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You've Got Dinged!

Alejandro outlines his thoughts on why so many ECs are still without offers.

The US Labor Department recently reported that the October unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent. Fine and dandy, I thought to myself-I remain 100 percent unemployed. In the aftermath of hell week interviews, I am surely not the only EC trying to make sense of the carnage. In the three segments below I outline a few thoughts on why many (if not most) of us are still out of work.

It is the Five Forces, Stupid
Hell week is heaven for employers. An intense rivalry from a temporary imbalance of supply (students) and demand (jobs) allows the employers who recruit early to reap consistently high returns from year to year. Employers can exercise extreme discretion in choosing which candidates to hire because of this over supply, and by definition a large population still will not have a job.

Assessment-Backwards Criteria
According to Justin Menkes at the Executive Intelligence Group, most interviews assess past behaviors to test three criteria: experience, job knowledge, and social skills (Hiring for Smarts, HBR, Nov. 2005). They do not test intelligence. Many of us, including myself, are trying to switch careers, and these assessments create a formidable barrier to entry into the industry of our choice. What can be incredibly perplexing is that the same companies who refuse to hire candidates without industry experience unwittingly hire inexperienced consultants at three times the price when their own employees are unable to resolve complex problems. “Intelligence is the skill with which someone uses knowledge to solve a problem,” writes Menkes, and consulting firms successfully use their case interview methodology to assess intelligence and exploit a systemic talent arbitrage opportunity in an inefficient labor market.

Now granted, the three criteria above may be right-on if the company wants to hire valuable individual contributors from day one, but hiring based on past behavior creates a Catch-22 that increases the likelihood of suffering from the Peter Principle. The Catch-22 is that no one can get a job if they do not have industry experience, and they cannot get experience if they do not have an industry job. The Peter Principle is the idea that employees are promoted until they reach a level of incompetence, at which point they can no longer progress. For example, imagine a janitor who scrubs floors twice as fast as anyone else. In many workplaces, this janitor would be rewarded with a promotion. But if they become a manager, what good is their previous experience in scrubbing floors for the new challenge of managing other janitors? Thus, as Wall Street firms are apt to say, past performance is no indicator of future results. In sum, recruiters who only hire experienced employees underestimate intelligent people’s capacity to rapidly acquire knowledge and the value that industry outsiders can bring from disrupting the stagnation and groupthink of the Catch-22 status quo.

Passion Paradox
Most of my interviewers asked me either explicitly or implicitly why I am passionate about working at their company. I kept thinking to myself, “How can I drink the Kool-Aid if you haven’t invited me to your party?”

At first, I assumed that a 2×2 matrix formed from the axes of willingness and ability dictates success in any job. As an egomaniacal HBS student, I took my ability for granted. I further presumed that as a fairly self-motivated person, I could become passionate about anything once I willed myself to do it. And yet, the more I researched and reflected, the more I became convinced that companies have every reason to ask candidates about their passion. I also sheepishly came to appreciate that the recruiters who rejected me were actually doing me a good service by preventing me from taking a job about which I could never truly be passionate.

Several white papers I read about employee engagement from the HayGroup, a human resources consultancy, led me to believe that ceteris paribus, a dispassionate person can never successfully compete against a passionate person for rewards, recognition, and results. Therefore, not only does the passionate person enjoy intrinsic motivation, they also harvest the fruits of extrinsic motivation as well. It follows then that we ought to follow our passion for whichever of these motivations we choose.

The question thus returns to the passion paradox: how do I know if I can be passionate about working in a particular company or industry without experiencing it ex ante? Besides self-inquiry and investigation, one might want to approach the interview itself with candor and inquisitiveness. Without fully realizing what I was doing, I asked each of my interviewers what they loved about their jobs and listened for any harmony between their excitement and my own. At the same time, I answered all of their questions with candor and let them decide if I possessed the potential for passion.

November 13, 2006
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