The Confidence Factor

contributed by Dr. Stephen E Bangert, PhD

Recently when speaking with a seasoned and very accomplished executive, I was asked: “What are some of the common mistakes that people make with interviewing?”

The question somewhat surprised me coming from him, yet he explained that he wanted to be thorough in his job search preparations, knowing the potential pitfalls along the path and making plans to avoid them, thus likely assuring him a safe journey.

I quickly rattled off a half dozen points and then added a few more to consider. In the discussion that followed we spoke about the importance of displaying confidence.

Lacking confidence is probably the biggest mistake a person can make, although such behavior is not always easy to control. Many interviewers will agree that other blunders can be covered by a display of confidence. It is not bravado, but a quiet statement that assures the interviewer “I can do that.”

But you might be asking: “Why would an accomplished executive ever experience a lack of confidence?” At first blush it seems like a contradiction, yet there can be many reasons. It is important to realize that confidence has a fluid quality about it and is molded and shaped by many factors. Although generally confident, a person may feel vulnerable in certain environments or under certain conditions.

Any situation that is new or strange may undermine one’s confidence. Certainly interviewing for the first time in ten years may evoke this feeling. Realizing that the stakes are high can also cause one to pause. Blemishes in one’s resume may also precipitate this. Termination for any reason will always leave scars. Financial concerns and uncertainties may be a factor. And an extended job search can shake the confidence of even the strongest.

So what’s a guy or gal to do?

For Jim it was a matter of understanding his value. Circumstances forced him to leave high school in his junior year. He looked for the highest paying job he could find and began working on the loading docks of a trucking company. Twenty years later he owned the company, had grown it nicely and when I spoke with him had just completed a buy out. Now he had some dollars in his pocket. But money was only a means of survival for Jim and now, even though rich by most peoples’ standard, he did not see himself as successful. He had just worked hard to pay the bills. Still young and being accustomed to hard work, Jim decided to look for a job.

When I spoke with Jim there was a tinge of panic in his voice. “It’s been twenty years since I’ve interviewed. What will they ask and more importantly, what do I tell them?” Jim’s feeling stemmed largely from lacking insight into his successes and its value to others. In consultation, Jim sketched his career history describing the positions he held and the tasks that he performed. Next we looked at the specific skills that he had developed and applied in his work. We explored what made his work unique from co-workers. And most important, we evaluated how his accomplishments translated to the bottom line.

Such consultation provided insight to Jim who became comfortable with the interview concept of exploring business issues and exchanging ideas that address a company’s corporate needs. Jim became conscious of his competencies and how he could be a valuable resource to another company.

Mary was on a fast track in her company as vice president of finance. In an eight year period she had helped her company triple its revenue and was rewarded with several promotions and a compensation package in the mid six figures. Then she was fired. How would she explain this? Most interviewers would naturally suspect it had something to do with her fiscal responsibilities. In reality, Mary had found herself and the company in a potentially major liability due to the behavior of her boss. When calling this to his boss’s attention she was promised it was over with. Two weeks later Mary’s boss convinced the COO that Mary had violated a company policy and should be fired. She was offered a handsome sum to leave quietly.

When I spoke with Mary, she was concerned with telling her story. How would she handle the likely follow up questions? And how would she justify her filing of a law suite?

This blemish in her resume was quite troubling.

Together, Mary and I worked out some language that honestly told the story without raising many questions and without pointing fingers. Mary left our session feeling much more confident. She had a strategy and appropriate language when engaged in interviewing. Two weeks later, after some rehearsal, she called expressing her confidence and success in interviewing.

Robert personified confidence when I met him. He had a stellar career with a Fortune 100 company but decided to leave realizing his ambition of being the company’s next CEO was at least another ten years in the future. With the blessing of the founder and Chairman, he made a gradual departure over a six month period. Eight months into his search he grew concerned. He was no longer working and although he had numerous interviews was never given a serious offer. Eight months stretched to fourteen months and Robert’s confidence was visibly shaken. He was disciplined in his search and daily activities as he rode the emotional roller coaster of taking interviews and even second interviews and then finding the lines of communication going silent.

Some of Robert’s job search contacts led to consulting assignments and appointments to boards of directors. This in turn led to a full time offer eighteen months from initiating his job search. Quickly Robert’s confidence rebounded, and today he leads a $460 million company.

Each of these examples tell of executives who have demonstrated leadership and success in their work, yet found their confidence undermined by circumstances. They suddenly found themselves out of their normal environment of support. They were no longer in control. Ambiguity surrounded them. Yet through a focus on their goals, discipline and perseverence they advanced as winners.

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