Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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Chapter Fourteen

The Great Silverback's Approach to Hiring

I am not a fan of r?sum?s. They are wonderful documents for re-inventing one's self, and, I suppose, can be a guide as to education, previous employment and other drivel. I particularly hate those that start off with a preamble, like it's the Constitution or something. You will often find such precursor statements as, "Objective: I want a challenging position that…etc., etc." Most r?sum?s have an average life of 15 seconds in the hands of someone who actually makes decisions, and then is tossed in the trash can or sent to an assistant for a rote response and filing. If it starts out, "I want a challenging…", it probably has a shorter life.

On occasion, not many, I have changed jobs in the course of a 40-year work career. I cannot recall ever submitting a resume, though, on occasion, I have submitted a CV as a prerequisite for winning an assignment with The World Bank or another of the government funded organizations. I once prepared a r?sum?, thinking it might be needed. The story goes like this (The Flak: A PR Journey, 2003):

"I first went to work in Washington, D.C. as Byrd's press secretary one month prior to his being voted by his colleagues to the top leadership position. It was only my second ever trip to D.C. I had never visited the Capitol Building. I had no idea the role of a majority leader.
It was November 1976, a warm fall day in Washington, D.C., when I walked into Byrd's office, then located in the basement of the Russell, or the Old Senate Office Building. [John] Guiniven, who was leaving to work for Mobil Oil, had asked over the telephone if I wished to interview for the position. My reputation as a wire service bureau chief in Kentucky and West Virginia -- a position Guiniven had also held --was solid. However, Guiniven had never set eyes on me, and couldn't help wondering if I had shoulder length hair and a Fu Man Chu moustache. After all, this was the middle 70s. Guiniven had been impressed with the way I had handled several tense news situations in West Virginia, and he knew Byrd would want somebody with a similar background to that of his previous press secretary. Byrd seemed such a small man sitting behind a desk the size of the carrier Enterprise. The room was dark, illuminated only by a dark green desk lamp. For a full minute, he didn't look up from the papers he was studying. He wasn't smiling.
The job interview went something like this:
"Sit down."
"Yes, sir."
"Do you have a drinking problem?"
"Uh, what sir?"
"Do you have a problem with alcohol?"
"No sir, I mean I take a drink now and then, but I don't have a problem." This was a subjective question, and the lie latitude was difficult to measure.
"What about absenteeism?"
I almost jumped out of my chair with enthusiasm. "No sir, I hardly missed a day in ten years. In fact, I don't think I've ever missed a day."
"Okay, that will be all."
"Would you like to see my r?sum?, sir." I was proud of my creative work. Not having created a r?sum? in years, I copied a form from a book. I left the chair and took a step toward him.
"Not really."
"Oh."

I backed out of the room feeling I had kissed away my opportunity to work as press secretary for a person about to become the Senate Leader. I was philosophical. This guy, I thought, was really spooky. I'd rather swat flies for Howard Hughes or chase golf balls for Gerald Ford. Besides, I argued to myself, I was a newsman, a reporter, and flaking for some political lard ass wasn't my cup of tea.
Outside Byrd's office, I looked at Guiniven, who had offered me up for slaughter. "I screwed up," I said. "You'll have to find Beaver Cleaver."
"Wait a minute," he said, and then disappeared into Byrd's office, returning about five minutes later. "He liked you well enough. You're hired."
Thus began a globetrotting journey that would take me to the more exotic capitals of the world with Byrd serving most often as an emissary for President Jimmy Carter. We wrapped up the Panama Canal treaties in no time, pieced the peace agreements back together in the Middle East in a flash, and scared the bejesus out of the Rooskies with our tough talk on nuclear war which -- all things considered --we were generally against. Okay, the China trip was a junket.
It took me years to realize that the Byrd interview was the sanest of my career. The guy actually asked me a sensible question: "If I hire you, will you show up for work?" He didn't care about my politics, my religion, or, God forbid, did I have a piece of paper saying I was qualified to practice common sense. He certainly didn't ask me one of those cutesy, silly questions like I once got from a Fortune 500 company: "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" Additionally, Byrd didn't care to see how I had cleverly reinvented myself with a r?sum?. In the final analysis, he simply was saying: Listen, I don't know dick about you. Others tell me you're qualified and will do a good job. We'll see.

