The Hardest Assignment I Ever Gave an Executive

April 17th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Leadership | No Comments »

This week I found myself in a meeting with a client who told me that 15 years ago, I had given him the hardest assignment of his career. This assignment had such a powerful impact that he shared it with others over the years and, in fact, had just recommended it to an entire group of executives during a Q&A session last week. Talk about piquing my interest! Has it piqued yours? O.k., let’s see what it is.

The assignment is to pick just one thing you’ll intentionally get a B on this week, and do it exactly to a B standard.

Yes, seriously. That’s the assignment. What I mean by this is that you must plan to do the work to a level that would get a B grade if you were giving yourself a grade on your work. Don’t target an A, and then settle for a B if you don’t make it. Target a B grade and execute to a B grade.

Sounds easy. Why is it so hard?

It seems counterintuitive that executing B-quality work instead of A-quality work would be harder, not easier. After all, B-quality work takes considerably less time, which should make you a lot more productive, right?

However, this assignment brings up an incredible level of emotional discomfort, even pain. By targeting a B grade, you will be taking all of the following actions either directly or indirectly, and at least one of them is going to be mighty uncomfortable:

  1. Putting a project at risk, admittedly relatively little risk, but if you’ve been burned on a risk you took recently or in a big way, you’re going to feel that nervous, edgy energy come roaring back
  2. Admitting that you can’t do it all
  3. Admitting that you can’t excel at everything in your job
  4. Entering the murky waters of the tough judgment calls that are part and parcel of leading a complex business
  5. Signaling to a person or team that their project is not as important as someone else’s project. (Extra pain points if the person with the B-effort project is a great person to work with, while the person whose project gets your A work is a jerk who will stab you in the back the moment you turn around)

If you really want to take yourself on a white-knuckle ride, include your whole life, not just your work life. If a project for your spouse, child, or parent turns out to be the winner of the B-level effort, you might find yourself thinking twice about how often this has been happening. Ditto that for a project to maintain your mental and physical health.

So, if it’s painful and risky, why do it?

There’s really only one reason to do this executive coaching assignment, and it’s to make more conscious and better-informed decisions. You can only do this by bringing into daylight what you otherwise would keep doing unconsciously in the back of your mind.

The current reality, hard as it may be to accept, is that you’re probably not excelling at everything, someone’s disappointed in you or mad at you, and you’re putting projects at some degree of risk. These are part of the day-to-day reality of being in a leadership role.

But there’s a big difference between consciously and courageously aligning your actions with your real priorities versus assuming you’ll do it all and letting your priorities show after the fact, by what you do well vs. what got your B-level effort.

By actively, consciously deciding what is most important for you to do, and therefore deserving of your Grade A effort, you put a stake in the ground as a leader and gain greater control over your time, your life, and your sanity.

If anything in this article resonates with you, please do this tough assignment this week, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

 

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Three Keys to Hiring the Right Cultural Fit

March 2nd, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Communication, Cultural Fit, Interviewing | No Comments »

businesspeopleshakinghandsHas this ever happened to you? You had a strong team in a great company with a culture you loved. You interviewed diligently to fill an open position, and were fortunate enough to snag someone who was very successful, very talented, and very skilled.

Awesome! You thought you had the right fit, but within months, this individual quit – or perhaps you had to let him or her go – because he or she turned out to be a poor fit with the culture.

You thought you did everything right in posting, reviewing resumes, interviewing, being meticulous, asking great questions, and involving all of the team members. There’s no doubt you hired someone who could have been successful, since he or she had already demonstrated it elsewhere. However, their style didn’t work in your culture – and it gave you a headache just thinking about how much time and money was wasted trying so hard to fit that square peg into a round hole. Ouch.

First of all, don’t feel too bad about this mistake – most managers make at least one hiring decision that turns out to be a misfit. In fact, cultural fit is the area in which I see the greatest number of costly mistakes, because I am asked to provide executive coaching for a struggling new leader who, in fact, would have performed beautifully in a different culture.

Here are the three most common mistakes in interviewing for cultural fit.

Mistake #1: Asking direct questions about culture.

When it comes to assessing cultural fit, don’t use direct questions about culture, such as “Tell me what kind of work culture motivates you” or “Do you like the culture where you work?” Direct questions about culture don’t help you gain insights into the candidate’s fit.

