When You Undervalue HR, You Undercut Your Managers’ Effectiveness


desperationOne of the fastest ways to sabotage your business results is to hire the cheapest HR professionals you can find. When you saddle your executive team with under-staffed (or under-skilled) HR support, you hobble their performance. Here’s why:

  • More than any other person in an organization except for the CEO, the top HR executive impacts how much courage managers will show in hiring and performance management.
  • HR has an enormous impact on your budget. In many organizations, the lion’s share of the annual budget is spent on salary and benefits, and HR typically determines how strategically that money is allocated. (Good luck attracting great people when you offer lousy benefits and no clear way of measuring or rewarding performance).
  • HR has a huge impact on results. HR maps out the strategies that attract, retain, and inspire the staff to help you achieve your mission. (Good luck trying to achieve great things without great people. Even if you hired some great people, ineffective or bad HR strategies could end up demoralizing them just before you need their best work).
  • And when things really go sideways, HR helps you evaluate the legal risk of ushering your hiring mistakes out the door, before they cause even more damage. (Or do you enjoy making chit-chat with your former employees’ lawyers?)

But it’s a precarious business to be an effective senior HR executive. In a cruel twist of fate, doing the HR job well requires putting their own job at risk repeatedly, because it’s often their responsibility to speak the uncomfortable truths to power. Great HR people make the CEO less comfortable, not more comfortable. Consider how:

  • When you feel like your organization is already spending too much on salary and benefits, a top HR executive will tell you that your compensation still isn’t competitive, and you need to spend more if you want to hire and retain the best people.
  • When you think you’ve communicated enough about your performance expectations, great HR tells you the team is still fuzzy on the details and you need to do more for them to understand you clearly.
  • When you would rather dodge addressing a situation with a problem employee, great HR won’t let you shirk your responsibility, and keeps the issue on your agenda until you resolve it.
  • When you want to blow up in righteous indignation at someone’s failure, great HR instead cools you down and points out that there are environmental factors that set them up to fail.
  • When you make the workplace less productive by occasionally micromanaging, undercutting your executives, or not acknowledging high performance, great HR points out where and how you could improve.

Good ol’ HR, always the life of the party. (Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys HR pros.)

If you are a CEO and your top HR pro does not make you uncomfortable, consider that you might have the wrong person for the job. Or consider that you may actually have the right person. But instead of letting them speak truth to power, you instead make it abundantly clear that they shouldn’t bring you tough information. Either way has the potential to put everything you worked for at risk; your pay practices, performance management, and maybe even legal compliance could be sorely lacking. You need to encourage HR to bring you the bad news. Take a Dramamine if you need to, because it will rock the boat.

But if you ever want to hear the truth, don’t make it your policy to shoot the messenger.

Chronic Employee Turnover Is Almost Never About the Employees


bad-adsSenior executives often call me when they are at their wits end with people on their team:

  • “I’ve tried to make things work, but my VP of HR is just not delivering the results I need.”
  • “My Communications Manager just won’t step up to the plate. We seem to only react to things without any strategy.”
  • “The world changed around us, but Finance is doing the same things we did ten years ago. I’m getting no useful information and feel like I am constantly dragged into the weeds. We need to rethink what we are currently doing, but frankly I’m more worried about all the problems we are not even thinking about yet.”
  • “Our IT department is a real bottle neck. We want and need streamlined processes, better information sharing, and improved productivity. But all we get are surprise expenses, empty promises, and long delays. Even simple requests seem to get buried in obfuscation and complexity.”
  • “Our Chief Marketing Officer is not doing anything that drives revenue. We’ve spent money to upgrade our social media presence, revamp our website, and conduct extensive customer surveys. But our revenue is still flat-lined.”

Some of these concerns might sound like people problems. But twenty years of experience as an executive recruiter has taught me that what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. An occasional bad hire is nearly unavoidable. But if you churn through executives every few years, your chronic turnover almost certainly runs deeper than just one bad egg. When your department or executive team has a pattern of failure, it’s likely that your work environment sets people up for failure (however unintentionally).

The First Law of Holes is, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” In the face of chronic turnover, don’t hire anyone new until you fix the underlying issues. Chronic turnover problems won’t be solved by blaming individual employees and then going out to immediately hire more. As Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Instead, chronic turnover is best solved by looking beyond the individual people and exploring any issues in the work environment. Before you move forward with another round of hiring, step back and look at your own role in these seven common causes of employee failure.

