How to Hire an Innovator and Change Agent


iStock_000017017468XSmallEvery week I talk with organizations who are looking for a change agent–someone with creativity and drive, and a proven track record of kicking new initiatives into high gear.

Why do they come to me?

Because hiring managers are beginning to realize that the skills required to create a track record of success in good times (any time before 2008) are different than the skills needed since the downturn began. Managers have been disappointed by candidates who spoke eloquently about innovation in the interview but failed to deliver results. At Staffing Advisors, we live and breathe innovation. We see it up close every day within our firm, and across hundreds of searches, we’ve learned what to look for when we interview people for our clients.

So how do you weed out the hacks and the phonies during the interview process? How do you find people who are delivering results right now? Here are five of our best articles on how to hire an innovator: 

  1. How to Interview an Innovator – How can you accurately discern from the interview how a candidate will perform on the job? Separate the real deal innovators from the poseurs and empty suits with these methods.
  2. Hiring People Who Can Handle Ambiguity – Innovators often excel at ambiguous and complicated grey-area tasks. But to effectively understand how candidates handle ambiguity don’t ask,”Tell me about a time you were in an ambiguous situation.” It won’t work. Try this instead.
  3. Hiring People Who Have a Growth Mindset – A survivalist mentality crept into some workplaces, characterized by fear and risk aversion.  This outlook is counter to what’s needed to jump start growth. Here are 5 important qualities needed in people who lead growth initiatives.
  4. Don’t Believe Everything You Think – If you’re looking for an innovator, be sure to hire candidates who demonstrate successful adaptation to rapid change. What distinguishes these people? They are the ones who consistently challenge your organization’s out-dated assumptions, the ones that take the time to constantly view problems from new perspectives. Is an innovator really going to be an effective change agent for your organization if they can’t do this regularly?
  5. Why Do Change Agents Often Fail? – After you successfully identify and hire a real deal innovator, you’re not out of the woods yet – studies show that up to 70% of change initiatives fail. Fortunately, you can dramatically improve your odds using these insights from the field of neuroscience.

If all these articles make you begin to think that innovation is more perspiration than inspiration, then you are on the right track.

When Hiring, Should You Ask for Salary Requirements? It Depends on the Market.


resume2I’ve talked a lot recently about how employers need to adapt to the rise of mobile job seekers – especially by making the application process less painful. Let’s tackle a related job-seeker frustration – asking that salary history be included with an applicant’s resume. A recent job seeker – who is underpaid in their current position – asked me “Is it possible to fulfill this request without revealing this information? Or do I have no choice but to disclose it?” With the job market recovering, job seekers are concerned that your compensation strategy just involves tacking on an additional 10% to their undervalued recession salary, keeping them behind the curve.

If you’re looking for a candidate with highly competitive skills, remove the salary history requirement. Asking for a salary history is instantly off-putting. High-quality, in-demand candidates will tune out and not complete the application process. And why should they? They’re being heavily recruited by other organizations that didn’t put up as many hurdles in the initial application. And they’ll likely take it as an attempt to lowball a salary offer, and steer clear.

Is the market for the position particularly scarce, where every application you get counts? Then don’t be such a stickler for the rules that you will instantly disqualify a top performer because they chose not to include the required salary history. You may have overlooked someone perfect for your organization. And odds are they didn’t include it because they want to ensure that your compensation philosophy is market-based – not based on their salary history.

Now, I’m aware that not all positions and budgets require a top performer, and not all positions are lacking in highly qualified candidates. If you’re looking to fill a dime-a-dozen position in a market with a plethora of talent, you can probably get away with including salary history in your application process. You get market data for free – so you can easily narrow applicants down to those that meet your budget. Candidates will still find the question off-putting, but the resulting few that drop out of the application process likely won’t damage your chances of finding someone to fill the position. It’s much more destructive to your chances when there’s market scarcity for the needed position.

Recently I spoke with an HR executive who had just filled out a frustrating application.  She said, “I implemented all these labor-saving components into my Applicant Tracking System, but I didn’t realize what a terrible experience the candidates were having as a result.”

Go test this – apply for a job in your own company and see if you give up before completing the application process. If you’ve instituted multiple requirements or labor saving measures, I’m betting you’ll walk away with a headache – especially if salary history is only one of many hurdles. Now imagine how many top performers did the same thing for all your past open positions.  Your search for talent might be easier (and maybe more successful) if you lower your organization’s initial barriers to entry.

Determining Salary for a New Hire? Think Like a Compensation Pro


woman with stack moneySalary negotiations with top performers are a pivotal time in the hiring process. As an employer, it’s easy to forget that the candidate is not yet one of your employees. You can create or destroy trust, and set the tone for your entire employment relationship by how skillfully you negotiate salary. Sadly, salary negotiations are also where hiring managers risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Job seekers now have access to credible salary information, so you need to assume they know the market for their skills as well, or better than the hiring manager.

