This question was asked and answered on Quora. Also note that in this interview he secured a job with a Wall Street Investment firm. Look at what he’s doing now.
Response by Bill Haymaker, An Anglican Priest, working with victims of child-trafficking in Eastern Europe.
I would easily classify as an ‘older’ gentleman. However, some of the things I learned in my youth still apply today. Please permit me to impart a few of the life lessons I gathered.
My upbringing was rather out of the ordinary and in many ways it forced me to grow up perhaps a bit more quickly than others. I found myself, at the ripe age of 17, being interviewed by a director and two managers with a company called Dun & Bradstreet. Back in those days just the name of the company could bring dread to the hearts of aspiring corporate managers and directors. D&B, as they were known (and still are), was, in part, an investigative corporate credit reporting agency. Their conservatism was renown and to appear at one of their offices wearing anything other than a dark suit, white shirt, conservative tie, and possibly garters holding up your socks would have been an act of career suicide!
I was still a teenager and I was honestly not prepared for the type of interview I was about to endure. I’d already been through the office visits and I’d had the range of interviews. But these guys were formidable. There was no laughter, no small talk, or chit chat – just dry, boring stuff. Yet, I sincerely wanted this job. I felt everything in my life depended upon it. (It’s bizarre the things we get into our minds when we’re young!).
The three gentlemen arranged to meet me at a mid-town hotel in Manhattan…A ‘posh’ one at that. It was at The Plaza Hotel, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. All these years later I suspect they deliberately selected the Plaza because during one of my many interviews I had alluded to having lived there for a period in my youth. And, I think this was during a time when the proverbial expense account was something to be enjoyed by directors.
We met in the hotel’s lobby. I shook hands with the men and eyed them as they looked around the hotel. They are the ones who instructed me to book our table; again, I think it was to see how I was able to handle simple tasks and how I ‘flowed’ through a general business environment.
To my grace, I had arrived early and I had checked with the maître d’hôtel just to make certain all was ticketyboo. Additionally, I had practised the discreet act my father had taught me many years before, by extending my hand to shake hands with the maître d. In the palm of my hand, as I recall at the time, I had neatly folded a ten dollar note. Our interaction passed with the smooth professionalism of a Las Vegas magician!
As we entered the vast chamber of the Edwardian Room, resplendent with its beautiful silver and crystal table settings, the maître d received me as if we were old friends. He warmly greeted the gentlemen with me and even announced that he had selected one of ‘my’ favourite tables. I remember having a surge of butterflies, thinking these men were going to think I was some bon vivant who lived a posh lifestyle. As we were seated, one of the two managers said ‘I gather you come here often?’ I politely replied that I didn’t, actually, it was only that it was one of my father’s favourite restaurants and when he would come to visit, we would dine there as a special treat.
As the men perused the menu, the Table Captain arrived and introduced himself. He went through some of the special items on offer for the day.
I kept the lead, thanking him for sharing this with us. And I waited. I waited for what I thought was going to be the grilling of my life. I really wasn’t hungry and even the idea of being in a place where I was actually relatively comfortable wasn’t comforting me at all.
I waited for all of about two seconds for one of the men to say something. It was dead silence, so with little in my young, not yet professional bank of witty repartee, I launched into some of the things I did know about. I told the men how pleased I was to see that the restaurant had been restored by the new owners of the Hotel, Westin International. And I shared a few of the stories I knew about how incensed so many New Yorker’s had been over the acts of the previous owners, the Sonesta Hotel group, when they’d turned the magnificent room into a bright white ice cream parlour with wrought iron tables and chairs. This brought on a number of comments and thoughts shared by the men and I finally found myself beginning to feel slightly more at ease.
But my comfort was quickly quashed when the director asked me what I recommended to eat. All I could do was tell the truth. I told them that I enjoyed the hotel’s Vichyssoise as a starter and I found the roast chicken to be lovely, describing how it came with a fresh Béarnaise sauce . I was surprised to see that all three of them ordered exactly what I had recommended. Thank goodness it was all delicious. But I was in a mounting state of paranoia, thinking of how I’d fail should any of them choke on a chicken bone, or get poisoning from the cream.