1)      Are you using an outdated business strategy? Maybe the way you’ve always done things no longer works. Nothing runs on autopilot forever. If it’s the wrong task for the times, it won’t matter who you assign to do it — they will fail. The skills required for success ten years ago are not nearly enough to achieve success today. Almost every job has an increased demand for results, coupled with dramatically higher complexity and ambiguity in the work. You can’t just use old job descriptions and salary budgets to hire new people … but many people still try to.

2)      Maybe the best people are just not that into you. Do you have trouble attracting great people to your open jobs? Or do you interview great people, only to see many of them withdraw from a second or third interview? That’s a signal that you, your job, your organization, or your industry are just not that attractive to the people you want to hire. No one stands in line for an iPhone 3G anymore, even though they did a few years ago. Have you considered that the job market might have changed around you and the best people have better options elsewhere? When was the last time you benchmarked your salaries against the competition? Do you really understand who is available in your job market and who you are competing with to hire them? (Almost nobody does this kind of market research when hiring.)

3)      Are you still placing .22 caliber people in a .357 Magnum job? Growing organizations outgrow people. Your internal positions inevitably become more complex as you grow. So your next HR Manager will face dramatically different challenges than your last one. Just because the last HR Manager was willing to work for $90k does not mean you can use the same salary budget to replace her. When you hire, you need to think about the future, not the past. And if you need a new business strategy (see #1), are you ready to pay a salary premium to hire someone with those skills? Strategy never comes cheap, but far too many managers hope (in vain) to find it in inexpensive candidates.

4)      Are you disappointed with everyone you interview? Perhaps your recruiting team is only considering the people who fit your salary budget, or perhaps your recruiting strategy only reaches the people who respond to job advertising (only about 18% of the total candidate pool responds to recruitment advertising). If you want different recruiting results, you need to align your HR practices with your business strategy.

5)      Do you hire new people to shake things up, only to be disappointed after you hire them? Do you find that your people will not step up to the plate? Do you give new people big audacious goals, then disappear while they get stuck in the thicket of executing? Do you hover at the big picture level, never getting in the weeds with them, making them feel like they are going it alone? Do you ask new people to build consensus with your overworked, understaffed current team, or do you help pave the way? And when it comes to conflict — be honest with yourself — do you reward your team for encouraging healthy debate, or reward them for getting along and not rocking the boat? Change agents need more support than senior leadership usually provides them, and they always cause more chaos than their managers prefer. You can’t say you want to hire change agents and creative thinkers and then not facilitate their ability to foment change.

6)      Do your new employees charge ahead, or freeze like a deer in the headlights? There’s an old saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” Do you share the credit and take the blame? Or vice versa? If your new hires know that they will be blamed for every error, how many risks do you think they will take? Do you swiftly make gutsy judgment calls in the face of uncertainty, or do you expect your subordinates to take those risks instead? If you are always traveling or behind closed doors, is your team forced to guess at what you are thinking? Do new employees have to figure out their mistakes from group emails or other employees? Or do they get honest, direct, and regular feedback?

7)      Do you have a rule for everything? Are your employees trusted to exercise good judgment or do you have a thick set of policies for everyone to follow? Maybe your HR policies were initially designed to mitigate your legal risk, but after years of adding small edicts to your employee handbook, your office now exudes the depressing atmosphere of a police state, repelling the very people you want to attract. Police states are rarely nimble or fun. (And in a sad bit of irony, some employment attorneys suggest that all those oppressive policies might actually increase your legal risk.)

If you find yourself blaming the person who failed in a job, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. You’ll almost never find the solution there.

Before you look at new people, look at yourself. Chronic turnover problems are best solved by looking long and hard at how you might be contributing to the very problem you are asking someone else to solve.

5 Steps To Build A More Innovative Organization


business strategy Are you struggling to get your new initiatives off the ground? Do you wish your organization was more nimble and entrepreneurial? Do you yearn to build a team of people who don’t need a rule-book … people who can handle ambiguity? Do you daydream about having a team of fearless innovators who bring you great ideas, and then leap into action to make their ideas a reality?