Early in a new search, and again at the offer stage, we talk with hiring mangers about what kind of salary they plan to offer the candidate. In those conversations, it appears that many hiring managers struggle to find a framework to talk strategically about compensation. Fortunately, most experts agree on what factors you should consider in discussing compensation. I’ll share some of those factors below, but remember that salary is not everything–it’s also important to understand how salaries fit into your total reward strategy. See, “Are You Ready to Explain Your Compensation Strategy (Coherently?)” 

Before we start with the expert recommendations, let’s first dispense with two common, but really counterproductive salary negotiation tactics:

The weakest logic I hear from hiring managers is when, in generating a job offer, they say, “I just looked at the candidate’s previous compensation and added 10%.” This flawed approach demonstrates that the manager has no compensation strategy of their own. They are simply hoping the candidate’s last company had a smart compensation strategy; otherwise they compound the very mistake that caused that employee to consider leaving.

Another salary negotiation tactic that’s certain to backfire is to low-ball a job offer to a top performer and expect that they are either: a) poorly informed enough to accept it; or b) willing to keep negotiating after a bad-faith move from the hiring manager. Taking this approach overlooks the big picture of compensation–you need to pay fairly because other employers are hotly competing for the very same people. Only desperate people accept a low-ball job offer. Top performers will simply go elsewhere–to find an employer that understands their market value and does not play games with their pay.

You simply can’t wing it in these conversations – money is too much of a hot-button issue. Follow Dan Pink’s advice from his book Drive:

“The best use of money is to take the issue of money off the table . . . Effective organizations compensate people in amounts and in ways that allow individuals to mostly forget about compensation and instead focus on the work itself.”

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Are You Ready to Explain Your Compensation Strategy (Coherently?)


Hands of two men counting, giving and taking dollars (Count money)Transparency is vital when discussing how you will compensate and reward top performers. But research shows that the majority of managers do not understand their own organization’s compensation philosophy. (And it’s pretty darn hard to transparently explain something you don’t understand yourself.) This was not a big problem until recently, because managers generally had access to better compensation information than job seekers, so they could wing it.

Those days will soon be over. Credible salary data was once the exclusive province of employers, who paid dearly for it. Now it is available to job seekers at a very reasonable cost.

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” -Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak at the first Hackers Conference, circa 1984.

Whatever your opinion of hacker conferences, Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, they illustrate a fact of modern life: information gets out. And salary data is no different.

Read the rest of this entry »

And Now, For a Completely Different View of What Management Could Be


Future of WorkIn the late 1970’s Tracy Kidder captured a new kind of work ethic and (at the time) a novel kind of management when he wrote the business classic, “The Soul of a New Machine.” It was a rollicking good story about engineers building a new computer. The story was really about people, and teams, and how management could create a completely new culture where amazing work could occur. Long before we were using phrases like “knowledge workers” or referring to part of California as “Silicon Valley” he gave us a preview, a new choice really, of what leadership could look like.

Scott Berkun has done the same with his new book, “A Year Without Pants, WordPress and the Future of Work.” With warmth, humor, and finely crafted prose Berkun shares the story of his time working for Automattic, the tiny company behind WordPress–the 15th most popular website on the planet, hosting almost 20% of the top 10 million websites in the world.

Berkun is no passive observer in this story. After a decade working successfully as an author, he gave up that glorious life of freedom to work as a Project Manager at Automattic. He did actual work, and apparently did it well (having worked at Microsoft on Internet Explorer during the browser wars, he knew how to lead a technical project). His experience brings us gems of insight like, “The bottleneck is never code or creativity; it’s lack of clarity.” And, “Ambiguity makes everyone tolerant of incompetence.”

If you run a small firm, or manage people, or care about what the future of work might be, you’ll want to know this story. It should be required reading in business school. Not because Berkun makes any claims to know the future. There’s no way of knowing whether this book predicts the future, as Tracy Kidder did. Perhaps the set of open-source management principles he outlines will forever remain a wild outlier to traditional management theory. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Because his book will make you question assumptions you have not thought about in a very long time.

What’s it like to work in an open source culture? Berkun says Automattic is, “not managed at all in any conventional business sense.” The founder of Automattic, “went to great lengths to keep support roles like legal, HR and IT from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.”

Berkun illustrates both the bad and the good of working at Automattic with penetrating clarity. He shares that, “Meetings at Automattic were always qualified disasters. They happened so rarely, certainly in-person ones, and had so little urgency there was little pressure to get better at running them.”

There are also worthwhile insights into innovation and project management, “It’s never a surprise in great projects to find grueling work somewhere along the way … It sometimes takes ugly effort to make beautiful things.”

