Are We Promoting the Wrong Person?

What’s the job you’ve wished for the most?  In our younger days we might have said, “professional athlete” or “movie star” but now, as a parent with kids approaching their young adult years, the job I wish for more than any other is the one my kids want for themselves.  And I’ll bet if you’re a parent you share those same desires.

This past year our oldest daughter, Madeline, was vying for a competitive internship that many students hope to land when she reached out to me as said, “So many students in the running for this internship are more experienced and more connected than I.  My one shot is to interview better than the rest.  How can I do that?”

Responding like any doting parent I replied, “Oh, Madeline, you underestimate yourself.  Of course they’ll hire you!”

Sighing and rolling her eyes as only teenagers can she said, “C’mon, Dad, that’s what every parent says and you’re not the one making the hiring decision.  Do you have any solid guidance?  What should I talk about in the interview?”

What advice would you offer?  Reflecting back to my college years I recall career counselors coaching us on how to dress appropriately, how to jazz up our resumes, how to respond to questions such as, “What’s your greatest weakness?”, even how to speak about how much we’d grown after all that academic rigor (ha!).  In short, these counselors groomed us to look and sound impressive.  Did it work?

Three decades later I now do a lot more job hiring than job seeking and I struggle to pinpoint one hire I’ve made because the candidate wore the nicest tie or dazzled me with their straight A’s.  Trying to boil all that interview experience into one morsel of guidance for the job that I wanted the most, Madeline’s internship, I blurted out, “Don’t talk about you, talk about them.”

“What do you mean, Dad?” asked Madeline.  “They’re not the one being interviewed, I am.”

“I know,” I replied, “but try that approach.  See if you can get the interviewer to do most of the talking, especially stories about their own journey and their advice for someone like you who wants to follow in their footsteps.”

The next day, Madeline marched into the hiring manager’s office (dressed nicely, of course.  You still gotta cover the basics) armed with two questions.  After greeting the hiring manager and exchanging a few pleasantries Madeline asked question #1: “So, Mrs. X, how did you end up in this role?”

To hear Madeline describe it, the interviewer jolted up in her chair and replied, “Wow!  No one’s asked me that before but that’s a funny story…”  And Mrs. X went on to share a story that Madeline described as “so cool” and had both of them laughing.  Madeline then asked question #2: “Mrs. X, I really want this job and I know it’s a competitive field.  What advice can you offer on how I can earn the position?”  Again, Mrs. X brightened and offered Madeline helpful tips on how to follow up and who else to contact.

After the interview Madeline called me.  “Well, Dad, I have no idea if I got the job.  In fact, we hardly spoke about my experience or my application.  But Mrs. X is such an interesting and helpful person!  Even if I don’t get the job I feel like we’re friends and I hope to stay in touch with her.”

I share this story with you because Madeline discovered a secret that, in my (ahem – 50 year old luddite) opinion has been more forgotten in today’s social media era than in any period prior:  To earn success, focus on being interested, not interesting.  Not only when I interview job candidates but when I scroll through company websites, solicitation emails, LinkedIn posts, pitch decks, marketing proposals, trade show booths, etc. (Don’t even get me started on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok) I see desperation.  I can almost hear so many of us screaming, “Look at me!  Aren’t I so cool?  So beautiful?  So happy?  So smart?  So successful?  Please like me.  Follow me.  Want to be me.”

Friends, I write this with respect: When you and I fall prey to that approach we shoot ourselves in the foot.  Perhaps even more off-putting than the “check out my awesomeness” tactic is the time we narcissistically invest planning and staging it.  Tracking every minute, selfie camera and keyboard in hand, constantly asking ourselves, “Where’s the next opportunity to showcase my amazing success?” is time we lose thinking about how we can appreciate and serve others.  If there’s one truth about human nature it’s that we already spend the majority of our time thinking about ourselves, and modern day self-promotion tools only exacerbate that me-first thinking.

Believe me, neither the recruiter, your employer, your customers, your true friends, nor your top prospects are lying awake at night wishing you spent more time promoting yourself.  If anything, they might be asking, “Am I heard?  Do you know what’s important to me?  Can you help me solve my problems?” 

I once heard that the late, great Dale Carnegie was asked during a radio interview, “Mr. Carnegie, You came up with twenty one guiding principals on how to live a successful, fulfilling life.  If you were to instill only one of those principals in your fellow man, which would you choose?”

Without hesitation Carnegie responded, “Principal number four: Become genuinely interested in other people.  If we can live by that principal alone, all the others take care of themselves.”

Notice Carnegie did not write, “Become genuinely interesting to other people.”  In none of Carnegie’s writings will you find instructions on how to sound like the smartest person or tell the funniest jokes or flaunt the greatest riches.  Instead, he guides his readers through the same formula that Madeline used in her interview:  Ask good questions, listen with genuine interest, and build a personal bond with your fellow human being.

Imagine if instead of expending all that energy promoting ourselves, i.e. trying to make ourselves interesting, we invested that effort into becoming genuinely interested in others?  For example…

Trying to be interesting…Being genuinely interested…
Announcing that we just won an awardSubmitting an award nomination on behalf of our top customer or most impactful mentor
Posting Thank You’s on social media to an event we attended, a ceremony where we were recognized, etc.Calling those event planners or sponsors and asking them, “What are your goals?  How can I help you reach them?”
Peddling our latest offeringPolling customers on how we can better serve them
Telling an employer why they should hire usAsking an employer what kind of person they want to hire and why

Granted, I understand there are times we need to advocate for ourselves or challenge someone’s worldviews and times we need to update an audience on our latest news but can we agree both we as individuals and we as organizations are guilty of skewing heavily to the “let’s talk about me” side at the cost of the “let’s learn about you” side? 

How well do you really know your customers?  Your vendors?  Heck, if like me you have ever-morphing teenagers how well do you even know your own family?  At the end of the day it boils down to this: We don’t want to read about you celebrating you, we want to read about others celebrating you.  And when we give selflessly to our communities, families, friends, and customers, even a fraction of the publicity they generate on your behalf goes longer than all the self serving materials you could post in a lifetime.

I’m not suggesting we dial back our self interest to the level of Mother Teresa but what if during your next family dinner, customer meeting, or networking event you asked a few more questions and listened more carefully for areas where you can help the other person reach their goals?  Or if before your next presentation you asked the audience for a bit more feedback on what they wanted to learn?  Just as Madeline discovered in her job interview, shifting our pregame prep from, “How can I get them interested in me?” to, “How can I express my genuine interest in them?” will elevate your partnerships, friendships, and your success to levels modern day self-promotion tools are ill equipped to do.

Oh, and as for that job that I wanted most, Madeline’s internship, did she land it?  Let’s put it this way..  Both her doting dad (by luck) and Dale Carnegie (by objective expertise) were right again 😊