Lessons From the Worst Interview Ever

Magical Maeya

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I was already regretting not forking out the extra cash for a nicer suit. I glanced over at the other two candidates next to me.

They looked poised, polished, and at least ten years older.

I groaned inwardly. I knew this job was way above my experience level. Why did I even apply for it?

My thoughts were interrupted by a loud clang.

I glanced over at the direction of the sound. A maintenance man had walked in and proceeded to drop a heavy ladder that had landed on a potted plant, cracking the pot. He was desperately trying to hold the ladder up while preventing the pot from spilling all its contents.

I sprinted towards the pot to hold it together and soon a second maintenance man took over.

I looked down at my suit and saw the fine dusting of dirt on it.

“Just what I needed,” I thought.

I glanced over at the two other candidates and they were so completely absorbed by their phones that they had been oblivious to the whole incident.

A second later, someone came in and announced that we had to move to a different room three floors up and the elevator was out of service.

One of the candidates protested loudly, “These shoes were not made for walking!”

When I arrived at the top floor, I immediately tripped over a power cord and skinned my knee. Little droplets of blood began appearing.

“Oh great, even better.” I thought to myself.

The candidate in front of me looked over and smirked, “That almost happened to me. I’m glad it happened to you instead.”

I walked over to an employee and said, “Hey, I think that cord is a trip hazard. Is there someone I can talk to about that?”

The employee shrugs and walks away.

I paused for a second while I mentally calculated the likelihood of being called for the interview in the next five minutes. I then proceeded to sprint back down to the previous room. I told the maintenance man what I had observed and one of them pulled out a power strip.

“That’s perfect! That will remove the need for the extension cord!”

I thanked them and went back up to switch out the extension cord with the power strip — satisfied that I had removed the hazard.

“By the way, you missed your turn,” Ms. Smirky smugly informed me.

My heart sank but I decided to wait around anyway on the off chance that they might recall me.

Fortunately for me, they did and I found myself in the interview room shortly after.

After the initial pleasantries, a staff member served me coffee. The coffee cup slid off the tray and spilled coffee all over me and the staff member.

I jumped up in alarm and turned over to the staff member, “Are you OK?”

The staff member apologized while I helped her clean up the mess.

As I was returning to my seat, I mentally scanned my suit which was covered in dirt, blood, and slashes of coffee. I groaned inwardly.

Also, how was I going to explain why I had disappeared the first time they called?

This interview really was cursed.

As soon as I sat down, the interviewers said, “Well, you’re hired.”

Seeing the dumbfounded look on my face, they proceeded to tell me exactly why.

The Traits That Stand Out in a Large Organization

“You see, we’ve been watching all of you. Your resume tells us your work experience but what we really wanted to see was how you responded to situations you weren’t expecting to encounter.”

The hiring manager continued, “There are traits in a person that can be trained (like data analytics and financial acuity) and there are other traits that can’t (like proactiveness and resourcefulness).”

“We were looking for the latter and here’s what we saw in you.”

1. Someone who pays attention

“When the maintenance man cracked the pot, you were the only candidate who noticed what was going on in that room and tried to help.”

“In every organization, whether it’s us or our clients, things are always changing. We need people who are paying attention to trends — both risks and opportunities — and who act upon it.”

2. Someone who does more than the bare minimum

“It was definitely not your responsibility to assist the maintenance man with the pot. No one would have blamed you if you had done nothing but the fact that you did — and without thinking — says a lot about your willingness to be proactive.”

“Organizations cannot evolve and thrive if everyone simply does the bare minimum that is required of their role, or if they wait to be told before taking action. Everyone needs to step up and support others as soon as they see a need arising. Otherwise, problems can easily snowball.”

3. Someone who is not flustered when things don’t go to plan

“We have never had a project go perfectly to plan. Dealing with disruptions and unexpected hiccups is par for the course in this job. If someone cannot handle walking up three flights of stairs in high heels, they are not going to be able to handle when someone on their team doesn’t perform or when the client changes their mind.”

“We need people who don’t skip a beat and keep moving like you did. In our experience, employees who get flustered end up burning out quickly.”

4. Someone who solves problems

“Organizations, particularly large ones are full of problems. People think that companies improve through innovation when the truth is, most of our improvements come from solving existing problems.”

“Both the other candidates also identified that there was a safety hazard but did nothing to solve it. They were unconcerned that someone else may get injured as long as they did not.”

“You not only saw the hazard but were undeterred by the first apathetic response and didn’t stop trying until the issue was actually resolved. This is important. There are plenty of people who see problems, but we need people who keep trying until they find a solution.”

5. Someone who works with different departments

“One of the biggest problems with large companies is that the left hand often does not know what the right hand is doing. As we have continued expanding at a rapid rate, we have become increasingly inefficient. We often have different departments expending resources on the same task or working towards different agendas that don’t contribute towards overall company goals.”

“We are glad that you chose to solve the problem on the top floor by talking to the maintenance man on the ground floor. We need departments to collaborate together and more importantly, to solve problems together. You demonstrated that you are willing to do that.”

6. Someone who cares about the team more than outcomes

“When you had coffee spilled on you, your first reaction was to turn around and ask if the other person was doing OK, while the other candidates expressed anger and annoyance. This showed us that you consider the people around you.”

“Large corporations often attract people who are ambitious and highly focused on themselves. As a company, we pay the price of this and often have far worse retention rates than smaller firms. The truth is, people may join a company for its brand and size, but they stay because of their managers.”

“We are striving to create a better workplace culture and recognize that our strongest leaders care more about other team members than corporate outcomes.”

“So, the other candidates had resumes that stood out far more than yours, but you impressed us with your strength of character.”

The Takeaway

OK, I have a confession to make — the interview is fictional (though I did actually get coffee spilled on me once) but the points are 100% true.

How do I know?

I have been working for one of the largest engineering consulting firms in the world for almost 14 years. In that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to take on leadership roles in multiple offices and departments around the world. I’ve been part of the decision making for a lot of interviews for roles ranging from graduate engineers to senior program managers — for our company, as well as for our clients.

Irrespective of the type of work or the country I was in, these traits are consistently what large companies seek and value:

  1. Someone who pays attention and is capable of identifying both risks and opportunities;
  2. Someone who does more than the bare minimum;
  3. Someone who is not flustered when things don’t go to plan;
  4. Someone who solves problems;
  5. Someone who works with different departments;
  6. Someone who cares about the team more than outcomes.

Perhaps the most important takeaway I’ve gained in all those years is this — the people who cultivate these traits are not only more successful, but they also find the most fulfillment in their jobs.

So, the next time you have that big interview, don’t worry too much about the expensive suit. Remember that companies are made up of humans and focus on being an impressive human instead.

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