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The Other Side of the Table: Three Insights from a New Experience

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In a few short weeks, my daughter Allison will complete her first year of college. With a strong desire not to sit behind a desk all day long, she’s pursuing a biology major on a pre-med track. Her dream job (at least for now) would be serving others and doing good in the world as an ER doc.

Allison has gone through a lot of interviews thus far – many more than I ever remember doing at her age. But this past week, she had the opportunity to sit on the other side of the table, helping faculty members in her college conduct scholarship interviews of incoming students.

And oh, how her eyes were opened. Viewed through the lens of a new and exciting experience, Allison’s takeaways were both mature and refreshingly insightful. As I thought about our conversation in the days that followed, I realized that the three pieces of advice she wished she could have shared with some of the applicants have broad application.

  • Do Your Homework & Know Your Audience. An aspiring science major appeared before Allison’s panel. Although the student members of the panel were not announced in advance, the chair of the program, a prominent history professor on campus, was (or should have been) well known to candidates. When the candidate was asked to describe courses that might be challenging for her, she began to deride humanities courses – and specifically history courses. A cringe-worthy moment, to say the least.
  • Be Genuine & Authentic. Genuine passion can be recognized a mile away. Allison reports she could tell almost immediately when a candidate was truly passionate about the prior projects and future plans they discussed during their interview. Those that were contrived or designed to tell the panel what the candidate thought they wanted to hear were not nearly as persuasive.
  • Tell an Honest & Memorable Story. After spending the better part of a day interviewing candidates, Allison reports that the entire panel was fatigued and sometimes – despite thorough notes – found it difficult to recall details about certain candidates. But the candidates who wove their passions into an honest and memorable story were universally well remembered – a distinct advantage over even similarly situated candidates.

The great lawyers I’ve known over the years – whether by nature or nurture – always knew their audience, were genuine and authentic, and could tell simple and memorable stories (either in briefs or in the courtroom). And the great business leaders I’ve known, some of whom I’m fortunate to call both clients and friends, exhibit those same skills. My strong sense is that some form of these skills are common to success in many professions.

I’m thankful my daughter shared her story with me in a genuine and memorable way. But even more than that, I’m thankful she shared her insights that came from “fresh eyes” – it’s something those of us who have been around the block a few times should welcome and act upon in our spheres of influence.