Category Archives: Leadership and Career

Posts written about leadership and career lessons from the real world.

Screening away talent. Why the phone screen is a bad idea.

Life is just getting faster and faster.  One of the ways organizations are trying to make the job search faster is with the ‘phone screen’.  The phone screen is something of a pre-interview, done over the phone to screen out applicants who are not qualified.  While I understand the reasons behind doing this, I don’t agree with them, and I’ll explain why.

The interview is a business meeting between two parties.  The potential employer being one party and the prospective employee being the other.  You are negotiating a business arrangement.   I’ve been on both sides of the table, interviewing potential hires and being grilled by a hiring panel.  Regardless of which side I’m working from, I want to be able to look that person in the eye as I dialog with them.  I want to read their body language.  I want to get a feel for whether I want to do business with that person.  If you are looking for a job, don’t go in with an attitude of just hoping that someone will hire you.  You’ve got to have an attitude that you  bring something to the table that a potential employer wants.  You have to know what you bring to the party and be prepared to communicate to them why you in particular will solve the problem they have.  In essence, you are a business owner and the service you are selling is you.  In order to do that, you need to be able to get a read on them, and they need to be able to see the message you are delivering.   That is just not as effective over the phone.  When I’m interviewing for a position, I want to see the next place I could be working.  Is the environment nice?  Do the employees look like they are genuinely happy to be there or do they look like they’ve just had an injection of pickle juice?  Is the place well kept?  These are things that must be seen with ones eyes.

As a manager, I’ve never been a fan of the phone screen.  Again, I want to look that candidate in the eye and see what they are made of.  I want to see how they carry themselves.  I want to see how they react under stress.  I want to know the things that I can’t know in a phone call.   Often the best candidate is not the most qualified candidate.  The best candidate is the person that will best fit in the company and help solve the problem at hand, as perceived by the person doing the hiring.  The best candidate is a complex decision that involves many factors and discarding potential candidates over a phone call is a great way to ‘let the big one get away’.  Now, granted there are exceptions.  Before you spend the money to fly someone across the country (or possibly across the globe), you should do some initial homework.  A tough look at the résumé and a phone call would be wise.  Also, if you’ve got a very large applicant pool, then maybe some simple filtering would be good, but in most cases, the résumé and cover letter are going to tell me whether I want to see this person or not.

As someone familiar with both chairs, I prefer to drop the phone and head straight to face to face dialog.  Trying to establish candidacy over the phone short changes both parties.  Lets go back to using the phone in the proper way.  Let’s use the phone to set up a face to face meeting.


Chained to Technology.

Suat Eman /

Isn’t technology wonderful? Here I sit on my patio at 11:30 at night, typing this post on my phone. That’s really incredible, especially if you’ve walked this planet for more than a couple of decades and can remember a time before phones were even able to be untethered from the wall let alone be considered ‘smart’.

Here it is, 11:30 on a clear night and I’m tethered to my phone, working on my blog. Isn’t technology awful? That really is the irony isn’t it. On the one hand, technology makes us free to be productive from anywhere. On the other hand, technology further shackles us and prevents us from going ‘off the grid’. Now, I’m not complaining about writing this post. Blogging isn’t something I have to do, it’s something I get to do. Writing is therapeutic for me and I live in a country where I am free to express myself. But, for many, gone are the days of taking the family on vacation and being unreachable for a week or two. How many of you are guilty of at the very least, checking your work email while on vacation? I know that I am.  As portability increases, expectations about your availability increase as well. As companies continue to get leaner, everyone is forced to do more and handle an increasingly large piece of the pie. This means, when you are gone, often there is nobody that can fill in or has the needed answer. Far to often, the expectation is that you will be available as needed.

Technology really is incredible. Now, it’s more than just phone calls and email. Now, I can establish a connection and manage my servers from my phone, while sitting on a beach somewhere far away. The ugly side to that is that I might be required to manage my servers while sitting on a beach somewhere instead of enjoying the beach.

