Imagine that recently unemployed pieces in a set of polished chess pieces (like the failed Bishop, shown here, beside his toppled King) come alive, as they do in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland sequel, Through the Looking Glass and are looking for work the same way they make their moves on the chess board. Next, imagine their on-the-job performance, once a job is secured.

What could they teach us about job candidates, job hunting and employee performance?

Stuck with what they know they can do and with the levels of confidence and power that come with their chess roles, each piece will go about applying for and carrying out jobs and demonstrating its skills in the same way it will operate on the board.

For example, consider the bold, brazen powerful queen as being the most aggressive and self-assured not only in job interviews, but also on the job;  or the lowly pawn (which Alice is willing to play) as the most timid, self-sacrificing and tentative—again, in both contexts.

Now, imagine you are a chess piece or interviewing one, like the Red Queen or Alice herself in Through the Looking Glass—or, to propose a modern sequel to the sequel, Through the Looking-for-a-Job Glass (or Looking Up at a Glass Ceiling).

Which one are you vetting? Which one are you? Which do you want or want to be? Which piece best captures your job performance or job search styleor meets the job’s requirements? To which roles do you or should you shift when it’s opportune or required?

Job Performance Style vs. Job Hunting Style: the Same?

The assumption that a chess piece or person will have a job performance style identical to job-hunting style is, as a minimum, an interesting hypothesis to explore, if not to accept as a universal truth.

For attempting to understand why and when job-search and job-performance styles will be very similar or differ can be a very illuminating exercise, e.g., in extrapolations from an accountant’s meticulous adherence to application/interview formats and procedures to comparable on-the-job meticulous attention to detail and regulatory requirements.

These are the job-hunting and job-performance roles of each of the six distinct chess pieces:

  • Pawn: A lone Pawn [capitalized, along with the other piece names, here to designate a personality type, as well as a chess piece], the smallest piece, like a lone soldier or young Alice, has very little power—certainly much less than any other piece, ironically second only to the all-important King (who can move only one square in any direction). Pawns, on a board or in the job market, are like advancing soldier ants—marching straight ahead, one step at a time, unless there is something to grab off immediately abreast of their paths, until they sacrifice themselves or are rewarded with huge promotions (of the sort dangled for Alice by the Red Queen).

Job hunting like a Pawn means cautiously applying for just one job at a time, maybe even obsessing about it as you follow the application process steps in linear succession. Highly vulnerable, Pawn job hunters are cautious, circumspect and not especially audacious.

No parallel processing here, e.g., multiple job applications. But if a parallel opportunity presents itself, i.e., a job capture, the Pawn will seize it, if it doesn’t cost more than it gains.

On a chess board, a Pawn is prepared to sacrifice itself for the greater good and strategic advantage of its team. In human job-performance terms, this predisposition would be exemplified by a loyal subordinate who knows his supervisor may put his head on the block, if necessary, but reward him with promotion if he stays in the game long enough.

In the interviewing process, the Pawn is likely to be the most accommodating, e.g., willing to reschedule on short, very inconvenient notice or uncomplainingly wait for a delayed interview.

A job candidate or employee with the attributes of diffidence, caution, loyalty, predisposition to self-sacrifice, limited capacity for interference and with huge promotion potential is a perfect human Pawn.

Think corporate “yes man”.

  • Bishop: More powerful than a Pawn by one rank, a Bishop can move diagonally on its color, as far as the first obstacle or capture. Like a pawn, a Bishop has some serious limitations; it too can’t jump over anybody to make a move or get ahead. Strictly a linear thinker, unable to think or move outside its field (the color of its square or box, and along diagonals only), the bishop is your go-to guy for big and small moves alike, but only along an operational monorail, so to speak.

       A terrific point man, he can also stay close to protect your back and other team members or venture far afield to make a strategic strike. Presidential press secretary comes to mind here.

Working for the King, a workplace Bishop or press secretary will maneuver to sacrifice team pawns before sacrificing himself, without straying off course or off-rail.

When job hunting, a Bishop can forge boldly ahead, or back off when pushing too hard or when it is otherwise smart to do so. On that hunt, just as when on the job, the Bishop is a charging bull—powerful, far-ranging, but very linear and therefore likely to pursue a single job opportunity until the point of conquest or crash.

Likewise, in job hunting, interviewing and on the job, a pure Bishop type can be expected to carefully gauge how big or small a move to make, in terms of how big a pay raise to seek, how far to push the job-description envelope, etc.

  • Knight:  When I play chess, the first piece I try to eliminate is an opponent’s Knight—preferably both of them. Of all the pieces, the Knight is the one with the most complex, least “linear”, hardest to block moves and most capable of making shocking and vexatious moves—all because of two attributes: It moves in an “L” pattern and can jump other pieces.

Translated into human terms a Knight employee is one, like the more powerful Queen, whose reach extends in all directions—actually in a wide circle of simultaneous control and influence over workspace and workforce, irrespective of who or what stands between him and those or that which he controls or is aspiring to control.