OK, fine, it’s good to have goals.

But if you don’t work in that kind of environment right now, are you sure you know what innovation really looks like … up close and personal? And when you interview an innovator, just what exactly should you look for? And after you hire them, will your office be like the set of Mad Men?   

If you’re looking for someone with a history of serendipitous moments, where the innovation muse whispers brilliance into their ear, the cosmos align, the sun bursts through the fog and birds start chirping, you will be looking for a very long time. As children we all heard the tale of the apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, causing a supposedly sudden insight into his theory of gravity. But few of us heard what Mr. Newton was doing prior to that famous moment. So does innovation look like blindingly brilliant moments of fruit-inspired inspiration? Or does it look more like the part of the story that happened before the apple fell?

Sorry kids, strokes of genius are really tiny–more like pointillist painting than the broad-brush conversational style used in most executive suites. If you want to hire an innovator, don’t look for a fast-talker with grandiose ideas, they will not go the distance. As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter put it, “Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”

Instead of hiring a big talker, seek out someone who can methodically and painstakingly take tiny, unconnected painted dots (ideas) and form them into a bigger (and more interesting) picture. Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, calls this the “Myth of Epiphany.” As he puts it, “Epiphany stories project illusions of certainty since they’re always about successful ideas. Epiphanies are a consequence of effort, not just the inspiration for it.

Other researchers have also concluded that innovation is a far more arduous process than most of us are led to believe. Keith Sawyer describes how one researcher set out to chronicle Eureka! moments only to find that good ideas are actually built upon bit-by-bit.  Peter Sims studied Pixar and the creative process used by world-class architects and comedians. Here is what he said:

“It may take Chris Rock six months to a year to develop one hour of comedy, and he does it by just scribbling ideas down on sheets of paper, going into these clubs unannounced and sitting down in a very relaxed, casual way with the audience, so that they know that, “Hey, this is not Chris Rock in prime time. This is Chris Rock in development mode.” He’ll just start riffing with the audience and he’ll bomb. It will be awkward at times. But what he’s doing is he’s looking for just a little hint as to where a hidden joke might be, and, once he finds that, then he keeps on that idea and keeps iterating, keeps improving, tweaking, until it becomes more and more a joke that he can use in his routine.”

Chris Rock knows many of his joke ideas will bomb. More importantly, he knows that’s completely OK. He revises and edits his material until he arrives at the tightly crafted sets we see on HBO. Breakthrough ideas and innovations are built on foundations of mistakes and dead ends. Innovation is surprisingly methodical, as it emerges over time out of “peripheral” knowledge, or out of seemingly irrelevant ideas.

Even on TV, innovation does not look so easy:

What appears to be an effortless flash of brilliance in this clip did not come out of nowhere (though the timing is fortunate). Prior to the dramatic scene, Don Draper had spent the entire episode scribbling countless pitch ideas onto napkins, only to decide they were all terrible.

So how do you build a more innovative organization? 

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

The Pitfalls of Hiring: Judging Performance Without Context


Humanity has always relied on our ability to make snap judgments of strangers so we could survive, otherwise there was always the chance of being caught unawares by a dangerous rival warrior masquerading as a peaceful trader. I haven’t heard of any recent Maryland tribal wars, but in hiring, we’re still stuck with the need to make snap judgments about people we don’t know particularly well. People-evaluation is a task prone to pitfalls. We trust our instant assessments of candidates, yet research shows we are too often prone to error. And it’s far too easy to fall into crocodile-infested waters by making the wrong judgment call.

When interviewing, hiring executives usually place huge emphasis on a candidate’s track record of achievement. But they often overlook the context of that achievement. In Why Unqualified Candidates Get Hired Anyway, article writer Anna Secino paints a picture of “businesses repeatedly promoting or hiring less-qualified managers who benefit simply by being associated with a high-growth group.” A Harvard Business School study looks into whether hiring managers are just as prone to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” – our tendency to attribute an individual’s success or failure solely to their inherent personal qualities, without considering the context in which they succeeded or failed.