We really need to draw the line somewhere. That downtime away from the office is critical. As much as possible, we need to be completely unreachable. I’ve always told the people working for me to be on vacation when they take time off. Recharge the batteries. There have been a few emergencies where I really needed to talk to them, but I have always made sure to make that an exception. We need the time away. If your employer doesn’t respect that, it may be time for you to think about finding an employer that does. While our work and careers are important, it’s a short term deal. I once was part of a celebration for a fellow employee that had been with the company for 50 years! That is really quite remarkable. But, you know what happened? She retired, the plant forged ahead, and everyone forgot her. In most cases, your job is about right now. Business requirements change and most of the accomplishments that you are so proud of now will be nothing more than a line on your resume a decade from now. For those of us with families, that is where your impact can be felt for generations. Your next vacation could be something that your children talk about for the rest of their lives. Unplug and invest your energy into them. The seeds you plant now will bring fruit in their lives and in their children’s lives.  The energy you put into them can last long after you are gone.

For those of us who manage people, if you haven’t already done so, establish clear guidelines outlining what constitutes an emergency requiring contact with an employee outside of normal work hours and what can wait. It’s easy to fall into the trap of allowing everything to become an emergency. To further eliminate that, establish a list of who is allowed to contact employees on their off time. There’s that one person at your office. You know the one I’m talking about. The one who sees a crisis in everything. That’s the vacation wrecker. You have to take the phone and email capability out of that person’s hands with a specific set of criteria that must be met prior to contacting someone who is vacationing. I have made the mistake in the past of emailing people on vacation about unimportant stuff with the intention of them reading it when they get back, and even instructions in the email itself not to read it until they return. It doesn’t work. They read it  and reply anyways. I’ve learned to save the email as a draft and send it when they return.  As leaders, we’ve got to discipline ourselves and hold the regular stuff until our people get back.  That little bit of time away will pay larger dividends the rest of the year.

It’s time to get back to basics. It’s time to get unplugged again.

Amazingly, I’ve typed this entire eight hundredish word post from the WordPress app on my phone. Isn’t technology amazing?

(Note: I did edit it on my computer.  Those tiny keyboards and screens only go so far. )

Faceoff. Lessons from the Facebook Data Harvest

Facebook is hitting the news again in quite a few places for it’s supposed ‘hack’.   In case you haven’t heard, security consultant and long time programmer Ron Bowes effectively trolled Facebook, then cataloged and published the data of over keyboard 100 million Facebook users.  The data included names, addresses, and phone numbers.  While some are calling this a hack, it really is not.  Mr. Bowes merely gathered data that the users had already made public.  It was out there, he just gathered it, cataloged it, and distributed it.  We can debate about how ethical this was, but it really amounts to redistributing the white pages that are sitting in your desk drawer, only in this case the white pages weren’t for a small geographic region, it was Facebook users worldwide.  Only users that had allowed their addresses and phone numbers to be seen publicly were listed.   Names of course are essential to finding people on Facebook, so that’s kind of a given.  The point of this article is to make clear that you really have to consider everything you publish on the Internet to be public domain.  If you wouldn’t want to put it on a billboard on a busy interstate, then don’t put it on the Internet.  Sure, you can go into Facebook’s privacy settings and limit who gets your address or phone number, but you are only one mis-configured server away from having all of that information collected in a real hack.  The same goes for those very personal emails you thought were secure.  A poorly configured server, a server that was not properly patched, or an employee with an axe to grind can expose it all.  This is not an indictment of Facebook.  This goes for anywhere you store your data.  This includes your credit card numbers that are still stored by some online merchants, this includes your social security number that some websites require.  This includes everything.

No problem.  You’ll just go and delete those potentially embarrassing posts right?  Wrong.  Search engines cache pages.  That means they make a copy of that data that Facebook for instance, publishes and they keep a copy of it on their servers.   You may well delete the post from Facebook, but Google keeps it’s own copy, and you don’t own it.  In addition, you don’t know how many backups of that post Facebook has made or where they are kept.  The things a 16 year old says on Facebook now could well come back to haunt them down the road.  It’s all out there, and it’s all out there forever.  You need to be careful.

Photo by orangeacid/Flickr

Pitching Lessons. Leadership Lessons from the Pitcher Plant.

Photo Courtesy of Sarracenia Northwest

The pitcher plant is a fascinating and unusual plant to say the least.  It grows in very poor soil, but that doesn’t stop it.  It’s been created to gather its nutrition in other places.  It eats things.  Mostly bugs, but pretty much anything that moves and falls into its trap is food.  The leaves are rolled into cones (pitchers) to hold the prey.  Special hairs point inward to to keep the poor creatures from coming out once they’ve fallen in.  At the base of the pitcher awaits a pool of enzymes to slowly digest the victims.  From there, the leaves absorb the soup that’s created by the dissolving dinner, and that is how it makes up for the poor nutrition of the soil it is anchored into.  You would think that this bizarre plant would be found in remote jungles.  Well, it is.  But the species pictured here is quite comfortable growing in the Southeast United States.  Many varieties call the Southeast U.S. home, and at least one variety will grow as far North as Canada.

