Rejection. I don’t know anyone that loves it. Be it, asking your parents for that cute puppy, only to be told not a chance. Be it, asking for that girl’s number and being shut down. Be it, getting that letter from the college you really wanted to attend, and having it say, sorry, no dice.
Rejection, in its many flavors just sucks. It’s disheartening. It leaves you feeling blah. Now, I’ve had my fair share of rejection over the years. From not making the basketball team in high school to having Georgetown tell me: umm…you can come to our school, but you’re not good enough to earn even a $2.00 scholarship.
One spot I’ve definitely faced rejection was in the interview process. The Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota had a class taught by Mike Henle that was all about interview and resume prep. Honestly, one of the best classes I ever took. Whether it was that class or luck or whatever, early on in my career I generally aced interviews. I remember keeping track of my “close rate” – the ratio of offers to interviews. I stopped tracking it years ago, but I do recall at one point being in the 90% area.
Now, this isn’t about the offers. This isn’t about the jobs I took. This isn’t about my successes. This is about the failures. Specifically, I want to tell you about the 3 jobs I interviewed…that I really wanted…that I felt I was very qualified for…BUT didn’t get.
It was just after the dot.com bust. Or rather, the middle of the bust. I was working in Chicago, but my girlfriend was Minneapolis based. And as many of you know, long distance for a relationship is no fun. Brad Smith was the director of Digital at General Mills and he was looking for a manager of digital. Several of Brad’s colleagues recommended me to him. After a phone screen, I came in for the full day of interviews. Now coming in I felt like I had a lot on my side. First, I knew Brad; it’s a small circle of digital people in Minneapolis. Two, I knew the VP of HR/Talent; she even endorsed me for the job. Three, I had a lot of CPG experience at the time. From Kellogg’s to Nestlé and from Altoids to Coca-Cola, I’d managed a lot of great brands. Four, I had the “buzz” that came from having worked at Fallon, on BMW on BMW Films. The General Mills interview process was standard…meet a lot of cross-functional team members, talk about your background, explain why you want to leave your current role, etc. Well, it was standard to a point. Part of the process involved the Myers Briggs personality test. And apparently, that’s where I failed in legendary fashion. I left the interview thinking I had nailed it. My initial conversations with Brad and HR, post interview, were encouraging and positive. A week went by. Then another. On the 3rd week, I got a call from my HR contact. She explained, I would not be moving on. I was shocked. My heart dropped. I inquired why. She hesitated initially and explained, that while everyone “loved” me and though I’d be great…I had failed the Myers Briggs test. Well, that’s a head scratcher..how do you fail a personality test, I asked. She explained, that I was too extroverted, an apparent no-no in Big G land. The test indicated that I would be the type of person who wouldn’t simply follow the process and approaches that had been used by the company or years…that I would challenge the norm too frequently. Baffled, I called Brad, who confirmed what I had been told and said something I remember to this day, “dude, I’ve never seen anything like this before, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you could fail a personality test.” Well, me neither. It’s safe to say I’ve remained quite extroverted, so I’m not exactly expecting a call from General Mills any time soon. I love many of the products in the General Mills family and have a lot friends who have thrived there. Sometimes, it’s not about talent, it’s about fit. And in this case, I didn’t fit.
Somewhere at the middle point in my career, just before I joined ConAgra Foods, I interviewed with R/GA to run the SC Johnson business. At this point in my career, I felt I was tailor made for this role. In addition to the CPG experience I listed above, I’d also cut my teeth on Similac, M&M and a few others. In short, I knew how to move pallets of product to Wal-Mart, using digital. R/GA at the time was one of the few digital agencies doing it right. Even today, they are one of the best digital shops in the world. I had and have a lot of respect for the agency and it’s commitment to great work. After a lengthy interview process, I was notified that after careful consideration I was not going to be offered the position. My notice came via phone by the head of account management. That’s a classy move and something more companies should do. Anyhow, of course I wanted to know where I didn’t measure up. Imagine my surprise when I was told, “unfortunately, you don’t have enough CPG experience.” Huh? I mean had you said, not enough telecom or retail experience, I’d have agreed. But, not enough CPG experience? Well, that was just obviously BS. Not only was a bummed, I mean R/GA was probably one of the few shops everyone really wanted in at, but I was irked I wasn’t getting the full story. How can you improve if you don’t know where you fell short? Well, shortly thereafter, I took a job working with a great team at ConAgra Foods. We were conducting an agency review for new digital agencies. I wanted R/GA in the pitch. Like I said, they did and do amazing work. I wasn’t harboring any bad feelings and more importantly, you have to set aside personal feelings (when they exist) and make the right business decision. Well, 3 things happened during the pitch that just shows what can happen when you aren’t level with someone…it can always come back to you later on. First, during the first round of the pitch, I got a call from the head of new business, he had with him the head of account management. She wanted to tell me how much she thought of me and was thrilled that while it didn’t work out with me joining R/GA, she’d finally get the chance to work with me as a client. He, wanted to make sure, there weren’t any hard feelings…there weren’t. Second, I relayed the call to my boss and his boss; in doing so I gave them all the context. They were surprised I’d still want to work with them. But, like I said, they did amazing work. Third, R/GA lived up to their reputation and made it to the final presentation. In that meeting, the head of account management explained that R/GA doesn’t have a “B” team, because they only hire the best. At that point, my boss asked…if you only hire the best, how can you explain not hiring Adam, because I happen to think he is one of the best. I was stunned. It’s a hell of a question and not one I was expecting. Initially, they thought he joking, but realized he was serious. I honestly, don’t remember the answer and it had ZERO impact on how we reviewed and rated them. Even today, nearly a decade later, I wish I knew why I wasn’t good enough for R/GA. If you’re reading this R/GA can you let me know why…call me…maybe?
Crispin, Porter + Bogusky
Let me first say, I’ve never had an interview, ever, like my interview at CP+B. You show up. There’s not set agenda. You meet some people for an hour and others for 5 minutes. They want you to meet with as any people as possible. But, here’s the catch…if one of those people, gives you a thumbs down, you fail. It has to be 100% consensus. I learned this all after the fact. On my interview day, I showed up at 8. I sat. I sat some more. And I sat even more. Around 9:30 I met my first interviewer. Between 9:30 am and 6:30 pm I met with no less than 30 people. I met with assistants, receptionists, Jeff Benjamin, the HR team, Winston Binch and more. As I boarded the plane back home, my head was spinning. I had no idea if I’d done well or if I’d bombed. A few days later I received a call from HR. It started out great. She was complimentary of me and my background. But, you just knew…you just knew, a “but” was coming. And, about 5 minutes into the call, it came. She explained their 100% consensus policy and indicated that while the core team I’d be working with and my “boss” thought I’d be a great fit, there was 1 dissenting vote. That one dissenting vote was enough to reject me. I was bummed to say the least. Now here’s the funny part. A few weeks later, after I’d already accepted another role, I received a call from HR. The person who had cast the no vote, had left the company, which paved the way for them to offer me the job. I passed. Good thing I did. Sometimes things happen for a reason, right? A few months later, CP+B lost the account I was going to work on.
You have to learn from your rejections and your failures. As I’ve gotten older any bitterness I had from being rejected by General Mills, RG/A and Crispin subsided. You get more pragmatic and realize that “fit” is really important. You start to evaluate opportunities based on philosophical alignment, culture and fit. You realize that having a company want you as much as you want them is an awesome feeling. I became better from those experiences. I learned from them. And frankly, without them, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.
While not making the cut for the top 3, special mentions for Best Buy, Edelman and Carmichael
Lynch are well deserved.