Spetner: On how drive, authenticity and an engaging presence trump a resume

Candidates can make up for what they lack "in a career compass by being smart, hardworking, optimistic and unshakably affable."

About 18 months into my first job at a big PR agency, the boss left for another firm. This was fortuitous, in that I not only got promoted, I was also moved into his office. My previous spot was an exposed desk in a busy corridor, so I was thrilled to have a nice quiet space with a door, walls and a window. The only downside was that I had to clean out my boss’ files.

Most were of little interest. Client reports, interoffice memos and assorted contracts and vendor agreements. I spent several hours chucking reams of paper into a trash bin, but then stumbled upon a treasure trove: the personnel files of interns and entry level hires.

My boss had been in charge of the internship and new hire programs, and he kept files on every candidate. Many were now colleagues, and some were ahead of me in the corporate hierarchy. I of course located my own personnel file, which was both instructive and enlightening.

But the file I’ve never forgotten belonged to a guy who worked in our sports marketing practice, and who happened to be a good friend. His file contained written assessments from three executives, all of whom enthusiastically ranked him at the top of their lists. One executive, an SVP in charge of the sports practice, wrote the following in capital letters at the top of my friend’s assessment: "RUN, DON’T WALK, TO THE NEAREST PHONE AND HIRE THIS GUY."

I was dumbfounded. How could any candidate elicit this kind of full-throated enthusiasm? I compared his reviews to the notes in my own files, and it was a bit deflating. While all three of my interviewers recommended that I be hired, none urged immediate action on my behalf.

And so began some soul searching to figure out why my friend elicited such powerful endorsements. At first, it was puzzling. He had not graduated from an Ivy League or big name school. His academic background was unremarkable. No MBA. No technical proficiency in analytics or finance. 

He did have strong and relevant work experience, but other candidates had more impressive, blue-chip companies on their resumes. There were no family connections, he was from a middle-class home in a blue-collar neighborhood. He was absolutely smart and deeply intelligent, and was also truly funny. But why the full embrace from the big shots? I didn’t get it.

Luckily for my agency, they did get it. And their assessment was spot on. "This guy" went on to an extraordinarily successful career, and ultimately became the commissioner of a major sports league. He was, and is, supremely talented.

So what did they see 35 years ago that revealed a superstar in the making? I’m guessing they saw attributes that are just as powerful now as they were back then. Drive, insight, intelligence and an engaging presence. 

In a media profile of my friend, I found a description that summed up his appeal as a young candidate: "He made up for what he lacked in a career compass by being smart, hardworking, optimistic and unshakably affable."

Remarkably, I then discovered a newspaper quote from a manager reminiscing about hiring him for a job more than 30 years ago. "Even back then," the manager said, "I saw instantly he was one of the most determined, tirelessly optimistic and, more than anything, incredibly likable guys."

Smart, driven, authentic, optimistic and deeply engaging. I guess that’s why they ran to hire him.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He previously served as CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International.


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