From the time we're kids, we're been force-fed the idea that first is best. It doesn't always work that way. Sometimes last is best.
The conventional wisdom is to be first across the finish line, first in our class in grades, first in line for chow, first for tickets to the Beyonce concert and first to be interviewed by a prospective employer. A, B, C and D work just fine. E doesn't. You do not want to be the first candidate to be interviewed.
Advertising genius Pat Fallon taught me long ago that ad agencies that pitched new business first or early in competitive reviews almost never won the account. Those who were positioned sixth or seventh in a typical review had far better chances. Give any savvy ad agency an opportunity to select a time slot for a client pitch and they'll always take the last one, the one closest to the moment when the choice of agencies is made. These people make their living understanding human nature. They know what makes people tick psychologically.
Clients tend to dismiss the first pitches they hear as they would preliminary fights on a boxing card -- they're just not taken terribly seriously. They're on the card to give them an opportunity to see what's out there, to try out their questions, and sharpen their reactions in preparation for the main event.
The same kind of buildup is used in assembling a concert program. You start with the aptly named "warm-up" acts. They're the appetizers. The headliner is the main course.
A similar pattern emerges in the selection of films and stars for Oscars. Those that win rarely make their box-office debut at the beginning of a given year. The strongest contenders are those appearing at year-end. They end up with far better recognition and recall value in the eyes of Academy members.
Want to see true creative ingenuity in action? Watch what happens when a prospective client tries to schedule an agency pitch.
"We wish we could take the Monday 8 a.m. slot, but all our account people will be having open heart surgery that day. They should be up and around by Wednesday afternoon, though."
With most openings, the company's job specs are likely to be vague at first, becoming clearer only after they have had the opportunity to interview (and argue about) a couple of candidates. You don't want to be the test dummy, smashed into a wall, so the company can design a better set of wheels for someone else.
If you are going for a job interview, try to learn how many candidates have already been seen. If you ask, and the recruiter dodges the question, consider yourself to be among the first or second entrants, and be prepared with a good, believable reason why a later time would be better. Perhaps a conflicting business trip or prior engagement prevents you from doing an early interview. Particularly in this economy, people are so anxious about getting a job that they are willing to schedule anything at any time, often to their own great disadvantage.
If you can't avoid being first, try to leave the interviewer with something to think about: "I know you'll be talking with other candidates, and it might be hard to remember the first person you talked to, but I'm committed to doing everything I can to work for your company, and I'd like to be asked back for a second interview. These are challenging times, and I believe I can make an immediate impact in strengthening this business. When you bring me back in, I will give you a detailed plan."
I'm proud to have known the late Norman Vincent Peale, who told the story about the eager job applicant who sees a help-wanted ad and rushes down to apply. By the time he arrives, at least 200 people are lined up waiting to be interviewed. After waiting in line for some time, he bolts out, runs to the front, where a woman is ushering them in one at a time, and says, 'My name is Bruce Madison, and you tell the people who are doing the hiring in there that I'm 253 in line and don't hire anyone until they've talked to me.'" He got the job, of course.
Mackay's Moral: The second mouse always gets the cheese.