I will never forget the first time I failed to realize I was in the midst of a job interview until I was already very much in the midst of a job interview.
A friend invited me to lunch along with his former boss. This boss was launching a sales training business, and my friend thought we should meet. I wasn’t looking for a job at the time (more on that later), but I’d recently completed a master’s degree in adult education, and my friend thought I might find the conversation interesting.
I vividly recall two things from that lunch.
The first is that I ordered poorly. Trying to eat fish tacos covered in obscene amounts of cabbage slaw nested in disintegrating corn tortillas does not make for the best first impression. The second is how clueless I was about what was really happening.
“I kicked myself for not having a resume with me — or even something to write with….”
My friend’s former boss proceeded to tell us all about the start of his new business. What he desperately needed, he said, was someone who could take his years of sales knowledge and mold it into a curriculum for adult learners.
“Oh weird, that’s kind of like what I went to grad school for!” I said. “Can you pass me some napkins?”
By the time I realized he was interviewing me for a potential job, it was too late. How many times had I thought about creating my own website to showcase my work, and how handy would it have been to have the link available? I kicked myself for not having a resume with me — or even something to write with.
The former boss paid for my tacos, and we agreed to stay in touch. Of course, we never spoke again.
“I’m not sure that went so well,” my friend said later.
“Ugh, I know!” I’d replied. “Those taco shells, amirite?”
was working for a commercial finance company at the time. While I didn’t love the job, I’d been dragging my feet on finding a new one. Sure, I’d taken some steps toward a broader goal of “being happier in my career” (going to grad school, for example), but I had not been diligently focused on finding my next job.
That all changed within just a few weeks of that lunch, thanks to an all-employee email notifying us that our parent company would soon have an “orderly liquidation” of our business due to an “unprecedented economic event.”
The Great Recession had claimed another victim.
You might think that my ill-fated taco lunch was an obvious job interview situation and that I should have been much more prepared. To which I would respond: Well, duh.
But I was young and clueless, inured by six years of banal corporate office work to the point where I thought all I had to do to get ahead in my career was keep my head down and work hard. Then the liquidation email hit my inbox, and my professional innocence was shattered.
So, yes, overlooking the glaringly obvious interview opportunity (and not being prepared to capitalize on it) was a mistake. But just as crucial were the countless other potential opportunities to “interview” that I had missed over the years — the email from the secretary asking for a volunteer to drive the CEO to the airport. The open call for speakers at a job fair for college students. The weekly one-on-one with my boss where I typically just said things were “going well” before asking him what he needed from me.
Each of those moments had represented opportunities for me to make a lasting impression, and each time, I either passed it up or failed to do anything to impress.
Interview opportunities aren’t always gift-wrapped and handed to you on a platter with chips and cheese. Sometimes they are tiny, seemingly insignificant moments in a random day where even the interviewer doesn’t know it’s an interview.
Each of those moments represented an opportunity for me to make a lasting impression. And each time, I either passed it up or failed to impress.
Once, my boss, a division president, told me he was going on vacation. He asked me to stand in for him and give a quick update during the leadership team meeting. “It’s no big deal, less than five minutes,” he said. “I usually just say a little about our team metrics and wing the rest.”
I briefly considered spending a full day digging into our numbers, preparing a few useful reports, and practicing my remarks until I had them down cold, but then I remembered it was trivia night at my favorite bar and the tight end on my fantasy team was playing in the Thursday night football game (important), so I just drank beer and ate chicken wings instead. I treated the meeting like my boss treated it and ended up reciting some numbers before saying a few things off the cuff.
It was fine.
When I stopped talking, the bigwigs looked up from their catered lunches, eyelids heavy, and sort of nodded, signaling that I was free to go. Then the next person stood up to report out, and time marched inexorably onward.
Here’s what didn’t happen: No one in that room made a mental note that I was someone they needed to meet with the next time they had a job opening. No one cared that I did the bare minimum. No one was asking me to make an impression. But I could have.
Not too long ago, I got an email from a vendor who used to be in and out of my previous office on a semi-regular basis. He was applying for a job posted there and looking for me to put in a good word. Unfortunately, we all remembered him as being late and disorganized when visiting our building. Occasionally, he was rude to our employees.
He’d been interviewing for the job for years; he just didn’t know it.
Maybe you’re thinking that treating every human interaction like a job interview sounds exhausting. And if not fraudulent, at least disingenuous.
While it does take constant effort to operate this way, a funny thing happens when you keep doing it: It becomes second nature. Eventually, you stop focusing on making an impression just to get a job (or a promotion — or even a date). You worry about the impression you make because, intrinsically, you know it’s the right thing to do. The fruits of that labor are an added bonus.
How much better would I have felt if I’d put in the hard work to absolutely crush that short meeting update? Who cares if anyone else noticed? I would have gone home feeling great about myself. And there’s nothing disingenuous about that.
“Always try to be intentional about the impression you make with others.
Of course, you’ll fall short at times. I flub “interviews” every day because I’m human. But at least I am aware of what’s at stake.
The bottom line: Always try to be intentional about the impression you make with others, whether in a chance encounter in an elevator with a group of people from that company you don’t work for (yet), or in a real live job interview.
I’ve often seen people in actual interviews fail to understand what’s really happening. They show up and sit there like Jeopardy! contestants, hoping they’ll correctly answer all the questions I ask. They may have prepared well, but if they let me do all the work, they’re leaving too much of their impression on me to chance.
You don’t have to aspire to be Nick Saban (and if you do, please don’t decide to coach a football team in the same league as my alma mater; thanks in advance), and you don’t have to twist yourself into knots trying to please everyone you meet. Making everyone happy is impossible. If you’re intentional about every single “interview” though, and you’re impressed with how you did, chances are anyone on the other end of the exchange will be too.
Every single human interaction is an opportunity for something to happen. Might as well try to make it something worthwhile.