Bullish Q&A: When Your Interviewer Says You’re Too “Intense and Ambitious”

HowtoPresentBeing

I am in a situation at work that is becoming unpleasant.  I am a ‘Department Assistant’ in a Fortune 500. I say ‘Department Assistant’ in quotes because I am really filling in the gaps for all my coworkers—some of whom are older and ill-suited to doing things like… working Excel and fact checking, some of whom are complacent, and some of whom are overwhelmed.  We brought on someone to fill a management role, whom I basically trained and still assist heavily.  I do all our reporting, control all our national and regional pricing, advise on testing and am basically an all-around numbers baller.  I am numbers.  Numbers are me.  

In the middle of me basically assuming a whole lot of extra responsibility without any pay or title changes, we brought on a new Vice President who has been, at best, uninterested in the work we do. Clearly, he is not interested in promoting me. My Director went to him and tried to talk to him about how much I contribute. He remains, unsurprisingly, uninterested.

I have been applying to internal positions in the company—some with people who know me and know my work, and have been interested in me before my interview.  Apparently I bite at interviewing.  I am actually a very funny person, I have been told, and generally pretty well liked (I think.)  However, I think my frustration with my situation is coming through, and I have been advised by HR that I come across as ‘negative, intense and ambitious.’  While I wasn’t really aware that intense and ambitious were BAD, I obviously see that negative is. I am really not generally a negative person, I swear, I must just be having trouble talking about this department without my complete BAFFLEMENT coming through. I don’t want to be someone who just whines and things never change for them—I am always being taken advantage of at jobs, though, and I am tired of it.  How can I turn things around, get a fair wage, and be the fabulous lady baller I know I can be?  I have skills.  I always work on getting more.  It’s really just my personality.  Which is great for happy hour, not for job interviews.  Can you offer any advice to a burnt out striver?

Much thanks in advance!

No problem! Solvable.

First, of course, keep doing the best work you can in your current role. Make sure your resume and LinkedIn are amazing. You say you’re a numbers person; quantify everything. You’re not an assistant, you’re a guru. Ask some friends and relatives — a wide variety of people — if they wouldn’t mind going over your resume and LinkedIn pages with you, so you can see if everything is pretty self-explanatory. Say, “Let me walk you through this, if you don’t mind — 5 minutes?” And practice talking through all the amazing things you did and can do in a way that is concise, interesting, and impressive without being arrogant. Do you sound like a smart little whippersnapper (yikes), or like someone anyone would want to work with?

Please immediately expand your job search to jobs outside the company. Even if you want to stay, you will be in a better negotiating position if you have multiple offers.

Your current department sucks. Find polite ways to talk about this. “While I love my team members and the company, it can be a little frustrating to work on projects that are currently low priority for the company. I’d like to move into a department that’s really where our core mission is.”

“Intense” is generally a euphemism for something else. Can you ask your friends about this? This might mean that you just need to make better small talk at the beginning of an interview. It might mean that you are making serial-killer eyes at people. Maybe someone who knows you well would be able to put their finger on what this is about. 

“Ambitious” — yes, what they mean here is bad. It’s kind of like how, in an interview, when someone asks you why you want to work there, you can’t say “for the money.” Everyone knows that’s basically true, but if you say it out loud, then you don’t know how to communicate in the professional world, and hence you are probably not qualified for the job. You’re being asked to lie a bit, but it’s actually, I think, a valid test of a job candidate.

You do need to be ambitious for your own career, but you need to keep that on a separate mental track — separate from the Team Player You who just wants the company to succeed. You need an outer self more separated from your inner self. It’s an acting job, as is much of getting along in life.

You need to do some mock interviews. Take a note from politics — when you are asked a question, answer the question you wish you’d been asked. Whatever your core message is, seamlessly return to it. Your core message needs to be about what you can contribute and how you’re a team player. Say great things about your current team, talk about what you could bring to a new team, etc. Watch your vocabulary. You want to “contribute ” and “create value.” 

Consider hiring a professional for interview coaching. Spend a few hundred dollars. You get a new job, you’ll make that back instantly. Get video of yourself doing interviews. Maybe you’ll see the “intense” part. Writing to me is good (I hope), but I want that to be a first step in enlisting experts to jumpstart your career.

Finally, everyone complains all the time that they can’t find a mentor, mostly because the demand greatly exceeds the supply. But make a constant and dedicated search for mentors and allies, anywhere in the company. This is a long-term plan and you can’t control the outcome, but you can decide to go to all the optional events and to strike up conversations while standing around eating Elaine-from-accounting’s birthday cake. You can ask older people how they achieved their achievements. You can’t give yourself a six month deadline for finding a mentor, but you can control your own actions and make sure you’re initiating contact with as many people as possible. Hopefully, there’s someone five levels up who is also intense and ambitious, and helps you out either sooner or later.

Good luck!

Jen