Is there an ELEPHANT in the interviewing room?

Rick told me he had just been rejected for a Chief Marketing and Sales opportunity, and he was convinced it was because he is Latino. He thought he had an excellent interview with the CEO. He reported that the CEO ended the interview by saying, “You are just what we need.” Later, a member of the selection committee called and said, “The CEO thinks you are amazing, but he has another candidate with deeper industry experience. A VP of International Sales position will open soon, and the CEO thinks you would be a great fit. Would you be interested in interviewing for that job?” Rick felt that he had been slotted in a lower level “Hispanic job.” When I told him that the outcome may have been different if he brought up his heritage, he was very skeptical and said, “I shouldn’t have to bring up my heritage. My performance stands on it own” Rick was correct in principle, but with his next opportunity, I convinced him to try a different approach.

Rick’s next interview was with a private company that had a large market share in the US and Europe. The CEO was British and although he had a diverse set of managers at the country level, all of his top executives were British or of British decent. Rick was interviewing for the top marketing and sales job. We practiced bringing up his ethnicity at the right moment. We thought that the right moment might be when Rick was talking about his stellar track record with large accounts. Rick followed through and brought up both the upside and downside of his Latino heritage in a big marketing and sales role in the US and in Europe. He gave an example of when it was an advantage, and an example of when it was a disadvantage in Europe. The CEO was clearly intrigued, so Rick went on to give examples in the US.  When he cited disadvantages, he told the CEO how he managed the outcome successfully, regardless. He told the CEO, “I am there to build the company, not satisfy my own ego.” Rick got the job offer.

Alan Took a Different Approach

When Alan met with me, he was excited and anxious about an interview scheduled for that afternoon. He was meeting with the CEO of a private media company to talk about being his CMO. He wanted to practice his answer to the question, “Why did you leave your last job?”  Alan had been fired because of fit. His references were very strong, including his previous CEO and key investors. Right before our meeting ended, I emphasized the importance of addressing the reasons for his transition, even if the CEO didn’t ask him about why he left.  We talked about the appropriate time to bring it up. In that way, he could frame his own story and preempt the CEO’s potential imagination or biases, and he could prepare him for potential misinformation from other sources.

Later that day, I got a call from Alan. He felt he answered every question perfectly. He was relieved that, “The CEO never asked me why I left my last job.” I was disappointed that he didn’t bring up his transition.

A few days later, the media company VP of HR called the CFO at Alan’s last company, whom she knew from a previous company.  The CFO then called Alan and told him she asked a lot of questions about the reasons he left. Alan was surprised by the focus on his departure. He had assumed that it was a “nonissue” after his meeting with the CEO.  Alan followed up the next day with the VP of HR to check on status, and she told him that they had decided to move forward with another candidate.

Have one of the following thoughts come to your mind when preparing for an interview?

“I hope the Chairman doesn’t ask me about…”

“Will the CEO give me a fair shot even though I am…?”

“What if my former CEO tells them about…?”

If they have come to mind, you need a plan to neutralize your ELEPHANT(s).

The ELEPHANTS can become big and unwieldy depending upon your interviewer’s imagination, experiences, and biases. How do you neutralize them?

Proactively practice and be prepared to address any aspect of your background or profile that may put you at a disadvantage. Don’t wait until the second interview, don’t let your interviewer fill in the blanks on their own, and don’t wait to be caught out. With appropriate timing and finesse, answer the questions that your interviewer is too uncomfortable, or legally prevented, to ask. In this way, you control aspects of your profile that may put you at a disadvantage when competing against other candidates.

Most candidates have ELEPHANTS when interviewing for a senior executive role. Here are some examples.

  • older or younger
  • many job changes or no job changes
  • big company experience or small company experience
  • sex/color/religion/ethnicity/sexual orientation/veteran status/disability
  • a weakness in your profile that may be discovered through references or a background check
  • previous company has an unfavorable reputation
  • unusual compensation history
  • missing a key element of required experience

Identifying your own ELEPHANTS

It is the stuff that keeps you up the night before the meeting. Your ELEPHANTS are unique depending upon your background and your opportunity.  What are some of the ways to identify them? Ask yourself:

  • Are you different from the typical or ideal candidate?
  • Are you different from the senior executive team and the Board of Directors?
  • Is there some question that you wish will never be asked?
  • Is there some issue that you hope your references won’t bring up?
  • Do the executives at your level within your target industry have different backgrounds, looks, politics, style, etc.?

If your answer is yes to any of the questions above, addressing your potential disadvantage is extremely important.

Jim’s Approach Was Courageous

After our senior consultant  presented Jim to the VP of Talent of a large energy company, Jim was scheduled for a COO interview.  The role was a step up for Jim.  As part of his interview coaching, I advised Jim to bring up his marital status and sexual orientation with the CEO, if he thought it could be a competitive disadvantage. We practiced together and discussed timing.

Jim told me that he met the whole senior team in one day, and at the end of day, he met with the CEO. The CEO asked Jim what he liked about his present company culture. Jim told the CEO that although he was not married and did not have children, he really liked the fact that his company had many family activities. He added that he always attends these functions with his two nephews: ages 5 and 10, who have a great time. He feels it is important for a senior executive to be present and participate in the fun. The CEO told Jim that he felt the same, and in addition, the senior executives and their spouses get together quite frequently.  Jim took the opportunity to tell the CEO that he was the only C-level gay person at his present company, and that he did have a long-term partner, but his partner was uncomfortable at corporate functions. The CEO asked Jim if his customers objected. Jim told him that his customers didn’t care, although he wasn’t sure how many customers knew he was gay. He mentioned one important customer who publicly stated his position on gay members of the clergy. When that customer wanted a competitive presentation because he was unhappy with the new product features, Jim explained that he asked his CMO and CTO to visit the troubled global account. Then the CEO asked Jim if his peers felt uncomfortable. His peers, Jim answered, had no issues with his sexual orientation. “Even the most conservative members of my team understand and respect my contributions.” Jim opened the door to having a neutralizing conversation with the CEO, and the CEO responded by asking the relevant questions that concerned him. Jim was offered and job and he accepted it. He is still there today.

Neutralizing ELEPHANTS takes practice

Neutralizing potential disadvantages requires a detailed assessment and then practice. You will be conversing on topics that are uncomfortable to you,  your interviewer, or both of you. With practice, you will get good at it, and barring any deep-seated bias or intolerance, your elephant will become tangential and unimportant. In most circumstances, bringing up a disadvantage turns into an advantage. You score points for being open, courageous and honest.

Should I always bring up my ELEPHANTS?

An assessment of your interviewer, the opportunity, and your particular elephant  is paramount to determine how to neutralize it. In some circumstances, it is ill-advised to bring it up in an interview setting. Perhaps, it is best to address your “disadvantage” in another less direct way.

Always address your “disadvantage” from your interviewer’s perspective. During Jim’s practice session, I asked him to put himself in the CEO’s shoes.  What would the CEO be most concerned about and why?

When a candidate demonstrates candor and authenticity regarding a personal attribute, trait or experience that interviewers may be curious or concerned about, it puts everyone at ease and validates the candidate’s strong leadership abilities.




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