So, what does this have to do with anything related to technology or leadership?  Well, part of the purpose of this particular post is show you that life lessons can be pulled from almost anywhere.  The lowly pitcher plant can teach us things.  Today I am going to offer up three lessons we can take from this unique plant.

1. The pitcher plant is resourceful. It grows in soil that is so nutritionally poor, most other plants simply cannot grow there.  It thrives in very soggy soil, also a condition that most plants find unacceptable.  It found a niche that other plants wouldn’t fill and it filled it.  Likewise, if we can find an area that others find uncomfortable, we can seize that opportunity.   We may need to adapt ourselves to this new arena, but if others won’t go there, we’ve just eliminated most of the competition.
2. The pitcher plant is patient.  Under the hood that covers the pitcher it secrets a sweet smelling nectar that lures insects to it. This nectar has a paralyzing effect on its prey.  It essentially drugs the hapless victim and it winds up falling from the hood into the deathtrap below.  The pitcher plant isn’t flashy.  It doesn’t scream “Look at me!” in a puffed up self promotion campaign.  It simply sets out the bait and waits.  It knows it has something that its food simply cannot resist.  The strategy works.  Many of the pitchers on the plant become so full that it can’t support the weight any longer and they lie on the ground, full of bugs.
3. The pitcher plant is relentless.  It never quits.  The pitchers are always open for business.  It doesn’t get discouraged when it has been releasing nectar for a while and has no ‘customers’ at the door.  It stays the course and doesn’t give up.  When you know you are on to something that is right, stay with it.

So you see, life lessons are everywhere.  Always be ready to learn from them.  If you stop learning, you stop living and you can never progress further than where you are at the point you stop learning.

Victim of Love. Some Thoughts on ‘Antennagate’.

Some Thoughts on ‘Antennagate’

There is no question. Steve Jobs is a master of his craft. There is also no question that Apple makes some very fine products. That’s what makes iPhone 4 antenna issue so intriguing. There is no doubt that when you consistently release products that are perceived as high quality, expectations go up. I’m not sure just how big this ‘problem’ is. According to Apple’s own data, it’s very small. However, we can’t verify that information, and protected statistics are easily “massaged” to present a desired outcome. Given that Consumer Reports can’t recommend the iPhone4 without a case, I’ve got to think it’s something more than what Apple or AT&T are willing to admit. Whether the problem is truth or hype, there is a perceived problem, and that certainly will cause problems for Apple. The amount of publicity really gave Jobs no choice but to publicly address the issue. As we did with the earlier post on the Gulf spill we will take some lessons from this crazy drama.

Note: If you have not been keeping up with this saga, you should start with at the very least, a timeline and Apple’s press conference to address the issue.

After watching the press conference, I came away impressed with how Jobs is able to downplay the problem and turn his product’s ‘issue’ into an industry wide issue at the same time. This was something that was quickly countered by some of Apple’s competitors. Here is what we see in the handling of this issue from the launch of the phone to the 7/16/2010 press conference:

Let’s start with the good:

  1. Admitting you aren’t perfect. Getting companies (or people for that matter) to admit to anything not seen in a positive light is really tough these days. Apple coming out saying they aren’t perfect is a great move.
  2. Reacting quickly. Apple could have sat on this, denied it, or tried hard to bury it. They didn’t. They took it on and addressed it quickly. Bravo!
  3. Verbalizing your commitment to customer satisfaction. People need to hear this once and a while, but if they don’t see it lived out it can be thrown below in the fluff pile.
  4. Offering a solution to the problem that reaches beyond the minimum, regardless of whether or not it is a problem of perception or reality. Without this, number 3 above is useless. I think this really does a lot to diffuse the negative image ‘antennagate’ has given them. Giving away a case with each phone, refunding the purchase price of the bumper cases already purchased, and offering to purchase certain third party cases for customers because they can’t make enough of their own cases is the probably best thing they could do. Wiping restocking fees for unsatisfied customers was bonus. It’s really, really nice to see a company not stopping at the minimum to make their customers happy. This puts some teeth into saying they want all of their users happy. At the end of the day, it’s a very classy move.