In a typical year, I talk with people in 30 – 40 companies, and because they often talk about their cultures, I see firsthand that almost everyone describes their company’s culture in identical terms, such as “fast-paced.” When it comes to interviewing, this renders the use of words to describe culture meaningless.

Mistake #2: Asking about results they’ve achieved, without listening for cultural clues in their answers.

This is where many interviewers inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot. They perceive questions about results as being (somewhat logically) only about results, so they only listen for results.

I made this mistake myself, and paid the price. Early in my management career, I asked a candidate about the results she had achieved in her current role. I listened carefully and was impressed with what she had accomplished. She was quite a talent.

What I failed to do was listen closely to clues about how she achieved the goals, which turned out to be largely working on her own. She was very independent in nature, and she proved to be a terrible fit with the warm, collaborative culture that was the hallmark of my employer at the time.

People hated coming to her with their questions, which was a real problem since answering their questions was 30% of her job.

But I owned at least half of the responsibility for her failure, because I failed to match the way the candidate worked with styles the culture would embrace, or at least tolerate.

This brings us to Mistake #3…

Mistake #3: Not including a culture interviewer.

Let’s continue with the same example. Six of us interviewed the candidate, but none of us specifically owned the responsibility for a deep dive on cultural fit. Even so, two of the interviewers expressed reservations about “something I can’t put my finger on – she seems a little distant somehow – I’m trying to be open to someone who’s been successful with a different style than I’m used to, but… I’m probably being too close-minded here…”

Had at least one of us been assigned the job of being laser-focused on cultural fit, he or she would have been much more confident and certain about the importance of these concerns, and would have been asking the right questions and listening closely to the answers.

So what are the right questions to ask, and what should you listen for in the answers?

Surprisingly, you may already be asking the right questions, and you may not need to add any others. Isn’t that great?

If you’re already asking for specific stories about how they accomplished results, you’re on the right track.You’ll get much better insights into cultural fit if you ask them to walk you through how they accomplished their results, in the form of a SOAR story:

  1. Situation: What situation did you face?
  2. Obstacles: What obstacles were in your way?
  3. Actions: What actions did you take to solve the problem or achieve the goal?
  4. Results: What results did you get?

As you can see, the results are only 25% of the question, and in the other 75%, you have many opportunities to gain insights into cultural fit.

For example, if your rate of growth is particularly fast compared with other companies in your industry, you probably have a culture that values fast, independent decision-making because there are hundreds or thousands of decisions to be made every day and not enough people to make them. That’s the nature of a company in a very rapid growth stage, such as in the first two years after an IPO.

As we’ve seen, while you can ask the candidate to talk about his or her experience in rapid-growth situations, you’ll probably get a beautiful, convincing answer, but it will be useless.

If you were in the fast-growth situation above, you would listen for evidence that their actions included a lot of fast, independent decisions, and that they used time-consuming collaboration only for complex decisions that required a great deal of buy-in from multiple stakeholders.

If their answer to the question still leaves you uncertain, but the candidate is a good fit in other ways, ask them to think about a time when they had to move very quickly and decisively, and to tell you about it in great detail. Listen for clues about how they handled the situation. Would that approach work in your culture?

Compare notes with the other interviewers, and make sure you give equal voice to the culture-fit interviewer, and you’ll get the right fit.

Enjoy your interviewing, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

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Jennifer Recommends

December 28th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Jennifer Recommends | No Comments »

Do you sometimes wish you had access to a back issue of Traveling Light? You do!

Many Travelers know that all articles are posted at www.jenniferselbylong.com, including Jennifer Recommends, In the News, and (most importantly?) Just for Fun.

linkedinlogo_132x32_2But did you know that you can also read more recent feature articles on LinkedIn? Travelers (that’s you) receive the articles first, but they typically go up on LinkedIn within two weeks after TL is published.

I also occasionally post short articles on LinkedIn that many of my clients find helpful.

To see all articles, visit Jennifer Selby Long Articles on LinkedIn. To receive a notice when a new article is posted, select any article and click on the Follow button at the top of the screen.

