Revealing your Bourne identity

It's hard to gauge the outcome of a job interview. I have had candidates call and excitedly report how well an interview went, only to learn the client was not impressed.

It's hard to gauge the outcome of a job interview. I have had candidates call and excitedly report how well an interview went, only to learn the client was not impressed.

I've had that exact experience myself. In the 1990s, I interviewed for the top PR role at United Airlines. At the time, I headed communications for Nissan North America and felt I had an inside track because the CEO of United was Gerald Greenwald, an auto industry veteran who had spent decades with Ford and Chrysler.

Greenwald and I not only had the car business in common, but we also graduated from the same public high school in St. Louis. As an added bonus, my mom claimed that Greenwald was a distant cousin through some convoluted connection involving my Aunt Radine.

"Make sure you mention Radine," my mom said as I was preparing for the interview.

Despite meeting their entire senior management team, I did not get the job. United apparently preferred someone with airline experience. Go figure.

Sometimes you absolutely know you will not get an offer. During the dot-com boom, I interviewed with the 29-year-old cofounder of a prominent incubator in Los Angeles. Before the interview, I had to take off my tie in the parking lot and dress down for the meeting. The Web millionaire looked at me like I was the oldest guy in the world and then asked, "So what websites do you like to hang out in?"

Needless to say, I did not get that job in the end.

The most puzzling interview came when I was a finalist for the top communications post at a major Hollywood studio. I was interviewed by the head of the company, a very powerful and rich guy. He was surprisingly gracious and warm. He opened the conversation by saying, "Tell me a little bit about yourself."

Being a guy who takes things literally, I gave him an overview of my resume: graduation from NYU, years in the agency business, and my experience leading the communications function.

He then proceeded to talk - for the next 55 minutes. I'm not sure he took a breath. At the end of his dissertation, he said, "Enough about business. Tell me what you like to do when you're not working." I told him I liked to travel, which elicited another 10 minutes on his recent trip to Fiji.

Though I didn't do much talking, I felt like the interview went well - the mogul seemed enthusiastic and engaged.

A few days later, I talked with the headhunter who arranged the interview and told him I thought everything went great. "Well," said the headhunter, "it wasn't so great. He thought you were too laid back."

I was puzzled by this response until I remembered a prominent movie about Hollywood, The Player, which focuses on the struggles of a powerful entertainment executive.

In the film, there is a constant stream of screenwriters pitching movie ideas and their challenge is to capture and convey a compelling concept in less than 60 seconds. The pitches consist of quick lines such as "It's like Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman," or "Imagine Goldie Hawn goes to Africa and gets captured by a tribe of little people."

No wonder I didn't get the job. Instead of wasting precious time droning about my experience, I should have just said, "I'm like the Jason Bourne of PR."

Or maybe I simply wasn't who they were looking for. In the end, there's usually one strong reason a person doesn't get the job - he or she is not the right fit. l

Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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