Today, our big idea: being prepared for the curveball interview question and why that could make the difference between winning or losing a coveted job.
One of the more enjoyable baseball movies of recent years, Trouble With the Curve, tells the story about an aging, old-school baseball talent scout with fading vision, his estranged daughter and a cocky high school he-man player who every baseball team in America would love to sign. There is only one problem: that high school star can hit a fastball all day long — long and far, but he has trouble with the curve. It is his Achilles heel and the old scout knows it.
In betwixt and between there is a reluctant romance between the aforementioned estranged daughter who takes a leave from an Atlanta law firm where her long-awaited partnership hangs in the balance, and a competing baseball scout, a former minor league pitcher with a bad arm who yearns to be a wannabe baseball announcer for the Boston Red Sox.
The daughter and her father’s boss know something is wrong with the old man and they stand behind him and his experience as a scout when no one else will, and in the end, his judgment proves correct — the arrogant high school he-man star that everyone wanted to recruit cannot hit a big league curveball. If this was a true story, I can tell you with great confidence that the young player would not be the first promising high school or collegiate star who failed to make it in the baseball show because they couldn’t hit a curve.
So what does this baseball yarn have to do with career management? Actually, plenty.
You see, the curveball is a metaphor for the challenging interview question. In fact, recruiters frequently refer to the unanticipated interview questions as curveballs. And just like a swaggering young baseball player who has more confidence than talent or experience, the curveball is their undoing.
For successful major league baseball players, hitting the curveball is a basic requirement. Most players spend hours upon hours in the batting cage trying to master that pitch. They know if you cannot master the curve, you will not make it, or survive, in the show, the big leagues.
The same can be said for executives in competitive searches for the top jobs. Their problem is that they do not get as much practice in handling the curve, the unanticipated question they were not expecting.
Now here is the odd thing: If there was a batting cage for learning how to deal with the curveball, many executives would not invest the time. That fact is not only odd, it is surprising. In a highly competitive market, candidates need to go the extra mile to ensure they differentiate themselves from the dozens of other competing candidates.
This is not a new subject for me. I have touched on this idea several times in the past. What caught my attention and prompted me to revisit this issue was a quote from the Corner Office, a New York Times business column that appears on Fridays and Sundays. Adam Bryant, the New York Times editor and columnist who created this feature in 2009, conducts interviews with chief executives.
The column that caught my attention is one he did with Bryan Roberts of Venrock, a venture capital firm. A question Bryant always asks and the one I pay the most attention to is this: How do you hire?
Here is what Mr. Roberts said: I start off most interviews with, “What can I answer for you?” It tells me a lot, including how knowledgeable they are about the company, how much they’ve thought about the interview and what they care about. I leave it very open-ended and listen to where they go. I can tell an enormous amount from that.
Then I say to them, “If we take the next step, I’m going to do a bunch of reference checks. I’ll find 10 people who know you, including names you won’t give me. How will they describe you?”
I find that makes people much more honest, because it’s no longer about what they think of themselves or how they want to project themselves.
Then Mr. Bryant poses a question I frequently use: What were you doing outside of class during you’re years in college?
Mr. Roberts explained that he ran a business that did work in the surrounding community.
Here is how he described his entrepreneurial venture:
“We painted. We trimmed trees. We cleaned some restaurants. We did anything. I didn’t know what I was doing, but at that point in life, you don’t fall hard or far. You can mess something up and figure out how to own it and get yourself out of it.
You also learn that life is not about avoiding problems; it’s about how you deal with them. That is a core tenet for me now. If you spend your life trying to avoid problems, you will never get anything done. You’ll just be trying to mitigate risk all day long.
You’re going to make some wrong decisions. The question is how well and quickly do you deal with them?”
Corner Office is a great column and each one always offers some insight into how other successful executives interview — their curveball questions.
So, here is today’s playbook takeaway: The curveball is an integral part of major league baseball. The real pros master it. Not every home run is the product of a fastball. There have been plenty of game-winning hits off a curveball.
Baseball players, like executives, all have a history and recruiters, like baseball scouts, are trying to gain insight with that information.
The curveball question: know that it is coming. Understand it. Anticipate it and then hit it. That could make the difference between landing the job and being first runner-up.
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If you are considering a career transition, please contact me at CareerTransitions@JohnGSelf.Com. We will work with you to help get the transition coaching benefits you will need to successfully navigate this challenging and highly competitive job market.