The Key Interview Question: Tell Me Your Origin Story

By John Yoest Published on September 25, 2018

Business students packed a large hall to the Fire Marshal maximum. “I failed more than anyone in this room,” the speaker said.

Marketing guru Seth Godin can be described in many ways, but “failure” does not come to mind. Godin, author of 18 books, the man who developed ‘permission marketing,’ spoke at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, DC.

He began with the tale of the connection between Godin and the Dean of the Busch School of Business, Bill Bowman. Some thirty years ago Bowman founded a start-up software company, and was working late one night when the phone rang. He picked up. An astonished young, job-hunting Godin found himself talking directly to the company founder. Bowman hired him.

Godin questioned everything. He helped launch companies and careers. This year he was inducted into the American Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame.

Origin story

Facing a packed hall of ambitious millennials, business students anxious to follow his path to fame and fortune, Godin began by asking them where Superman came from. Silence. (What does this have to do with business?) Answer: the planet Krypton.

How about Wonder Woman? (Where is he going with this?)

When your origin story aligns with your current passion, clients and employers are quicker to hire.

We each must know our “Origin Story,” explained Godin. We must know the “why” we are driven to do what we do — or want to do.

Why do you care? Why? Godin whimsically said that our own origin story may — or may not — be true. But it is what we remember, and this is real enough.

Steve Jobs used a variation of the Godin origin story in his hiring process at Apple. I wish I had understood this “story telling” when I was a young hiring manager.

My typical interview

I was looking for talent. I wanted someone with smarts to save me from myself. Yes, I have an eternal Savior who has taken on my sins. But I was also in search of another kind of savior, to protect me from my own non-best decisions.

This requirement is vital for every manager, but is never listed on the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities checklist. Advancing the organization goals would be a plus.

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So my typical interview would continue as they all do. The candidate tells me what school he attended, his GPA, activities, what-this, what-that.

What-ever.

If we didn’t run out of time, then maybe I’d get some of the “how.” How he came to Big University, how he’d earned that GPA, how he’d come to join Big Fraternity and how he’d performed his duties. Howdy doody.

Anyway, my interviewing was all too nice and conventional. But I needed to learn more if I was going to select the right candidate for the right position. And I was getting bored. So, I asked the job applicant to tell me about a problem he overcame.

But I didn’t give enough direction to my would-be job candidate storyteller. What I really wanted to know was the why he did what he did — his origin story, as Godin would say today.

Make a difference

Godin directed the standing-room only University crowd to forget about grades — gasp! — and work to make a difference. This got a laugh and got us focused on a bigger picture story: the why.

I should have started my job interviewing the same way the late Jobs, founder of Apple, did. “Why do you want to work here?” Jobs would ask, “Why?”

After Jobs understood the individual’s motivation, then he got to the “how” and finally to the “what.”

Godin and Jobs assuredly made better hires than Your Management Professor.

When your origin story aligns with your current passion, clients and employers are quicker to hire. Godin reminds us that, “Consumers are too good at sniffing out inconsistencies.”

Getting picked

Godin told his young audience how to stand out. Jack Welch called this “getting out of the pile.” With his best-selling book Purple Cow, Godin wrote of being outstanding in your field where a person, product or service is so unique and unusual that clients come calling. A brown cow is ordinary. Do not be ordinary, says Godin, “be indispensable.” Be a purple cow. This gets noticed. And it starts with knowing your own “why.”

One wonders if Ted Kennedy would have become President had he known his own origin story.

In 1979, CBS reporter Roger Mudd interviewed the multimillionaire Kennedy, senator from Massachusetts. Mudd asked a simple question, “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy could not answer. Roger Mudd later described Kennedy’s response as “incoherent and repetitive” and “vague, unprepared.” His response can still be watched on YouTube as the singular moment of when his campaign crashed before take-off.

The youngest Kennedy could not answer the “why” he wanted the job. What risk did he want to take? What pain did he overcome? Did he really want to make a change; to make a difference?

Godin told us to break some eggs and scramble.

He closed his remarks, “Now — go make a ruckus.”

 

Jack Yoest is Assistant Professor of Leadership and Management at The Catholic University of America in The Busch School of Business, in Washington, DC. He is the author of the book The Memo: How the Classified Military Document That Helped the U.S. Win WWII Can Help You Succeed in Business.

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