Tom Atkins

My Great Misadventure

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Musings from everyone's favourite accident-prone author.

The Interview

Following my ‘eventful’ trip to Africa and return, highlighted in my book,’ Africa Beckons,’ My Great Misadventure, our finances had hit rock bottom.

My time in Africa had resulted in bills piling up with no means of paying them. Fortunately, an interview I had attended before my departure resulted in a job offer. It was not a job I wanted but being broke, one I accepted gladly.

The opportunity came about because the Printing Trade Union controlled the labour market in the Printing and Newspaper industry. Under their rules, if a position became vacant which fitted an unemployed members skillset, they would send you to that job. Under their practices, refusing to apply or accept the opportunity would mean you lost the right of all other work the Union could offer. With my financial plight, I could not turn the job down. However, I was encouraged by the manager who had interviewed me. He had waited for my return, without knowing if ever I would come back from Africa at all. He wanted to employ me and took a chance. He made me an assistant manager.

The job offer was unbelievably like an opportunity I had left behind in South Africa. It was to put right a failing section of the company. Two different people many miles apart had seen something about me they liked and wanted after short interviews. I threw myself into the task, quickly replacing the existing manager. Fortunately, it became a resounding success and a job I enjoyed doing. The role gave me a completely different perspective and career. Sadly, the company, owned by a much larger organisation, shut the plant down after five years. Incredibly, my success and reputation had grown, already I had several good opportunities to consider. My confidence and finances had also developed enormously as a result. Losing my job was no longer a threat; it was a new opportunity.

Having made a successful switch of roles and the Printing industry still being in the doldrums, I decided to look for something different and outside of what I knew. I applied for many positions, several I was underqualified for. Still, I was surprised at how many shortlists I reached. One vacancy I applied for was a vast electronics corporation looking for senior sales executives to market their commercial security systems. Without any sales or electronic qualifications or experience to my name, I knew it was a long shot. Again, I was amazed when I reached the shortlist. They wanted me to attend an interview in Sussex with a specialist recruitment agency.

Although I’d had little call for smart attire over the previous five years, I still had the suit and infamous interview shoes I wore to Africa. A clean shirt and tie completed my apparel. The address was an office above a shop. Following a climb up dingy stairs to a shabby, narrow, and disappointing corridor, I was faced with a line of five other, similar-aged applicants sitting on chairs outside an office door. Nodding a hello, I joined them, sitting on the last chair. One by one, they entered the office door, exiting around twenty minutes later. My interview was the last. As the fifth interviewee departed, a loud voice called out, ‘Enter.’
I stood up, straightened my tie, and opened the door.

I was shocked when I entered the room; the decor was like the stairs and corridor, drab. A rotund gentleman sat behind a huge desk. He proffered a hand towards a small chair in front of his desk for me to sit down on. Looking at the chair, I could not help but laugh. It was for a young child, barely a fit for me, with short legs meaning my feet would stick out in front of me. Telling my interviewer the chair was too small for me, I moved it to one side of the office. Then I returned to the corridor and chose one of the chairs in the waiting hall. I carried it back into the office, placed it in front of the big desk and sat down, ready for the interview.

The gentleman behind the desk confirmed my name and welcomed me. He outlined the nature of the role, starting salary and bonus scheme. Neither was overly generous. I mentioned the sums were disappointing for such a well-known company. He did not respond but asked about my qualifications, or rather lack of them, and my previous employments. The interview was short and uninspiring. Before it was over, I had already ruled it out as a no go; I shook his hand and left.

A week later, he telephoned me, saying the company had provisionally accepted my application subject to a further interview with the director heading up the new sector. They were impressed with the report on me and were keen to arrange a final consultation. Declining the position, I said it was because I had no sales or electronic knowledge. He confirmed that the company was thoroughly advised, adding none of the shortlisted applicants had sales or electronic expertise. The company were determined to train up new people in the industry. He asked me to reconsider attending the second interview.

Somewhat lost for words, I recovered my thoughts and agreed to think it over, saying I would call him in a few days. He advised me not to leave it too long, adding that his report included my comments on the low monetary side. He said they appreciated your honesty and promised to review that when we met. The next day he called me again, saying he has spoken to the company once more; they’d confirmed their strong interest in me and hoped to get me on board.

I returned his call and told him a sales job was not for me. He wanted to know why. I told him I had spent time away from home in Africa a few years back, and as sales positions often required you to be away from home, it was not something I was prepared to do. He suggested I speak to the company; they were convinced my character would suit the position perfectly. I thanked him, told him I was sorry, but my mind was made up. Before the call ended. I asked him what made the company feel I was the right person for the job. His answer blew me away.

‘You were the only one with the presence of mind to move the chair.’

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