Tell Me About a Train Wreck

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What are the questions – asked and unasked – you’ll encounter in an interview for a corporate communications job? Here are mine.

Can you write? This really means, “can you think?” As acclaimed historian David McCullough said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That is why it’s so hard.”

Good writing is the price of admission to corporate comms. That’s why I’m often surprised by the number of people in the field who aren’t strong writers.

How do you become a good writer? Read voraciously. Write frequently. Edit liberally.

Are you smart? While you don’t have to be Mensa material, you need to have common sense. You need to possess a pragmatic, practical intelligence to navigate our VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – world.

How do you solve problems? This is where I ask people to tell me about a train wreck. A project gone wrong. A major mess-up.

I want to see what early-warning indicators they observe. How they take accountability. How they turn things around. And how they analyze and fix the root cause so it won’t happen again.

Essentially, can they figure it out?

Do you have grit? Psychologist Angela Duckworth says grit is the key to success.

What is grit? It’s “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals . . . having stamina . . . and living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

It’s never giving up. And according to Duckworth, it’s more important than talent or IQ.

This is why I’m looking for candidates with passion and dedication. People with a relentless commitment to making something happen, whatever it takes.

Will you thrive in this culture? Every company has a distinct culture, or the way work gets done. Is it formal or informal? More structured or less structured? Conservative or innovative?

I ask candidates to tell me about the environment they most enjoy working in. Then I’ll ask why and for a few examples. As they speak, I picture how they might interact at a meeting or with various leaders at the company.

Are you savvy? This isn’t a question I’ll ask directly, but I’ll listen for signs that someone knows how to navigate an organization. That they know how to articulate their point of view appropriately, at the same time that they’ll listen to and consider their colleagues’ points of view. That they know how to resolve conflicts with professionalism and poise.

Will you add a diverse perspective and skill set to our team? The more diverse the team, the more effective it will be. Research bears this out.

I’m looking for people with a different take, a fresh perspective or a novel twist on doing things. This is part of always striving to improve and get better.

How flexible and agile are you? Can you quickly see when change is needed? And if so, can you pivot? Do you remain calm and unruffled when the best-laid plans need to be scrapped or redirected?

Are you social? A communicator has to be active in at least a few social media platforms. This is no longer optional. It’s a requirement.

When I’m preparing to interview a candidate, I start with a Google search and the person’s LinkedIn profile. Then I see what they’re tweeting. And how they’re communicating visually with pictures, videos, infographics and more.

Great story: A candidate flying in for an interview with my team tweeted about the great DIRECTV service on his flight, complete with a screenshot. We hired him.

Bad story: A candidate who tweeted “nailed it” after an interview. A fellow USC Annenberg alum shared this on a career panel we were on last year. That tweet ended the person’s candidacy.

What kind of a leader are you? In one word, how would your team describe your leadership style?

Here I’m inspired by my DIRECTV colleague Jen Jaffe who leads talent development. We were recently on a leadership panel at our company’s Young Professionals Network. She asked her team for input on her leadership style, so I did the same.

It’s an instant 360 feedback activity. Try it with your colleagues sometime.

How much upside career potential do you have? As candidates tell me about themselves, I’m listening through the filter of our leadership competencies.

Are they a strategic thinker? Someone who can innovate? Lead change? Deliver results? Build talent and teamwork? Establish productive relationships? Act with integrity? And build a deep understanding of corporate communications, our business and our industry?

What are you looking for in your next career gig? Life is too short to work in a job where you aren’t learning, contributing and making progress toward your most important goals.

That’s why I’m eager to learn what the candidate wants to get out of the job. It has to be a great fit for the company and the candidate as we work together to transform TV and entertain the future.

And lastly, one of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, offers a great course on reaching your goals by blogging. She advises people in each post to “write and write until something surprises you.”

My aha moment was seeing the relationship between heading off a train wreck and acting with grit. The Little Engine That Could did exactly that.

And it’s what each of us needs to do every day. Because we’re all capable of far more than we think we are.


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Caroline Leach

Hi, I'm Caroline Leach. I help people and organizations tell their stories. I'm a Marketing VP at AT&T, a former Communications VP at DIRECTV and an alum of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This blog, How to Build Your Career through Social Media, shows you how to build your personal brand, advance your career and embrace your future. It helps you promote your employer and your network too. Opinions expressed in this blog are my own. Your comments are welcomed and encouraged. I'd love to hear from you!

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