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2014 Relationship Building Challenge

December 18th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Relationship Challenge | No Comments »

coffeeoutsideWe’re coming in for the big finish! On January 3, I recommended making one small change per month this year (http://jenniferselbylong.com/?p=729) to dramatically improve your skill and confidence in building relationships.
The challenge for October was:

“Be there when it’s tough. Over the course of a career, everyone has ups and downs, and some of them are very dramatic. When one of your Treasured Ten suffers a big blow (professional or personal, or both), many, many people will scatter. Don’t be one of those people. In fact, come in a little closer. Do what you can to help, even if it’s as small as continuing to meet up for coffee. Granted, tough times can come any time, not just in the month of November, but I had to put this somewhere. In the season of Thanksgiving, be thankful you can be there to support them.”

How did you do?

Here’s your final challenge, if you are willing to accept it:

“Think of something you appreciate about this relationship, and share it with the other person. For example, whenever a client is the inspiration for a Traveling Light column, I let him or her know. They often have a great time reading the article and seeing how I’ve disguised their identity. I’ve placed this habit in December because it is when we are most likely to reflect back on the year and think of these moments, but you can also do it as the situation arises.”

Let me know how it’s going, share your thoughts, and ask your questions any time at http://jenniferselbylong.com/?p=729.

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Four Ways to Rule the Company Holiday Party

December 4th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Holiday | No Comments »

officeholidayMany corporate holiday parties are among the weirdest hybrids of work and play that I have ever experienced. Few companies are able to seamlessly blend the two, so the parties become a veritable minefield in which if you perform well, absolutely no one will remember you, and if you perform poorly, everyone will remember you for years to come – for all the wrong reasons.

In the spirit of ensuring the former and not the later, I offer this simple advice to avoid awkwardness and create a pleasant atmosphere, without excess effort.

Question: I don’t really like parties, and I have a lot of work to do before year-end. Do I really have to go?

As my fantastic former boss used to deadpan: “Folks, this event is optional-mandatory.”

Yes, you have to go and you have to stay for the whole thing, or at least until 60 minutes before the scheduled end time. No one may ever tell you that, but read between the lines and RSVP with enthusiasm, even if you hate parties.

Why am I so unyielding in this advice? When I interview employees about their work experiences, they tell my how let down they were when managers and executives skipped the holiday party and other optional team-building events, even though I don’t ever ask the question specifically. Employees do all of the work to make this party happen, in addition to their regular duties, and it’s more trouble than you think.

It’s also often the case that while this particular party may or may not be important to you, for some of your staff, it will be the nicest, kindest, and most festive thing they do through the whole holiday season, so step up with a smile and do your bit to make it a great experience for them.

Question: I’m no good at small talk. What should I say?

Here’s the good news: it’s not about what you say, it’s about what you ask.

Nobody really cares what you do for a living or what projects you’re working on. Yet, in American culture, like work-a-holic lemmings, we instinctively ask the spouses (or “plus one’s”), “What do you do?” and we ask co-workers, “What projects are you working on?”

Become the greatest conversationalist they’ve ever met in their entire lives by not asking about work at all. Try, “What interests you outside of work?”, “What are you doing these days for fun?”, “What are your kids up to?”, or anything else that invites conversation on a subject of interest other than work.

Follow-up questions help, too. (“You do scrapbooking with your friends. I didn’t realize that was a group hobby. How did you become interested in it?” “So your teenagers are budding Oaklandish t-shirt designers. I’ve never heard of that. Tell me more.”)

Don’t bolt from conversations with lower-ranking employees the minute you see a prospect, E-suite executive, or other prestigious individual. With few exceptions, you’ll not only be laughed at by the people you abandon, but you’ll be secretly laughed at by the VIP’s, too.

Speaking of VIP’s, the holiday party is not the place to corner VIP’s with your great idea for the business. Say hello, engage in brief conversation, offer to introduce them to others, and move on. It’s o.k. to follow up with your business ideas after the party, but during the party, leave it alone.

If the event involves sitting down to eat, introduce yourself to every person at your table, and talk with each of them at some point during dinner, including the spouses and guests, who will speak highly of you forever simply because you steered the conversation away from endless droning on about the office.

Question: These events are embarrassing because I can’t remember names. Can I get better at this?

You get major bonus points if you remember names and introduce people to each other. It’s worth putting in the extra effort to learn how.

