Why do so few employers check references?

This isn’t going to be a post in which I pose a deceptively simple question in the title, and then blow your mind with a concise, insightful, yet counter-intuitive answer (ha!), like I’ve attempted with interview questions, career choices, or long hours. I am genuinely stupefied, mortified, and mystified, as is Jackie Chiles.

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Personally, I have not given a job offer without calling references. I have, however, been offered a job without having my references called. And, much more often, I have been asked to stand as a reference and not received a call from the candidate’s employer–even when “my” candidate received an offer. That pattern leads me to believe that very few employers are like me and follow through with reference checks.

But a sample size of one is weak, so I did some quick research. I found a good piece from SHRM describing how to perform background and reference checks, that references a CareerBuilder survey from 2014 revealing that in many industries more than half of applicants falsify their employment history or qualifications, among other statistics about the problems unearthed during checks.

That CareerBuilder survey got a lot of mileage on other sites describing HOW and WHY to check, but even top-of-the-funnel marketing guff from recruitment automation vendors like SkillSurvey (in Fortune) and Checkster (on their blog) didn’t provide any more primary or secondary research about HOW OFTEN employers actually follow through with checking references.

So I am sticking with my original conclusion that employers are not checking references often enough, and exposing themselves to huge financial and productivity risks. While you’re at it, why pick up a pack of cigarettes and leave your seat belt unbuckled during the commute home?

The authors below have done a fantastic job explaining how to perform effective reference checks, while reinforcing why you must be either indecisive or bad at hiring if you don’t:

If you can answer or refute my original question, “why do so few employers check references?” with some convincing data, please do! Otherwise, I hope the resources above enable you to join the proud and effective minority of employers who do.

How these two things happen speak volumes about company culture

17You can gain deep insights about an organization’s culture by understanding:

  • how decisions are made
  • how recognition, aka “kudos,” is awarded

Consider asking those two questions about a company the next time you are interviewing for a new position, in addition to the other best job interview questions.

The answers to these questions reflect the leadership style and organizational dynamic established by the leader. As a recovering consultant, I could not resist the impulse to reduce this concept to a two-by-two matrix:

Learn about a company culture by understanding how decisions are made and how recognition is awarded
Learn about a company culture by understanding how decisions are made and how recognition is awarded

 

In the lower left corner, we have a culture of lobbying and arm twisting where for decisions and recognition the forum is private and the basis is mostly on influence. This culture is often found in teams with weak leadership, where the boss is routinely peppered with closed-door “advice,” either thinly or thickly disguised as an agenda of personal advancement. Team direction changes frequently and indescribably, relying on informal channels of communication to disseminate the new direction. Expect high attrition from staff who value transparency and meritocracy.

In the upper left corner, we have a culture dominated by the “squeaky wheel” where for decisions and recognition the forum is public and the basis is mostly on influence. Tantrums, meeting hijack, and open conflict are reinforced as means to an end by the steady advance of a vocal minority in the organization. While also a product of weak leadership, the only improvement over the lower-left lobbying culture is that the rules of the game are publicly known. Anyone unwilling to compromise personal integrity for career advancement will not last long in this culture.

In the lower right corner, we have a stable, humble culture of relative introverts where for decisions and recognition the forum is private and the basis is mostly on merit. This culture likely reflects the self-image and natural personality of its leader. I’ve chosen a cupcake as the image to reflect this culture because it is a satisfying individual treat. While it might be relatively boring, this culture will also likely be more successful than those on the left side of the matrix, as individuals who cannot compete on merit alone and those who crave public recognition will exit.

In the top right corner, we have the most transparent, extroverted, results-oriented type of culture in this matrix, where for decisions and recognition the forum is public and the basis is mostly on merit. The multi-tiered party cake represents the culture in which the success of an individual greats benefits for the group. Decision making and recognition are public and merit, meaning that the “rules of the game” are clearly demonstrated and objective. While this culture requires a strong leader who is not afraid to hire “A players”, it will likely have higher performance and lower turnover than the other squares in this matrix.

In this summary, I have done my best to withhold judgement and simply provide a framework for readers to identify a company culture so that they can best chose the one that fits their own needs. If you have other “cultural diagnostic” questions to share, please leave a comment!

