Tuesday, April 21, 2015

April 21, 2015: The Right Way to Handle Disappointment at Work

I recently changed employers.  On my first day on the job, around lunch, I met someone on my team.  When we were introduced, I was my normal friendly self.  The person I met was more than a little aloof.

The next day someone mentioned that the aloof person had applied for the job I got.  I was the external candidate, he was the internal candidate.  The moment he learned he did not get the job was the moment he met me.

This was not intentional.  The manager intended to let him know he had not been selected once my hire status was clear.  When that happened, he was on vacation.  His first day back was my first day on the job.

The guy, who I'll call Clark, might have been very upset outside of work.  At work, he quietly went about his business and continued doing great work.  He put in his 2 weeks notice about a week after I started.  The two events are connected, of course, but more in a personal sense than a business sense.

Since Clark put in his notice, Clark has come to me to tell me about known issues.  We have investigated a year-old problem together, found its cause and enough data to go to an outside source to get it fixed.  He has put effort into a project that will benefit the whole team after he leaves.  And he has been generally quite friendly and a good team member.

I take a few things from Clark's example:
1) When things don't go well, leave your work disappointment at the door.  The company has already moved on; you should, too.
2) Continue to be excellent.  Sulking and pouting are counter-productive to any future meeting between you and people from the company.  Build the bridges, even as you cross over them.
3) For Clark, his application came at a time when he needed to change jobs for family reasons.  When he didn't get it, he put his family first and moved on.

As Clark leaves, I'm sad to see him go.  I wish him all the best in his future work, and I'm sure he wishes us the best as well.  If only every disappointing situation could go so well.

Monday, April 13, 2015

April 13, 2015: When Do You Give Up?

The obvious, and incorrect, answer is, "Never!"  Countless books and well-meaning people describe the person who never (never, ever, ever) gives up as the ultimate winner.

Well, hang on.  Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic swimmer in the history of the world.  Has he given up on Theoretical Physics?  How has his charcoal portraiture skill improved over time?  Has he learned to speak Russian yet?

You see, no one can do everything.  Firstly, no one has time.  Secondly, there are things that deep down, you know you are no good at.  They just don't fit your temperament.  You may not be a person who is a good leader, and you know it.  You probably should not go into management if that's the case.  You may be a person who is good with big picture, and terrible with details.  You would make a bad CPA, although you might make a good CPA manager.

I have a good friend who tends to get over-involved.  She joined a professional organization a while ago because she had never done that kind of thing before.  Why not try something a little out of her comfort zone, she thought.  So she did, and she liked it.  She got to know the leadership of the club, and when they asked if she'd like to become part of the leadership team, she was excited by the opportunity.

Time passed.  The person she was taking over for left the leadership team (his term was over, it was all planned), and there she was: a responsible person in a professional organization.  And she hated it.  The role she was recruited for was not something she was good at, and she knew it.  She thought about her responsibilities all the time, she even had bad dreams about things going badly.  Her mild social anxiety blew up when it was time to meet with the team.

The worst part about it was this, though: she does not fail often.  She made a few changes in how she approached the job, but none of them worked.  After several months, she thought long and hard about the whole situation.  How would I feel as the club's president if someone had done such a poor job?  How would I feel as another member of the leadership team if someone else was completely shirking her responsibilities?

And she realized: I would fire me.

And then she thought: can I do better?

And she realized: I don't think so.

And that was when she knew she had to resign.  She did not resign because she didn't want to try.  She resigned because she wanted to help the club, but knew she was not up to the task.  The club would be better served by someone else.  So she wrote a resignation letter, stating her regrets and apologies, and assuring the president of the club that the entire leadership team was fantastic.

It was hard to write, but it was the right thing to do.  As soon as she send the email, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders.  A weight of expectation, a weight of failure, a weight of self-recrimination.

The answer to the question of when is it right to give up is going to be different for different people and situations.  In this case, a recognition that the she was the wrong person for the job was enough.  It might be that your family pulls you in a certain direction, and you can't pursue a hobby any more.  Perhaps you realize you simply can not work with that guy.  Perhaps the task at hand gives you immense stress and no satisfaction.  There are many valid reasons for giving up.  But successful people don't look for reasons to give up.  The reasons smack them across the face and say, "You got any reason to think I'm wrong????"  And the successful person looks the reason in the eyes and replies, after some thought, "I suppose not."

And maybe what she did might not be called giving up.  It might be called recognizing one's limits.  It might be called refocusing.  But it was also giving up.  Calling it a different name didn't make it easier for her.