Here’s a great trick for remembering names. Kirk and I swear by it. As soon as you’re introduced, say the individual’s name, as in, “Pleased to meet you, Kate.” Then use it two more times early in the conversation. The repetition makes it stick in your head like glue.

Another trick that works well for me is to immediately associate the name with a character in a movie, a famous person, or someone else with a similar name — and the more absurd the connection, the better. If a woman introduces herself as Dorothy, for example, think to yourself, “Wizard of Oz! Wizard of Oz!” Every time you see her, the wacky connection will bring her name right to the front of your brain.

And Now, my Favorite Tip for a Sit-Down Meal….

When you sit down next to the CEO, avoid eating his or her food by remembering that your bread plate is to the left and your drink is to the right. Cue yourself by forming an “o” with your index finger and thumb. On the left hand, this forms the letter “b” for bread, and on the right hand, the letter “d” for drink.

Try it now. See? Nifty, huh?

Don’t worry about getting caught doing this. It’s a sure-fire conversation starter. For example, the person next you just might say, “Ah, I see you read Traveling Light…”

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In the News

November 26th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in News | No Comments »

fastcompanyIf you missed it last month, it’s not too late to read my advice to Fast Company readers Fast Company Micro-Management Advice from Jennifer Selby Long.

You can also check out my tips for readers of Dice.com’s management blog. The article is about managing older tech workers, at JSL Tips for Managing Older Tech Workers.

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2014 Relationship Building Challenge

November 24th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Relationship Challenge | No Comments »

coffeeoutsideFor those who are new to the 2014 Relationship Building Challenge, here’s the backstory: on January 3, I recommended making one small change per month this year (http://jenniferselbylong.com/?p=729) to dramatically improve your skill and confidence in building relationships. It’s not too late catch up. Just jump in and join us!
The challenge for October was:

“Write a recommendation on each person’s LinkedIn profile. Granted, you can’t do this if you haven’t worked together, but perhaps there’s something else you can do in fifteen minutes or less that’s a good deed for their business or career. Write a Yelp review for their local business. Buy their product and if you like it, share your enthusiasm on the appropriate social media. You get the idea.”

How did you do?

Here’s your challenge for November, if you are willing to accept it:

“Be there when it’s tough. Over the course of a career, everyone has ups and downs, and some of them are very dramatic. When one of your Treasured Ten suffers a big blow (professional or personal, or both), many, many people will scatter. Don’t be one of those people. In fact, come in a little closer. Do what you can to help, even if it’s as small as continuing to meet up for coffee. Granted, tough times can come any time, not just in the month of November, but I had to put this somewhere. In the season of Thanksgiving, be thankful you can be there to support them.”

Let me know how it’s going, share your thoughts, and ask your questions any time at http://jenniferselbylong.com/?p=729.

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Jennifer Recommends

November 24th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Jennifer Recommends | No Comments »

AirBnB

Say hello to Selby Group’s newest client, Airbnb’s ITX team! This picture was taken at their first global strategic off-site held at a super-hip gallery in San Francisco’s Jackson Square.

If you are an amazing IT professional or know one, check out their job openings at https://www.airbnb.com/jobs/departments/information-technology.

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Five Keys to Managing Hyper-growth

November 13th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Hyper Growth, Management | No Comments »

chartI am immersed in a world of hyper-growth. All hyper-growth companies struggle with the unrelenting demands of rapid scale. There is no smooth sailing when your company is doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in size each year.

However, some companies make it through hyper-growth and come out stronger, while others fall apart, unable to cross the chasm of such a massive and rapid change. While each company does have its own unique magic, there are at least five keys to success during the hyper-growth stage.

Stop holding back and start investing.

This is the time to buy or lease systems that do more than you need them to do, because they’ve been designed for the size you’ll be in two or more years. It’s time to take all of that grey-market equipment to the e-cycling bin and replace it with supportable, high quality products. It may seem like over-engineering, but you have to put in place today what you’ll need in the future, not just scramble to keep up with current demands.

And, no surprise coming from me, it’s time to stop throwing people into leadership roles hoping that they’ll just catch on, and instead, start investing in conscious, strategic development of leaders at all levels. Then expect these leaders to focus on developing their teams and supporting the career development of individuals.