The results of the HBS study suggest that “experts take high performance as evidence of high ability and do not sufficiently discount it by the ease with which that performance was achieved.” If someone works in a highly successful, well operated company, and is highly successful as a result, we attribute their success to their innate ability. But if the exact same person works in a less successful company, fraught with employee tension and communication issues, and they failed at their task, we still attribute their failure to their innate ability to perform their job responsibilities effectively. We’ve discussed this dilemma before, and still love this quote from W. Edwards Deming:  ”A bad system will beat a good person every time.” Or as Warren Buffet put it, “When a manager with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”

Understanding the environment that helped shape a candidate’s success or failure is one of the most important lessons to learn in hiring. So if you’re trying to hire someone, it’s a terrible idea to focus on their successes and assume that they will be equally successful in your environment. Consider the cautionary tale of Ron Johnson, who took over as CEO of J.C. Penney after huge successes with Target and Apple. He “helped make Target hip, pioneering partnerships with big-name designers like Michael Graves, and had then moved to Apple, where he orchestrated the creation of the Apple Store.” But fourteen months after the takeover:

J. C. Penney is America’s favorite cautionary tale. Customers have abandoned the store en masse: over the past year, revenues have fallen by twenty-five per cent, and Penney lost almost a billion dollars, half a billion of it in the final quarter alone. The company’s stock price, which jumped twenty-four per cent after Johnson announced his plans, has since fallen almost sixty per cent. Twenty-one thousand employees have lost their jobs. And Johnson has become the target of unrelenting criticism.

He was fired not long after. Of course, the criticism of Johnson focused on flaws that everyone seems to have considered in hindsight – he lacked CEO experience, never managed a turnaround, lacked middle-market management experience, etc. And not surprisingly, given the prevalence of the fundamental attribution error in human behavior, his failure was chalked up as a personal one, rather than one seen in the context of J.C. Penney’s difficulties. After all, “one study found that efforts at merely getting a money-losing retailer back to profitability succeed only thirty per cent of the time.” It’s extraordinarily difficult for people to separate the context from the performance – a phenomenon Phil Rozenzweig calls “The Halo Effect.”

Fortunately, if you’re concerned that you’re making these snap judgements, you may just need to take a step back, and realize that the first impression isn’t necessarily the best one. We’ve discussed this before, and suggest making sure when you’re hiring an executive, you ask plenty of follow-up questions. As we wrote in Interviewing: Are They an Effective Executive or an Empty Suit?:

Anyone can answer “Tell me about your greatest achievement.” But the gold is how you follow up on their answer.  ”How did you achieve that? What roadblocks did you overcome? Who else was on your team? What was your role on the team? What decisions did you make in the face of uncertainty? What mistakes did you make? What did you learn from your mistakes? How did you measure your success?”  That’s where the juice is. You will immediately see that the Effective Executive is much more concrete and tangible in their answers. More thoughtful. Their heads are full of metrics that they use to measure their own progress. They give ample credit to other people on their team, and often sound quite humble about their own role.

What Everyone Overlooked in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”


200158983-001Amazingly, we still read whole books here at Staffing Advisors. Recently, we discussed Lean In, the bestseller from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, which is largely about how to improve women’s position in the modern workplace. The book got us thinking. The buzz and drama in the blogosphere is about her main point – that women, who are now 60% of college graduates, should be as ambitious as men and ultimately strive to make up a much larger proportion of the executive workforce than they currently hold. That’s important, but equally important (and we think overlooked) was her approach to leadership, and the role effective communication has played in her career.

Openness to new ideas seems to be a central tenet of Sandberg’s philosophy. It provides a constant stream of new ways to look at problems, and grants the ability to rapidly and nimbly adapt to a constantly shifting corporate landscape. The teachings of Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, “changed [her] career and [her] life.”  She focuses on the Kofman idea that “great leadership is ‘conscious’ leadership,” and that “effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others.”

Rather than being single-minded and focused on only her vision, Sandberg is humble and works hard to gather honest and open feedback from everyone around her, noting that “the ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak.”  Even if you’re the highest executive in the room, she aptly says it is nearly impossible to know what other people are thinking without asking. She recounts an experience where she was being interviewed by Tom Brokaw. She felt like she stumbled through some answers, so after the interview, she asked him for feedback, and he “seemed surprised by [her] question…so [she] asked again…He then told [her] that in his entire career, [she] was only the second person to ask him for feedback.”  To us, that seems like a risk few executives would take, which takes real humility, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence.

