Friday, January 24, 2014

Make the Reference Call Count

One of the misconceptions about checking references is that the sole purpose is to determine whether or not to hire someone.  Sure this is a reason, but references are also a valuable source of information about how to help the new hire succeed in your company.  References done right can help you know which strengths to maximize and where reinforcement may be needed to offset weaknesses.  If you take this attitude and tone, this will change how you approach the reference interview and may even elicit more candor from the reference.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Axcient CEO Justin Moore on Culture (from First Round Capital Review)

As an external recruiting consultant, I have a particular vantage point on the signficance of culture. I see how many job moves occur because a company with a great culture is appealing to a top-performer who is currently in a mediocre or poor culture.  Among other reasons, but this is very often a key decision point.

There is an excellent post on First Round Capital's website titled Culture Isn't Kumbaya Stuff that addresses the issue of culture, representing the thoughts of Justin Moore, CEO of Axcient.  Most of the founders I know are in survival mode in the early days of building a business and culture is not necessarily top of mind, but Moore says that culture is too important to relegate to the future. 

Here is an excerpt from the article, but I recommend reading in entirety: 

Culture is one of those things in Silicon Valley that has become nebulous. Everyone wants to have a great culture, but few really understand what it means and how to build it, outside of ping-pong tables and weekly happy hours. Justin Moore, CEO of Axcient, believes that culture, more than anything else, is the key defining attribute of success in tech and must be built starting on the very first day of a company’s life. “This is not about fuzzy, holding hands around a campfire, kumbaya stuff. That’s not what values and culture and mission is about. This is about building an organization for success. This is about winning. This is about doing the tactical things to make sure your organization and your people are aligned around the same thing,” Moore shares.
When you’re small, it seems like great culture should just create itself. You hire people that are like-minded, you interview everybody in the same way and you work hard. You think outstanding culture will be a byproduct of those choices. Moore is adamant that this isn’t true: “Start-up founders often say, “Look, when I’m five employees, I don’t need to invest in that culture stuff. I need to focus on product. I’ve got to get the product right. Then, I need to focus on sales strategies. This stuff can come later.” However, Moore argues, “the problem is that, even at a start-up, you do have a culture and a values system, but you may not be in control of it.” 
If the CEO doesn’t set the tone for the company’s culture, someone else—or some other factor—will. It can easily turn into dysfunction. Moore explains that it’s best to “lead from the front,” to be intimately involved in setting the tone of ethics, work focus, hiring and personal integrity. He compares a company with a strong common culture and sense of purpose to a well-captained sculling team: everyone rows in the same direction, with similar intensity, with a deep bond of mutual trust to bind the group’s interests together. 

In another section, Justin Moore states something that I think is crucial even though it takes effort and intention  to build this into how a company functions day-to-day: 

Another key challenge with culture is consistency. You need to communicate your company’s values to employees early on and often; it should be a constant drumbeat. 

I don't pretend to think that this is easy.  But nothing about building a successful business is. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Job Description Clinic: Part Two: The Next Questions

This is the second installment in a series on job descriptions.  In the first installment  "The Essential Question" my premise is that the most important question to ask in writing a job description is “Why does this job exist?”  Other ways of asking this question are: “What is the essential purpose of this job?”  “What is the mission of this role?” 

The answer to this question goes under the "Purpose" or "Job Summary" section at the top of the job description.  I guess you could even title this section "Mission."

The next section comes under the heading: Responsibilities.  For this section, I promote an "objectives" based description.  The question asked is: “What are the objectives of this role?”  In other words, what does this person accomplish in order to fulfill the purpose identified in the first question? 

Then the same question is asked for each objective.  "How is this objective accomplished?”  In other words, what does this person do to accomplish this objective?

I have written job descriptions that are purely a list of objectives, generally at the C-level or in roles where there is a great deal of freedom and flexibility in how the job is done so long as certain objectives are met.  

On the other hand, if you only describe the how without stating the objectives involved, then it becomes a job prescription and in my opinion pretty lifeless.  

A job description is not a prescription for how the job should be performed, but a description of what the job looks like when it is being performed well. When you are reviewing a team member’s performance, you should be able to compare his/her performance to the job description to evaluate how well the job is being performed. 

In writing an objectives-based job description, rather than merely listing “what” a person in the job is doing, you also state or imply “why.”  

