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Career Self-Destruction: Don’t Be a Job Goofus

February 9, 2009 11 Comments

Goofus from Goofus & GallantSince 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.

- Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

11 Responses to “Career Self-Destruction: Don’t Be a Job Goofus”

  1. Rory Wohl says:

    A friend of mine was interviewing for a manager position in IT at a “major office products” company he pulled what is now known as “The Coleman Maneuver.”

    After some pretty lengthy interviews with a number of people, my friend looked like he had the job locked up. He asked, “Well, who exactly would be on my team.” The interviewer mentioned a couple of names, at which point my friend closed his portfolio, stood up, said to the interviewer “we’re done here,” and walked out never to be heard from again.

    You see, my friend had encountered the two people in our “very small career circle” and knew that they failed the airport test, badly.

  2. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Rory – great story (as always). Wow. I bet the interviewer had no idea what hit him/her. I also hope the individual didn’t disclose the reason the interview was over because that too could have been a Goofus moment. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Guy Martin says:

    Hey Mike,

    Nice post – love the humor in your stuff. I would point out that even companies can have ‘Goofus’ moments.

    I won’t mention the specific company, but let’s just say you probably encounter them every day whilst ‘searching’ on the net. :) I interviewed with said company about two years ago.

    They were at the height of their influence then, and their ‘process’ for interviewing candidates was (and still is) extremely biased towards preventing ‘false positives’. Needless to say, I found the questions that were asked, and the manner in which they were delivered highly insulting.

    At the end of the process (I only got to two phone screens, not even ‘meriting’ an onsite), I was pretty much ready to not accept any offer, had one been forthcoming.

    I also politely declined future overtures from recruiters for said company, and even explained (in a PC way) why I was declining. The ‘Goofus’ behavior didn’t stop there, however, as the recruiter was semi-insulting in their reply to me.

    Bottom line, said company is now also seeing some struggle in this economy, and I’m in a much happier position anyway. I know that this ‘Goofus’ behavior was driven by individuals, but it is amazing how that can become ingrained into a corporation’s DNA so quickly.

  4. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Guy – glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for sharing your horrible story (to clarify – your story is great; the events you recount are horrible). Yeah, hubris as an organization eventually leads to inbreeding and then a cancerous environment. I’m glad to hear you figured this out before you got further in the process. Sometimes it’s a good thing to get turned down during an interview process…

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mike,

    I am a frequent reader, but I am going to stay anonymous this time.

    I was the goofus a few years ago. Imagine sitting in a group job interview and realizing that everyone around the table probably knew of the worst (and I do mean worst) thing you’d ever been involved in in your life.

    I won’t go into details, but the situation was awful; the fact I had a side of the story wasn’t relevant, because I could not get into it or even acknowledge the issue. But I realized at that moment that I was wasting my time in that interview, and that a certain person would never allow me to get that job. So, I squared my shoulders, did my very best and went down with the ship.

    I wish this thing hadn’t happened to any of the people involved, but my motives at the time were true and I tried to do the right thing. So, one of the lessons I took from this interview is that in spite of your best intentions, sometimes these situations find you. You don’t have to actually act like a goofus to end up being one.

  6. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Anonymous – thanks for sharing and I understand the anonymity. Props to you for dealing with a tough situation. Sorry you had to go through that. I think everyone can take away a lesson from you though in that no matter the circumstance, conduct yourself professionally and no one (not even you ) can find fault in the interview performance.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Really great post. Wish we had a system of checks and balances for both companies and individuals to make sure they don’t become Goofus’. These days it’s hard to tell who is “in your corner” because of social media and also because of friendships redefined.

  8. orangeacorn says:

    Mike-

    We all enjoy hearing “come-up-ance” stories. But allow me some devil’s advocacy here. Over the years, is it at all possible Goofus might have experienced an “a-HA” moment and let more balance into his life? Perhaps he evolved, joined the team. Or do you believe his to be a personality trait that almost never changes?

  9. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @orangeacorn – great point and I love when folks play Devil’s advocate. It is entirely possible he had that moment of clarity at some point. I guess my assessment was based on several months of watching his behavior and believing it was an inherent aspect of his personality. That being said, people do grow and change. Your comment has me feeling a little sheepish right now. Perhaps I was wrong and petty. Perhaps I did lose out on a great prospective team member by passing on his candidacy. I was probably in the wrong for not giving him that opportunity to prove he had grown and changed. Lord knows I’ve been given plenty of second chances when I probably didn’t entirely deserve them. Thanks for pointing it out. I guess there are really two lessons in this post: first, try not to be a career Goofus and second, be the bigger person when you come across Goofus again and give them a second chance. Great perspective.

  10. Joe C. says:

    Yea, been there in that Goofus role very early in my career. Fortunately, I was given a second chance and found great success. Still, I come across a peer who would still hold that over me 25 years later, although they certainly have there own issues. The experience has taught me to be more understanding when others misbehave and to point it out to them. I’d probably apply the same airport test with the same result if I was reviewing this candidate given the same history, but perhaps would have talked to them first.

  11. Stanley says:

    Mike, although orangeacorn’s point is valid, I respectfully disagree with it. I do not fault you whatsoever for “round filing” (ha ha) Goofus’ resume. He had this medicine coming and you made the right call.

    The behavior that Goofus displayed for all to see on your graduation day does not fall into your garden-variety “you had a bad day.” No, that behavior belies very, very egregious character flaws: a compulsion to initiate palace politics due to an irrational belief that EVERYTHING is a zero-sum game; if anyone else succeeds, then, by definition, he fails. And throw in a big side order of narcissism. Goofus’ high regard for himself is matched only by his emotional need to disallow anyone around him to also succeed.

    Goofus’ zero-sum, narcissistic behaviors remind me of the infamous “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap (also ex-military, BTW) who ran Sunbeam into the ground AND committed fraud.

    These kind of VERY serious character flaws don’t go away in 8 year’s time (or 18, 28…); they get reinforced and worsen over time.

    Don’t feel bad for Goofus. Feel bad for the people who have had to work with him elsewhere.

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