Sandberg’s message is not the standard “communication is good” so frequently advised. Her message is an example of how hard executives truly need to work in order to create an open and strong work environment – one that does not silence the vital voices needed for change and growth, so that you can grow a small start-up like Facebook into a profitable company.  If you’re seeking agility or innovation in your workplace, but the feedback you typically receive is just strangely wrapped in consequence-averse corporate speak, we would recommend that you promote a culture of openness (though not necessarily an open floor-plan office, they might not be the best idea).

Who’s Asking?


If you want better recruiting results, you might be looking for solutions in all the wrong places. Your biggest improvements might not be found in replacing your staff or improving your HR technology, or developing a new social media strategy.

The shortest path to better recruiting results might be found in finding someone to ask more uncomfortable questions:

  • When a hiring managers have developed unreasonable expectations about who would want to come work for your firm, has someone explained the labor market to them and asked him what trade-offs they are willing to make?
  • When your candidate sourcing team has hit the wall, and is running out of people to contact, who can help them look at the problem from a different angle, and who asks them to try a different approach rather than grinding away on an impossible quest?
  • When you have interviewed every viable candidate from your local labor market, who is asking the hiring managers how they might want to structure the work differently to enable them to hire people who actually exist?
  • When you are finding qualified candidates but the managers are slow to interview, who is advising the managers of the cost of their delay? Who is concerned about creating a good experience for the candidates?
  • When hiring managers have interviewed several people and are still not impressed, who is looking at how the candidates are being pre-screened to ensure that the wrong people are not moving forward, while the right ones are potentially not being attracted, or are perhaps being weeded out?
  • Who is reviewing your job advertising to ask if the message is interesting?

This list could go on, but the point is simple: working harder is often not the solution. And even though the biggest improvements in recruiting results come from asking uncomfortable questions, busy recruiters usually default to just working harder and complaining about the hiring managers. (It’s no wonder burnout rates are epidemic).

In recruiting, far too many people work far too hard at impossible tasks. And far too few people stop to ask the uncomfortable questions that lead to better results. Three out of four “recruiting” problems aren’t recruiting problems at all. 

Still Waiting for the Response to your Job Offer?


After a lengthy search process, Kathy finally made a job offer. Because every other candidate had already been ruled out, Gerald was the last man standing. Kathy dearly hoped he would accept, she certainly did not want to start all over with the search.

At first Gerald was hard to reach, it took him 24 hours to get back to Kathy just so she could extend the offer (he was traveling). Then he asked for time to think it over, he was not specific about how much time he needed, and Kathy was reluctant to push the issue. Then almost a week later Gerald had a few questions about the benefits. Once he had that information, he made a counter-offer to get a bit more money (to offset the benefit costs), and he also wanted some more vacation time.  (Gerald’s negotiating playbook must have been the children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”

And then, of course, almost two weeks later, Gerald turned down the offer.

My father-in-law often said, “Deals that don’t happen quickly, usually don’t happen.” The longer I work in the executive search business, the more I value that advice. For any position below CEO, I suggest you give candidates no more than 2 days to accept your offer. Then withdraw it and move on.

Oh, and here is how to avoid getting into this situation in the first place….

Are Your People a Drag or a Sail?


We staff a lot of new initiatives. And we’re often brought in when executives want to rethink how they have staffed a position.

So I regularly hear how executives talk about the intersection of strategy and people. And some executives describe their current staff like a tractor pull–a powerful engine (strategy) is dragging a heavy sled behind it (the current staff).

Organizations often say “people are our most important asset” but people are also the source of most of your problems.  People often disappoint you. Top performers quit. Average performers often fail to deliver. Bottom performers threaten to sue. Departments go to war with each other. You spend less time than you want leading new initiatives and more time than you want refereeing internal squabbles. And when I see that, I usually see an understaffed, underfunded, underwhelming HR department awaiting further instructions from the executive team.

It does not have to be that way. In great organizations the culture fuels the strategy. The HR strategy supports the business strategy. Your systems, processes, expectations and rituals give lift and propulsion to your strategy, like a sail pulling you forward.

People are not your most important asset. People come and go. How you harness human achievement is your most important asset, and your only enduring source of competitive advantage.

