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Friday, March 8, 2013

Job Rejections and What I Learnt from Them

I love my job. I love the knowledge I’ve gained from being a business journalist. My days involve reading, speaking to and writing about the sharpest minds in the world and I'd like to think a little bit has rubbed off on me. When I tell people “I’m a writer for Forbes Magazine” they look at me with an expression of respect. My job is the most validating thing that’s happened to me. I didn’t do as well as I wanted to in school. I didn’t get into a “big name” university. I didn’t get a 1st class honours when I graduated. I don’t know whether it’s the Indian in me, but I always felt that I hadn’t done justice to the talents I was born with. Between October 2011 and September 2012, from the time I started looking for jobs to the time I landed this dream position, I heard a lot of ‘no’s’ from various employers and it was a pretty soul sapping period. 

When I look back now though, I realized that each job I got rejected from taught me something and changed me. I think it’s presumptuous to say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” because I may well have done any of those roles very well. What I can say is that each HR person I spoke to, each test I took and each “After carefully reviewing your application, we regret to inform you…” letter I received, has directly or indirectly put my name in this magazine and put my articles under the noses of some of India’s most successful businesspeople.

RBS: I am not a Banker

I remember when I wanted to be a shark – when I wanted to ‘work for the Goldman Sax’ as that hilarious Youtube video about wannabe investment bankers says. 

I passed one of those SHL tests and got called for an assessment day by the Royal Bank of Scotland in London. I went out and bought a shiny new suit. I spent the week reading and watching everything I could about the financial sector (not noticing that the fact I was doing this in the first place should have rung alarm bells). On the eve of my interview, my adopted mum from the Serbian family I was staying with told me with a look of bemusement that I looked like “a proper city-boy”. It was my 2nd investment banking interview, the first was with Morgan Stanley for an industrial placement that I well and truly fluffed.

I thought I was ready this time. I landed up at the shiny glass building late. I took my seat among the last group of candidates and nervously looked at the baby sharks: there was a Bulgarian girl, a Chinese guy, a German girl and an Irish guy, all sizing up each others’ shiny suits. We went into a room and the five of us were put through mental reasoning tests. I fumbled and trudged my way through the exercises my peers were racing through. There was an exercise where we had to put 24 different callers in touch with each-other across the correct 12 different time-zones in 2 minutes using playing cards. I knew the gig was up. I was not like these people. After the tests, all 60 candidates stood in the lobby and I started a conversation with some of them about the questions. I was making jokes about how fresh hires would have to spend the first year patching calls through and making coffee and I had an audience! A group of people listened to me in a semi-circle before the results came. A lady began announcing the names.

“Julie Adkins, Jamie Bains, Anushka Chatterjee…” she read. My surname had been missed. I hoped they were announcing them in random order but in my heart I knew I’d missed the cut. She finished reading and asked the sharks to step into another room for personal interviews while the rest of us were thanked for coming and asked to hand in our travel receipts for reimbursement. 

I realized this whole song and dance was something I had to go through to get the lure of being a shark out of my system. All the tests, all the suits, all the prep and all those names that weren’t mine had finally showed me that I was not cut out to work in finance. Maybe what they do isn’t meant for me? That day I was sure. It felt awful. It felt like failure. But now, when I talk to my friends who work in the City of London, I am somewhat relieved I hadn’t gotten that job. I’m not sure I would have lasted a day in the world. It gave me closure. I told the directors at Forbes the same story at my interview and I can’t help but feel it endeared me a little to that room of journalists. They weren’t sharks either.

Beiersdorf: Playing with the Grown-Ups

I wanted this job bad. Very bad. I thought I had all the bases covered. I had done an internship with them in Birmingham. I had the mentoring and recommendation of a senior manager within the company. I met all the requirements. My language skills were a perfect fit. I was best friends with a guy who had been selected through exactly the same scheme and had access to all his inside knowledge. The pot of gold was a 24-month traineeship based in Hamburg, on a great salary, for one of the biggest companies in Germany. I had gotten through the initial selection, the online tests and the 2nd round questions. All that was left was the phone interview – which I’d been told was simple – and then the assessment centre for which I’d be flown to Hamburg.

My friend told me exactly the questions that would be asked. I spent a week preparing meticulously. The truth is, I took the telephone interview too lightly. I did not account for the interviewer being a very, very, direct, German lady. I answered her questions too elaborately, using the best English I could muster. I didn’t understand whether she expected a longer or shorter answer because sometimes she would cut me off and sometimes she would pause and say “is that all?” after I’d given my response. But I was still doing OK. The spanner in the works was a question about strategy. She asked me how Beiersdorf had changed its global strategy and I did not have an answer. In all my preparation, in all my endeavor to sell myself the best I could, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the company and it killed me. She said, damningly, “this is something you should know”. And when she told me the answer, I realized I did know it. The head of the UK division had announced it during my internship but I wasn’t paying enough attention.