Which of these six leadership hacks are you using?

One day I will get around to creating a Hype Cycle (à la Gartner) for management and leadership buzzwords. Somewhere in between blockchain and tiger team you will find leadership hacking.

I don't always use jargon, but when I do it is crisp and disruptiveLeadership Hacks are Cliché but Effective

No, I’m not talking about the guy that learned all the languages while blowing hard boiled eggs out of their shells (no hyperlinks: if you don’t get that reference already, I’m not going to torture you with finding out). Leadership hacks are those subtle yet amazing techniques that aren’t written down in Drucker, or HBR, or Military Doctrine. These are the six techniques that I’ve observed in the real world over my first couple decades of professional experience:

  1. The Compelling Event: to prompt action (or a decision) by a certain date. Also known as “pencils down.” Why it works? In a multi-tasking, oversubscribed world, this technique prevents the modern version of Parkinson’s Law from taking hold: that every task expands to fill the time allotted.
  2. The Three Legged Race: to get two team members to confront their differences and appreciate their complementary strengths. Long-term version also called “two in a box.” Why it works? Often we fall into the trap of confirmation bias when we can keep people, or issues, at arm’s length. By forcing close collaboration, this can be overcome.
  3. The Yes, And …: Remove the word no from your vocabulary. Just like in improv comedy, to succeed you need to encourage participation and contributions, and work on redirecting creative energy towards the goal. You might be pleasantly surprised by new thinking that arises. Why it works? Gives your team the chance to provide the solutions (and receive the praise) while you constantly reframe and reframe.
  4. The Pre-Project Press Release: Begin with the end in mind. At the start of a project (or software development cycle), write the press release that you want to cross the wire when the project ends. Why it works? Visualization is a time-honored technique in athletics, performing arts, and business. Resist the urge to run off quickly to take action without planning the critical steps by working backwards from the goal.
  5. The On-site Off-site: Take a team into a conference room full-time for a full day (or week) to reach the depth of focus required for a true breakthrough in thinking. Oh, and also actually finish a task that they start. Why it works? Our work days have been fractured into thinner and thinner slices of focus by technology and projects running concurrently.
  6. The Weekly Digest: Send your manager, your team, or your customers a digest of important and interesting highlights from your work week. Include graphics and short summaries linked to longer items or attachments for easy digestion. The best Weekly Digests are a mixture of what matters to the reader with the topics that the author wants them to keep front-of-mind, written in a style that is lighthearted and enjoyable to read. Why it works? We can’t rely on others to communicate the ideas that are most important to our own success. In the hundreds (thousands?) of emails that people receive weekly, it’s easy to miss something important. Sending a digest email at the same time each week makes it a predictable, and in the best cases eagerly anticipated, summary. Take the time to advocate on your own behalf. Or, in a more Orwellian sense, ensure that you are the one to document history on your own terms.

Which of these have you used successfully? What would you add to this list? Leave a comment and let us all know!

The post Which of These Six Leadership Hacks are You Using? appeared originally on Leadertainment.com

Is Your Professional Development Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?

One of my favorite former managers, whom I am now fortunate to call a friend, used to say that “hindsight is the only option in the absence of foresight.” Perhaps that’s the reason I can now look back on the first 1.5 decades of my career and offer some insights about personal development.

In our careers, and perhaps in life, we progress through phases:

  • thinking that we know everything
  • realizing we know very little about anything
  • demonstrating that we know a lot about something (or for the fortunate, a small number of things)
  • accepting that we can never really be certain about anything, while remaining curious about everything
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What is an Executive, you ask? Usually I reserve sidebars like this for comedic asides, but US tax dollars commissioned the Occupational Outlook Handbook (http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/top-executives.htm) and I want you to read it. Someone actually went to work over a series of hours to weeks and wrote this sincerely for the benefit of the US Economy. So please stifle all laughter when reading in the presence of public servants.

Previously I have written about specialization and capability development in career progression. In summary, as we follow a single career track our knowledge and proficiency become deeper and narrower, until we jump across to another track. Recently I realized two opposing corollaries to this concept.