He offers insights into how to evaluate people, “The real story behind some people you meet with fantastic reputations isn’t notable talents or skills, but merely an exceptional ability to choose the right time to join and leave particular projects. The work of managers everywhere is rarely evaluated with enough consideration for the situation they inherited and the situations they faced that were not in their control.“

The book is a primer for how to be a project manager in an open source world. But don’t read the book today and expect to apply these lessons to your company tomorrow. Berkun cautions, “A great fallacy borne from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results.”  And this gem, “Often acquisitions create a paradox: they’re hard to fit into a company for the same reason they’re attractive to acquire. The thing you want to buy reflects a different way of thinking, which has value, but that difference is at odds with the culture you already have. Like an organ transplant, natural antibodies will fight against having the new organ fit in. And the more you do to force it in, the less of what you wanted to acquire in the first place remains. The vast majority of acquisitions fail for this reason.”

Fair warning, once you start the book, it will be hard to put down. And once you finish it, you’ll need some time to go away and think about it.

Want to use a Feedback Sandwich? Don’t You Dare.


two businessman with laptop discuss somethingIn a recent post in the Washington Business Journal, I interviewed Dr. Alice Waagen about how to be more effective when managing employee performance. She had some great insights into how the context of the performance conversation matters as much as the words you say. It’s a good read, check it out.  But we also talked about how much she detests the “Feedback Sandwich.”

Some managers struggle with praise, but more struggle with delivering criticism. One of the most commonly recommended techniques for more easily delivering criticism is the “Feedback Sandwich.” Simplistically, the idea is that you open your feedback meeting with praise of some aspect of your employee’s performance, follow it up with some criticism, and then end the feedback on another high note. It’s an idea Mary Poppins and her Spoonful of Sugar would love.

But Alice is no fan of The Sandwich. Here’s the problem as she sees it:

“According to research on listening and perception, after a lengthy conversation, the thing that is best retained is what is said last. If I sat you down for a meeting and said, “Bob, your customer is very happy, I love your enthusiasm and dedication…by the way you messed up the budget on this project. And I’m recommending you for a new project.” Which parts do you hear and remember? I’d remember the new project! You’re not improving performance, because your staff member will gravitate toward and focus on the compliments, while simultaneously shrinking the importance of your criticism.”

For different reasons, most researchers have arrived at the same conclusion: The Sandwich is a fundamentally flawed way of delivering performance feedback.  Much of the research comes down to how your brain interprets both positive and negative feedback. Some people are very focused on any praise they receive – which may also depend strongly on the management style of their supervisor. If the feedback provided by their manager is typically negative, then any positive praise may stick out. Or by contrast, maybe the positive feedback would go unheard if it’s surrounded by constant criticism. Stanford professor Clifford Nass makes this point:

“One fascinating side effect of the power of negativity is that you remember less of what is said before receiving criticism because negative remarks demand so much cognitive power that the brain cannot move the prior information into long-term memory”

No matter which cognitive theory you accept, it’s pretty useless to open with a small positive thing. It either won’t be remembered, or remembering it will potentially contribute to forgetting your constructive feedback.

The approach recommended by Dr. Nass sounds to me more like an Open-Faced Sandwich…maybe a Reuben. He suggests that you start with the important negative feedback, and then move onto a long list of praise (key word: long). Opening with “criticism will bring people to attention in time to listen to the praise,” but positive remarks are both less memorable and more readily disregarded in the face of criticism, so you’ll need that longer list of praise. The Open-Faced Sandwich grants you the opportunity to negate some of that natural anxiety that comes from receiving (and giving) criticism.

But even the Open-Faced Sandwich brings to mind what George Burns said, “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

The most devastating criticism of any kind of Sandwich is the insincerity of the conversational structure itself.  Roger Schwartz, writing in the Harvard Business Review, finds the Sandwich ridiculous, as it’s “designed to influence others without telling them what you’re doing — it is a unilaterally controlling strategy — in other words, a strategy that revolves around you influencing others, but not being influenced by them in return.” He then offers a simple thought experiment for determining whether the Sandwich (or any similar “non-transparent” strategy) is an effective way of doing things:

Imagine that you plan to use the sandwich approach with Alex and Stacey, two direct reports who just gave a presentation to your senior leadership team. To understand why you’re reluctant to share your strategy, take the transparency test — a thought experiment with three simple steps:

  1. Identify your strategy for the conversation. Your strategy is to start with some positive feedback to relax Alex and Stacey, then give them the negative feedback — the purpose of the meeting — and then end with more positive feedback so they won’t be so disappointed or angry.
  2. Imagine telling the people your strategy. You would say something like, “Alex and Stacey, I have some negative feedback to give you. I’ll start with some positive feedback to relax you, and then give you the negative feedback, which is the real purpose of our meeting. I’ll end with more positive feedback so you won’t be so disappointed or angry at me when you leave my office. How does that work for you?”
  3. Observe your reaction. Do you find yourself laughing at the absurdity of making your strategy transparent? If you think “I could never say that,” it’s because the strategy is unilaterally controlling: it is an attempt to control the situation without letting Alex and Stacey in on the plan. Unilateral control strategies only work when the other people don’t know your strategy or are willing to play along. And they are less effective than transparent strategies.

