Since folks seemed to enjoy my post on how a demanding young lieutenant got himself inadvertently sent to Korea, I’ll pander to the masses today and tell another career implosion story but on a grander scale.
I was a young lieutenant attending my basic course with 79 other officers. The course is the place they send lieutenants for about 3 months and teach us how not to hurt or embarrass ourselves or hurt our soldiers because lieutenants are notoriously accident and stupidity prone. My buddy and I had a good time while we were there. A really really good time. Most evenings were spent discussing the merits of our poker hand or asking some other guy to grab us another one from the fridge.
I also had an alter-ego in the course. We’ll call him “Goofus” (like Goofus & Gallant in Highlights Magazine). Most of Goofus’ evenings were spent cracking a field or technical manual so he could understand the intricacies of the vee formation and its advantages on open terrain. He and I didn’t exactly get along but the reason was a little well… weird shall we say.You see, it wasn’t enough for Goofus to be successful. He also wanted others he deemed “less deserving” to fail. He would ace every exam which made him feel great. Then he’d see me get a great grade on the same exam and he’d lose his mind. Sure, I studied and paid attention in class. I also “talked tanks” with my buddies when we’d play cards or hang out. I guess I enjoyed the content so much that I absorbed it pretty easily. But I also made sure I had a balanced life and the field manuals didn’t dominate my time off that I spent with my wife and our friends.
Fast forward to graduation day. Goofus ended up being the valedictorian of our class and it was very well deserved. He sat in the graduation rehearsal hall beaming when he got that news (we learned class ranks the day before graduating). The next announcement, however, rocked his world. I was graduating second in the class. He was not reserved in expressing his displeasure with my class rank. He made a point of telling others I didn’t deserve to graduate right behind him because I didn’t study nearly as hard as he did. And he wasn’t quiet about it. And he made the point to about 78 other officers and even some of their wives who had stopped by the rehearsal. Yep. Jerk. I know.
Fast forward (again) eight years. I was at McKinsey & Company at the time. We were reviewing a stack of resumes and my colleague (who was from another country) came across a military resume. He handed it to me because he wasn’t familiar with careers in the US Army.
You guessed it. It was Goofus’ resume. I reviewed it pretty quickly. The guy had had a great military career and was graduating from a premier business school. On paper, he looked great.
I handed the resume back to my colleague. “Blackball” I said. At our office, there were four levels of recruiting evaluation for candidates. You were a champion, a supporter, unsupportive, or blackball. To move to the next round of interviews, a candidate needed one champion and a majority of supporters with no blackballs. Any consultant could blackball a candidate and their candidacy was done regardless of other votes. Usually the blackball was only seen during egregious interview performance.
We also had a recruiting rule called “stuck in an airport.” Since we traveled so often and spent long hours in a team room, we’d evaluate a candidate by asking ourselves “if I were stuck in an airport with this person for 10 hours, would I want to kill them?” If the answer was yes, they rarely made it to the next round of interviews. This was shorthand for “would I enjoy spending protracted amounts of time with this person?”
My colleague asked me why I was blackballing Goofus based solely on his resume (which was extremely rare because it usually took poor in-person interview behavior like answering a cell phone mid-interview to get blackballed). I related the story of what happened at the graduation rehearsal. My colleague agreed that Goofus didn’t pass the airport test and the resume went in the reject pile.
The interesting thing is, Goofus probably never knew or could comprehend why he didn’t even get a shot to interview (because on paper he was a great candidate). I’m sure he was befuddled by the whole thing.
The lesson here is not to nuke your bridges. Believe it or not you run in a very small career circle that only gets smaller over time as you specialize in your industry or function. People get to know people and paths cross then recross. In an increasingly connected world (LinkedIn, twitter, Google background searches, etc.) the likelihood of crossing paths again with old colleagues and Goofus-like behavior coming back to bite you are exponentially higher than when Goofus and I were young lieutenants.
If you act like Goofus, it might not have immediate career implications. It might be years before that Goofus seed you plant blossoms into a full-fledged career opportunity implosion. I’m simply encouraging you to be aware of how connected your career circle really is and save you the pain of a Goofus-moment coming back to hurt you in the future. I’m sure I’ve had my own Goofus moments sabotage opportunities for me and I have no idea what they were. I hope you’re aware enough to prevent it happening to you.
Have you experienced any Goofus moments? Have you seen folks have mistakes come back and sabotage them later? Let’s hear your stories.