Example:  In a recent search for a Vice President, Human Resources, the initial job description prepared by the CEO stated as one of the responsibilities:  “Develop and implement training and development programs.”  Nothing wrong with this.  Except, to better reach his goals for his company and even for this hire, which involved reengineering the culture, we needed to be more explicit about what this role would bring to the organization.  We were sort of working backwards, revising a job description rather than starting from scratch but I think the example is still relevant.  

The mission for this role was "To be a proactive business partner to the executive leadership team in promoting a values-driven environment, an evolved culture and a highly engaged, empowered and competent workforce oriented toward impeccable customer-service."

I asked the question, “Why does this person develop and implement training and development programs?”  He responded, “I want to have a learning culture in this company where people are continually growing and developing.” This supported his goal of having an empowered  and competent workforce. This also tied into the values that were listed separately but were behind the "values-driven" part of the mission.  

Improving customer service was a burning goal for this CEO, not only in terms of actions, but as part of the DNA of the company. He wanted people to have a customer-service mindset and orientation which then resulted in customer-service oriented behavior.  He also wants this attititude and behavior to be reflected in how the company treats employees as well as how this is outwardly directed toward their customers.  This influenced the messaging of the job description.
We restated the responsibility for training and development in this way:

“Develop and implement training and development programs to instill a learning culture into the organization and to promote an empowered, competent and customer service-oriented workforce.”

We could have merely stated two separate objectives as items on the job description: 
  • Promote a highly competent, customer service-oriented workforce
  • Instill a learning culture into the organization

However, in this case, we wanted to set parameters around how this would be accomplished, i.e., the how.  And since this particular “how” would accomplish two objectives, we grouped them together into one responsibility.  We wanted it to be clear that it was through training and development that these objectives would be accomplished.

In this same job description, this responsibility:  

Responsible for employee communications strategies and employee feedback


Formulate robust employee communications strategies and employee feedback mechanisms that promote an empowered and engaged workforce within an environment of trust and collaboration
In this instance, there was a lot of intentional redundancy in the language for a culture that was being reengineered.

You will note that the job description language I am using is “action-oriented.” In other words, focused on making something happen.  This will be the topic of a future installment.  No matter how wonderful a person your team member is, you evaluate them for what they do -- or "make happen" -- and as I stated earlier, you should be able to use the job description as a measure for evaluating performance.  

In the meantime, I am wondering if anyone reading this has anything to share about how the way you write job descriptions in your company influences people’s perceptions and behavior?  Or, do you have any questions or comments about what I have shared here?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The CEO's Fight Against Isolation

Fred Wilson recently wrote a blog post about how when the CEO loses the confidence of the team, this is a signal to the company's board that the CEO's time is up.  I have a lot of empathy (and respect) for CEOs.  It's a lonely job.  But sometimes it is made lonelier by the CEO's lack of willingness or ability to cultivate a relationship with the team that creates a flow of information, and more importantly, a source of vital feedback.

I questioned Fred in the comments, "How does a CEO not get to this place?" (i.e., fired due to losing the support of the team) His brief response:  "being self aware, working with a coach, getting good mentoring, listening to the board."

I found this post and the comments to be particularly stirring.  This is probably why the following paragraph from another article read a day or so later grabbed my attention:

The greatest danger leaders can face is isolation and an inability to keep learning. Most leaders agree with this in concept but, upon reflection, realize they are more isolated than they thought. For example, as you become more senior, your people are less likely to give you bad news or criticize you for your shortcomings. In fact, most of your colleagues are subordinates who are more concerned with making a good impression on you than trying to give you coaching. As a result of this, leaders need to work harder to seek advice and encourage debate and disagreement. In addition, they have to work harder to see clients as well as solicit advice and constructive criticism from those who observe them. In short they have to work harder to fight isolation and they have to make a conscious effort to keep learning.

From an interview by Alexandra Wolfe with Harvard Business School’s Robert Steven Kaplan on his new book What You're Really Meant to Do.

The stakes are high for a CEO.  I have heard from so many sources and observed up-close that not only does isolation make this tough job even tougher, it can have disastrous consequences.  Like the one Fred described, for instance.  I wonder how many CEOs live with this awareness?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Hiring "The One" May Mean Hiring the Exception

Those of us who bring a lot of creative thinking to the hiring process often feel that our hands are tied.  

Occasionally, there is the hiring executive who will agree to meet the oddball candidate, or who will let you make a case for the exception, the candidate who doesn't have the prescribed credentials, or whose resume is less than perfect and yet your professional judgment or even your time-proven hunch tells you this could be "the one."  Many times the formula is too well-ingrained into the hiring process, or worse yet, there is too much fear, to let those who do not fit preconceived notions enter into consideration.

