The Phone Interview

As in most of my blogs, I claim no panaceas for interviewing or final incontrovertible wisdom.  All I have is a lot of experience in the war zone.  I do not believe anyone can give another person a foolproof strategy for finding employment.  If my experience helps someone, I am glad of it. I do recommend reading and practicing sample answers and questions readily available on the Internet.

Being invited to a phone interview always pleased me — often more so than a personal, physical meeting.  The phone interview is a warm up for the real thing. The phone opportunity provides anonymity that can be advantageous.  One point is that the interviewer  has limited the evaluation to one of the senses, i.e. hearing.  The interviewee is free to prop her legs up on the footstool and sip a little iced tea.  You’re even free to walk around a little. The interviewer cannot see fidgeting, shuffling feet or drifting, insecure eyes.  However, the voice can also reflect any of these weaknesses too.  I don’t recommend smoking at a phone interview.  Even for a phone interview I did not wear grubbies or skip combing my hair or shaving.  Why?  I felt better. I never, however, wore a tie for a phone interview unless it happened to be during time stolen from my work day.

I liked phone interviews because I have had a lot of experience conducting business on the phone.  The telephone gives me a sense of objectivity, a distance.  I, too, in a positive way was forced to use one medium; then, too, a number of people had complimented me on my telephone manner.  I am like most disc jockeys, rather introverted.  The phone gave me an impersonal situation I could use to my advantage.  The challenge lay in maintaining that confidence and “presence” in a personal interview later.

At the same time I assumed that the phone interview is used when the number of interesting applicants is rather high. Phone interviews are screens, most likely designed to eliminate candidates.  On the phone one interviews for another interview, not a position.  My whole objective was to get a physical interview, but not to be too eager. Sometimes I might answer a question briefly and then add, “This seems to me to be an important question for both of us.  I hope I will have an opportunity to provide more details in person.  I have a written proposal I once gave on the subject. ”

I tried as hard as I could to match voices with names, but rather than address the wrong person, I did not hesitate to say, “I think that was Roger, right?” The interviewer or team will be helpful. I wrote names down during the introduction. If possible. I tried to catch the company name.  No harm in asking, “Now, tell me where youwork again?”

Do not jump to conclusions about anything based on tone of voice.  Do not react negatively to what sounds patronizing or sanctimonious.  That person may not even be on the second interview team.

A telephone is a great medium for being one’s self, for being forthright and candid, but not familiar.

If necessary ask for the question to be repeated for clarity — that buys a little time for thought.

Speak clearly and to the point.  Do not go on and on.  The telephone invites informality and directness — sometimes too much.  Use the medium for what is.  “I could say more on this favorite topic, but I know we haven’t the time.”

If you notice a thread, say  “Well, to you and Roger, I would say . . .”

At some point ask, “Does this position entail significant telephone communication?”  If it is a sales or PR position say, “I know that the position requires excellent telephone skills.  In my past work I . . . ”

On the telephone one can close his eyes even and imagine a receptive person on the other end.  Speak to that positive person you visualize — maybe it is your friend, parent, or favorite uncle you are imaging.

Having a friend or spouse in the room might be a help or a hindrance.  If silent companionship helps, hold hands, but don’t get palsy walsy.  Got a  cat or laid back dog for your lap or at your feet.   A pet may do something to make you smile.  That smile will relax you.  You can do no wrong in the estimation of a pet. Besides, in my experience animals have a way of putting things in perspective.  There will be more interviews.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise



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INTERVIEW QUESTION: How Are You Selecting Companies?

Well, sir, without any facetious intent whatsoever, I can tell you, it’s a jungle out there.  In a perfect world I assume that employers like you would like to feel that an applicant like me has done a lot of research and narrowed his search through the sights of a rifle and not a shotgun.  I have done my utmost to match what I want and what I know about myself to carefully select employers.  At the same time I’ve tried to be realistic.   I may not find exactly what I would prefer, but I am a resourceful person with a variety of skills and abilities.  I might even discover an opportunity I had not anticipated — so there are some good things about the tight market.  It requires me to be open to the unexpected.  I want to be productively employed. I never thought of working in your industry until very recently and I think I have found something challenging here at APEX, LLC.  What I would find challenging is . . .