The farther we progress on a single career track, two things arise

Pessimist’s view: the number of capabilities that you need to develop in order to advance gets smaller, and the chances that you have to practice or demonstrate them become less frequent. In my first year out of college, I was terrible at everything; pick any one skill and I would have 10 chances a day to practice doing it better (let’s start with “never hitting reply all“). Let’s say you are an executive with 25 years experience in the top decile of your industry, by some generally accepted scorecard. Maybe the thing at the top of your professional development list is “maximizing shareholder value from acquisitions.” Those are going to come along, like, once every 3-5 years? Even if you are in Private Equity or advise on deals you might only be personally responsible for a handful in a year. So the stakes become higher and the at-bats become scarcer. Pretty bleak.

Optimist’s view: your capability profile is positively differentiated from other professionals with equivalent tenure on other tracks, giving you an advantage in “disrupted” organizations. So if you are risk-tolerant enough to jump onto another track after developing significant capabilities, you are likely to find yourself in high demand (and it’s never too early to prepare a transition). Let’s say that on average, across industries, job descriptions for a given equivalent seniority level (e.g., “Vice President”) have 12 qualifications. If you are a top performer in, say, Marketing for a Software firm, and you see that there has been a major disruption in another industry, say, B2C Media or Telecom, you could find yourself in a situation where your skill set is a scarce and valuable asset compared to the incumbents who have been dutifully advancing their proficiency in the set of skills that was most valuable for the previous decade but is now less relevant. Will an executive search committee offer a prominent and strategically important role to an industry outsider in a time of disruption (read: crisis)? That will have to be the subject of another post!

So if you have managed to get this far in the post and are asking yourself, “What does this mean?” Here are is my advice, take it or leave it:

As you advance in your career, stay aware for opportunities to hone your craft, because the most important ones will become less frequent. At the same time, be willing to switch specializations because what is common in one organization could be rare and valuable in another.

What are the best job interview questions?

Mediocre interview questions are boring for everyone and don’t create clear differentiation between candidates, leaving the hiring manager to draw on gut instinct (also known as good old fashioned bias) when making a decision.

“How is this an issue?” Some interviews are doomed from the start.

Good interview questions help the hiring manager understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of a set of candidates in the context of the role’s requirements. Good interview questions are predictable enough that a candidate can provide composed, complete answers that put his or her best foot (feet?) forward, exhibiting both technical capabilities and unique personality traits.

Great interview questions make the experience engaging and informative for everyone involved. The best interviews build a positive reputation for the employer, regardless of whether the candidate receives an offer. The best interviews build confidence in both parties that there is a strong mutual fit and build positive momentum into the offer and joining phases of the hiring process.

So what are the best interview questions? Here are a few categories you should test for, regardless of the job description, along with a few examples I’ve encountered in my experiences on both sides of the interview table.

  1. Domain knowledge: “Tell me about five subjects on which you’d consider yourself an expert and how you gained knowledge in the area.”
  2. Interpersonal dynamic: “Think of a time where you discovered a mistake that would have caused significant cost to your team if it was not corrected. What was the mistake, who made it, and how did you resolve the situation?”
  3. Adversity and its aftermath: “Tell me about the most significant failure in your last role. What specific, personal contribution did you make that created the failure?”
  4. Unique contributions to success: “Tell me about the most significant success in your last role. What specific, personal contribution did you make that created the success?”
  5. Self-awareness and commitment to development: “What would you say is your main development area today? How did you become aware of it, and what are you doing to improve in that area?
  6. Professional relationships: “Looking at your resume, tell me in one sentence for each transition why you left and how you found the next role.”
  7. Mental fatigue: Near the end of the interview, ask the candidate to stand up in front of a white board and work through a tough logic puzzle like these involving weighty things, calendar cubes, or other popular techie puzzles. It’s not the answer that matters, it’s how the candidate demonstrates their ability to apply structured thinking under pressure.
  8. Mutual evaluation: Last, let the candidate ask any questions he or she has for you, so that everyone walks out of the room with the information they would need to make a decision on an offer. Are the questions about strategy, career progression, pay, coffee quality, weekend emails? You can learn a lot from what questions candidates ask in what order.