All of the hacking, the improvising, the “just figure it out” approach to development, and extreme resourcefulness that made you successful so far will kill you if you try to keep it up as you rapidly scale. You have to make a shift in what you value and reward in order help your hardworking employees ride the tidal wave of hyper-growth.

Hire for the future.

Just building the leaders you already have isn’t enough, though. Successful hyper-growing companies also hire leaders at all levels who’ve already been very successful doing what they do at the scale you expect to reach in the coming years.

Hyper-growth is its own animal. Leaders who have never done it bring a lot of risk to your company. That risk is fine in the founders and employees who’ve brought you this far, and who will continue to add enormous value, but you need to add the experience of people who have led a much bigger team through the unrelenting challenges of hyper-growth.

Headcount is one way to look at it. If your engineering headcount is at 400, for example, look for leaders who’ve successfully grown their collective functions to 1200 or more.

You may be accustomed to valuing people who fit the classic entrepreneurial profile, but once you head toward and beyond four figures in headcount (regardless of valuation), you will need a more diverse and seasoned workforce and leadership.

Be very clear on your values, and task everyone with living the values day-to-day.

Your values drive your culture. Much of your culture can be retained despite the massive level of change you’re going through. Day-to-day processes will change, access to founders and popular leaders will change, level of individual involvement in decisions will change. A whole lot will be different.

However, despite all of this change, if you reward people for living and breathing the values, and hold yourself strictly accountable for doing the same, you will maintain a great deal of the cultural magic unique to your company. Values drive behavior and behavior drives culture. Don’t focus on your culture. Focus on the behaviors that embody your values, and the culture will be maintained without additional special programs or initiatives.

Ultimately, the senior leaders of the company are the only people who can own full responsibility for maintaining the culture. Consultants can all provide guidance on how to maintain it, but the ownership rests with the senior leaders. This includes the founders, but is not limited to them.

Massively ramp up the effort you put into strategic alignment.

It takes exponentially more effort to keep exponentially more people rowing in the same direction. Now is the time to begin a regular discipline of management off-sites to step back and ensure you’re making the same assumptions, planning for the future, working through your conflicts, and going back out to the organization with a shared message.

This is also a perfect time to consider alternate means of establishing multi-directional communication about strategy. For example, should you be crowdsourcing input on the strategy? How will you ensure robust participation from offices around the globe, if you’ve been accustomed to having nearly everyone in one city? I rarely see hyper-growth without simultaneous globalization, and it is too often treated as an afterthought in the strategic alignment process, to the great detriment of the company.

The need for organizational discipline in strategic alignment applies to all levels of management, not just the E-staff. Every team should be examining how closely their mission and strategy align with the vision, mission, and strategy of the company.

Intentionally have fun.

Many leaders find it fun to work, and work, and work. They really, truly do enjoy it. Is this you? If so, you’ll need to make an intentional and regular habit of encouraging fun, which may not feel very natural. Believe it or not, many people would find your unabashed love of work to be a little strange!

People work incredibly hard during hyper-growth, and often sacrifice time with loved ones to build the company that they believe in. Encouraging them to have fun, and being willing to have a little fun yourself, goes a long way toward avoiding the dreaded employee fear that “we’ll go totally corporate.”

Your people understand that without implementing better systems, tools, and processes, they will have chaos. They know that more structure is necessary. However, the implementation of discipline and repeatable processes does not require the implementation of a 24/7 serious face. Show them your humanity by joining them in having a little fun.

So, what constitutes fun? This varies considerably in different industries, countries, age groups, and even between companies that otherwise appear similar. My guidance is to start by asking your best HR business partner (or generalist, if you don’t have HRBP’s) for input and feedback. Contrary to the common stereotype, your best HR people are not trying to squelch all fun and self-expression. That’s what mediocre HR people do. The best HR pros nurture the fun that everyone enjoys, not just a select few, and have an excellent sense of what will work for your organization.

What have you done to manage hyper-growth? Please share your tips with others in the comments below.

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In the News

October 26th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in News | No Comments »

fastcompanyIs it ever appropriate to micro-manage employees? Fast Company asked me this question and I surprised everyone by saying, “Yes.”

See my recommendations in Stephanie Vozza’s article at Fast Company Micro-Management Advice from Jennifer Selby Long.

While you’re there, I encourage you to check out her other articles. She writes about interesting people and topics.

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