Comment.  In this answer the applicant is acknowledging what everyone knows.  The job market is for the seller these days and he/she is banking on the idea that the kind of employer sought knows this and further, wants commitment and attitude over perfect match of experience and skill.  After I had mentioned the challenge of APEX, I would cease in the hope that the next question would be related to a subject I had anticipated.  The ball would be in my court.  If not I have only been realistic about an employment market that sucks.  What is important is that a significant portion of target companies have been researched in detail. One must use a shotgun in the interest of survival and chance.

The risk here as with all honesty is that it may be too honest.  The employer may fear that this applicant is dishing bull and that he will always be looking for what he really wants.  This, of course, may be what the employer does in his own interest, but he really may want to hear only that APEX represents the be all and the end all of the applicant’s dreams.  If this is the case the employer is naive.

If the employer is sensitive to to the market, it doesn’t matter.  The situation affects all concerned so the employer may as well be as exacting and demanding as he wishes.  Again, the rule is the interviewer is looking for reasons not to hire rather why to hire.  He’s got a pile to work through.

Here’s another possible answer if you’re a data person.  “I look at a company first for the challenge it offers and the opportunities to grow as a professional.  Uni-Ply has had at least 3 three to 4 per cent growth in the last ten years. That is respectable in these times.  Your bond rating is above average and from what I’ve read you really research your markets before you enter them.  I like that kind of thoughtful conservatism.  Bottom line, a company that is not breaking new territory is not for me.  I want the opportunities which growth brings like the chance to head up a new division or at least be part of new division startup team.  It all takes time.  I know that.”

Steadfast and cautious,


The Tortoise


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Think Career: People, Data, Things

Thoughts from The Tortoise

In the early 1980’s my career drifted into the doldrums. My dream of becoming a professor had died in 1973 and then what had been a surprisingly good alternative career in the community college system ended. My position as a public information officer and community education coordinator fell victim to a downturn in post-secondary education in late 1979. The problem was national as the tail end of the Boomers finished college, I was “right-sized,” a sister term to ” let go.” (Both terms are the euphemisms for employers.  My jobs didn’t just pass away either.  They died. ) The college dropped from an enrollment of 7300 to around 4000.

I found some middle-class welfare under the infamous CETA program and became a youth employment trainer at a joint vocational school in the secondary public system. Of course, many in my Republican, white, upper-middle class background regarded CETA as a a boondoggle. In many ways it was and I was not supposed to need the benefits of CETA. But I had just missed by one getting a PR position in a hospital and personal funds were running low. So I took the job, vowing to make the best of it, and hey, maybe I could do some good for some kids who were not “college timber.” During this period, I began to understand that career,  such a seemingly rewarding passion for others as all the motivational gurus , might never be so for me. So, I started to pay more attention to life in the bigger picture. I cherished the hours I was then spending in the forest, with tractor and chain saw, cutting wood to feed my burner at home. I became involved in community affairs and even ran for office in that period. Serendipity happened and life seemed good, despite my fall in status.

The program included actual jobs for young people. The best-laid Federal and Ohio plans anticipated that employers would be partners in acclimating young people to the world of work. Together business person and youth adviser would work on matters of punctuality, attitude, dress and work performance. In short we were to instill the work ethic. In the process we would increase the kids’ employ ability. Back in the vocational school they were taking general education courses plus special training in secretarial services, retail services, cosmetology, agricultural mechanics, small engine repair, electrical technology, masonry, carpentry, etc. Each year the school actually built a home for spring auction. Conceptually the program could not have been better, but then entered human nature, the economy and mis-perceptions. Turning employers into serious mentors was always a problem.They didn’t have or take the time required. Cynically speaking in the worst cases we needed miracles to turn sow’s ears into silk purses. Looking back, I learned much and saw a side of society I had never known. I came to respect highly the dedication of the best vocational teachers. I saw some of them perform miracles with kids who badly needed a miracle.

