“Ian, we need you to lead our intern program this summer.”
“Do we have an intern program?”
“Not yet. You’ll figure it out.”
I was pumped. I was 24 years old and I was about to get my first time of management.
I visited two major universities after posting a job description and selecting candidates for interview panels. With no prior experience in hiring and only a few open positions, I set about limiting applications to those I would meet in person.
I worked for GE and at the time, we were the largest company in the world. Our products were high technology and we looked for Engineering majors with solid grades. With our brand name, I had no problem filling interview panels.
Personally, I understood that grades were overrated, largely because my grades were average at best. Given the grief I took in interviews, I was surprised when they made me an offer two years prior.
After two days of interviews, I filled 3 of 4 slots. Most of the candidates I met with were rigid and limited in extracurricular activities. The higher the GPA, the harder it was to keep the conversation going. I came across many intelligent people but struggled to see them interacting with customers.
After the last day of panel interviews, we had an information session open to all students. We bought some pizzas and managers were available to talk about the company to anyone interested in attending.
A young man approached me at this session. He hadn’t been selected for an interview but was very interested in our company. He gave me his resume and I realized quickly why I hadn’t met him. He had a 3.0 GPA in Management and we were looking for 3.5 or higher with an Engineering degree.
At the time, GE was all over magazine covers for Most Admired Company and our CEO, Jack Welch, had just been named CEO of the Century by Fortune. In other words, it was easy to find high GPA candidates who wanted GE on their resume and they didn’t care what the assignment was.
I tried to let this young man down nicely and told him the requirements for the position. He smiled, said he understood and then politely asked if he could ask me a few questions. What the hell? The pizza is paid for and my flight isn’t until tomorrow.
“This is a sales internship, correct?”
“Yes, it is.”
“What will you expect of an intern?”
“Well, you will prospect from a list of potential targets. You role is to set up appointments for our seasoned sales reps by cold calling.”
“Got it. Do the other candidates you’ve selected have experience cold calling?”
“Uh, not that I can recall. No.”
“Can I tell you about my background?”
He went on to tell me about his first summer job which was selling door to door. He told me about how humbling the experience was at first and how he hit 200 houses every day, rain or shine.
He walked me through the importance of a good opening, how to lead with a smile and a question, how he overcome objections and the importance of mindset when you’re having a bad day.
He further explained how he continued doing this job while putting himself through college. In fact, he had several jobs while taking classes which made it challenging to spend as much time studying as some other kids.
He told me about his fraternity and the roles he held, including two semesters as President. He explained what he learned about leadership from running a house filled with 50 guys.
He was also a collegiate athlete which was also a significant time constraint.
“OK, you win. Want a job?”
He accepted and all four started on the same day. You can probably guess who came out on top.
From day one, my boy with the weak GPA ran circles around the more accomplished students. Yes, he had specific experience that gave him a head start but, he had something much more important.
He had a great mindset.
When a customer said no to him, he moved on. He was more accustomed to small failures and didn’t let them define him. He looked at these small failures as opportunities to learn and tweak his pitch with the next phone call.
His peers saw it much differently. They were so accustomed to winning that the daily parade of rejection was debilitating. They took every rejection personally and it was apparent in the volume of calls they made. On a daily basis, our fraternity President was making twice the number of outbound calls.
The others were so paralyzed by potential rejection that they took too much time preparing for their phone calls and then second guessing themselves after every call. Rather than playing the numbers game and grinding, they deliberately slowed the process so as not to hear “no” as often in a day. In psychological terms, this is called self-handicapping and is a coping mechanism to avoid damage to self esteem.
Of the four interns, we only made one permanent offer and he had the lowest GPA in the group.
Grades are indicator of effort and work ethic. They can be an important indicator, but I’ve not seen GPA as a reliable predictive indicator of performance.
I’ve seen many hires with a strong GPA struggle with the many indirect paths to success in a career. They are used to following instructions, completing their assignments, putting in the work and getting a perfect grade. In business, there is no one prescribed way of getting results.
The path to success is more like the scientific method. You make an assumption, test, fail, adjust and try another approach. That method tests someone not used to failing.
College professors are interested in the path you take to a result. In business, there is only the result. Most managers are indifferent on your path. Some kids with perfect grades struggle when you won’t give them a prescribed plan to achieve that result. They chafe at the lack of direction, which is a hallmark in business. No one is going to hold your hand.
I spend considerable time asking candidates about failure. I like hiring people who have failed and are not paralyzed by setbacks. I especially like people who are not afraid to admit that they failed, why they failed and what they learned from it.
If a candidate isn’t self-confident to admit to some juicy failures, I question several things. First, have they taken any chances in life? The most successful people I know have failed often because they were not afraid of calculated risks. Second, is their ego so large that they can’t admit to setbacks? In either case, I probably won’t like working with them and they certainly won’t like working for me.
The last thing I will say about grades is that two years after graduation, no one gives a damn. Once I graduated and accepted my first role, I was never asked my grade again. Literally, I can’t remember ever talking about my grades. Businesses are much more interested in your ability to generate tangible results than grades on an exam.
Look for people confident enough to fail and share those failure with you. They just might become your next top performer.