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Executive Job Interview

Cambridge, Ontario, is a Canadian city made up from four smaller communities, which have been connected by ribbon development and urban sprawl. Among the many industries in the area, one of the largest employers is an engineering plant, the branch of a major conglomerate with executives crawling out of its cauliflower ears.

After six month of searching, of competing with heaven knows how many other applicants, I had reached the end of the line. To satisfy the corporation's quest for a new marketing manager, I had survived four visits, eleven interviews and had travelled as far as Chicago, Cleveland and New York. Now, finally, two of us remained to compete in the twelfth and last round. The stakes were high. This was serious conservative stuff and bears no comparison with the Donald Trump circus.

My competitor's identity was unknown. I had no way of telling who he or she might be. It was a blind game of poker in which I knew my own cards alone. On the other hand, the stakes were high: a six-figure salary, performance bonus, first-class international travel (and on par rating with the lowliest politician) and unlimited prospects.

The V-P Personnel ushered me into the presence of the apostle from corporate head office and retired from the room. Being ancient in a starter, but not executive, sense, I'd read all the standard works from Burnham's Managerial Revolution to Wilkins' Emergence of the Multi-national Enterprise and beyond. I'd quickly repeated to myself Whyte's catechism as laid out in The Organization Man as I accepted the invitation to be seated:

I love my mother and father, but my father a little bit more;
I like things pretty much the way they are;
I don't care much for books and music;
I love my family; and
I don't allow them to get in the way of my work.

"I'm the corporate psychologist," said the visitor from New York by way of introducing himself. "You know the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist of course!"

Whether this was a statement or a question was hard to tell. The temptation to answer "About $200 an hour" was great, but I diplomatically held my tongue.

"Good! Then let's begin."

First came a written IQ test; fifteen minutes allowed for 150 questions. I made it to ninety, perhaps a hundred, I'm not sure. Then came the personality profile test in thirty sets, four questions per set. One had the choice of answering two questions in each set: one to check 'This' (M) meaning 'more like me than any other; a second check mark to indicate 'This' (L) meaning 'least like me'.

I studiously avoided the obvious statements on introversion and repeated my catechism when in doubt or if an answer was unavoidable. Two additional papers followed the personal profile paper, but both were personality-oriented. One, a Xeroxed sheet of YES/NO/NOT SURE questions was patently the creation of the 'corporate psychologist'. In all, the written 'examination' was a two-hour session.

"Very good!" he said when the session ended. "Why don't we relax and have a little chat." All this chummy stuff was enough to make you gag.

No matter. We did as he suggested and our little chat lasted for another hour.

That poverty stricken statement which headed every test paper on psychology kept running through my head: "There are no right or wrong answers. Please answer as you think best."

I love my mother and my father... I like things the way they are... I didn't care for books and music... I love my family, but don't let them interfere with my work.

"Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your earliest recollection, for example." This man was no psychologist. He had to be the reincarnation of Dr. Freud, surely?

"Going to school at the age of four." (Good! An eager mixer.)

"What do you do outside your work?"

"Gardening, social gatherings, taking the children out." (For God's sake don't mention books and pray he never sees the state of the back garden.)

"How did you get on with your father?"

"Wonderful man – intelligent, a marvelously hard and industrious worker." (Don't mention that he was a plate layer on the railway, a beer drinker of astonishing capacity, or an ex-vaudeville comedian."

"And your wife...?"

"An Oxford degree, a Master's." (That should go down well, but don't mention that she prefers I apply for that janitor's job at the local high school or become a crossing guard with a lollipop STOP sign.)

So it goes on... and on... and on.

I love my books and music; I hate my mother and father for sending me to boarding school; and I'll cream the children if they interrupt my writing this evening.

I gave my wife a glowing reference: active in local good works, sociable, homemaker, mother, an anti-feminist par excellence. Boy, of boy! She'd kill me if she only knew.

"You write, I see."

"Strictly technical stuff. After all, the artists and aesthetes can't have it all their own way, can they? The business community must communicate with clarity and precision." (Is there a slim possibility he has glimpsed beneath the surface?)

The questions become personal. What is the value of your house? Size of mortgage? Liquid assets? Type of car? Personal insurance? Strengths, weaknesses, your greatest achievements, your biggest disappointments? Do you drink? Smoke? Health? Wealth? Politics? It's all grist for the mill.

I love my mother and my father...

Then the crunch question. "Why do you think you're qualified to work with the ...XYZ Corporation?"

"Because I have a wife and four starving kids" just won't do. It has to be more compelling, more heart-rending. Is this eminent doctor of psychology not the high priest and guardian of the hearts and souls of all men and women in grey suits?

"Because... because," I said (I love my mother and my father...)."I am intelligent, eminently qualified and above all ambitious to join a winning team. It's teamwork that makes the wheels of commerce and industry go round."

"Ah! That's what we want." He clenched his fist and gave an encouraging punch in the air. "You've got to step up to the plate and strike!" (Yep! You've gotta see the whole ball of wax, put a handle on everything, let nothing fall between the cracks, prioritize you priorities and initiate your initiatives.)

The organization man born with White is alive and well.

We said goodbye. He said they would be in touch. I stepped into the polluted air and drove away reciting my catechism:

I love my mother and father, but my father a little bit more;
I like things pretty much as they are;
I don't care much for books and music...

The Canadian Manager 1979

(Article updated for this publication)


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