Substance over style: A tale of two applicants

Don Spetner's advice on evaluating candidates based on more than just first impressions.

I have a friend in the entertainment business who speaks in colorful phrases. One day he asked me to see a friend of his who ran a marketing firm.

"You’ll like him," my colleague advised, "he gives great meeting."

That phrase came back to me recently while interviewing candidates for a midlevel job opening. The first guy I met was super-smooth. Before we’d even sat down he’d complimented me on career achievements and casually mentioned that we were both graduates of the same journalism school. He moved seamlessly from talk about the weather to vacations to the vagaries of living in New York and Los Angeles.

The conversation even migrated to hip cof­fee bars. He was a consummate schmoozer, easy to speak with because he seemed so comfortable in his own skin. He emanated a reassuring kind of gravitas.

But when the questioning turned to more substantive topics, he didn’t fare as well. When I asked him to share a few lessons or insights gleaned from managing people, he stammered and strung together meaningless aphorisms. He similarly struggled to explain his approach to business development, a requisite for the position. I was puzzled and, ultimately, disappointed.

I contrast him with another candidate whom I interviewed just a few hours later. She was genuine, sincere, but slightly nervous. I wasn’t sure if she was strong enough for the job, but as the interview progressed, the substance of her accom­plishments began to emerge. As we reviewed her career, I asked why she had left a job with a small PR agency, and she told a story that resonated deeply.

"The agency was new, and most of its accounts were local, small businesses," she said, "including several restaurants that desperately needed publicity."

"At one point," she continued, "I had to carry freshly baked pies to local radio stations and entice them to talk about my client. I decided then that I really needed to get a different job."

I pictured her in a cramped waiting room with a hot apple pie on her lap, sheepishly hoping to bribe the local DJ into a client mention. I liked that story not because it revealed some deep strategic insight or demonstrated how clever she was. What it did show is that she had paid her dues, done the grunt work, and gotten smarter about how to manage her career and clients.

The example struck home because I once had a maniacal client who desperately wanted media coverage for a groundbreaking event in Scottsdale, Arizona. When I informed him that only two press representatives would be attending, he insisted that I personally visit every local news-
paper and radio station to "convince them" to attend our event. So there I was, sitting in cramped waiting rooms and trying to entice local DJs to mention our event. It was humiliating and unproductive. I vowed that if I ever became a client or a boss, I wouldn’t subject the people who worked for me to that kind of absurdity.

The experience helped me become a better leader and make better choices about my own career path.

So despite my initial impressions, I wound up favoring the slightly nervous candidate who shared the apple pie story. She wasn’t as glib and charming as the other applicant, but I knew I could count on her to roll up her sleeves and get the job done when the going got tough. Even if she didn’t "give great meeting."

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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