And it was still the right thing to do.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January 30, 2015: Trick Questions

I was chatting with a colleague recently about questions to ask a potential hire.  He had a personalized list he used.  He does not ask a candidate about their 5 strengths and weaknesses.  He does ask about a difficult situation and how the candidate handled it.  It's a good list.  It doesn't go down the standard "check the box if you asked this" list that most companies have.  Prepared candidates already have good answers for these.

I was impressed with 2 things he did.  The first is that he gave adequate time.  Half an hour on the phone is not enough time to gather sufficient information to make a good decision, unless the person simply fails.  Any competent candidate can pass a 30-minute interview, and the interview has simply wasted her time.  This manager gives an hour.  It's a structured hour, as well.  He gives a few minutes to introduce himself, asks the candidate if she has any questions, and then the interview starts.  It's more a conversation.  At 45 minutes in, the interview stops and asks the candidate if she has more questions.  When those questions are satisfied, the interviewer wraps up, and closes the call with 5 minutes to spare.  This is a great time model to follow as an interviewer.

The focus of this post, however, is on 2 trick questions.  The first is this, and I'll give you the setup to the question as well so you understand the full effect: "We're all under pressure today to get more done.  We have to multitask to accomplish more; it's a valuable skill.  How do you know when it's appropriate to multitask?"  The interviewer has done a few things here, and the question is tricky.  The interviewer has:

  1. stated a fact (we're under pressure)
  2. stated an opinion as fact (we have to multitask)
  3. asked a question about the candidate's judgment.

There's another thing he has done, though: the interviewer doesn't like multitasking.  He recognizes that failing to focus on the task at hand limits productivity.  The 4th thing he has done is test if the candidate a) thinks multitasking is useful and b) if the candidate is willing to state an opinion that is contrary to the interviewer's opinion.

In answering the question, the candidate will tell the interviewer not only when it is appropriate to multitask (the correct answer is "almost never" in study after study), but also if he is willing to contradict his boss.  Assuming the candidate is informed on this particular topic, does he have the guts to say so?  After the candidate answers, the interviewer relays a story about multitasking demonstrating how bad it can be.  Then there's another test for the candidate if he said that multitasking was good: does he equivocate to agree with the interviewer now?  And is he doing it in a boot-licking way, or has he demonstrated an ability to learn?

A boot-licking way: "Right, that's what I was trying to say before."
An ability to learn: "Interesting.  I have noticed that same thing happen before, but hadn't put it together that way.  Thanks for pointing that out."

I love that question.  Sure, the setup is a bit disingenuous, but boy is the answer informative!

Here's the 2nd trick question the interviewer uses: "In your skilled line of work, how do you rate your skill level against your peers on a scale of 1-10?"

An arrogant and inexperienced person might rate himself a 9 or 10.  "I'm the best," he might say.  That implies that he has little or nothing to learn from those around him, which is hogwash.  There is no one who knows everything, and someone who thinks he does know it all is going to be very hard to coach.  Someone who answers with a 2 obviously has a crisis of confidence.  You don't want that person, either.

A good answer might be 7.  A person who considers himself competent, but recognizes the importance of learning from others.  This interviewer typically asks the candidate to elaborate on the thought process to get to that number.  Again, this is a psychological test for fit.  It is not at all an evaluation of the individual's skill.  It is an evaluation of the person's willingness to learn and confidence to perform.

As you interview candidates, think of some good questions.  Questions that seem to ask one thing, but are evaluating something else.

"You are due at a customer meeting at 10.  It is 9:40 and you are half an hour away.  What do you do?"  This question assumes you did not plan well (you didn't leave on time), although it appears to be a question about customer management.  Does the candidate roll with the assumption that she is late?  A good candidate might say, "First, I plan appropriately so this situation doesn't come up.  Then..."

"You job duties require you to know the answer to every question in your area of technical expertise.  Failure to make a decision on the spot can cost the company millions of dollars.  You are faced with a question that you can't answer with certainty right away.  What is your decision?"  Is this a candidate who makes decisions without all the facts?  Does she realize that not making a decision can cost millions, but making the wrong decision can cost tens of millions?  Is she smart enough to know what she doesn't know and ask for help?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January 21, 2015: The Squirrel in My Living Room

I was in my living yesterday morning going through my morning routine when some motion caught my eye.  I turned to look at it, and found a squirrel staring at me.  What is a squirrel doing in my house?  And how did it get here?  And how do I get it out before I go to work this morning?

It was my first problem of the day.