The systems and processes of dealing with people are where the magic happens.

  • How you attract great people, and how you recognize and deploy the internal talent you already have
  • How you align the people to the mission.
  • How you consistently inspire top performance from your people.
  • How you retain the most valuable and drive away the least valuable.
  • How you gracefully exit the people who no longer drive results.
  • And how you do all this at a price you can afford.

Competent HR keeps you in compliance with the law. Great HR practices transform people from a drag into propulsion.

Dealing with a Work Avalanche


Are you feeling overworked and understaffed right now? You’re not alone. Under-staffing is common during this stage of the business cycle. Some people think it is a long-term trend–calling it the “Job Squeeze.” Perhaps it is. I do know that work pressure has been building quietly for years in many organizations–like snow falling on mountaintops. And when something small triggers it, you are suddenly faced with a “work avalanche.”

Here is how work avalanches are created: When confidence is low, your organization responds to good news differently. You try to grow without corresponding staff growth. Headcount starts to trail revenue growth, and then falls further and further behind. Good news for the organization actually becomes bad news for the team. They were overworked before, and “good news” just makes it worse. Every new contract, new client, and new project just makes it harder to keep up.

How do you know you waited too long to add staff? Your best people are getting sick more often. You are seeing more preventable mistakes being made. Small issues cause tempers to flare, people are less tolerant of each other. They take things personally. Work just seems less fun. And eventually your best people burn out, give up, or quit–triggering an avalanche of work on the remaining team members.

Here’s the thing. Often, when you force your team to “do more with less” they are not doing more. They are making trades. They are trading long-term thinking for short term thinking. They trade planning time for reaction time. They stop making deposits into the relationship bank, and start making withdrawals–using up the goodwill they’ve built over many years. And the cost of that short term focus builds up… like snow building up on a mountain. Eventually the bill comes due in a work avalanche.

Here is what to do about it: When your hiring fails to keep pace with your growth, you can no longer afford to drag out the hiring process. But when confidence is low, that is exactly what happens. “Let’s try it first on our own, before we put it out to a search firm.”  Three months later the team is exhausted, frustrated, and at wit’s end. In your cautious desire to save money, you not only lost time and focus, you created even more risk–from people quitting.

Newsflash: When you are chronically understaffed, nobody on your team has the time or energy to do hiring on their own. When you are running from a work avalanche, you don’t want to make your backpack heavier.

If your business strategy requires you to keep staffing levels lean, you must be prepared to hire very quickly when you get good news. Either beef up your internal recruiting capabilities, have qualified contract workers on speed dial, or be ready to call in search firms the instant you know you need help.

Because standing still is not a good strategy when an avalanche  is bearing down on you.

“The Rare Find” is a Must Read for Hiring Managers


If you want to lock in a long-term competitive advantage for your organization, be among the first to read and apply the lessons of George Anders new book “The Rare Find:  Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else.”

Drawing on vivid examples from the U.S. Army Special Forces, Teach for America, Facebook, Hollywood, and professional sports, he shows how you can see what everyone else is missing in their hiring.

This is no vanity book. He’s not pitching his hiring system, or trying to sell you consulting services. Even better, he is not advocating that you “just do your hiring like we did at GE in the 1980’s.”

No, this book is the real deal.  Space does not permit me to cover all my favorite quotes, but here are a few:

“American social norms call for job candidates to tell a story of uninterrupted success. Previous experiences are burnished until they all sound like triumphs. Traditional resumes are set up so that resilience becomes invisible. That’s a horribly unfortunate distortion. At some point fate slams all of us to the ground. What happens next determines who we become. Some people are so bitter or dispirited they never fully recover. Others do whatever it takes to bounce back. The more you can learn about how people handle adversity, the more astutely you can judge them.”


“…we’re in the midst of an enormous economic and technological upheaval that is redefining what it means to be enduringly successful. Long track records my be irrelevant or impossible to find in fields that are taking shape so fast the everyone is a newcomer. Competence is not enough anymore. The difference between growth and stagnation comes down to finding people with bold, fresh approaches, who can create opportunities that no one else saw before. That’s true not just in Silicon Valley, Hollywood or Wall Street; it’s the new norm in almost every field.”

