Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 262 – Big Chance

          I scored another interview last week. This one had me excited for several days. It started with an e-mail from a fellow I used to work with at Albatross. He was something of a wit, but he was also knowledgeable, engaging, and extremely competent. We were both division controllers when we worked together. When he left to take another job at a home appliance manufacturer, all his work got assigned to me. This was in addition to my own work. I didn’t get any more money. By that time I was already used to that kind of treatment.
This fellow—we’ll call him Ted—once showed me a graphical report that he used when he had worked previously at BMW. It tracked production starts and deliveries against incoming orders and against budget. It was part of a group of indicators referred to as a dashboard, and its purpose was to alert management to trends that were likely to result in too much or too little inventory. The report was divided into bright red and green areas separated by a bright yellow warning track. When the trend lines were in the green, things were good. When the lines went into the yellow warning track, it was time for management to wake up and do something. When the lines went into the red area, someone was going to lose their job. Things were never ever supposed to get in the red.
Ted felt we should adapt this report to our own needs an Albatross. I agreed. I duplicated his formulas and entered some trial data from my own division. Where Ted had used bright primary colors, I elected to use pastels. For one thing I thought the pastels would use less ink, thereby saving the company a few cents a page. I also hated the glaring colors. I preferred the more restful shades of rose, canary, and sage. I showed a sample to Ted. He was not impressed.
He said, “The formulas are fine, but I prefer the heterosexual palette.”
At the time I thought this was the single funniest thing I had ever heard at work. It probably wasn’t, but I was under a lot of stress already and my emotional responses tended to be a little exaggerated. Still it was a pretty clever thing to say, and my estimation of Ted’s value as a human being surged upwards by a considerable amount as a result. When he left I was sorry to see him go…and not just because I had to do his job for free.
According to his e-mail Ted had just taken a job with Volkswagen of America at a new assembly plant they are building in Chattanooga. He thought they might have a place for me as well. I sent my résumé.
          A few days later I got a call from HR with some preliminary questions about my experience and credentials. They told me a little about the job they thought I might fit. It was a capital assets analyst position—something I have never done, but also something I thought I could easily assimilate. I told them I was interested even though it would mean taking a lower annual salary and having to relocate. It’s a buyer’s market for labor. I judged that the potential for improving my situation at VW far outweighed the initial negatives.
          HR called back next day to schedule a video conference interview. I had to drive up to Vero Beach to a video center and talk to three people from management over a video connection. The three managers turned out to be the young woman I had already talked to from HR, Ted, and the accounting manager. I figured I had a pretty good chance of coming off well.
          I like video conferencing. As a rule you get two screens to look at. One displays the people at the other end of the line. The other displays your own image. It’s like you get to constantly check yourself in the mirror while you talk without it being immediately obvious to the people you are talking to what you are doing. This is great interview feedback. If you lose your poker face or nervously play with your earlobe or dart your eyes around the room like you are being probed by alien life forms, you will know right away that you need to adjust your on camera mannerisms before it is too late. I wish all my interviews were on video conference.
          I suppose that for some people there is a danger that they will be so distracted by their own image that they will be unable to focus on the job at hand. These are the people who are too attractive—or think they are—for their own good. If they also happen to be enthralled with the sound of their own voice, they will be doubly handicapped. Fortunately I am not one of these. I know such people exist though. I have met some, and you probably have too. You can read about some others here, and here.
There is a FaceBook group called Sexy Accountants. I used to belong. I joined because I thought I could get the sexy accountants to read this blog. I was especially interested in getting them to read the entry titled Budget Burlesque. It didn’t work. Apparently accountants who think they are sexy are too self-absorbed to read about other would-be sexy accountants. If you go to this group’s page and review the list of members you will immediately notice that the sexy accountants mostly are not. There is maybe one notable exception. I’ll leave it to you to decide who that is.
          Now as it turned out, the video interview with Volkswagen that I thought would be a cake walk was instead fairly arduous. They asked hard questions that forced me to get creative in responding about my abilities and shortcomings. The accounting manager was especially pointed in some of his questions. I guess he was making up for what he assumed would be ‘softball’ questions from my friend, Ted. He wanted to know a lot about my management style, which I found odd as the job was not a management position.
He also asked a lot of typical questions from the HR interview handbook—questions like what are your three best and your three worst qualities in terms of performing this job, and give specific examples of each from your work experience. I know how to answer that question, but that doesn’t make it easy. It’s one of those questions where you are expected to seem like you are considering it on the fly and thinking on your feet, but where you have actually rehearsed the answer so that it conveys a precise message while sounding spontaneous. It is bullshit. There is nothing that answering this question skillfully can convey to the interviewer except that you are a good liar. Of course a good liar may be precisely what they are looking for.
I like to turn questions like this upside down and then talk my way out of the shambles I create. For instance, I like to say that my best quality is that I am lazy. Saying that never fails to get the interviewer’s attention. They can’t believe anyone would say that in an interview. They always need to hear more, and they never fail to pay close attention to the explanation.
I tell them that I don’t necessarily mind hard work, but I hate having to do anything twice. I hate wasting my time, so it is important for me to do everything correctly the first time. When you get it right the first time, you don’t have to do it again. It’s a simple and rewarding concept. To execute it you go just a little slower than everyone seems to think that you ought. You spend a little time thinking about what you have to do and how you are going to do it before you start. This kind of thing seems to satisfy an interviewer because, I suspect, they don’t know how to think the process through to its logical conclusion.
In practice, if someone sees you sitting at your desk thinking, they are apt to surmise that you are thinking about what you are going to have for lunch or about the colors and textures of the receptionist’s lingerie. They are apt to think that you ought to be working as hard as the grunts across the hall frantically spinning their wheels off in the wrong direction.
The result is that your work outcomes will shine but your performance reviews will be bad. I try to forestall bad performance reviews by keeping my door closed. That way I get excellent performance reviews right up until the moment that I get fired. My managers like my results, but they can’t stand that they don’t have any idea what’s on my mind. It makes them nervous.
The Volkswagen accounting manager wanted to talk about my familiarity with Microsoft Excel. I told him I was an early adopter—that I had been using Excel since the early eighties. I told him that I had taught Excel as an adjunct instructor in a state university in Arkansas. I told him I was a power user. He commented that I must then know about the several glitches in the Excel code that produce erroneous results. I did not. He insisted that I must, else I wouldn’t in fact be a power user. I apologized for not knowing what he was talking about. I told him that I had used Excel extensively on a daily basis for decades and had never run into a problem. I couldn’t say there were no problems, only that I had never experienced them. He nodded in a dismissive way, and that was pretty much the end of the interview. He said they would contact me within a week or so.
I thought I had really blown the interview at that point. I figured the guy had taken my different experience with Excel as evidence that I was full of crap, and that my chances were blown out of the water. I left the video center and drove home, dejected. I was even a little pissed at Bill Gates, and not for the first time in my life.
Before I got all the way home—the trip is about an hour—the HR lady called to invite me to Chatanooga for a face-to-face meeting with some board members that were coming in from Germany. She said they would make all the arrangements and e-mail me the details. I honestly didn’t know what to think about that past that I must have fallen down a rabbit hole or slipped into a rip in the fabric of space and time. It was not a comfortable feeling. 

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