I ignored it at first.  This was a conscious decision, and is a simple way to start solving problems.  No, it's not "ignore it and hope it goes away".  That would be ridiculous in this case, as all the doors and windows were closed.  Instead, it was an admission that I didn't know exactly what to do.  I needed more information before I could take action.  So I waited.  The squirrel walked over to the wood box next to the fireplace, and seemed comfortable enough in there for a bit.  I continued ignoring it.  A few minutes later I heard some crashing from the breakfast nook and I went to see what was going on.  The squirrel was climbing up through a birdhouse on the window seat, and jumping from the top of the birdhouse at the screen window.  Our windows open out, so the screens are on the inside.

So this, finally, was information I could use.  The squirrel did want to get outside, liked the birdhouse, and wanted to jump instead of walk.  I walked over to the window, removed the screen, opened the window wide enough for the squirrel to leave.  During this process, I scared it, and it jumped right past me, and that's when I noticed it was a flying squirrel.  I'd never knowingly seen one.  It was pretty cool.

The squirrel had run back to the living room, so I followed it.  It wandered back to the breakfast nook, where it climbed a different place and tried to fly out a different window.  It gave up on that window, and ignored the window I had kindly opened for it.  It tried to leave the breakfast nook, but I stood in its way.  It certainly could have run past me, but it was too scared.  Another key data point.  At this point I was hopeful this would be over soon.  It ran into the window seat, and tried to fly out another window.  It tried to leave the nook again.  I blocked it again.  Finally, it went back to the birdhouse and jumped into the open window.  And then it wiggled out of the open window.  And I resumed my morning, problem solved.

I think the practical applications of this experience are powerful.  When faced with a surprising situation, many of us will make decisions and take actions immediately.  If we have not encountered this exact situation before, that's not a good idea.  The first thing to come to mind when something new happens is, "Do I understand this situation well enough to take reliably positive action?  What are the risks and rewards of immediate action?"  I could have run through the house, opened all the windows and doors and waited for the squirrel to leave.  But I ran the risk of not seeing it go.  If I didn't see it go, it could still be in my house when I left for work, and I could have a movie-ready squirrel-ravaged home when I returned.  In the mean time, it was below freezing outside, and my house would get cold.

So I was able to define my problem a little better as I ignored it and let my mind think through the consequences and parameters of my problem.

  1. The squirrel wants to get outside (that's an assumption since I can't ask it).  
  2. It wants to leave by jumping instead of walking.
  3. It is scared of me.
  4. I can't catch it.

Some of these parameters are limiting.  Not being able to ask the squirrel what it wants and not being able to catch it are limits to my problem solving.  But knowing it was scared and that it wanted to jump out of the house provided good guidance for a solution.  By providing a place to exit the house via jumping and then using the squirrel's fear of me, I was able to effectively corral a wild rodent and make it do what we both wanted it to do.

Most of our problems can follow a similar pattern:

  1. Notice the problem
  2. Evaluate the problem: have you solved this particular problem before?  If not, what are the consequences to leaving it unsolved for now?  Unsolved permanently?
  3. Evaluate possible solution limits: what actions are possible?  Which are impossible?
  4. What other guiding factors can help you to shape your solution?  Are there people with specific expertise available to help you with technical solutions?  How does the problem want to be solved?
  5. What solutions appear within the confines of the limits and guiding factors you have discovered?  Are these solutions reasonable?  If so, you can take action.  If not, it's likely time to revisit the limits and guiding factors.

Eventually, this loop will usually provide you with a solution.  There are some problems that simply cannot be solved, and those are things we have to live with.  More on that next time.

Monday, January 19, 2015

January 19, 2015: Making it look easy

I recently joined a local Toastmasters group.  After a few meetings, I understood how they were supposed to flow, and I signed up to give the first speech.  It's called "The Icebreaker", and it is a self-introduction.  It's a short speech, 4-6 minutes, and should be memorized.  But as with all things I've seen so far at Toastmasters, memorization is optional.

I did not dread the speech.  Audiences don't bother me as a rule, although I do tend to pick topics and examples that are close to my heart, and I tend to get emotional when I talk about such things.  This is a key problem of mine when writing a speech.

I'm pleased to report it went well.  Feedback was honestly positive, and I got some good pointers on future improvements.  You know how these things go - you are supposed to give lots of positive feedback and a couple small pointers of things "you might want to think about for next time".  The comments were very positive, and one of them that stuck with me was that the evaluator said it came naturally to me.  Few things are further from the truth.  This is how I prepare for a public speaking engagement, or any time when the words I say are important and getting them wrong has real consequences.

