During a job interview process, you want to do two things: Stay on message and focus on five key questions. You don't want to deviate from this job interview strategy. But the one mistake you definitely want to avoid is to think on your "seat." You could hurt your chances since the people who are interviewing you are probably not going to be open to your ideas and even if they are, you should avoid giving them till you are hired. You want to focus on what will get you the job offer. You want to focus on the five questions since you are going to be hired to get things done not to be a "philosopher king"; let CEO be that.
If asked to give a thought on something, be polite and say that you need to understand the situation a little better before offering a thought. If you can’t get out of saying something, then first find out what the other person thinks and then just validate that thinking. Thinking is hard, slow and unpredictable, so if you want the job, don’t think for others and also don’t think that the other person can think. If you keep this in mind, it will keep you out of trouble with the job interview and other things.
Thinking can often get you in trouble since it is not what you think that matters; it’s whether the other person understands the way you think is what matters. Since you don’t know what the other person knows or how he thinks, you would be putting yourself in a losing position. Thinking on your feet is one thing you must deftly avoid at all cost.
To further explain this point, I will give you three examples: one from a oscar nominated movie, second one from the presidential politics in the United States and the third one from my own personal experience. It will show that thinking can not only be career limiting, but outrightly dangerous.
Do you remember that great movie "The Killing Fields," released in 1984 where a Cambodian translator of the New York Times journalist is trapped in Cambodia as the brutal Khmer Rouge took over?
There was one memorable scene in the movie that shows the danger of being an intellectual. Dith Pran (the Cambodian translator), along with other Cambodians, are gathered and encouraged to step forward if they had worked as teachers, administrators, engineers, etc. They Khmer Rouge says them that they are looking for intellectuals to help the new regime. Pran was tempted to step forward but somehow sensed a trap and chose not to do so. Thanks for his sixth sense since the Khmer Rouge proceeded to execute all those who stepped forward; they did not want any threat to the regime posed by the intellectuals. The only person who was going to do any thinking in the new regime was only one person: the brutal dictator Pol Pot.
Now you are not going to be whacked in a company for thinking but it could potentially get you not hired and, once hired, probably laid off. No matter what companies say, they are not hiring you to think, but to do.
This kind of mindset pervades at the highest level in leadership, including the Presidency. George H. Bush rose to the top by essentially not being a thinking man but a man of action. He faced a big challenge when he had to give his nomination speech at the Republican convention in 1988.
Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's speechwriter, writes in her book "Simply Speaking," that Bush had two simple objectives. One, to thank the delegates and accept the nomination and second, to present his vision to the country for the first time.
Though Bush was in public service for many years, including eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president, he was still unknown on what he thought. Noonan writes that "people knew his name but not his thoughts. And so he would have to speak, plainly, about what he believed, about what he thought and why he thought it."
Here is what Bush said at the Republican convention: "For seven and half years, I have helped the president conduct the most difficult job on earth. Ronald Reagan asked for, and received, my candor. He never asked for, but did receive, my loyalty...But now you must see me for what I am: the Republican candidate for president of the United States."
As Noonan explains, that Bush was trying to reintroduce himself to the American people since for the past seven and a half years he was quietly doing his job that Ronald Reagan wanted him to do. But now that he was the standard bearer for the Republican party, he finally got an opportunity to give his thoughts on how he planned to lead the country.
Even the second most powerful person in the world was hired not to think but to do. And he did it so well that he was being rewarded to be the President of the United States.
A good modern day example of not letting people know what you are thinking is Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany and the most powerful woman in the world. She did not get to the top by wowing people with her thoughts and vision combined with her public speaking skills. In a lengthy article in New Yorker titled, "The Quiet German," her rise to the top is a result of her staying close to the proverbial "fifty yard line." throughout her career. One of her adviser once told a US Ambassador to Germany that “The Chancellor’s long-term view is about two weeks." This approach has helped her become the most successful German leader since World War II as she won her third consecutive term in 2013.
But she has always played it right up the middle. When asked in 2005 why she was not active in opposing the communist regime in East Germany, she said, “I decided that if the system became too terrible, I would have to try to escape. But if it wasn’t too bad then I wouldn’t lead my life in opposition to the system, because I was scared of the damage that would do to me.” She was very careful not to attract any attention and be underestimated. She has effectively used the survive and advance tactic to success.
