Unemployment Advice: 4 Tips On How to Learn From Your Job Hunt Mistakes


“I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that's why I succeed.” -- Michael Jordan

When I applied for jobs as I was finishing my Ph.D., I had to prepare what is known in academic circles as the “job talk,” a one hour formal presentation of my research that would show both my analytical and teaching abilities in a very compelling way. This presentation would be delivered in front of 10 to 50 people.  

For each business school that invited me in as a job candidate, I also had to interview with anywhere from a dozen to 30 or more professors, deans, and students over the course of one to three days. It’s a grueling process, but no more so than the ordeal for those who aspire to join the ranks of premier consulting companies, investment banks, or leading global for-profit and not-for-profit companies. 

The first business school that invited me in as a job candidate was the Harvard Business School (HBS). As one of my mentors once told me, “there’s no b.s. like HBS.” It would have been a dream job for me, and even though I was beginning to get interviews at other leading business schools, Harvard the most name recognition. I even convinced my wife that Boston would be a great place to live, even though she hates cold weather, and when she met me there before my interview it was during a very cold winter.

I did all that I could to prepare for my visit, including doing multiple practice runs of my job talk in front of peers. These included rehearsal, seminars to more than 50 professors, mentors, and graduate students at the University of Michigan where I was earning my doctorate,  I thought I had my talk nailed down. Then, I gave it at Harvard.

After and two and a half days of one-on-one interviews with some of the world’s most famous management professors, almost of all which had gone very well, I was brought into the conference room where I would give my talk. Several dozen professors and graduate students were seated around the large table or in couches and chairs dotting the room.  

My host for the visit told me, “you may have heard that we are sharks at HBS, ruthlessly tearing you apart to decide whether you good enough to join us as a professor. Well, that’s true, but we wait until after you’re on the plane back home, and then we’ll decide as a group. But we’ll be polite during your talk.” Well, as my mentor told me, there really is no b.s. like HBS because the sharks started attacking immediately.  

“I don’t like the word you have on your slide.  Why did you use that one?”

“I don’t understand why you’re studying the auto industry.”

Why did you conduct both interviews and surveys in your study?”

“I liked your examples and stories, but I have no idea why you’re using statistics as well.  I can’t even read your numbers on the slide, but maybe it’s because I’m getting old!” 

After two hours, the department chair thanked me in front of the group, and then came over to speak to me privately. Instead of the typical, “we appreciate your visiting us,” he simply said, “be sure to send us your travel receipts when you get home.” That was it. I got no "thank you," no encouragement to do better, just instructions fill out the expense form.

I obviously didn’t get the job offer from Harvard, but I did get offers from Columbia, Dartmouth, and Penn State. I interviewed in a very competitive year when getting just one job offer would have been a big success. I succeeded in part because no other school was going to be as tough as Harvard was at interviewing me, or if it was, I had already gone through the gauntlet and was much better prepared.  How I became prepared for the schools after Harvard was critical.  

Here is what I did, and what I continue to do whenever I fail or succeed at a major endeavor.  

1. Review the failure (or success) with trusted mentors and peers. I reviewed what went well and what did not with my mentors, my best friends and peers, and most importantly my wife, who patiently supported me while I worked on my degree. I couldn’t remember how every aspect of my talk went, so it was critical to get multiple opinions from a diverse group to help make sense of what I should I keep, change, or toss from that failed talk. 

2. Practice, practice, practice. Even though I’d rehearsed my job talk many times, I practiced again after I’d made presentation changes in following my Harvard interview. I encouraged my audiences to be as tough as possible, because that could only help me when I faced tough audiences at other schools.I also learned not to take criticism personally because I could trust that my Michigan people wanted the best for me. 

3. Develop an optimistic outlook and remember to network.. This is not easy to do when you’ve invested years of your life and thousands of dollars in a degree, and then you must find a job immediately. Whether or not I got job offer, I had to remember that I was also creating a network of influential people who might be helpful to me in the future. I met several hundred people while interviewing for a professorship some of them have become good friends of mine since I first met them, even when their universities didn’t offer me a job. Their advice and help in the years since have proven invaluable.  

4. Express gratitude. Of course, the people you meet in your search won’t be part of your network unless you thank them after your visit. I mailed personalized letters to every person I formally interviewed with. This was before email became popular, but it's still polite to send a handwritten note. To this day, I email out personalized thank-you notes whenever I interview for a job or pitch a consulting engagement. I can thank my wife Karen for helping me develop this habit.

I’ve always told my students that I grow only when I have combination of positive and negative feedback. If I keep getting praise for my work, I’ll keep doing the same work the same way, and I’m likely not going to improve. However, if an audience gives me constructive feedback, then I’ll be motivated to improve my material and become more innovative in my delivery. 

I got plenty of negative feedback from Harvard, not all of it constructive. However, I made it constructive by doing what I’ve described above. I remind myself that what I have to offer another organization can make a very positive impact on the people that work in it. 

Aneil Mishra and Karen Mishra are business school professors and authors of Trust is Everything (2008) and Becoming a Trustworthy Leader (2012).