(Originally published on Medium)
“Describe a time when you had to rapidly alter your plans to react to changing circumstances. What was the result?”
This is my new favorite interview question.
I’ve hired and promoted dozens of candidates for dozens of jobs throughout my career. The best of them — the ones who turned out to be stellar, not merely good — have had the usual impressive resumes, references and the like. But they’ve also had an agility and cool-headedness that are extraordinarily valuable.
If I had to answer the question myself, I’d probably point to a story from my non-work life. It happened just last month.
The plan was simple. Drive to the airport. Park. Fly to my wife’s native Michigan to spend some time with family over a holiday weekend. It was the same idea millions of Americans have had every year since there have been holiday weekends.
Time and traffic got in the way, but we were on track. That is, until the low tire pressure light appeared on the dash and a thumping noise soon announced itself from the back of the car. We had a flat, on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, as we were rushing to make a flight.
With my 6-year-old daughter stirring awake in the back seat, my wife beginning to get alarmed and less than two hours before takeoff, I had to act fast.
I next discovered that some cars, including my wife’s, don’t come with a spare tire. Our friends at Ford had provided only a kit with an air compressor and some sealant. I followed the instructions and quickly realized the little gizmo wasn’t working. We called roadside assistance and learned our account had expired two days earlier. The operator was kind enough to renew us with a credit card and send help. This is when I realized I was going to miss a flight for the first time in my life. I knew we weren’t all going to make it, but that didn’t mean none of us would.
I used my phone to hail an Uber driver, who apparently had no hesitation in doing a pickup on the side of the highway. Except he was on the wrong side of the highway. He ran across, beckoned us, and we asked him if he could pull up, change lanes and then back up to us. He did. I assured my family that I would figure out how to get to Michigan at some point, and they should carry on. With my daughter sobbing and my wife looking apologetic, inflatable booster seat in hand, they got into the black car and sped off.
Knowing that some towing companies are more reliable than others, I next called my insurance company’s roadside assistance program as a backup. As my cell phone battery flagged, one operator sent me to a dead end and the second spent ten minutes trying to find my location. Just then, the world’s friendliest and most helpful tow truck driver pulled up.
As my wife arrived at the airport and began texting me about travel woes of her own — the first leg of the flight was delayed because of a broken seat on the plane, with no mechanic nearby — we drove less than 2 miles to a nearby membership warehouse. The store was open, had a replacement tire in stock and there were no customers ahead of me. I’d be on the road in less than an hour, and I was 15 minutes from the airport.
While I was waiting on the tire, I plugged in my phone and got to work. I had already worked through some scenarios in the tow truck: drive up to Philly to meet the connecting flight (impossible), drive all night to Michigan and arrive the next morning (really not good), give up and go home (even worse). I had to get in the air. I scraped together some points from my wife’s frequent flyer account and my own, added a credit card and got the last seat on a nonstop Southwest flight that same evening. My wife texted that she was on board and would make her connection, and the clock was again on my side. I arrived at the airport three hours after the flat but had plenty of time before my new departure.
Along the way, I got to observe some incredible professionals doing their jobs well: the parking shuttle driver who reminded me to grab my cell phone charger, the Chipotle line workers who had some of the best team communication I’ve ever seen in a workplace and the Southwest flight attendant who had us all in stitches by singing, playing music over the intercom and rolling bags of peanuts down the aisle during takeoff.
I landed in Michigan a half hour after the rest of my family did, exhausted but well-fed, relaxed and entertained. The weekend was saved. We’re lucky that we plan for contingencies and have access to resources, and I’m glad I never panicked.
An old friend and former boss once told me you can tell a lot about a guy by how well he loses his luggage. If you’re someone who keeps cool while the world is on fire, let’s connect!