you are, talk about something you have in common. Try to make a personal connection with them.”
Working for bad bosses is very stressful. You learn quickly how not to behave but that’s about all.
Others talked to me about the technology, headphone, mic, wireless strength, and of course the background. Clean walls, framed abstract picture, shelf of books just in view. Marketing landmark texts of course. You know, Sharp, Binet, IPA, Stephen King, Kapfrerer and a bit of Dave Trott all just in sight. And, of course, the corner of my sunburst Les Paul guitar hanging on the wall for a hint of something more personal.
So, there I was in the waiting room on the hour… waiting and waiting. They were late.
The first thing that struck me about Gordon was his attire. The first thing that struck Gordon about me was my attire. I had opted for my blue Boss suit, crisply ironed TM Lewin white shirt and a rather dashing Paul Smith tie, with discrete silver Tiffany cuff links. Not too formal, more classic with a twist. Yes, I wore a tie. And it felt rather good to be dressed as an executive again. Refreshing and empowering. Anyway, the salary started with a 2, and I have always worn a tie when pitching to and meeting board directors. Old fashioned maybe, but I wanted to show respect, gravitas and, frankly, that I was taking this seriously.
Gordon wasn’t. In fact he looked like he had just woken up from a long night on the tiles. WTF? Unshaven and dressed in a wrinkled T-shirt and cotton jogging shorts. “You’re wearing a tie,” he giggled. “Are you wearing suit trousers off screen too or jeans?” It could have been worse. He could have been in his pyjamas… oh god, maybe he was… I knew immediately, this wouldn’t work.
Find the right fit
After the interview I felt uncomfortable. The asymmetric nature of it put me off. By that I mean, there is no way a candidate could appear in an interview looking like they didn’t give a shit. What did this say about Gordon and his organisation? Would he have interviewed a woman in his bedroom in his bed clothes? I hope not.
In my 25 years of working, I have had my fair share of feckless, lacklustre, lazy, incompetent and even once, alcoholic, bosses. I did spend a decade in ad agencies, after all. Working for bad bosses is very stressful. You learn quickly how not to behave but that’s about all.
I’ve also been lucky enough to work for some absolute super stars. Hard cases and heavyweights for sure. They could be a right handful to work with, extremely demanding but they were also fair, professional and respectful. These were bosses from whom I learnt how to lead.
So I appealed to the hive-mind of my recently re-activated network. Was I being a prig? Would they interview a critical hire in their PJs? What did they think I should do?
I got a range of replies – most of them with a chuckle. One former boss, who is also looking for a new role, said that in his experience standards had changed since the pandemic, every interview is a much less formal affair on the interviewer side. Dad jumpers galore. Another wondered about mental health and pressure being a factor. All were clear they would wear a shirt and jacket. Personal authenticity in work has a limit. Sloppiness has no place. They would certainly want to look sharp and smart. As one said, this is about a corporate brand experience, it’s about representing the company to a potential employee.
For sure, we are in a buyer’s market. Employers can pick and choose, they can wait for the best. They can even pay lower rates and hedge against a rising tide of salary increases or retention issues later down the line. But as one former boss, now CEO of a large conglomerate reminded me, better to go for the right job, not the first job. And that is exactly what I did. Despite the immediate guilt of exiting the selection process, I also got a huge sense of relief. It’s more than about acting with great personal agency. It’s about knowing what’s right for me and my family, and looking for the right opportunity in the right company, for as long as I can, before finances dictate that I have to settle for sloppy seconds for a boss.