I understand.  Hiring is a scary, risky business because making a mistake has repercussions. I get this. I am deeply sobered by what my clients entrust to me.  But still...

As I continue reading The Rare Find by George Anders, the following jumped out at me:

...the sorry truth is that hiring norms in recent decades keep leaving less room for individual perspectives.  In big organizations especially, the notion of hunting for talent in quirky ways evokes shudders.  Formulaic conformity feels safer.  In the rearranged world, hiring becomes a labored exercise in not making mistakes, rather than an ambitious hunt for greatness.

Anders mentions big organizations, but understandably small businesses and startups are at times even more careful, and sometimes fearful, in their hiring practices because when the team is smaller each hire represents a greater proportion of the company. 

As someone who is painstaking in the hiring process, I am not suggesting carelessness, but, rather, more openness.  As Anders writes elsewhere in this book:

When you are exploring, ask:  "What can go right?"  Most conventional assessment is all about finding candidates' flaws.  That's appropriate in the final stages of selection, when top-tier candidates have already established their allure.  But...the outer fringes of talent work differently.*  Great discoveries happen only if assessors are willing to suspend their skepticism at first, so that the underdogs get a chance to show a spark of promise.

I am looking for those opportunities to help companies search for greatness.  It is out there in unexpected packages and places and I want to find it -- I have found it before.  Taking a more open-minded, creative approach, leaving the pack, this is what will give a few special companies the leading edge.

*Anders uses as an example, Facebook's use of puzzles to attract candidates that recruiters might miss, with the hire of Evan Priestly being a prime example.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Job Description Clinic: The Essential Question

Because I am convinced of the value of the job description as a management tool and creating a job description seems to be an intimidating task for some, I am going to spend time on this topic.  This series of posts is geared toward those of you who lead teams.  Today I am starting with what I believe to be the most important question to ask when writing a job description.  

If you answer this question and do nothing else, then you will already have something of value to work with.

The way you answer this question will determine how you view the job and the person performing it.  It will influence how you recruit and hire, and how you communicate about the job with the person in the job or the person you are hoping to hire. It will influence how the job is perceived and the type of person you will attract.

When I recruit, in the back of my mind I am always thinking of retention.  Not just how to fill the job but how to find the person who will love this job and thrive in it, and will bring maximum sustained value to the company. 

In hiring, a key question to ask in finding this sort of match between person and company/role is “What are the person’s motivations?”  In other words, “What is the person passionate about and how does this translate into this job and this company?” 

The thing that has kept me motivated in my profession is not the detail of the work that I do, but what the job accomplishes.  In recent years, it has gelled in my thinking that I am passionate about helping to build leadership teams – especially for startups or reinvented companies.  This is what gets me through the tedious aspects of my work and the setbacks that come with my profession.  What I am really excited about is helping companies to succeed and bringing in the right people for the leadership team or the core team is a critical part of a business's success.

In other words, it is the purpose of my work that most motivates me, and this is true of most of the people that you will want to hire. 

However, it is possible to have a highly motivated person who finds meaning in his/her work, and yet the person may have a different sense of purpose for the role than the CEO's sense of purpose for the role.  I've seen this happen with very smart people involved. 

So the question to ask and answer in order to find people who will be passionate about the job and right for the the job is this:  Why does this job exist?

The answer needs to be fairly specific. Recently, a client was hiring his first ever HR person and the primary reason this job existed was to help him scale the company by hiring and onboarding the best employees possible as quickly as possible.  We tweaked the wording and this actually went into the job summary at the top of the job description.

Because this CEO had in the back of his mind that this person was essential to his plans to scale his company, he brought excitement and energy to the discussion with prospective candidates.  In screening candidates, he also ruled out people who did not grasp the larger purpose of the role or who did not have a sense of urgency. 

"Why does this job exist?" is the foundational question to ask before defining the role.  The "what" and "how" come from the "why."  This also helps you to make sure you have the right configuration of roles in the company.  This question determines the job’s value to the company and also helps to identify the right person for the job.  The answer to this question will be part of maximizing the motivation and sense of purpose of the person in the role, and evaluating how effectively the job is being performed.

And while you are at it, it may not hurt to answer this question about your own job as well.  Why does your job exist?  

Of course, I love when people add their own insights and experiences in the comments.  And if you disagree with me, bring it on.  Let's discuss.