I talked to Chuck, but could only think of my stained shirt

Lessons learned from a big interview and a big shirt stain.

I was once a finalist for a big job at Charles Schwab. I had made it far enough in the process that I was finally going to meet Chuck Schwab. I was excited and nervous, and I booked a flight from LA to San Francisco for an 11 a.m. sit down with the business tycoon.

I arrived in San Francisco about an hour early, so I decided to stop and have a coffee. I wanted to be caffeinated, alert, and fully prepared for this important meeting. As I set my briefcase down at the café, I somehow managed to bang my mug and slosh coffee all over the cuff of my white shirt.

It was a disaster.

The only thing I remember about my interview with Chuck Schwab was that I spent most of the discussion thinking about my stained shirt, while trying to surreptitiously pull my jacket sleeve down so that the cuff didn’t show.

I didn’t get the job.

I was reminded of this gaffe recently while helping a client interview candidates for a senior level position. Four people made the final round, and it was time to compare notes and choose our favorite. Among the four, one clear winner and one clear loser emerged. But there was debate about the other candidates, with opinions split somewhat evenly. As we began to focus on one of the candidates, who I’ll name Michael, the decision became clear.

"I kind of liked Michael," my client said, "but I’m not sure we should move forward with him."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Well, I always ask my assistant what she thinks of each candidate, because she ends up spending a fair amount of time interacting with them. I also like to hear her opinion because it gives me a sense of how a person treats subordinates."

"And what did your assistant say about Michael?" I asked.

"She said Michael wore a sweater in a coat and tie culture."

That seemed to seal Michael’s fate, and he was eliminated as a finalist.

It reminded me of the time I was recruiting candidates for a position that reported to the CEO of a major financial company. One of the candidates had an impressive background and showed up exceptionally well in person, but my client nixed her.

Apparently, as the candidate was departing for the airport, she shoved a large bundle of documents at my client’s assistant and told him to FedEx them to her office because she didn’t want to carry them on the plane. The assistant was not pleased and reported the behavior to his boss.

I had another client who was turned off because a candidate chewed gum during the interview.

A friend of mine insists on having a meal with a finalist before making an offer. She wants to see how the candidate treats the waiter, how she chooses what to eat, and what her overall manners are like. One could argue none of these are requirements for a management role, but I would argue all are important traits to observe in a person you and your team will be spending a great deal of time with.

Looking back, there’s not a whole lot I could have done about my coffee-stained shirt and Chuck Schwab. But I’ve never forgotten it. And I’ve made it a point to think through every aspect of a job interview, from what I wear, to how I treat a receptionist, and especially to my manners during lunch.

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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