On excellence: Bubble and wear a hat

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The Independent Online
'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 say that most organisations 'don't want imagination, curiosity, initiative or weirdness'. Another reader wrote to say that no sane person being interviewed would admit to 'bubbly enthusiasm' or 'enjoying activities not pertinent to the job' or 'unconventional behavior' - unless the job applicant 'enjoys being rejected'.

So where am I? In the real world or not?

I acknowledge not only having occasional bouts of other worldliness, but also the probability that my readers are correct. No, most companies do not cotton to weirdness; and most of those being interviewed 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 of this was predictable - 'Be courageous' . . . 'Take risks'. 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 at 71 is the best advice I could have given myself in 1940, when de-training for the first time at Cornell, 'Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here'.'

I sent this pithy wisdom of Vonnegut's to a young friend who was searching for a summer job in the middle of her MBA programme - and appended this note: 'Listen to Vonnegut. Lighten up. If you get 'the job', it will 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.'

Most of us (and most companies) take ourselves far too seriously, fear freakish accidents and end up missing out on life. One who gets it is Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, whose wacky flight attendants have been known to pop out of overhead luggage bins. So does Cheryl Womack, founder of VCW 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,' Ms Womack asserts. I like that.

Microsoft is sympatico, too. Forbes magazine, in 'The Virtue of Making Mistakes', tells of three senior Microsoft employees who were hired because of prior screw-ups. One was Craig Mundie whose Alliant Computers (a supercomputer firm) shot off the blocks. Then he bet on the wrong technology at the wrong moment and it all went kaput.

Microsoft scooped him up. Forbes concluded: 'Microsoft saw in Mundie 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.'

Consultant James Morse says: 'The only sustainable competitive advantage comes from out-innovating the competition.' And he's right.

Innovation probably means a flat no-hierarchy organisation. Big grants of autonomy to employees, etc. (You know the litany as well as I) Above all, it means embracing, not dismissing, 'bubbly enthusiasm'.

In the last few days I can recall three incidents of shabby service. Each stems from employees who lack enthusiasm, no doubt hired by bosses lacking enthusiasm and then subjected to an overbearing system that could drain the bubbly enthusiasm from anyone.

Each experience came courtesy of someone who chose not to take the initiative. From there a little problem bloomed into a memory that will linger.

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 perform improvisational skits. Friday's wants bubble. So it seeks bubble. Then it hires bubble. And it gets bubble.

I know there aren't enough Friday's for all of us, but I'll be damned if I let the Class of '94 or anyone else off the hook - tight job market or not. If you interview like a stiff and go to work for stiffs, don't be surprised if you become a stiff.

Many of the Class of '94 will instinctively seek the 'right' job and ignore Vonnegut's advice. They won't hang out for 18 months, work in an inner city, apprentice themselves to an exciting theatre 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 passion for what you are doing. 'Work should be more fun than fun,' Noel Coward said. Why not?

TPG Communications