Ask the Experts: Beware of the underdog

Underdogs are highly regarded, and celebrated, throughout history and sports. Think JK Rowling, Robin Hood and King Arthur. The “Cinderella team”— Miracle on Ice. 

Underdogs are legendary because they defy the odds, and the naysayers, and are, generally, quite unassuming. Something grips them in the moment, where they are faced with either success or failure, and they become supercharged. Fiercely determined to lay-it-all-down and win-at-all-cost. They leave their “all” on the field. And, oftentimes, that comes with a lot of scrutiny and no support. Underdogs become their own champion because they reach…no, they stretch. They push-through-it-anyway for that brass ring on life’s carousel. And, when they grasp it, they clutch it with pride having proved to themselves, and others, that they can do it. The “it” being anything they name and claim.  

Underdogs are also a player in the business arena.

Recently, I was working on an executive assistant placement for a large nonprofit. We were down to the final two candidates: one having more than 15 years of experience, and the other — zero, nada, zilch experience, our underdog. This role required “some” administrative/executive assistant experience and knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order, a manual of specific procedures to effectively run a meeting, starting with the agenda, to run the organization’s monthly board meetings. It’s worth noting that even the most seasoned, and well-versed, executives and EAs are in the dark on this.

I am a full-service recruiter. I interview the organization to ensure they align with my principles and values just as much as I vet candidates. Read: If I won’t work for you, I will NOT recruit for you. We all need to be aligned. I don’t pick favorites. I present who I, wholeheartedly, believe would be a great fit and let the process work itself out. I prepare the candidates equally.

In this instance, I gave the same pep and prep talk to the experienced executive assistant as I did our underdog. While they each “heard” me when I explained the role requirements and expectations, the underdog listened and went to work. Robert’s Rules of what!?!? Welp. You guessed it. This was a first for her. But it was the spark that she needed. She poured over Robert’s Rules of Order and learned as much as she could absorb. Her fire was lit and ablaze for learning. Her passion to learn went parabolic.

Now, with your hiring hat on, what are you thinking, right this minute? I’m sure you’re wondering why, and how, I would, in good conscience, recommend a candidate with literally NO experience, especially with something so technical like Robert’s Rules. I just breathed in and let out a big, audible sigh as I wrote this. Let me just say it wasn’t easy to convince this organization to meet the “underdog.” You know exactly what I’m talking about.

Them: “Why would we waste our time with this particular candidate?”

Me: “Just trust me.”

It got down to the final round, with the chief executive officer, for each candidate. The experienced candidate went in very confident (rightfully so) having done her due diligence on the company and the executive team.  

The underdog went in prepared and ready for a good fight, knowing, full well, that she had some stiff competition. She, too had studied the agency and knew the ins and outs. She didn’t have the required “technical” chops, nor anywhere near the decades-long experience under her belt and had absolutely nothing within range of the job description, but she was a “bargain” with a much lower salary expectation. However, she was E-A-G-E-R to be an EA. 

During the interview debriefs, the CEO called me to discuss both candidates. Both had impressed him, but it was the underdog who won, by a hair, because she demonstrated grit and tenacity and was hungry. She wanted to be in that boardroom with every fiber of her being and hustled to do whatever it took to get there. She didn’t “expect” the job offer. Needless to say, he was very impressed. They were “vibing,” if you will. 

Nine months later, I am thrilled to report that it has all worked out and she is doing better than ever. 

This story really struck a personal chord with me because our underdog reminded me so much of myself, in the early days. When I was poached to be an executive assistant, for the first time, I looked my CEO straight in the eye and said, “I would be terrible. I don’t know Excel, never used PowerPoint and I’m actually pregnant and haven’t told my manager yet, so I am a triple no.”  To which he replied, “We can teach you Excel and PowerPoint. You’ll have the baby and come back, right?  So, now, what’s the problem?”

We stayed together for eight years. He liked my can-do attitude and how I connected with the team and absolutely loved that I had the “intangibles” that he couldn’t send me to school for. I truly had his best interest at heart, as would any professional executive assistant. 

Moral of the story: Be a part of someone’s story. Be open. You never know when, or how, your miracle EA might appear and, in what form. And beware of those underdogs. They’re fighters and it shows. 

Joelle Paban is a former executive assistant and has been featured in several magazines for her knowledge and expertise in the industry. She stepped out on her own and created Joelle Paban & Associates, a niche recruiting firm, in 2014. Joelle Paban & Associates offers immediate, permanent placement of well-qualified, highly coveted, executive/administrative candidates. You can reach Paban at joelle@joellepaban.

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