“All of us have bad luck and good luck. The man who persists through the bad luck, who keeps right on going, is the man who is there when the good luck comes, and is ready to receive it.”
– Robert Collier, an author of self-help books, 1885-1950
New Orleans native, Michael Lewis, a best-selling author (including Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, The Flash Boys and his newest, The Undoing Project) and the subject of fellow New Orleanian Walter Isaacson’s engaging essay, Becoming Michael Lewis in Sunday’s The Washington Post, learned an important trick: it is much better to be a storyteller than a preacher.
As someone who believes in the power of storytelling, that line from the essay struck a chord. Storytellers engage. Preachers, more often than not, lecture with all of the clarity of their moral certainty. Over the years, in this space and in some presentations, I have been guilty of committing the sin of the latter. As I work to improve my writing, and to perfect my speaking style, I have become enthralled with the value of telling stories to make my points. But storytelling is not just about telling tales to entertain, make a point or teach a lesson, it is frequently the best medium for an executive job seeker to sell an idea or communicate important information.
So how does this story about storytelling connect with career management? Too many candidates are preachers in the sense that they have a message they want to impart even if it does not align with the real interest of the prospective employer. There is very little real engagement, just someone answering questions as if they were atop a witness stand in a courtroom. Even when they are asked to summarize their career, they rely on the text they have used over and over — their same, often tired elevator speech that is all about where they have been and the roles they have played. There is very little connection to the needs of the client. They are, in effect, preaching. It may be helpful to the recruiter because hopefully their speech is factually accurate, but rarely is it interesting.
There is another drawback to being a preacher-type candidate. Before they know it, the candidate becomes a slave to the recruitment process, from the interviews all the way through the reference checks. Candidates who are recovering from a termination, or an unfortunate incident, and who are frustrated that recruiters no longer call them for jobs should take a step back and realize that unless the “termination or unfortunate incident” involved theft, sexually inappropriate behavior or gross professional malfeasance, the fact that they are now on the career sideline is more a reflection of the story they are telling about who they are and less about past mistakes. So, you ask, tell me how to overcome this albatross (career history) from around my neck.
It is not easy and typically it is not a quick fix but it CAN be accomplished. As self-help author Robert Collier once said, “All of us have bad luck and good luck. The man who persists through the bad luck, who keeps right on going, is the man who is there when the good luck comes, and is ready to receive it.”
Let’s return to the story about the talented, gifted, hard working and lucky Michael Lewis. It begins with attitude. As Mr. Isaacson shared in his Washington Post essay, Mr. Lewis’s take on his own career can be found in the context of his terrific book on baseball, “Moneyball.” Life’s consequences, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them, Mr. Lewis once told students at his alma mater, Princeton. “Above all recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck…”
“The happiest people are the ones who believe they are lucky, rather than entitled or owed their success. For that reason, Michael is one of the happiest people I know,” Mr. Isaacson wrote. Added Mr. Lewis: “I get such pleasure out of knowing that I am lucky. I am creating a narrative of my life, and it makes me braver and less fearful.” So Mr. Lewis’ story is that he is very lucky and he believes that luck will continue because that is part of who he is; it is an important part of his story, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When you are in a career management position where you must overcome some setback, take charge of your story, how you tell it to the employer and how you will disclose any potentially negative aspects from “your prior life.” Don’t allow the employer to be surprised in a reference interview. Knowing your strengths and that luck is on your side, be brave and less fearful, as Mr. Lewis says.
I have seen executives who have made some epic, embarrassing missteps and most have overcome them because they were upbeat and talked about important lessons learned in a way that pre-empted the impact of a possible negative reference. They confidently took charge of their story, crafted an interesting narrative that reinforced the thought that they are better leaders by communicating it in an interesting way.
It is all about the desire to become good at telling your story, and your willingness to embrace the psychological element of good luck.
It will make you a happier, more confident and successful candidate.
© 2020 John Gregory Self