I went to London for the weekend because I knew I’d blown it. A few days later she called me again and gave me the inevitable bad news. She told me that I was competing against 20 others for 10 places in the assessment centre and all of them had Masters Degrees and 5 years on me. It taught me how much attention I need to pay to the company I’m applying to. Looking back now, it was a school boy error but every application I’ve earnestly filled in since then was backed by painstaking research. My interview with Forbes was no different. I read the magazine, I read up about the magazine, I read about the people who worked there and where they worked before, I made tables to group the kinds of articles it featured and the angles those articles took. It threw up many insights I’d have otherwise ignored. If I was going to get rejected again, it would not be due to lack of homework.

Demand Analytics: Bringing Ideas to the Table

After realizing that with the new visa regulations in the UK and EU, my lowly Bachelor’s Degree and I would stand next to no chance of being sponsored, I shifted my focus to the Far East. I looked for a way back to Hong Kong, the greatest city in the world. I chanced upon an opening in a company that crunched “big data” to give retail businesses consumer insights. I am no slouch on Excel and the company was a young start-up run by interesting people who stated explicitly that they would sponsor a work permit. I wrote a good cover letter, maybe one of the most buoyant, passionate I’ve ever written and it got me a Skype interview.

The head of the company was a lovely young Dutch guy called Mart and we had a new-age interview: he turned on his webcam, made himself a coffee and plonked himself down on his beanbag. For once during a job interview, was completely myself. I felt at ease speaking honestly and openly because he felt like one of the many friends I’d made at university. It was a fun, enjoyable chat and when we said our goodbyes and closed our Skype windows, I honestly thought I’d nailed it. I sang like a bird at lunch and told my parents everything that had happened. In my stupor I began imagining living in Hong Kong again. I imagined playing cricket at HKCC, walking down Lang Kwai Fong on a Saturday night and just sitting on the Star Ferry on a Tuesday evening, watching that skyline do its thing.

A couple days later, I got an email from Mart thanking me for taking time out to talk to him but politely rejecting my application. I was crushed. The pain was amplified because I thought this was the perfect fit: a young company, a great city and an enthusiastic Shravan. I asked Mart for some feedback and to his immense, immeasurable credit he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten – advice I’m still grateful for today. He said I was exactly the profile of person they needed and that I met the requirements but I did not do or say anything to set myself apart. I didn’t offer any ideas of my own about how I wanted to take the company forward. I didn’t seem as if I was 10000% confident that I would be a director at this company in a few years, leading it in a direction I was already beginning to plan for. I was far too focused on ticking off the bullet points on the job description and not invested enough in what I’d actually be doing there.

When I came to interview at Forbes, I came full of ideas. I came convinced that not only was I going to get the job, but that I was going to contribute actively in the way the magazine ran. I think I spoke with passion about what I liked and didn’t like at other publications and what best practices we could implement. I talked about my Excel skills and lo and behold, I’ve put them to good use so far.

I don’t know if I’m a good journalist, but I know that I’ve worked as hard as I possibly could to get here and stay here. After second guessing myself for the better part of a year, I’m going to allow myself to feel proud of my job now. 

(If you’re reading this as you’re a graduate, looking for a job in times when they aren’t really looking for you then I wish you all the best. I know what it feels like. I remember the warm, tingly feeling you get as you hit send on that email, having quadruple checked all your attachments and spell-checked each paragraph. I always spent the five minutes after sending off an application I’d spent days working on, naively imagining what life would be like if I landed the position. The optimist in me always saw myself a year or two down the line, looking back on that day when I sent off that email. I look back now in the same way. I didn’t get any those jobs and maybe I would have loved them. Maybe they would have been even better for me. But I’m sitting here at work at 8:21pm on a Friday night and I have absolutely no qualms. I hope that when you get the break I did, you remember the reasons why you received those rejection emails and not the disappointing emails themselves. Someone will realize they need you.)  

1 comment:

Vijay Bhat said...

Wonderful post, Shravan! I'd advise you to a) summarise your three learnings at the end; they're so important for anyone else facing the same thrill of anticipation and anxiety of failure as you did ... and b) include your experience/ conversations with Enventure and why YOU turned it down. That'll add a twist to the tale and offer a very important learning too! Love, Dad