Thursday, 13 August 2009

Learning By Failing

In today's Telegraph there is the usual feature of 'Ask James' where the Dragon's Den star, James Caan, gives his sage advice to job seekers. He is definitely qualified to do so, having made his considerable fortune off the back of starting, building and selling a successful recruitment company.

I had the good fortune to listen to James Caan speak last year at a small conference in London and he is very polished and enigmatic - every inch the 'nice guy' you see on Dragon's Den. I also think that much of his advice is very sound and this week's advice was a very good debating point about how to handle the very tough interview question of, 'Why did you leave your last job?'

I can sympathise with Caan's experience as I have heard every last excuse about the employer did not value the person, the targets were unrealistic, the hours too tough, the boss was an idiot, the company was going down the toilet, the pay was not good enough, the commission scheme changed, the company held back commission payments, the job role changed, and many more. I am excluding redundancies here but there is no reason why you cannot include them in the same question. The point being is that most candidates at interview look for another excuse to hide the stigma of having left their last company. And I say 'stigma' here as that is actually what they think it is. After all, no one would want to air their views about their boss at an interview with their prospective new boss, would they? Not unless they thought that leaving their last job was in some way a stigma that had to be explained.

Maybe I am using the wrong word here but it is that mental concept that an excuse or plausible reason has to be found for leaving your previous company and especially in these troubled times when there may be a considerable gap between leaving and finding a new role. Someone or something else has to be blamed.

Having been the interviewer in such situations many times, I cannot tell you how underwhelming it is to hear such excuses pushed out time and again. It doesn't matter who the person is or their age, the excuses seem to be the 'island of comfort' to explain people's inner lack of confidence in their abilities - the paranoid instinct that says there is always someone else to blame.

Failing, if it could be called that in losing your job, is part of life. It is as enriching as succeeding in terms of experience as without failing it is hard to know how to avoid it again while the subsequent feeling derived from succeeding after is all the more intense. We can all give our pithy stories of those celebrities or business people who pick themselves up after failure to succeed as such role models give us inspiration, but I often go to far greater depths to see how how people cope with and use 'failure' to their advantage.

Now let's stretch the word fail, here. Failure is not the only thing that pulls us down in life - there are many more reasons why people have to pick themselves up or make the best of a situation and I include in that people who suffer adversity for no good reason as well because they have similar, and often far steeper, mountains to climb but the principles are similar. So when I use the word fail in the same sentence as a name like Simon Weston it is not what I mean that he failed but here was a person who was dealt the cruelest of blows by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is one of hundreds of names we could use in the same context who have powerful, often thrilling stories of how they conquered adversities that threatened their very lives as well as their abilities to heal and move on.

It is from those people who have been dealt such huge blows by dint of accident, birth or negligence by others who use their situation to their advantage and become stronger characters and then successful people despite their enormous problems. Their special inspiration started by dealing with their point of adversity or 'failure' rather than dwelling on who to blame.

So when you sit down to think about the fact you have been made redundant or have lost your job because you personally failed to hit your target, don't try to hide the problem by inventing a reason or trying to transfer the blame. Think for a moment that you are in that position and you can dwell on the inequities that you may think put you there or you can plot your way forward, shedding the 'monkey on your back' that is the stigma of losing your job.

JK Rowling gives a very good account of this in her address to the Alumni at Harvard University where it was only when she faced the total depression of having no money, no job and no prospects that she could truly focus on the most important skills and ideas she had. It is something we can all use as well. Losing a job is tough and it is worse in a tough time. You may well have to accept that you did not perform as well as you should in your last job or because you were in the lower quartile of sales performers that you were identified as one of those who should leave.

Get over it. Think about what was it that you did and, more importantly, did not do that made you less successful than you should have been. Think about the number of meetings you regularly had, how you presented yourself, sold your company and why you failed to influence people as well as you could have done and then start thinking about what you can do to change things. So many times in my career I look back and think about how I could have done things differently and better, even when I was successful, and always it comes down to my lack of prioritisation. Even when I succeeded, I could have still not got bogged down in certain things and focused on more productive things that could have yielded even greater success and very often I find it was all to do with not moving from my personal comfort zones. Once I identified that, came to terms with it, I find things are far easier.

Sometimes you have to be honest with yourself about these things and being your own hardest critic is a recipe that can often lead to depression but is also the way to catalyse change. So when you think about that tough question about why you left your job, don't do what everyone else does and blame your last employer or someone or something else - take it on the chin if that's what it was.

