"Somehow I think you are not living in the real world." So began a letter about my recent column on job interviews. It went on to urgently remind me that most organizations "don't want imagination, curiosity, initiative and weirdness." Another reader said no sane interviewee ("unless he enjoys being rejected") would admit to "bubbly enthusiasm," "enjoying activities not pertinent to the next job" and "unconventional behavior."
So where am I? Real world? Or not?
I not only acknowledge occasional bouts of other worldliness, but also the probability that my readers are correct. No, most companies don't cotton to weirdness; and most interviewees don't own up to it, either. A pox on both their houses.
Cornell University recently asked notable alumni to offer advice to the Class of '94. Most was predictable -- "Be courageous," "Take risks" -- and not terribly edifying. Then came novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who began, "What I have become has almost nothing to do with Cornell, where, on the bad advice of my brother and my father, I was attempting and failing to become a biochemist." His subsequent experiences in life, he added, "were freakish in the extreme . . . mostly accidents." Hence: "The advice I give myself at the age of 71 is the best advice I could have given myself in 1940, when detraining for the first time at [Cornell], 'Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.' "
I sent Vonnegut's pithy wisdom to a young friend who was frantically searching for a summer job in the middle of her MBA program. I appended a brief note: "Listen to Vonnegut. Lighten up. If you get 'the' job, it'll probably be a letdown. If you end up bumming around for three months, it may do you some unexpected good. In other words, keep your hat on."
I meant every word of it. Most of us (and most companies) take ourselves far too seriously, fear freakish accidents and end up missing out on life.
Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, whose wacky flight attendants have been known to pop out of overhead luggage bins, gets it. So does Cheryl Womack, founder of VCW Inc. of Kansas City. Though peddling insurance to independent truckers may seem like a yawn, she has turned her firm into a high-growth gem. Hiring is key. "We look for passion, flexibility and excitement," Womack asserts. I like that.
Microsoft is sympatico, too. In "The Virtue of Making Mistakes," Forbes magazine describes three senior Microsoft employees who were hired because of prior screw-ups. Craig Mundie's Alliant Computer (a supercomputer firm) shot off the blocks; then he bet on the wrong technology at the wrong moment, and the business went kaput.
Yet Microsoft scarfed him up. "Microsoft saw in Mundie," Forbes concludes, "not just a man with technical and managerial knowledge, but someone with the guts to bet on a vision -- even though it turned out to be flawed. . . . Betting on visions is, after all, what companies like Microsoft are all about."
"The only sustainable competitive advantage comes from out-innovating the competition," says consultant James Morse. And he's right. Innovation probably means a flat, hierarchy-less organization. Big grants of autonomy to all employees. Etc. Etc. (You know the litany as well as I do.) But above all, it means embracing, not dismissing, "bubbly enthusiasm."
In the last few days I can recall three shabby-service experiences. Each stems from employees who lack bubbly enthusiasm -- who were no doubt hired by bosses lacking bubbly enthusiasm and then subjected to an overbearing system that could drain the bubbly enthusiasm from even Kathie Lee Gifford.
Sure, I fault the bosses first and foremost. TGI Friday's in London wants an energetic environment in its restaurants. So as part of its hiring process it has groups of candidates, on the spot, create -- and then perform -- improvisational skits. Friday's wants bubble. So it seeks bubble. Then it hires bubble. And it gets bubble.
While I know there aren't enough Friday's and VCWs for all of us, I'll be damned if I'll let the Class of '94 (tight job market or not) or anyone else off the hook: If you interview like a stiff and go to work for stiffs, don't be surprised if you turn into a stiff.
Many of the Class of '94 will instinctively seek the "right" job. They will ignore Vonnegut's advice. They won't hang out for 18 months, work in an inner city, apprentice themselves to an exciting theater company or, on a lark, head to Poland or Russia to see what's up.
I believe almost religiously in hard work. But the odds of it being fulfilling are low unless you have a consuming passion for what you're doing. "Work should be more fun than fun," Noel Coward once said. Why not?
Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-6200.