Dear CMO:
This very important memo is about avoiding big career mistakes, so listen carefully. Trust me. I’ve made several. I’m acutely attuned to the sound of ice cracking beneath my feet. I’ve spent enough time in free-fall to have learned a lesson or two, so pay attention.
You may not be in the right job right now. The culture may not be right for you, or you may not feel like you’re being challenged, or maybe something else is bothering you. When the next opportunity beckons, it will sound good regardless of the warning signs. You need to acknowledge that you’ll be in a buying mood. Ever been told never to go food shopping hungry? Same thing. So be very careful before you accept any new offer until you’ve done one very important piece of homework.
Find the “missing persons” in the company’s past. Then get them to talk.
You won’t get the real story from the hiring manager or anyone in the interviewing process. These people have been chosen to sell the company story. You need to locate the person who had your job – one, two, even three generations back.

It’s all well and good to hear that “the last guy wasn’t strategic enough,” or that “this one character kept showing up wearing MC Hammerpants,” or whatever. Ask Hammer Time what he (or she) thought of the place and why they left. Ask about the hiring manager. You’ll get the flip side of what the hiring manager tells you, of course, and that’s fine. You need this balance.

Find out from your predecessor’s peers – especially the ones who aren’t there anymore – why they think your predecessor left and what they think of your hiring manager.
Dig, dig, dig. You need to understand everything you can about the one thing that’s virtually impossible to find out about your almost-too-good-to-be-true new opportunity: what’s it really like?
* * *
Key Takeaways:
> Locate missing persons. Sign nothing until you’ve talked to as many as you can find. Get the real story behind the company, the hiring manager, the culture, how your company makes decisions, how they budget, what gets cut first when things go bad, and how people react under pressure.
> Use your interview process to flush this information out. Don’t trust what you are told – trust what you infer from your own investigative process.
* * *
Ask your prospective hiring manager the names of the previous people who had your job. Ask everyone in the interviewing process about your predecessors and their peers. Leave the first round with a list of a dozen people to talk to. Talk to them all, if possible. LinkedIn, executive networking groups, and former co-workers are all great resources, too.
This is the reality of your job interviewing process. If your predecessor left because a great new situation came up, that’s great. If you hear that the guy you’re going to work for isn’t who you he appears to be during the interview process, find out early – not after you’ve been there a month.
It’s no fun being in a job where you have chest pains. This process may not be perfect, but it may save your career.
Or your life.
Copyright © 2007 Stephen Denny