Rainer Eppelman, a clergyman who knew Merkel well, had the following thing to say about her:
“The whisperer might find it easier to learn in this new life, to wait and see, and not just burst out at once—to think things over before speaking. The whisperer thinks, How can I say this without damaging myself? The whisperer is somebody who might be compared to a chess player. And I have the impression that she thinks things over more carefully and is always a few moves ahead of her competitor.”
Later she ousted the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and when he was asked by a reporter of what she wanted? He said, "Power." Kohl regretted not seeing this early. But when you don't offer a target and stay close to the middle, you pose no visible threat to others; you are a “stealth assassin.” You can use a similar technique when you are being interviewed for a job. You don’t want to pose any threat to anyone. You want to get the job offer, get to work work and then slowly get ahead.
We can all learn from the way Merkel approaches problem and comes up with a solution. She approaches problems is by “drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting.” We can all take this approach when looking for a job
My Own Experience
But you don’t need to be a vice president of the United States to realize that it is the president who does the thinking, I ran into this situation when I was hired by a startup to help the CEO with sales. My problem was that I was too successful as I was able to bring in two large deals in less than three months. Based on my success I thought that the CEO would be sold on the sales methodology that I had used for success instead of wasting time chasing opportunities that were not resulting in any business, though we had good relationship with those prospects. We were doing proof of concepts and pilots but they did not result in sales.
I was wrong. The CEO did not think my success had anything to do with my sales approach, but result of freak “accidents.” He thought that those sales would have happened without me. With that attitude, I had to acquiesce with him if I wanted to stay with the company or leave since I did not want him to do the thinking for me on how to sell. It was his way or the “highway.” I thought about this and realized that since he was the CEO and he founded the company, it was his opinion that mattered and I had no choice but resign. The CEO was certain that he was right that he did not even try to find out why I was quitting. He viewed me as a threat and was glad that I quit.
Companies are not hiring you for your ideas. By joining a company, you are essentially discounting your ideas. Today, good ideas are like currency. People are willing to risk money for good ideas since they have potential to be worth a lot more than money. If you don’t believe you have good ideas, then take the job and help implement other people’s ideas. It will make you more money than you can make it striking it out on your own.
An excellent example of this Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. Early in the history of Facebook, Zuckerberg was offered $1 billion by Yahoo. By any measurement, this is a lot of money, especially when the company was so young. As explained by Peter Thiel, entrepreneur and author of “Zero to One,” talks about this in the podcast on The James Altucher Show, Episode 43. Thiel was on the board of Facebook since he was an early investor and recommended that Zuckerberg take the offer. Zuckerberg considered the board’s advice and called a 10-minute meeting in which he said that this will be a short meeting and tells the board that he has decided not to take the offer. Zuckerberg at the age of 22 convinced the board that he did not know what to do with the money. He probably build another social networking company. But he liked the one he had built. Furthermore, he had more products (ideas) that are not being valued by the market.
Zuckerberg did not take the $1B offer because he had more ideas that he felt were worth a lot more than the $1B that was on the table. He was right. As of this writing, Facebook’s market capitalization is over $210B. The advice I would offer is that if you have good ideas that you think are worth a lot if you can implement them, then start your own business, otherwise help implement other people’s good ideas. We are living in a world today where good ideas are worth more than money. Those who take the risk and implement them are known as entrepreneurs. Peter Thiel gives a simple economic lesson in the podcast that “In a world where you have no [good] ideas, money is always more valuable than anything you can do with it. The you always take the money.”
The lesson to take away from these examples when it comes to interviewing for a job is to play it wisely and focus on the five key questions that are important to get a job. An employer is not hiring you to think; they are hiring to get the job done the way they want it done. That's it. Learn from President George H. Bush that when you are not the top dog, you are really hired to get the job done, not to think. Saul Alinsky, an American community organizer and writer, knew that you can’t change people in the way they see the world. He writes in his book “Rules for Radicals,” that “As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be.” This is something you should keep in mind when you are looking for a job.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.