The Interview Is ALWAYS On!

Interviews can be one of the most stressful events we ever experience.  Just think about it. You have two or more people who probably do not know one other, sitting across from each other attempting to determine if there is some mutually agreeable position to defend hiring the interviewee.  You only have one opportunity to make a good first impression.  While the outcome of that first interview may result in a second or third round interview and the opportunity to meet new individuals for the first time, the organizational first impression was made in the first interview.  Given the inherent stress in the situation, the interviewer who has the ability to create a relaxing environment, is always a welcome interviewer.  That being said, comfort can easily become the “Highway to the Danger Zone” as people can get too comfortable and begin to operate in a fashion that is unappealing.  Thus, I’ve always said to others, “The Interview is ALWAYS on, even if I say it isn’t.”  Interviews are one thing, what about life…

I recall a discussion I was having with my friend, Glenda (as always, names changed to protect the innocent).  Glenda is a fairly senior executive and over time we had developed a friendship enabling us to have conversations outside of strictly work topics.  A group of four of us were driving back to our cars from a team event and Glenda and I were chatting it up a little bit regarding the event; how tired we all were (we were 3 hrs. behind our usual time zone) and a few other things.  In the midst of that discussion Glenda asked me a question about DevOps; or more specifically she asked, “What is DevOps?”  She had alluded to the fact that she didn’t know what it was and in that moment of exhaustion, mental laziness, and comfort I simply responded, “I don’t know either.”  As soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized I had FAILED the interview, because the Interview is ALWAYS on…

“Uh oh….well that was an error; a BIG one…” I thought to myself.  I attempted to smooth the situation over with a high level definition of DevOps and then quickly change the topic.  After all, I’ve been in technology for quite a while so I do know what DevOps is and I can explain it in very simple terms; but at that point it didn’t matter.  I FAILED the interview, because the Interview Is ALWAYS On.

Why do I remember that so vividly after all of these months?  Frankly it’s the same reason that we remember many negative experiences that happen to us some months or years later; it has to do with the price of our errors.  I’ve come to realize over the years that the price of my errors is higher for me than for my peers.   My credibility is based upon being a trusted adviser and being able to provide accurate information when required; and when I make an error I’m acutely in tune to how that error eats away at my credibility.  I have countless stories I could share with you:

  • Being told by a supervisor that while I was able to “keep a lot of balls in the air” there were questions about my ability to lead an initiative…
  • Being told that I didn’t sound or look the part of a successful business person…
  • Being told that it’s “OK to make a mistake once, but if you make the same mistake twice then I’ll fire your <insert expletive here>”…
  • Being told flat out that I was not a leader; yet being requested to then lead an initiative for the individual who provided that feedback (still perplexed on that one, although I admit it shook me to my core)…
  • Being told that my own personal leadership style is too transparent…

Some may process these comments as simply feedback that has been provided.  I process these as feedback provided due to the culmination of errors made over time that resulted in the feedback.  This feedback and the associated experiences of receiving the feedback have made me, at times, question myself and my abilities and they have surely shaped my perception on my execution.  My execution must be flawless, it must be perfect, it must be excellent.  The price of any error in any execution that I do will be graded harsher than those around me, and my credibility will be questioned if the delivery is not excellent.  As a song says, “I’m running trying to make 100, 99 1/2 won’t do.”  While I’m unsure that my data would stand in a scientific context; the experiences have shaped my perception and that perception in some cases has become a reality. The experiences are the proof of that reality; and unfortunately, all of this has influenced my own personal self-evaluation scale.

With all of that data being a given I’ve repeatedly asked myself why I didn’t just answer the question?  I knew the answer, so that wasn’t the problem.    What was it?  I’ve thought back on this and other examples and it’s made me ask a broader question, “Why do I say that I don’t know things that I do know?”  While not an exhaustive list, a few answers come to mind:

  • Group dynamics — I feed off of the group that I’m around and I want to “fit in” to that group.  If the group around me doesn’t know, then I don’t want to be the sore thumb sticking out.  Therefore I will state “I don’t know” in order to “fit in” to the group.  This occurs mostly in social situations, but has a way of carrying over to work
  • Exhaustion — mental exhaustion is just as real as physical exhaustion.  Sometimes it’s difficult to think about topics, however instead of being upstanding and stating that I would rather talk about something “less mentally taxing” I’ll say “I don’t know” to get off of the topic
  • Rules — I have forgotten the rules within the context of my surroundings and company

This last one is really the most important of all of them.  Every system has rules.  Whether they be corporate, social, political, socioeconomic, physical or other every system has rules.  These rules govern the locale that you are in.  This is why what will “fly” in one place may not “fly” in another place.  The things you say in your home to your friend of 20 years may not work at the community meeting.  A social greeting that you use in your hometown may not work in someone else’s home town.  A tap on the shoulder to get someone’s attention in your office may be seen as a physical confrontation in another office.  You must understand not only the rules that are in place; you must also understand the  specific rule set that is in place given the locale you are in.  You must be aware of the rules, and you must adjust yourself to the rules of the locale.  Even if the interview is not on (and it’s ALWAYS on), the rules that govern things are always in force.  This is where I missed the ticket; inappropriate application of the rule set given the locale I was in.

While it is required that I operate without error in adherence to all of the rules around me, that’s almost an impossible task.  In a natural sense no one is perfect; mistakes will be made when navigating the almost infinite landscape of rules within the locales we frequent.  Even though a perfect score is required every time, obtaining a perfect score each and every time is a tough game.  That being said recognizing your mistakes, the price of those mistakes, the fact that the price of your mistake may be different than those around you; and how to repair any damage of that mistake is paramount to ultimate success.

I know the above all sounds like doom and gloom but if I’m honest with myself I’m a pretty good executive.  I know the interview is ALWAYS on, but the rules of the game dictate that I would not have achieved the levels of success in my career if I were not a good executive.  That being said, I wish I would have remembered that day that the interview is always on.  It’s something I’ve known and have taught.  Credibility is easier to lose than it is to gain, and while Glenda never said and our friendship continues, I’ve always felt since that day that my credibility has never been the same…and I regret it.


Now on to the photos….both pictures in this post were taken during a trip to Washington D.C. for the 2nd Inauguration of President Barack Obama.  The Washington Monument is one of the 15 most photographed items in the United States.  When it comes to photography, the interview is ALWAYS on for the Washington Monument.

01-19 -- Capital and Washington Monument 01

The landscape version of the photo works better for the featured image, while the portrait version gives a full perspective of the monument.

4 thoughts on “The Interview Is ALWAYS On!

  1. This is a great reminder for the professional and personal setting. Exhaustion is real and we need to find ways to cope with it so that it doesn’t interfere with our “ongoing interview.” I am beyond guilty of not passing the interview every day when my 2 and 5 year old ask their never ending questions. I find myself saying “I don’t know” many times b/c quite frankly it easier than explaining the details sometimes.

    My advice – Don’t regret (or sweat) the small stuff! The stress of the “ongoing interview” will take its toll on our health.


    1. I hear you Heather. I’m taking your advice while also secretly wishing that our corporate bosses were as forgiving as our 2 and 5 year olds…he he he. We are always our harshest critics and have a way of remembering failed interviews much longer than our bosses do; thus the “water off a ducks back” coaching you provide is well received.


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