The important thing is to do some reflection, once you have realised that you own your life and you are just as much to blame as your employer for losing your job. Was it your feisty attitude that put you at loggerheads with management which caused you to defocus? Was it the fact you you found it difficult to juggle personal issues and work? Think hard about why you possibly failed because learning the reasons allows you to see how you can change and be better for it.

There is a good reason why I mention all this which James Caan did not mention. That is that when I hear those 'excuses' from candidates I think to myself these things can easily be repeated.

If it was an issue with the boss then I know I am not perfect so it's likely I could cause the same issues for the candidate. If it was the company's lack of resources, well no company is perfect and so there is bound to be small things that cannot be provided. If it was the company not doing so well, it could happen here. The fact is that as an interviewing manager I would rather have people who have experienced things, understood what they have gone through and tell me how they dealt with it and how they will perform better in the future. Excuses are not a lot of use to me, interesting as they may sound.

Honesty is the best way and that starts at being honest with yourself. If you left a job because the money was rubbish, my alarm would be then why did the person enter the job in the first place? If the resources were rubbish, explain to me which ones were missing and tell me which company has it 100% right? If personal matters got in the way, what strategy have you worked out to cope with issues that may occur in the future that will no longer affect your performance? You see, employers should be very concerned about excuses about leaving the last job and it is certainly the reason why I ask the question. And for the skilled interviewer, if the answer is in the slightest bit unconvincing, then the follow up next questions will be like body punches as every interviewer should be looking for weaknesses and gloss.

Here's an exception - I saw the interview by Alan Sugar of the Apprentice, Jasmine, who won the competition and he lined up the question beautifully. Jasmine was the owner of her own restaurant business and Sugar pointed out that she would never enjoy such freedom to be as creative and as successful as she liked than when owning her own business, so why did she want to work for him? Her answer was that she wanted to work for Alan Sugar and here the alarm bells should have clanged. She was either bare-faced lying, motivated only by winning the prize of winning a job working for a dubious boss at £100,000 a year or her business was not as good as she made out. There was no follow up question - he left it at that. A skilled interviewer would have picked that whole 'facade' to pieces and find out what really made the girl tick. The same for the other pretty blond girl but each interviewer in turn backed off.

Most managers just want to hear what they want to hear. So you can get away with playing the excuses game in an ideal world. But today we are no longer in the ideal world - companies are not recruiting much at all and the jobless total is rising fast. Each interview is a precious moment to sell yourself better than any. Only you know your superior qualities and in that short time you have to show the exceptional things that make you different, not just qualified for the job, and sometimes exactly why you may not be qualified but the right person. You will still get the odd tree-hugging manager who has to have an exact match to the piece of paper but trust yourself that your special qualities will win.

So when asked that question - you will have done your contemplation. You will have come to terms with why you were chosen to leave in preference to others, you will have looked at yourself in the mirror and seen your flaws, you will have had your honest words with yourself and you will have identified what you need to do to be more successful in the future. By the time the question has ended you will hit the interviewer square between the eyes and tell them you failed but you know why, you dealt with it, you benefited from the experience and this is what you have done about it and why you are a much more capable person because of it. In fact, you were glad you failed because most people go through life never knowing the reasons that hold them back from being very successful - failure exposes the weaknesses within, that becomes the powerful force for change that is the platform for a successful life.

So when Simon Weston realised that he could not turn back the clock or get his body back, he faced it down, stopped blaming others for his misfortune (even though there were others to blame), fought the demons it caused and used it to become the incredible man he is today. He, along with thousands of others who have been dealt the really hard cards in life, are the most inspirational people on earth because their 'failures' made them the people they are today. At a recent service on the Falklands, Weston met the man who pushed the button that sent the Exocet missile into the hull of the Sir Galahad that fateful day and changed Weston's life for ever.

He forgave him because in many ways, he had a lot to thank the man for. The ordinary guy from the village of Nelson in South Wales, became a great inspiration for many as a result.

That takes some incredible guts and human spirit to say that even if it sounds illogical, but misfortune and failure can make ordinary people quite extraordinary. Believe that, and you will ace the dodgy question at your next interview - just make sure you are 100% honest with yourself, know what you have learnt and why you are a better person because of it.

Play that message to yourself a few times and then think of all those whingers who make the excuses. Sounds a whole lot better, doesn't it?

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