Please leave a comment if you have feedback or suggestions on this post. Happy hiring!

Executive Churn: It’s Not Me, It’s You

After enough seemingly random events, it’s natural for the human brain to start looking for patterns (just ask Daniel Kahneman). So when I recently heard news that one of my executive team was leaving the company to pursue the inevitable “other opportunities,” I started to wonder:

  • how did I manage to accept an offer with another company with an unstable leadership team?
  • where did my post-offer diligence break down?
  • what other blind spots do I have that are hiding major risks about this company?
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Is there a revolving door in your company’s executive suite?

Then a surge of awareness kicked in, and I realized that my self-orientation was causing a perilous bias in my view of the situation. ELC-Mercer data from 2013 put C-Suite turnover among Fortune 500 companies at 7.4%, in 2015 Crist|Kolder put CFO turnover at 10.9%, and in 2015 PwC measured the turnover rate for CEOs as 16.6% in the largest 2,500 companies globally. So after a couple years at the same company, seeing one or two executives walk does not seem like a rare and exceptional event, or necessarily precede a corporate apocalypse.

And why does executive churn even matter? For a few reasons, at least:

  • the remaining execs will have to pick up the extra work left by the open seat
  • the instability of the team may spark a power struggle and additional executive vacancies
  • uncertainty among analysts and investors could spark a period of volatility and decline in the stock price, further devaluing the long term options for the remaining execs and increasing the risk that they walk away

Of course understanding why the executive team is leaving, and how extensive of a search the Board and CEO are doing in order to restore a balanced, effective and aligned executive team, are important questions to answer in order to understand whether the executive churn at your shop is in-line with the industry average, or a precursor to an epic corporate meltdown. So here are a few questions to consider when estimating the executive churn risk at your business, whether you are evaluating an offer of employment or already an employee:

  • how long has each executive been in place, and how does this compare to the median tenure?
  • how aligned is each executive’s experience with the go-forward strategy for the company?
  • which executive’s “work-life balance” is increasing the risk of burnout? Warning signs include execs who live in a city other than the corporate HQ and commute more than 2 days per week, or those who are temporarily filling open division or functional leadership roles in addition to their core responsibilities.
  • is there a defined executive succession plan in place?
  • have there been significant corporate turbulence that increases the succession risk for your company’s executives? For example: merger & acquisition activity, entering or exiting markets, or significant upward or downward movement of the stock price.

There is a certain balance to be struck between staying focused to be successful in your own role, and staying aware about existential risks for the company that could threaten your career stability, regardless of your own performance. Everyone has their own risk tolerance, and hopefully the questions above will help you make decisions to find a place in an organization where you can thrive.

image credit: Alamy via dailymail.co.uk

 

Two ways to build trust in a new manager relationship

Like many things in life, these options could be summarized as: the easy way, or the hard way. And I am not going to post the link to the Boondocks clip. You’ll have to find it yourself.

There's the easy way, and ...
There’s the easy way, and …

Manager relationships are…relationships. Establishing trust is essential for both parties to feel valued, engaged, and satisfied. Getting to that point in a short period of time, without triggering tears or rage, is essential for the long-term health of any relationship. And it doesn’t happen by accident. This post focuses on the employee-manager relationship; feel free to abstract these concepts to other relationships at your own risk.

Building trust requires establishing a mutually agreed level of autonomy for the employee under the guidance of the manager in two key dimensions:

  • time span of discretion: what is the longest duration task for which the employee can take complete accountability? Viewed another way, how long is the manager willing to wait for a status update?
  • delegated decision authority: which decisions can the employee make without consulting and or informing the manager?

Time Span of Discretion

Credit for this term goes to Eliot Jaques, whose book The Requisite Organization is underrepresented in the modern leader’s library. I will warn you that it is not a casual read; be aware that the large conceptual rewards packed into this book require a large investment of attention. With that disclaimer out of the way, the idea from the book that I’m highlighting here is about what duration task the employee has the trust of the manager to execute independently. Does the manager want to see a daily task list and a midday status update? In this case the time span of discretion is somewhere between 4-10 hours. At the other end of the scale, CEOs often embark on multi-year global transformation programs with the hands-off support of their Boards, often requiring quarterly status reports at a maximum.

