Recently I had a preliminary online interview for a national role I had been invited to put myself forward for. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get onto the shortlist, mainly because I’m not a significant enough person for the role, but also because I came away from the interview thinking that I had made a complete hash of it. I certainly wouldn’t have put myself onto the next stage if I’d been on the other side of the Zoom.
There was one question that gave me particular pause for thought. What was I proud of in my career? It’s an easy enough question on the face of it, but I found myself tongue-tied, which is never a good look in an interview. The problem was that although several things came to mind, they all engendered ‘yes but’s. There is always another point of view. My pride in building a brilliant team to carry a project forward is pretty pointless if the team has been dispersed six months after I leave. There’s not much merit in claiming success in getting an organisation up a regulatory ranking or into the black if it plunges down again, and I can easily see that sticking with something and keeping it afloat for more than a quarter of a century is not necessarily something to be proud of in itself - it might have been better to let it sink and spend my time on something more useful. My leadership in changing a culture will have been seen as awful by some people who liked the culture as it was. And so on.
My childhood was far from strict, but we were brought up with a vague awareness of the seven cardinal sins, of which the first is Pride. It was fine to be proud of your children, or your country, but it wasn’t seemly to dwell on pride in your own achievements. Most of the Big Seven have become perfectly acceptable, if not aspirational. Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy and Wrath could be dropped quite comfortably into TV schedules, desirable business practices, sport, social media, culture wars and politics. Sloth is more complex - Gogglebox and Hygge versus denial of the Ten Thousand Steps. The only real sin left is Gluttony - or rather the unpardonable sin of being fat in the face of the temptations of Just Eat and Infinite Cake.
I have been guilty of most of the cardinal sins, with the possible exceptions of Envy and Wrath, which have never particularly appealed. I just can’t get the hang of turning them into smart interview answers. Mind you, it doesn’t always work. I’m reminded of a true story from a friend and colleague who was sitting as an external assessor in a series of very serious interviews for a senior post. The interview process was ultra conventional, with the last of the set questions posed by the chairman: - “what are you passionate about?”. The leading candidate, after a suitable pause for thought, answered “ oral sex”. Alas, she blew her chances.