Even when his move pattern is well understood, the Knight will consistently surprise interviewers, colleagues, supervisors and/or employers because of the non-linearity, “lateral thinking” nature of the moves.

An excellent occupational niche for a Knight is that of ambitious think-outside-the-box creative in an advertising agency, whose interviews and job performance are equally likely to take some unpredictable, often brilliant, turns and twists, yet with a wide range of influence over his or her work group and with the juice to jump over intermediaries, chains of command and queues to reach his targeted individuals.

  • Rook: Like a Bishop, the rook is very linear, but with a greater reach, because it can move both horizontally along rows and vertically along columns (but not diagonally) as far as the first obstacle or capture, without, unlike the Bishop, being limited to one square color. Translated into job-hunt terms, this means simultaneous pursuit of more than one job territory and opportunity. During a job interview, a Rook will offer bold, confident, parallel displays of complementary talents.

       In terms of job performance, the Rook is a linear multitasker, who can forge ahead in two dimensions and cover more varied and distant territory in one move than the Bishop or Knight, but without the capacity for outside-the-box (row/column), jump the chain performance of the always surprising Knight.

       Suitable occupation and style: executive, multitasking legal secretary.

  • Queen: Clearly, in terms of reach and control, viz., a maximum of 28 squares on an empty board, the Queen trumps everybody else on (the) board. Her patterns of moves combine those of a Bishop and of a Rook (which can control a maximum of 14 and 15 squares, respectively). This is why Alice says, “I wish I could become a Queen!Nonetheless, the Queen has a limitation: She cannot jump over others the way a Knight can.

So, what happens when you interview or hire a Queen? Of course, expect maximum power plays and displays—both during the vetting and post-hire. Whether the applicant/employee actually is a Queen is entirely separate from the question of whether that’s the self-image on the table, since a sense of entitlement is not always based on a right to it.

Clues that one is dealing with a (self-presumed) Queen include requests or expectations of special exemptions and considerations during the screening process, e.g., rescheduling at the Queen’s convenience; unusually blunt remarks or very impressive displays of capability matched with very strong credentials (on the positive side of the ledger).

Of course, if the postulated job search-job performance correlation holds for a particular candidate, more of the same—good and bad—can be expected from a Queen on the job.

  • King: The chess King is a paradoxical figure: On the one hand, the King is the one piece that can never be sacrificed—his survival and the checkmating of his rival being the ultimate rationale of the game. On the other hand, the King’s value utterly dwarfs his power, since not only can he move only one square at a time in any direction, but also cannot move into “check”, a line of attack from a rival’s piece and is obliged to retreat when cornered that way.

In employment terms, a King job applicant or employee will be perceived to be, like a chess King, critically “important”, in his [or her] own eyes or in the estimation of the company, but, in fact, very limited in potential for concrete contributions and achievements within the organization. Interpreted in business terms, these characteristics suggest someone suitable for an advisory or figurehead role on a board—of the corporate, rather than wooden kind.

King job-candidate types include nepotistic placements, e.g., the useless nephew of the CEO who wants him given the upcoming internship or a retired world champion boxer, past his or her prime, hired for image, reputation, draw-power and status, despite being over the hill professionally.  

Once on the job, the King, if a useless relative, can turn his job into an unproductive sinecure, or, if a retired superstar, very favorably impact the bottom line, even if severely limited in the kinds and scope of moves he can make.

Of course each of these chess-piece workplace personas is a narrowly-defined, chess rule-specified abstract type.  Real job hunters and employees will, for sure, have elements of more than piece in their personas.

However, if a given candidate or employee has a clear cluster of traits more closely associated with one of the chess-piece types rather than any of the others, the chess nomenclature can provide a compact code for describing, explaining, correlating and predicting his or her behavior.

On the HR side, for example, “We need a Knight, but are getting only Bishops in this round of interviews.” Or from the co-worker perspective: “Just as I expected, the new Wharton M.B.A. we hired is trying to coast and rest on his academic laurels by playing ‘King’ on this project; so, either one of us is going to have to take up the slack, blow the whistle on him or talk to him, if we expect something better than a stalemate or a loss on this. Why don’t you play ‘White Knight’, outflank and jump over him by having a chat with the project manager?”

As for the job hunter, knowing when to present oneself in an interview as primarily a Pawn, rather than a Queen, can make the difference between being hired or not.

Having a unique chess-based vocabulary like this may put workplace, job hunt and hiring issues into an entirely different and useful management and job-hunter perspective; and, as for dealing with problems, even if the piece-based classification doesn’t win the job, prevent a given problem or offer any solutions, there will be one consolation.

At least you’ll be able to get your complaint or your worries off your chess.


Like this article? Subscribe today! We also offer tons of free eBooks on career and recruiting topics - check out Get a Better Job the Right Way and Why It Matters Who Does Your Recruiting.
in Job Search]