Delegated Decision Authority

The best metaphor from this concept that I’ve encountered is the Decision Tree from Susan Scott’s book Fierce Conversations. Just as a tree’s roots, trunk, branches, and leaves have different weighting on the future health of the tree, the levels of decision making have different weighting on the future health of the organization (or the career of the decision maker). I’ve summarized the concept in the table below:

decision tree table

For example, the pair might decide that any decisions around hiring, firing, or promotion are Trunk decisions. Which vendor to choose for the trade show giveaways is a Leaf decision. And so forth.

Now that we’ve defined the two essential components to establishing trust, let’s address the original question of HOW to get there:

  • The Easy Way: proactive, implicit, inductive. Sit down with the other party and discuss, before any specific events occur, what level of decision making authority will be delegated and what is the time bound of discretion. Establish the boundaries of the relationship before they are tested. In another context, how do you learn your way around a new city? Look at a map before you leave the house, ask your neighbors which parts of town to avoid.
  • The Hard Way: reactive, explicit, deductive. Jump into it, wait for things to happen and then talk about whether the events fit within the desired boundaries of the relationship. This approach to learning the new city is to wait for sunset and then wander out the front door with some cash in your front pocket and hope you make it back in one piece.

My intent in writing this piece is to raise your awareness of what will help define trust in your manger relationships and how you are going about establishing it. You can choose to take the hard way without judgement; just be aware of the potential bumps and bruises you might encounter along the way.

Thanks to Dan Schultz for inspiring this post. Questions or feedback? Leave a comment!

Are you a normal thinker in a power-law world?

Along with celebrating the holidays, eating cookies, catching up on sleep, eating cookies, and doing fun projects with the kids (did I mention the cookies?), one reason I enjoy the year-end is the chance to chip away at the stack of unread books piling up in my house. A particularly thought-provoking book in this year’s batch is Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which has earned a spot on my recently revised Essential Reading List.

This post is not a book review, but rather a highlight of an idea Thiel introduces early in the book and has appeared in my daily thoughts since reading it. He reminds us that conventional Western thought trains us to think of outcomes as following a normal (random) distribution, but in fact both the natural and business world follow a power law distribution. Accepting this re-framing of the world around us is easy in theory, and changing our choices in life as a result can be very difficult.

Some are mean, some have no mean
Some are mean, some have no mean

The idea itself is not original – from the application of mathematical theories to the emerging computer science field in the 1950s, to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 New Yorker article, to Taleb’s Black Swan – but Thiel’s framing of the concept, and its implications, is novel.

Many of us are taught to value breadth over depth, and to avoid “placing all of our eggs in the same basket.” We are coached to believe that well-roundedness is a virtue but hyper-specialization is “weird.” The entire premise of the liberal arts education system, from classical to modern times, is to provide foundational knowledge in a broad range of topics. [Personal note: not all institutions follow this mantra. The feedback I heard after being rejected from MIT’s undergraduate engineering program was that I was “too well rounded.”] As students and professionals, we are graded on a curve (the normal distribution). We are advised that portfolio diversification is the safest and most profitable theory of investment.

But strategy is about trade-offs. A business must choose to specialize in a certain market, geography, or product domain in order to reduce competition and increase profit. We cannot diversify our professional lives by being partially invested in many careers. At some point, we must choose to specialize in a function, industry, or growth stage in order to excel.

Sure, it’s interesting to think about whether phenomena like marathon finishing times, portfolio company performance, emissions, or health care spending follow a normal or power law distribution (at least for a few moments). But how can we apply this new way of framing the world? Here are a few ways to put this theory to action in life:

  • Think, plan, and go deep – from an early age. Find out what you (and your kids) are passionate and talented in, and build expertise. The most knowledgeable and talented people in any discipline are always in demand, regardless of market cycles.
  • Take risks with definite outcomes. Be certain, which means being certainly right or wrong, not indefinitely indeterminate. Too many of us hide behind a fear of failure and instead drift along in the middle of the pack without achieving much.
  • Concentrate your investments in a much smaller number of areas: in your professional pursuits, and your personal interests. As the new year begins, instead of asking yourself “what else can I start doing?” think about what you can stop, in order to focus your mental and physical energy on the few things you do best and enjoy most.

