[I’m Number 2?] When Being the Runner-Up is Better Than Winning

Politics aside, are there times when not getting the job – but making an otherwise strong showing –  is the better result for you and your career?

After all, isn’t work and life really as Henry “Red” Sanders (and later Vince Lombardi) observed, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing“.

Maybe. And maybe not.

Here’s why.

Success in a role is heavily informed by three elements: fit with the culture of the organization you’re joining, interpersonal fit with the people with whom you work most directly (boss, direct reports, peers, clients and maybe suppliers) and technical chops / skill fit for the role. When you’re  a hit for all three than it’s a great job to be offered the role all other things considered (timing, economy, no mergers/acquisitions in play, stable technology in a sector, etc).

Good luck, though, if it’s not such a fit, you’re offered the job, and you take it.

Likelihood of success? Not so hot. Studies have shown that the failure rates for executives hired from outside a company are 30-40% at the 18 month rate; “top performers from one company are not necessarily top performers in their next job.”

So when the job is not a great fit and you’re interviewing for it, it helps to come across well but not get offered the job and avoid taking a role for which you’re not going to be successful.

Why not bow out early? Appropriate at times, but one of the ways to get hired for your next job is to  get on the radar of someone in the course of interviews for another job.

I never recommend interviewing for a job for which you don’t have interest; it’s frankly a waste of the interviewers time as well as potentially your own.

But it’s also rare in my experience for a role to be a perfect fit: invariably there’s some element or two (or more) that plays to a liability that you have rather than all your strengths.

But do interview when you’re interested in making a move in which you’re interested and which you have a good reason to believe you’re qualified.

Getting ahead is in part knowing people who think you might be a great fit for a job.

One of my best jobs, and my first job out of graduate school, came about because Jane Higa, an interviewer for a job at the University of Southern California for which I interviewed but was not offered (and would not have done nearly as well) thought I’d be perfect for a job she had open.

Here’s thanks to Jane, and encouragement to you when you don’t get offered the role but interview well.

Being the runner-up may not be such a bad thing: there just might be something better coming down the road.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

 number 2 (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds

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