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Olympic Games and job interviews. More similarities than you think.

Olympic Games

These guys have it easy with their Silver and their Bronze.  There is no 2nd or 3rd place in a job interview. Preparation is key.

Interviews need as much preparation as Olympic games

I knew that a good friend Larry McKeogh had some pertinent thoughts on the job interviews were just as tough as an Olympic games and asked him to share his thoughts here.  Larry is currently a Product Manager based out of Denver.  Thank you, Larry. Like many frequent readers, I watched the Olympics games this past summer. In particular, I found the men’s road cycling event to be a great analogy for the interviewing process. The reason being that I’ve always been told it is not the strongest that wins; it is the one who executes the best. This resulted in guest post request and the opportunity to follow my own advice.

Quick recap

The road race was 154 miles through London and the surrounding countryside. The main pack let a group of 8 go early. This group swelled through the race with another 7 – 9 bridging the gap. This is customary during such races. The main pack usually gobbles them up 1 – 4 KM shy of the finish. It is a cruel form of torture. So close, but not today. The difference in the Olympics was that the rules were different from a normal race. Instead of 9 teammates, there were only 5. This made controlling the race by any one team tough. The breakaway stuck because no team was able to control the pack. Great Britain worked valiantly throughout the race to try to close down the gap. Ultimately they became too exhausted to lead about 10 miles from the finish.

No other team was motivated to move too early. This race, ridden without the aid of the customary race radios meant that by the time they others decided to move it was too late. This is just an example of realizing how the rules of engagement change. You as an interviewee have to recognize and capitalize on those differences with each outing. Enough about the main pack, the real action happened in the small group. It goes without saying; each individual is a world-class athlete. Nobody is going to let another get too far away. They were all playing cat and mouse waiting to see who was going to leap. The small group would then pounce on that individual and not let them go. It looked like it was going to be a group sprint until the final right-hand turn.

The leader, Fabian Cancellara, who is a world-class time trialist took his eye off the turn. He went into it too high and fast and crashed. He ended up either taking another rider or two down with him or at least slowing them up enough to be a non-factor. Those not impeded capitalized on this moment and split the group in half. Now there were six with a five-second gap. The remainder wasn’t going to let that leash get any longer though. As the distance clicked down one would attack the others would parry. And then the mistake happened. Rigoberto Uran from Columbia inexplicably looked over his left shoulder at the barriers. The other six riders were drafting behind and to the right. Taking his eye off the situation for the split second enabled Alexandre Vinokourov (Vino) from Kazakhstan to put 3 bike lengths between him and Uran. The others in the group hesitated. Uran, however, bolted after Vino. Sound familiar to the main pack’s hesitation? Did I mention that the unwritten rules in this race are different because it is a single day, winner takes all event. By this point, Uran has 2 bike lengths against the remaining six riders, and Vino has 4. Ordinarily, there was still enough distance left to reel these two in, but the remaining riders played it safe. No one was going to be bold enough to drag the others up without a clear chance to get away themselves.

Ultimately a 38-year-old Vino, who was using this as his last hurrah, was able to retire at the end of this race with a gold medal around his neck. Uran took second. Of the others, they fought over a bronze medal. The hitch here was a 22-year-old former track cycling world champion from the US named Taylor Phinney. He came in fourth. Age and treachery defeated strength and beauty on this day. Taylor had a chance to win it all. Instead, it was a learning experience. Quite possibly an expensive learning experience in terms of endorsements and sponsors.

The takeaways

  • Recognize the rules, both written and unwritten and exercise the latitude given. In this instance, the lack of race radios, only 5 teammates, and a single day event should have resulted in significant tactics changes. In an interview scenario, do you have domain knowledge? Are you interviewing at a Fortune 500 vs. startup, are you local vs. out-of-town, heck, are you older vs. younger. How is each going to affect your strategy?
  • Always be watching as situations develop or how you can create an opening (e.g. networking). If you lose focus that is when you’ll find yourself playing catch up as Uran and Phinney did. What is the company doing currently, what is their market doing overall, what other positions and skill sets are they looking for and how can you increase your alignment to improve your chances?
  • Just because you’re the most qualified it doesn’t mean you’ll cross the line first. Vino by most accounts at 38 was a broken down old workhorse. He didn’t have the strength to match the others if it came to a bunch sprint at the end. How can you create some distance between you and the competition? It may not be today but down the road. It is not sitting in front of the TV or being a homebody.
  • Victory doesn’t favor the timid. Sometimes you need to be bold and not care what the competition or others around you are doing or going to do. If you find yourself not being challenged or going through the motions because it is safe, comfortable, known – that is when your competition is bypassing you. Just like Uran looking over his left shoulder, the competition has put 2 bike lengths into you and you didn’t even know it.

It’s not easy. It takes dedication just like the athletes. Often longer than you thought.

Submitted by Larry McKeogh a product manager and infrequent writer struggling to do better. Catch me on twitter @lmckeogh where I like to excel at the shorter form.


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