I am sure, at some point, I hired a straight A student, the valedictorian, but I don't remember it. It is not that I am prejudiced against the breed; it is merely that I don't place importance on previously measured academic achievement. All other things being equal, however, I might hire the brain, but I would always be suspicious that the guy or girl had a misspent childhood. In other words, they didn't have much fun.

Recruiting for professional employees can be an imprecise science, somewhat akin to handicapping turtle races. My general rule of thumb is not to be afraid of hiring people who you think are better than you are.

However, discerning competence is never easy. In the advertising business, what portion of a creative reel was actually the result of the applicant's genius is often difficult to measure. In public relations, it is difficult to the 10th power. Generally, if one has performed well elsewhere, that person will keep continue performing like the Energizer Bunny for you, though not always. I have seen rainmakers at one firm chase mere clouds at another.

Likewise, the resume is probably the least effective tool for judging a job applicant. It is hard for anyone to sell themselves through a passive medium in 15 clicks of the clock.

Also, many employers--myself included--have suspicious minds. Over the years we have seen people cleverly reinvent themselves in a resume, generally in rather subtle ways. However, some romance the product to the hilt, thereby showing a creativity of sorts.

Some go to great lengths to note the grades they received in college. Most are rightly proud of succeeding academically. However, I have seen average students excel in the professions of which I am most familiar: journalism, advertising and public relations.

I was a very average student, who--and my own description here--caught fire once in the real world. I never had any desire nor the money to return to college for another degree, believing anything could be found between the pages of books by smart people. And I read books both about and by smart people.

Above all, I have always been curious, and that is the quality I most look for in job applicants--that they are crazily curious and want to learn and find excitement in new challenges. If the applicant is just starting out on his or her career, they get bonus points from me if they held down a job while in the university. Here again, one favors one's own background, and I worked every day at paying jobs while in college.

Below I have taken the liberty to list my Top 10 nuggets of advice for job seekers in professional fields. They are not necessarily in order, and some might appear slightly goofy, but they have worked for me.

1. I like people who are slightly weird, particularly in positions that require more than a measure of creativity-which is most positions. I don't mean loonytoons but creatively bizarre. In other words, idea machines. Show me in an interview how you can come up with that silver bullet idea. Pop it off the top of your head. Now.

2. Demonstrate curiosity about my business that you want to become your business. Ask questions that show me you did your homework prior to the interview. Make me interested in you by showing how much you are interested in my business.

3. Don't tell me you were a straight "A" student in college. That says to me you probably didn't have much fun. Tell me you were a straight "A" student, worked 20 hours a week at a paying job, and still managed to climb on top of a bar called Crawdaddy's and sing Patsy Cline's Crazy one night a week.

4. Or, alternatively, tell me you were an average student, but held down that 20 hour a week job, and still managed to climb on top of a bar and sing Crazy three nights a week. In other words, show me you are interested in life.

5. Don't tell me what you think I want to hear--if it is not part of your personality. If you come gift wrapped, and I find the goods aren't there when the package is opened, I will be sorely disappointed.

6. Urge me to call your references. Dial the numbers if you wish. I will know you have already prepared them for my call, but I will appreciate the fact you are prepared and showed initiative. Don't, please don't, say, "References on request". I hate that.

7. Be truthful, even if it is painful. A good employer will never ask things that are personal and none of his or her business. However, your work history-- if an investment is going to be made in you--is the potential employer's business.

8. Act like you really want the job. There is nothing more off-putting to an employer than the feeling that the person being interviewed considers you his second or third choice. This leaves the taste of moldy crackers and stale beer.

9. It's your interview too. A good employer will appreciate being grilled--in a kindly way--about the nature of the job, the benefits, the pay and the prospects for the future. This is your time to also ask "life and work" questions.

10. Dress for the job interview. It is your one shot. It isn't a fashion show, but the employer wants to know he or she is interviewing a serious candidate. The fact is, you can be weird and still wear a tie--at least at the interview.

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