An exchange yesterday triggered a comical memory.
It happened when my colleague and I interviewed a candidate for a new member of our team and she asked the candidate an interesting question:
“What’s one thing that you really don’t like.”
That same question was asked of me a couple of years ago, to which I responded:
“I have little tolerance for stupid people.”
The words rolled off my tongue and I knew I was a dead man. Ouch. Too honest. I was interviewing for a Vice President of Communications and External Affairs with a large community college in the Chicago suburbs. Tact is probably one of the most important characteristics in a role like that. I know because I’ve held similar roles. What you want to say, how you say it, and what you don’t say is all part of the game.
My response to the question was not a statement about intelligence, as much as it was about open-mindedness. I want people to have opinions and I want people to express them, but I want them to be their opinions. I am not interested in an argument with a person who will parrot the headlines from Fox News. A better response may have been “I detest purposefully-ignorant people.”
This thought circle closed this morning when I reflected on the interview yesterday, and my follow up question to the “one thing you don’t like”. Mine was a three-parter: use three words to best describe yourself, three words your teachers would use to describe you, and three words your friends and family would use to describe you.
Asking anyone to describe themselves is a heavy lift and then shifting to two other points of view is tough. This exercise helps me measure confidence, curiosity, and humility. The answers are measured against a list of ideal characteristics in all new hires that my team and I agreed upon during an exercise this summer. We used the Gallup Clifton Strength Finder to identify our own strengths, to better understand where we need improvement, and to see the gaps in our team.
Yesterday’s experience occurred a couple of hours after a dear friend and mentor stopped by my office. Our careers intersected some 14 years ago, and three years later dissected when the company for which we worked was acquired. He was in the C-Suite. I was a director. His exit was foreseen. Mine, as I learned yesterday was not part of the deal. The “elimination of my position” was sprung on our CEO about 24 hours before the deal was announced. Surprised, shocked, and angered are tepid descriptions of my reaction. Personally, the elimination of my position was devastating to my ego, my career, and marriage.
Neither of us ever fully learned the reason for the bullseye on my back, other than the CEO of the acquiring company threw it down and it had something to do with my peer at the acquiring a company. A woman who I spent countless hours with counseling, guiding, and mentoring. My parting words to her then CEO, “treat her with the respect that she deserves” when she fills my eliminated position.
Eleven years brings hindsight. Did she throw me under the bus? I don’t know. I do know that the CEO of the acquiring company is exactly the kind of person whom I detest. I knew it then. Working for him may have been even more devastating than losing my job. All told that experience taught me how not to treat people.
Thanks to my parents, my old friend who I saw yesterday and others like him throughout my career I know how to lead with dignity and respect. I’ll keep building teams with honest people who are curious and innovative, outgoing and introverted, funny and serious, and loyal and honest. The kind of team I built 14 years ago that brought in millions of dollars for that company that made it ripe for sale. The kind of team I am building today.
Oh, and the job as VP at the community college? No, of course, I didn’t get it I view my flubs as signs. I know I wasn’t meant to return to the bureaucracy of publicly funded education. Why? My first foray into education is why, and it included the corrupt and imprisoned former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. That constitutes a blog for another day.