In my work we used the Ohio Career Information Service. OCIS was a partnership of the bureau of employment services and the department of vocational education. We dialed up a number and then pushed the phone receiver into a plastic device that resembled a double cup holder. Rubber gaskets cut out interference from ambient noise. Once the electronic ears were in place we had contact with a main frame somewhere in Columbus. We could print out miles of job and career descriptions. Youth came to our lab to explore every whim and dream they had ever had. My associate and I shared our worldly wisdom with them.  He was an air force vet and former park ranger. We were advisers and had to avoid calling ourselves counselors. In some cases we tried to encourage a few whims and dreams.

We also had a nifty test that assessed student preferences for working with things, data and people. From my background I knew only that you completed the college track and went on to college where you majored in business and commerce, liberal arts, or science and math and then picked a major in some field — which either stuck through graduation or went through numerous metamorphoses. My partner and I took the test ourselves. He was a former park ranger.

I was thirty-eight, feeling totally unsuccessful, but thoroughly interested in the data generated. Various jobs, of course, entail differing percentages of time proportioned among work with data, things and information. My job as a YETP adviser rewarded the do-gooder in me. The data gave a measurable dimension to the guessing game of “What Do I Want to Be” and I enjoyed the role of teacher and adviser. I decided that common sense, trial and error had pretty much led me into appropriate career choices, although true success in PR required more social interaction than I liked. I also learned how privileged I had been.

And yet the kind of interaction a lawyer has with people would never have worked for me. The professor thing also was entirely appropriate with the possible exception of university and departmental politics. Late thinking about people, data and things truly made me feel that staying in the ordered universe of the Navy would have been good for me — alas.

I still bemuse myself pondering the perfect blend of involvement with people, things and data as if such fine tuning and modulation were possible. Large doses of small talk and hanging out have never been appealing to me. Chatting while sharing work or dining is pleasant; and I particularly like a good discussion over an issue, a book or a movie. Babbling at a bar over lite beer does not wear well past an hour or so. After that I’m ready for a book.

Writing a blog, posting it and then seeing it up there in front of the world and God? That’s cool. I spend hours now in a cellar cave with my computer and a little Internet business. And while this thing at which I stare and punch has its limits, I am mostly rewarded. My dog will show up when it gets muggy upstairs. I look forward always to a spinoff conversation with someone in Minnesota, Florida or Louisiana which happens sometimes by phone — but most folks want to plug data into me and hear it come out from me, input-output. I am an appendage of my Power-Spec PC. Along about six, there’s sometimes a bike ride and always, somewhere in the mix, pleasant times and chats with my better half. I know. I’m needing to get out amongst ’em, though.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise


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You’ve Got to Please Yourself

While life in a ravine provides security, the lack of sunshine in these hollers has its drawbacks; so when a day comes with rich, sunlight beaming through the trees, thirty feet above me on the edge of this declivity, I head upslope.  As I  push forth a tune enters my head .  It’s  Ricky Nelson’s “Garden Party” from back in 1972.  Remember  “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself?”

I say aloud to myself in the woods, “No, you can’t be serious, Big Turtle.  Ricky Nelson, a deep thinker?  Hardly.”

I always figured Nelson must have been singing about some girl friend who jilted him, but not so.  According to Wikipedia, Nelson was lamenting negative criticism about a change in his singing style. That made me think of my own career path which was in crisis around the same year. Thus, I decided — well at least for now anyway — that these lyrics capture the single most important lesson I have ever learned.  A man must learn to please himself and learn it early.

You see, in that same 1972 I was one year away from taking the preliminary examination in PhD school.  I was not optimistic for a positive outcome. Oh, the essay part was fine, but I knew, no matter how much I’d hoped, that my mind simply was not prepared for random questions from the 800-year- old canon of English literature.  I wasn’t a walking encyclopedia. That was for folks who bomb GRE and LSAT tests, the quantitative types. Anyway, I was wondering why I was even at that university, why I hadn’t switched to a school of education, why I hadn’t just become a cub reporter somewhere.  Perhaps I could have found something less esoteric than the historical, finer points of English literature. I was in hell and well behind Ernest Hemingway. Truth is, I liked playing around in aesthetics and literary criticism.