One of the managers was relatively friendly towards me. He was to my left. However, the director, who was to my right said little, or nothing throughout the meal. And the other manager; all I could say is that he must have previously had a job working as an interrogator from the war. He’d quickly fire off salvoes towards me, asking highly emotive questions about issues that honestly didn’t have anything at all to do with what I was being interviewed for; ‘What did I think of the situation in Palestine?’ or ‘What incentives had Gerald Ford given to Nixon in exchange for his taking on the presidency?’ Those two questions were probably some of the easier ones. Other questions covered my thoughts about operating costs for the hotel, labour relations, and the whims of guests – particularly about acts of pilferage.
What I didn’t know, as we moved through our meal, is that this was a well honed, highly orchestrated interview to see how I could deal with not only uncomfortable issues, but could still bring the group back ‘on track’ to deal with more salient questions.
One of the managers asked me what were the best beers. I had no idea – I don’t drink. But I remember, with trepidation, that some of the more popular beers I’d seen people enjoying were of the Dutch and Danish variety. I had ordered a coke, as had the other two gentlemen. But the man who asked about the beers, acted as if it had gone to his head and his questions, at times, were simply not appropriate or germane to what we were discussing.
I felt as if all eyes were upon me as I chose my cutlery, as I cut my meat, as I properly used my soup spoon for the Vichyssoise. And even down to whether I salted my meat before I tasted it. (I didn’t, but truthfully it was only because I generally don’t).
Near the end of the gruelling ninety-minute luncheon, the director leaned over to me and said ‘let me ask you something off the record.’ I no longer even recall what it was he asked me.
As I shook hands with the gentlemen and bid my farewells, I went back into the hotel and found the toilets. I stood in one of the stalls, not shaking, but letting the past couple of hours race through my head. I was a nervous wreck. I was certain I had wrecked not only the interview, but I had scarred every chance I’d ever again have in my life to get a job at a reputable company.
That same afternoon, once my hands were no longer shaking, I posted a hand-written note to the Director, but not to the managers, thanking him for the opportunity to have met them all. And I asked that he please extend my gratitude to the two gentlemen for their time and infinite patience.
Two days later I was contacted by the director and asked whether I would like to come work at 99 Church Street. That was many years ago and after a full year, I realised that it really wasn’t for me. However, I gained some of the most valuable life-experiences during that short tenure.
Months later the director, who was actually a lovely gentleman, said the orchestrated interview had been deliberate. They watched to see whether I salted my meal before even tasting it. (suggesting that I was prone to making judgement or snap-decisions without foundation). And he reminded me of how I had answered him when he asked me a question ‘off the record.’ He told me there was no such thing as ‘off the record.’ That everything in life is on the record and it’s forever! It’s a lesson that has stuck with me my entire life and has most assuredly helped me far more times than I can ever say!
And the wise, kind, and years later, I decided, almost fatherly Director told me that he had watched how I dealt with and endured people with whom I had to work, who had a different upbringing than we had. ( He was referring to the rather crass manager who spoke loudly, drank perhaps a bit too much, and clearly didn’t have the social experience to be in a social setting where expectations where different than those he had experienced in his life.
The gentleman’s name was Hal. And we remained friends for a number of years, long after I left D&B. I even attended his funeral in the late seventies.
Today the company is no longer the ‘formidable’ group that it once was. It still has plenty of ‘oomph’ in its kick, no less. But the ‘investigative’ part of their role has made a paradigm shift, more towards technology intelligence, rather than one-on-one interviews and the occasional covert work.
The parable? Never slurp your soup, salt your meal before you taste it, make certain your finger nails and shoes are immaculate, and never, never give a direct answer to any question when you’re asked to do it ‘off the record!’
Oh yes, and choose the chicken…especially if it’s the least expensive item on the menu!
May all your journeys be ones of discovery!