The Interview Questions: Three beers and a pink sweater

I can’t remember, in three decades of interviewing for leadership positions, ever being asked how I deal with rejection. Considering that more than half of those positions were in fund raising, you’d think that somebody, somewhere along the line would have thought to ask that.

Because fundraising has its fair share of rejection, no?

Being part of high-risk, high-reward fundraising - really, any kind of nonprofit leadership - is about highs and lows. Over-the-moon highs and deep-dark-pit lows.

“Tell me how you deal with rejection.” Seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to ask someone applying for a job trying to build and strengthen relationships with other human beings. As a side note, people who are applying for jobs in sales are almost always asked this question.

Now, I ask it.

“How do you respond when your relationship building, your asks, or your proposals are rebuffed or outright rejected?”

Judging from the surprised looks I usually get, I’d say not many interviews include this question. Two trends have emerged:

  • Not really a problem. “Oh, I’ve learned that rejection and disappointment are just part of the job. I brush it off and move on to the next thing.” Well, OK, then. (I'm not sure if this is a sign of being incredibly well-adjusted, a total lack of caring, or untruthfulness, but it doesn't feel right somehow.)
  • Ballet pink cashmere sweaters or beer. I like it when people acknowledge that “no” gets to them and that they’ve developed tools for dealing with it. After hearing from a colleague that she’d had a terrible, horrible, no good, really bad day filled with rejection and disappointment, I asked her how she was coping. “Stopped at Macy’s on the way home and bought a ballet pink cashmere sweater. I feel better.” That worked for her. For others, it’s calling some friends to get together for a beer, or three, and talk it over. Or they run ten miles (oh, how I wish this was my response . . . sadly, never.) Or they walk or bike or whack at tennis balls or eat all of the Ben & Jerry’s or hit the Fazoli's drive-through for breadsticks. Yes, some of these solutions are better choices than others, but they are all evidence of self-awareness. These folks have developed ways of putting the rejection in its place and starting over the next day. It hurts to have someone say, “Nice try, but not now.” Or, “We’ve decided to take a different route.” Or “Come back next year when we’ve got a new budget.” Ballet pink cashmere sweaters and three beers, maybe.

But I have to admit I’m always holding my breath just a little, waiting for a third kind of response, waiting for a candidate to say, “Well, honestly, I’m absolutely devastated when an ask doesn’t end up the way I’d planned or when we lose a valuable relationship. Really sad. And it takes me awhile to move on.”

I hold my breath for that answer because that’s how I think people who are wholly invested in building, nurturing, strengthening relationships for worthy work feel when something goes south. Absolutely devastated.

They go back over all the components of the relationship, any missteps they might have made; they analyze different paths, different words, different proposals. They think about it. A lot. And then, when they’ve grieved a little, because, you know, it was about getting something for a cause they're personally invested in, they creatively author some next steps for regroup and repair, if that seems prudent, or, perhaps, moving on. But they never just brush it off.

When somebody does answer this question in that way, I’m going to hire them on the spot. We need more people in the social profit sector (and everywhere), who sometimes feel absolutely devastated when something they’ve put their heart and brain into doesn’t work out. We need that because our work is serious and sometimes urgent and our asks need to get good answers to keep it going.

“How do you handle rejection and disappointment?”

It’s a question worth asking when we’re seeking passion and commitment, as well as staying power, for our organizations. And, really, ballet pink cashmere sweaters is a perfectly acceptable answer.

Common People United