All these years later, lumbering up the steep incline to the meadow, I decided I had not been selfish enough back then, perhaps a better steward of my talents — and that would have included honesty about my real mental skills.   I was not selfish about pleasing myself as the best of the Hippies were doing at the time.  I don’t mean selfish like rejecting the Man or the Establishment.  I was never a druggie  and as a kid I was never one to rule the sandbox or hog the ball.  I mean selfishly manifesting my “rabids” as Dad used to call them.  Acutually I was disgustingly cooperative.

To illustrate, in the Fifties I was enthralled by the anthology, television drama “The Big Story”(1949-1957). Everything from the musical theme from “Ein Heldenleben” to the real life heroism of newspaper reporters kept me attentive to the heroic dramas.  Why didn’t that enthrallment stick with me, set me on fire, convict me of a journalism career?  Well, who can know?  To ask the question now is absurd.  I suspect I didn’t want to start at the bottom.  Anyway, why carry this rumination to the meadow and muck it up with soggy, regurgitated might-have-beens?

“Because . . . because,”  I  said into the woods, “the speculation is worth the effort.  There must be some value in hindsight . . . if not for my life, perhaps for someone else’s?”

You see in the Fifties in the time of “The Big Story” and impressions being made on me, my mother had been dying.  Helen was the mystery parent, the one I  never knew.  She was not there to tell me that her father, my grandfather, had actually started a newspaper.  He had also taught school, been a farmer,  cattle dealer and businessman. I would like to have known him, my maternal grandfather.  The paternal grandfather, the entrepreneurial industrialist, had the stronger sway in family heritage.

I mumbled into the grass at chin level, “I wonder what might have happened in my life if someone had told me I had  a grandfather who was a newspaperman.  But Helen died in 1951, just a  year into the TV drama series,  and I was nine.  And I don’t want to blame anyone for not telling me.  I don’t know, maybe someone did. My dad was busy just dealing with his business and the loss of our Helen. And an electrical engineer wouldn’t have thought of any career coming out of a literary leanings. Hell, I might have been the second James Reston.

A couple years later the big, black Buick four-holer ascended the drive.  The barge bore our new stepmother.  She was in her fifties, lonely, and like my dad bereft of her husband, an eye specialist.  Like Helen, he had died of  cancer.  My father, Helen and Judith had gone to high school together.  Later on Helen and Judith attended the same university.  They were even in the same sorority. Both were liberal arts majors.  “Your mother,” she said once, “was pretty with plump cheeks.  She was kind and gentle, quiet and shy, but slow in many ways. ”  That is the only full sentence I ever heard from anyone, including my father, about my mother.  She has always been a spectre, an enigma in my life. And  yet, I feel her presence now as I recall her picture on my desk.  She was all those things Judith described — a little turtle.  I look at her dimpled picture and all I remember is her once covering me with newspaper on a chilly evening on the porch.  We were moving and the blankets were stuffed in a barrel somewhere.  Oh, and I hear a voice, not a distinctive one, singing “Maresy Doats.”  She has her back to me as I sit at a table.  She is washing dishes and glancing out the window.

So, for certain, I was not born alone like a tortoise buried in the sand on some dark beach. That’s where they come alive, you know,  with not a creature in attendance.  I suppose, when and if they have a long life, its due to hard, lonely survival and luck of health.

After a boy loses a mother without a trace, not to mention a paucity of  anecdotes,  he’s free to invent his own Helen.  This would be a Helen who  had none of the shortcomings, weaknesses and faults of his father and stepmother, himself or any other human contact.  What a nice opportunity afforded the boy! By inference he could create a character  from all the ways his brothers and he himself seem not to match his father and that composite will become his mother, a creature of omissions.  And, of course, whatever pleasing behavior, he doesn;t see in the stepmother will be attributed to Helen.  She will then be a perfect image of someone and an imaginary influence in his life which, if she had survived would have made all things good and happy.

I’ve reached the meadow now.  The sun indeed is out and the day warms. What a blessing to be able to invent your own mother.  A man must please himself and so must a tortoise.

Steadfast and cautious,

The Tortoise




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