Does this resonate with you? Sound completely crazy? Leave a comment and let me know! Regardless, have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2015.

Is your job as hard as you want it to be?

First: a Veterans/Remembrance Day moment of appreciation to all military veterans out there. The rest of us will never actually understand the level of service and sacrifice that you made. Thank you, truly.

Now, some of that leadertainment you came here for. Many people find themselves restless at work, struggling to find balance. If you are, like me, a modern day corporate Goldilocks seeking professional balance that is “just right,” perhaps this framework will be helpful to you.


  This is not what I meant by “hard.” Entertaining, though, on a few levels.

What I’m proposing is that a job can be hard on you physically, mentally, both, or neither. Ok, I won’t wait up late for the Nobel phone call, but perhaps you haven’t taken stock of your job this way before, or thought of ways to change the balance.

Why is your job hard?
Why is your job hard?

Once you’ve placed your current job on the matrix, ask whether the role fits what you want from your career at this stage. Maybe your commitments at home are growing and you’d happily take on some career Atrophy for more bath time with the kids and date nights with your spouse, or the flexibility to start volunteering. At the other end of the scale, perhaps you are a recent empty nester and are ready for the Exhaustion of a tough growth challenge with a startup organization. Many of us are very happy with Heavy Lifting or Deep Thinking roles, once have found the right match for our strengths.

In an upcoming post, we’ll dive in to the concept of purpose at work. For now, think about why your job is hard, and whether you are satisfied with the answer. If not, collect your thoughts and reach out to your manager, your peers, and your team, and make a plan to change it for the better.

Hold on, were you just trying to delegate?

Let’s go back to the basics here folks. Whether you have 3 months or 3 decades of leadership experience, an essential skill to keep your team effective and engaged is delegation. A wise man once said “delegation is about deciding what you don’t do, and prioritization is about deciding what no one does.”

Cliche aside, the skill required in effective delegation is assigning tasks to your team members that achieve leverage and learning. Terry Pearce has a classic (i.e., VHS!) training video about leadership speaking in which he tells the story of dropping off his daughter at college: the main message about delegation is that unless it hurts, you haven’t delegated a large enough task. But what does this look like on a graph, you ask?

Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team
Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team

The ideal level of delegation gives the team member enough autonomy to achieve a task that requires a slight “stretch” of skill (i.e., learning) to complete at the required level of quality. Yes, the manager could have completed the same task at a higher quality level (per unit time), but the free time created in the organization allows the manager to take on a higher complexity task that, presumably, no one else below him or her in the team could achieve. This is what I mean by leverage.

Locating this curve for each employee/manager combination requires self-awareness and feedback on both sides. The team member needs to raise awareness of his or her skill level, and the manager needs to raise awareness of his or her level of control or autonomy with delegated tasks. From the manager’s perspective, you must be willing to sacrifice control for the sake of leverage and learning, without setting your team up for failure. Staying too far to the left is demeaning and stifling for your team. Too far to the right, and you will assign tasks that my former (rugby loving) manager would call a “hospital pass:” drop it and your team loses, catch it and you’ll get knocked out.

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the left on the curve include:

  • you ask a team member to circulate a document for feedback among a group, and then scold him or her for sending an email to that group before letting you proofread it
  • you ask a team member to facilitate a meeting, and then chime in after every one of his or her comments with a “clarification”
  • your team members have asked (directly or indirectly) for more responsibility and authority to set direction in achieving the team’s goals

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the right on the curve include:

  • many of the tasks you assign need to be reworked at the last minute
  • few team members volunteer for tasks on offer because they are intimidated by the complexity of the task or the risk of failure

So, I challenge you to use this post as a prompt to reassess your ability to delegate. Have a conversation with your team members to reach alignment on where you are on the curve. Find low-risk ways for your team members to fail constructively, and watch the benefits of learning and leverage accumulate.