Steady as it goes when running the rule over previous incumbents

Q: I am going for a very high-profile job – it is of a company whose activities are regularly covered in the media. I believe the previous incumbent made a number of very public errors during her reign, even though this might be disputed by others, including members of the interview panel. To my mind, she was reactionary and impetuous when she should have been cautious and steady. I am certain her performance will either be a spoken or unspoken dimension during the interview. Should I make my views known on her performance, or should I stay mum? (RG, email)

A: It’s a fascinating question, and I will attempt to give my views though I am shooting somewhat in the dark.

First off, you are right: it will be a factor in the interview. Employers constantly refer back to previous incumbents in their thought processes.

We need someone who will be as good as the last person!

We need someone who will be better than the last person!

We need someone who won’t have all the personality traits and nuances that annoyed me about the last person!

So, yes, you are being judged against the previous person.

Should you be explicit in your criticism of the last person’s performance?

Yes and no, in my view.

Yes, you need to make it known that will be steady and cautious where the last woman was impetuous and reactionary, primarily because your question suggest to me that that would be your operational style.

In an interview, you should show the employer the style you would deploy in the job itself – both for the employer’s sake, so they know what they are getting, and for your sake, so that you don’t find yourself pressurised into adopting a different style when you get the feet under the table.

Therefore I feel it is crucial that you outline how you would deal with the public events outlined above.

But, no, you need not be overly explicit in your actual criticism of the previous woman. It can be implied: the contrast will be obvious as you unfurl your ideas for how certain things should be done.

If they invite you to comment on specifics of how she handled those issues, I would again seek to talk more about what might have been done, or how you might have done it, rather than using finger-pointing language such as “she really messed up there.”

You need them to know what you offer in terms of a steady hand. Hopefully that’s what they will want. But if it’s not, you are probably better off not getting the job in the first place. I know that might sound a flippant remark to pass during the current economic climate, but being forced to go against your nature in the public arena would be a tough corner to find yourself in.

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