So if all forms of the Sandwich are a ridiculous way to give feedback, what do you do instead?

Consider the recommendations outlined in these two short articles:

But you probably want to grab a sandwich before you read them.

Hiring Usually Gets In the Way Just When You’re Trying to Get Something Done


avalancheIn a small organization, hiring gets in the way just when you’re trying to get something done. When you have your sights set on a new goal, you’re excited and ready to get moving! But then an avalanche of complexity rains down on you. You have to stop and write up a job description in that stiff  bureaucratic language loved only by lawyers. Then you need to get approval for the new job, budget for it by taking a wild guess at the salary (locking yourself into a salary before you have any idea what the good people actually cost). Next you have to write a job advertisement, think about how much you want to spend on the ad and think about where to post it. The whole business is uncomfortable, unfamiliar and extraordinarily time consuming.

Unfortunately, once you finally manage to post the job ad, things get even more complex. Now you have a stack of resumes to deal with. So you spend even more precious time sorting through and deciphering the resumes. Often the resumes that fit your ideal mental picture turn out to be terrible candidates. And you have the nagging feeling that buried in that stack of underwhelming resumes might be someone far better than their resume indicates, but should you spend even more effort sorting through hoping to find that diamond in the rough? Really, how many frogs must you kiss just on the hopes of finding a prince? You’ll probably just get warts – and lose more time. And the cherry on the top of the misery sundae is knowing that only 18% of fully-employed candidates will ever see your ad, no matter where you post it. Yup, 4 out of 5 people are busy working, and not reading job ads, so most of your ideal candidates never made it into that stack of resumes.

So you finally get to the bottom of the stack of resumes and look at the meager handful of candidates that meet some of your requirements. By this point, you’re only mildly depressed, so you begin interviewing the candidates. The first candidate arrives in your reception area. You shake their hand, bring them in, and look down at your notes. And only then do you realize that you really have no idea what to ask them about, or how to guage their answers. You don’t have a rigorous evaluation framework, no method to test the candidate’s credentials in critical areas. So you wing it, and hope you find a candidate who impresses you. But the skills that impress people in an interview are not necessarily the skills that make someone successful on the job.

Often, after all the interviews, nobody really impressed you. Exhausted by the prospect of starting everything over again, you decide instead to select one of the people you’ve already met, knowing they’re less than ideal. And since you settled for “the best of the worst,” you resign yourself to their inevitable mediocre job performance.  Of course, you would like to replace them with someone better, who wouldn’t? But, you did the best you could, and came up short, so hoping for better is futile. Of course pushing someone mediocre to meet your ideal goals is risky, so you stop bothering and accept what you get from them. After all, they would be miserably difficult to replace.

Yeah, in a small organization, no matter how many times you’ve gone through the hiring process, it just feels like you’re doing it for the first time, every time. Every position is different, so you can never approach hiring with real knowledge of who is available to you in the job market. You never actually know if you are looking at a representative sample of the best people who could do the job. You simply have nowhere to turn to ask if you should recruit more people, pay more, change the title, or rethink how you designed the job. It feels like you’re just guessing at everything, with no real answers.

Hiring Managers, the only real solution to this problem is to get it off your desk … all of it, not just the little tasks other people are willing to help with. Find someone who will accept the responsibility for the entire outcome- finding you productive staff members. Because it’s not good enough to give away little pieces of the hiring process, that still leaves you saddled with the problem.

When delegating the problem who should you look for? Find someone with job market knowledge that informs every aspect of the hiring process. You need someone to provide input into how to design the job, someone who can tell you how your job compares to other jobs in similar organizations, someone who can write compelling job descriptions that get a movie playing in the mind of your ideal candidates. But you also need to reach the 82% of people who don’t look at job ads–if you want the best people, you need to recruit them, not just hope they apply. You need someone who understands job seeker behavior and adapts to emerging job market trends like mobile recruiting. You need real market data to decide when you have enough good candidates to move forward with interviews, and when to hold back.  And you need a rigorous hiring process to help you interview effectively and reduce your hiring risk. That’s a long list of requirements, but falling short in any area only leaves you saddled with the hiring problem, instead of working on your goals.


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