I signed up for the speech in December, knowing I couldn't deliver it until mid-January.  From the moment I signed up for it, I thought about it.  It was in my mind constantly.  This is the first step in preparation for me: know it has to be done; think about for a few minutes; let it stew for a few weeks.  Although it appears that I'm not working on it, I have assigned some space in my brain for it, and my subconscious churns through it while I'm not paying attention.  We all do this to some degree or another.  This is why we may suddenly think, "I know what I want to do with the bathroom!" when we last talked about it 6 months ago.  I use this technique consciously, and I've done it enough that I have a good idea of how the size of the task measures up against the amount of time I have to spend to prepare my mind to work on it.  10-20 minutes of working through possible approaches one evening in December was about right for a 5 minute speech in January.

I sat down last week to write it.  This is the next step.  Make time, sit down, and get your subconscious' results on paper.  While I liked the content, the speech was WAY too long.  And the next day, I wasn't impressed with the approach.  The stories were fine, but they weren't pointed in a direction I liked.  This is hard to describe.  But say you're telling a story about opening gifts at Christmas.  The focus of your story could be on the thoughts of the people who bought the gifts; or on the reaction of the people opening them; or the plight of the Chinese factory workers who made them; or grandma's hair; or the mess you had to clean up afterward.  It's the same story, but points in a different direction.

So I had a rough draft, serviceable, but not what I wanted.  And I stepped away again.  Sometimes you have the luxury of doing that: of making a rough draft and letting it sit some more.  Preparation allows that time.  Often in business environments, we don't have the luxury of waiting.  But we do have the option of thinking about what we might need to create in the next few months and letting our minds percolate on it.

I sat down this morning to write another draft.  I knew it could only be 3 pages double-spaced, max.  And I knew how long it would take me to write something of that length on a topic I knew as well as I knew myself.  An hour later, it was done.  I read it through.  5:58 vs a tie limit of 6:00.  Not good.  I crossed out a few lines, read through it again, and went off to do something else.  I came back to it later, and tried to give the speech, using my notes as little as possible.  Then I did it without notes.  There were some things I noticed on my previous reads that I thought might not translate for the audience.  So I fixed them in the memorized version.  It ran to 8:45 before I checked my time.

Oh no.  Panic time.  Ok, not panic, but "how do I systematically reduce this and still keep the weight of the subject matter in tact?"  My topic was a self introduction, but I themed it along the choices we make and how they define us.  My next attempt was shorter at 5:35.  By this point, after a month of percolating ideas and stories, 2 drafts, 3 runs reading it, and 3 runs memorized, I felt ready enough.  I drove to the meeting location early and did a run in the car.  5:30 or so.  I was ready.

For a topic I didn't know so well, memorizing would have been much more difficult.  For this one, it was easier.  I was not natural when I was practicing.  I stumbled over words, corrected myself, skipped key points and went back to them.  But practice makes better, and better is good.

I use these techniques often in the workplace.  Before every important presentation, I block time in a conference room alone to rehearse.  Before every single difficult performance evaluation I deliver, I take 15 minutes or so to remind myself of the key points of discussion and they way I want to frame my constructive criticism.  What objections will the person likely have?  How should I respond to them?  For any disciplinary action, I set aside a full hour, preferably the day before the action.

Why?  Why is it so important?  Because of this fact: you are the manager, and it is that important to the person you are talking to.  You owe them that much respect and that much time.  What you are doing and saying can change that person's entire career.  You had better take it seriously.

And that is how you make it look easy.  It's not easy.  And it is necessary.  And it is worth it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

December 26, 2014: A Few Steps Away From the Office

We all hear about work-life balance.  In the last few years, with the advent of ubiquitous laptops and smartphones, the more accurate phrase is work-life integration.  Both intrude on each other.  Some days you'll be at the office until 8.  Some days you'll leave the office at 3 for a parent teach conference or take 3 hours in the middle of the day to have tires installed.  

This post is not about work-life integration.   Take a few steps away from the office.  Separate yourself from your work.  

This Christmas I was able to spend Christmas in person with my teenage son with a visit from my brother and video chat with the rest of my family.  It was such a different experience.  We did not get a tree.  We bought some poinsettias, and put one in the middle of the living room with Christmas lights in it.  The gifts went there, of course.  We woke up late, and after our Christmas morning gift thing, we played video games together.  Our current favorite is Crash Team Racing, a game from 1999 on the original Play Station that we play on the PS3 now.  

In the afternoon, we put a ham in the oven and then took a nap.  Then we made doughnuts.  Real doughnuts.  You make the dough, then let it raise for an hour.  Then you form it into doughnuts and let it raise for another hour.  Then you put them in 375 deg oil for 1 minute per side, and put them on paper plates with paper towels.  Then you add the glaze.  They are crunchy, and when still warm they are amazing.  Unlike Krispy Kreme or Dunkin, the dough isn't very sweet.  I had 4.  