From how to define what kind of person you are looking for, to how you should interview candidates, this book covers the landscape of talent spotting. I found no evidence of vague, sloppy platitudes or lazy thinking. For example:

“Take something as universal … as ‘work ethic.’ That’s a cherished value at almost any top tier organization (but) everyone’s definition of ‘work ethic’ calls for slightly different virtues. Some jobs call for people who can summon up extraordinary stamina and ingenuity in a crisis. Others require orderly souls who are totally comfortable with the tireless preparation for a challenge that may be months or years away. The work ethics of a great doctor and a great football player are not the same. Solving the talent puzzle means looking for exactly the right ethos that’s vital for a particular job–rather than trying to match candidates to a along list of universal virtues that might or might not be especially relevant.”

Worth Reading


Long after he had email, my Dad would still clip relevant articles from the newspaper and mail them to me. I loved it. But I don’t get my news from a newspaper, so I’ve updated the process. I email my kids hyperlinks to relevant content instead. (I’m sure they would prefer that I text them, but tradition requires that your father be at least one generation behind on technology).

So here are a few articles I would have clipped from the newspaper for you. (They were actually sourced from Twitter and elsewhere):

Respecting the Candidate


Imagine you are interviewing a senior executive candidate for a position with your organization.   The candidate is an expert in her field, and the job market is good, so you expect she will receive job offers from other companies.  Naturally you are keen not to offend her, but you also want to be sure she is the right fit.  So how can you appropriately show respect for her, while still conducting a rigorous and thorough interview process?

We get this question all the time.  Basically “How far can we push, or how much can we ask without being obnoxious or offensive?”

So let’s review what is and what is not respectful in the eyes of the most sought-after candidates:

  • RESPECT:  Asking lots of tough interview questions  (and smart follow-up questions) is perfectly respectful.  Being rigorous in your selection process is fundamentally respectful.  Anything you do to reduce your hiring risk (and their corresponding risk of taking the wrong job) is respectful.  So go ahead and be demanding – you both benefit.
  • DISRESPECT:  A poorly written, vague job description is disrespectful, it shows you did not care enough to outline what was expected of the person – you have shown no respect for the importance of the work.  Think hard about your expectations before you start recruiting.
  • RESPECT:  A thorough interview sequence with multiple people is perfectly respectful, as long as you do not request that the candidate visit your office more than 3 times.  A group interview, or individual meetings with 5 or 10 people is fine, but don’t ask the candidate to come to your office more than 2 or 3 times.  And it is polite to estimate how long the interviews will be expected to last – that shows respect for their time.
  • DISRESPECT:  A disorganized, unplanned interview sequence is disrespectful.      Rescheduling interview times, making the candidate wait in the lobby, forgetting to include a key decision maker, and adding interview steps at the last minute … all these common occurrences are incredibly disrespectful.   Candidates notice when you don’t have your act together.  They may politely endure it, but you have wasted an easy opportunity to look good by simply scheduling intelligently.
  • RESPECT:  Work sample testing is perfectly fine, as long as you do not ask them to spend more than a few hours at home on the assignment.  And I urge you to never ask something of the candidate prior to the first interview.  (Yes, I’ve heard stories of firms that make applying for a job difficult, but I do not recommend this practice.  It drives away too many good people who are simply too busy to play the game, and it is inconsistent with starting a conversation with those people you are actively recruiting).   You can ask more of someone when they know they are one of 3 finalists for a position.  When presented properly, almost nobody will take offense at work sample testing.
  • DISRESPECT:  Letting weeks go by in between steps is disrespectful.   Waiting for several days to hear back from an employer after an interview does not show respect for the candidate.   Be decisive, let them know where they stand.
  • DISRESPECT:  Failure to acknowledge the person’s time investment is disrespectful.  From the beginning, a simple “thank you for your resume, here is our hiring timeline” email is the minimum for all candidates who apply.  At the end, a simple “thank you the position has been filled” is enough.  And for the few people who actually interview, a more personal update is appropriate.  To do alny less is disrespectful.

In my experience people worry far too much about fundamentally respectful things like asking tough questions, including lots of people in the interview sequence and doing smart work sample testing.  Conversely, people worry far too little about actually disrespectful things like allowing vague performance expectations, running a sloppy interview sequence, and not providing candidates information about where they stand in the process.

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