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Wednesday 26 September 2018

Two career failure stories

This semester, I am teaching a course in career planning in statistics. No such course existed when I was an undergrad, so a lot of the planned course material was learned from experience. I opened the semester with some 'failure stories' of trying to start a career with a BSc in Math. Here are some of my failures:

Failure story 1 – Edward Jones

In the last month of my BSc in Math, I met a representative from Edward Jones at a public barbeque at UBC-Okanagan. Edward Jones is an investment firm that works with individuals and families on things like plans to purchase a house, save for retirement, or education for a child.

I was looking for a job in finance, as that seemed like the most lucrative job for a math major to go into in 2008, a few months before the crisis.  I approached him and asked some questions about the company. I had done some online research first, so my questions were well informed instead of something like ‘so what does your company do’.

He was impressed enough to tell me to call the company for an interview. I called the company and told them I was interested in doing an interview, they did a phone interview with me, and called me back a couple days later to invite me in for an informational interview that Friday.

I didn’t know this at the time, but an informational interview isn’t like a typical job interview. In a standard job interview, you are asked a bunch of questions about your job history, qualifications, and perhaps things about what you would do in certain situations. In an informational interview, you BRING the questions about the job, career path, and company structure, and the interview answers them while asking questions like the above. These interviews can be substantially longer than a standard interview as well. Mine went over an hour.

I knew I was to bring some questions, but didn’t have as much prepared as I should have.

This is how the interview started.

Hi Jack, nice to meet you. Before we get started on your questions, I have one for you. Do you own nice shoes?”

Well, yes.”

Then why did you come in here in sneakers?”

Internal panic goes here. (Source: Key and Peele)

I’d thought of the nice shirt, but I was wearing the same street shoes that I was wearing at the barbeque on campus. Dress codes may be more slack here on the west coast, but that’s not a universal assumption you can rely on, especially when you’re trying to impress someone. 

It’s okay be to be overdressed for an interview – if anyone comments that you are dressed too formally, it won’t be an indication that you have failed the interview. It absolutely not okay to be underdressed.

The rest of the interview went like this:

- He asked me what I knew about Edward Jones, and he told me about what they do (as explained above).

- He explained Edward Jones’s investment strategy, which was very risk adverse. Early 20’s me thought it was a bit silly, but didn’t say so. (Did I mention this was a few months BEFORE the crisis)

- He talked about a private lake he and his buddies shared. I think this was to impart on me the kind of money I could be making.

- He told me about the intake process for new hires. It was an intensive process that involved 6 months of 40-50 hours/week of paid studying for various banking and investment certifications (apparently 2/3 of candidates dropped out in this 6 months). You had to make a 5-year commitment to the company to cover the costs of the paid training. After that, you were given your own office, you worked mostly alone, and were expected to bring in your own clientele. That meant going door-to-door and meeting people and asking them to invest with you.

Technically it was a job, but it was sounding more and more like a franchise. I thought about it over the weekend and said no.

This whole process took a little over a week and involved at least three verbal conversations / interviews either with the Edward Jones company or directly with this representative. I call it a failure, not because it cost me a week and a lot of stress, but because it wasn’t the right fit. For someone planning on staying in Kelowna, who like public relations as well as investing, it could have been a fantastic opportunity.

What are some lessons from my awkward and stressful week?

Cut your losses. Don't get deep into a situation you're not comfortable with, just because you need a job. You hear this with workplace safety and young workers a lot, but it also pertains to making large commitments that you are not prepared to uphold.

Dress nicely. Just do it. Swallow your pride and individual style for just one day and look formal.

Network. This job didn't come from sending out hundreds of resumes or 'pounding the pavement' or from staying on the internet and applying to everything. It came from going out and meeting people and showing what I had to offer.

Failure story 2: Royal Bank of Canada

It’s the summer of 2008, a few months after the Edward Jones story but still just at the beginning of the financial crisis. I’ve been out of school for about three months, and I’m barely making enough money for rent from my part-time tutoring job. There’s not a lot of tutoring work in the summer. I’d just gotten an interview for a job as a bank teller (they had a different name for it which I can’t recall), at the Royal Bank of Canada.

I’m still pursuing a career in finance, and I’ve just finished an online course called the Canadian Securities Course (CSC), which allowed me to sell financial securities such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. The CSC course, or a smaller version of it, is required for anyone working at a bank after their first 3-6 months. I had the time, and I wanted to get ahead of the game.

This interview was a panel interview. There were three people there taking turns to ask me the kinds of questions that people typically ask on interviews. Panel interviews are a little scary because you have to engage multiple people at once; three is a typical panel size. They’re also a good sign – to conduct a panel interview takes at LEAST three times the company time per interviewee, so usually not many people are being interviewed for the position.

Here are some things that worked for me in the interview:
- I had the CSC. It was right there in bold on my resume, but when I talked about it, two people wrote it in pen the resume copies they had in front of them.
- I knew a lot about the Royal Bank of Canada. At least, it sounded like I did. I’d spent about 30 minutes studying the Wikipedia page.

Here’s what didn’t. Not that I knew it at the time, because they reacted positively:
- I was ambitious. I told them my long term goal of bankrolling green architecture.
- I had a whole degree in math. Like a whole degree, who does that?!

I thought I nailed the interview, and celebrated that night; probably with some video games.

A few days later, I get a call that I ‘was not the successful candidate because we [they] think it would be a waste your [my] time.’

Eh wot?

You may have heard of being overqualified for a job. It’s not a myth, you actually can be overqualified, and it sucks.

So, why wouldn’t a company want the most qualified candidate? Don’t they always want the best person for the job.

Well yes, they want the best person for the job, not the best person.

Hiring and training someone into a job is time-consuming and expensive. You have to go through hundreds of resumes, interview 5-15 people, have meetings ranking the people you interviewed, and go through all the paperwork of adding them to the payroll. There’s criminal background checks and fidelity bonds* too. THEN you have to train them, and having someone untrained on your staff is worse than having nobody at all because they are asking lots of questions and doing things slow-as-hell for a couple days (weeks in my case). To hire one person, even for something barely above entry level like a bank teller, can easily cost $10,000.

Now imagine that person you just hired quits in 3 months** because they found a better job.

That’s the risk a company takes, and it's a larger risk when they hire someone overqualified. The main lesson here is when looking for your first job at a company, try to show interest in the job you are applying for, more than the company itself.

The big lesson from my blown interview is to remember that you are applying to a POSITION, not a COMPANY. I went into this interview thinking of it as a way to get into the Royal Bank of Canada organisation, in which I would quickly climb to the top. I didn't show much interest in the position that needed to be filled right at that moment. I might have been a good asset to the company, but a company, especially a large one, is not a hive mind; each part and branch has its own needs to fill, and it needs to fill them in the short term.

* A fidelity bond is a piece of insurance a company can take out on an employee that covers their losses if they find out that employee has been stealing or doing other illegal activity at the workplace. If you haven’t been fired for theft, and if you do not have a criminal record, you are most likely bondable, so answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘are you bondable?’ in an application.

** On that note, it’s okay to have a number of short work periods on your resume, especially if you’re in your 20’s. The idea of someone switching jobs every 1-2 years being ‘a job-hopper’ is very outdated. If you’re not at least considering a new job every 2 years, you’re losing out on substantial salary increases. Why? Because it requires much smaller raise to retain someone than it does to entice them to a new company.

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