As I sat there, a chunk of warm ham in one hand, a warm glazed doughnut in the other and my son across the table from me, I felt that Jack London-Herman Melville-Ernest Hemingway feeling.  You know it.  "This is life," I said to my son.  The feeling would have found place in a king's hall with a tankard of ale in a fantasy novel, on the open sea with a Viking.  And it found me in my cozy dining room with my son, eating our fresh pastries and plotting how we'd blow each other up with missiles while racing.

To be sure, I have had many years of enjoyable work.  Sometimes even joyous work.  My chosen career path, however, is not primal.  And it's good to get to that primal place sometimes.  So I suppose cooking is primal for me.  What is primal for you?  When do you feel like you can look up at the sky and shout, "THIS IS LIFE!"?  Do you know?  When was the last time you did it?  

How soon will you do it again?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

December 24, 2014: Your Executive and You

It's Christmas Eve!  Just to be contrary, I took yesterday off from the blog and instead will cover a somewhat esoteric topic, I think: the work life of an executive.

The news (and office scuttlebutt) often make the work life of an executive sound easy and fun: you travel, meet people, get paid well, and sometimes the company will even pay you when they fire you.  The reality is different.

Yes, you travel (you miss your kids' soccer games).  Yes, you meet people (and if they are customers and don't like you, it could sink your business).  Yes, you get paid well.  No different reality for that one, that part is true.  Most executives don't get golden parachutes.  They are often given the chance to resign instead of be fired.  Executives are married to the company.  They have 16,000 things (my favorite number to convey limitlessness) going on at the same time.  People call them at all hours of the day and night, and they have to be available for emergency phone conferences 24/7.  Romantic dinner with your spouse?  Customer emergency in Singapore!  Saturday morning soccer game with your buddies?  HR needs you in a disciplinary action meeting! Leave your cell phone at home when you go on vacation?  I don't think so!

The reality of an executive's work life is that she has a huge set of responsibilities, and there is no possible way she will know every thing going on in her operation.  The VP has meetings all day long - budget strategy sessions, revenue opportunity meetings, IT project updates, customer escalations, personnel disciplinary meetings, operation status updates, training planning, you name it, it's part of the executive's portfolio of responsibilities.  Most of the day is spent going from meeting to meeting and making decisions based on snippets of data.

Even though you and your team spend all day every day on a certain project, the exec doesn't have an hour to hear all of the important things you're doing.  She has 10 other people with projects to talk about today.  Yours is probably not the most important one.  But the exec will try to make you feel like it is.  That is also part of the job description.

Given this reality, executives have fundamental bandwidth issues.  They gather a trusted cadre of lieutenants who receive, filter, and pass along important information.  These lieutenants know what words like "risky" and "potential" and "troublesome" mean to the executive.  Some are more risk-averse than others.  Each has his own areas of expertise and areas of ignorance.  Some will admit ignorance, some will fake competence or deny ignorance.  They must trust the team to give them good information.

When the exec goes out into the company to speak with the likes of you, she may not realize that you don't know what "risky" means to her.  If you use that word casually because it's not a hot-button for you but it is to her, you may get a sudden case of executive attention.

Or if the executive is in a project status update meeting and sees something she doesn't understand (why would the Toledo office be so far behind in training?), she may ask a question to the presenter.  Because the exec knows she doesn't know everything that's going on, a random audit is a simple way to keep people on their toes.  She'll ask a question.  It could be anywhere, about anything.  Sometimes she's only curious.  Sometimes she's concerned.  Her close circle will be able to tell which it is.  The purpose is just to keep everyone on their toes and prepared for such questions.

If such a question comes down to you, your best bet to answer it is usually not to give the executive a call.  Your best bet is usually to call one of the exec's close circle, ask some questions to clarify what the concern is.  The Toledo office is behind in training.  Is the executive concerned that the management team is not leading that effort?  Concerned that the training quality is perceived so low that the team doesn't prioritize it?  That the IT system that delivers the training has been unreliable lately, and maybe the team can't get the training?  You know the answer, of course.  But you don't know the question.  So you call the person who does have 30 minutes to talk to you about a specific issue, understand why you are being asked the question, and then you can prepare a reply.

The most important thing to realize about your executive team is this: they are all humans.  They all have 24 hours in a day.  They are usually pretty smart.  And they are fallible.  And ignorant about large swaths of your company's detailed operations.  So when you interact with them, prepare yourself to speak in a condensed form, get right to the point, ask for any help you need, and let them go!  Hopefully they have other issues that are more pressing than yours, and you can get their help to get your job done.