Now, the bad:

  1. Mocking the problem / taking it lightly. Soon after the story broke about the iPhone 4 reception issues, Apple seemed very dismissive of the whole thing. It recommended holding the phone differently or buying one of their cases. Really? I don’t buy for a second that Jobs would accept that kind of response from a company that sold him a home theater system. How do you feel if you purchase a product that does not live up to requirements, and when you complain about it, you are told to purchase something additional to make it right? That’s insane! They didn’t let up either. The first thing we see in the press conference video is a music video blaming the problem on the media and generally making light of the issues. Is that really the juvenile image you want to start with?
  2. Coming off as arrogant when addressing the problem. As far as the recommendation to hold the phone differently, it really smacked of arrogance and provided ample fodder for Apple’s competitors. Nokia for one wasted no time jumping on the opportunity. Suppose I bought a car that sometimes wouldn’t turn left. Would Steve Jobs tell me to stop taking left turns? This is ridiculous.
  3. Trying to make your problem look acceptable by pointing to holes in your customer’s products. This isn’t about their phones. It’s about your phones. What are you doing about fixing your phones? Let the competition fall to the wolves on their own. Note: This includes fixing the algorithm to calculate the number of bars. My favorite line from the press conference is this “…some of these other phones might be being a little bit too liberal on their algorithms too.” How it sounds to me – “It’s OK that we lie, everyone else is doing it too.”
  4. Not admitting your product has a problem. Jobs admits that all phones have problems. That’s not the same thing, that’s dodging the bullet.

Finally, the fluff:

  1. They are working their butts off. Gee. That’s great. You are in a highly competitive market and you are working hard. If you ever read this Mr. Jobs, here’s a tip for you; “Your competitors are working their butts off too. Get used to it.” These days, working hard is expected. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how hard you are working. People don’t care. Right or wrong, the market rewards results. That’s the bottom line.
  2. You’ve got really expensive facilities and really smart people. If you are this good and your phone has a problem, that can make you look worse than you would if you had never brought it up in the first place.

The iPhone4 antenna issue will be a story for years to come. With a truly unique marketing machine and a history of delivering quality products, even the smallest issue will be magnified. When people love your products, they expect perfection. Apple seems to be a victim of it’s it’s own hype in this case. However, if handled properly, this problem for Apple could turn out to be a positive for them. We know that well handled customer problems actually increase the customer retention rate. Time will tell whether Jobs and his crew have handled this well enough.

In For the Long Haul. Leadership Lessons from the Tour De France.

Photo by Tom Curtis

I love July.  It starts off with the birthday of the greatest nation on earth, and kicks into three of my favorite weeks of the year.  That’s right, it’s Tour De France time.  I love the race because despite all of it’s issues behind the scenes, it’s a magnificent spectacle to watch.  It’s got all the elements for a good story.  It’s got surprise, intrigue, suspense, action, drama, and beauty.  What more could you want?  This is the time of year that my DVR is very busy.

So what does all of this have to do with anything?  Well, we can draw some career parallels from Le Tour.

  1. We are in it for the long haul.  This years tour will cover over 2,200 miles in 23 days with two rest days and a 10ish mile opening day.  Effectively, 2,250 miles over the course of essentially 20 days.  That’s 110 miles of racing per day!  You’ve got to be committed to running the whole thing before you start.  Similarly, you can expect to start your career around age 20 and you will most likely be at it until at least age 65.  That’s 45 years!  Once you start, you are into this thing for the long haul.  Plan appropriately.
  2. You’ve got to budget your energy. During almost every stage except for the time trials, some riders decide they are going to leave the main group (the peloton) and go it alone or in a small group to try and win the day.  But, due to the aerodynamics of the peloton, the breakaway riders don’t stand a chance IF the peloton wants to chase them down.  But, even if they succeed in staying away and winning the day, they are toast the next day.  You simply can’t keep up that kind of effort day in and day out and succeed over the long haul.  Similarly, if you bury yourself in your work, you’ll burn out well before the race is over.  You have to find a pace that you can keep up.
  3. Keep your energy reserves high. Competitive cyclists are constantly drinking because the rate of dehydration is very high on the bike.  Similarly, each race has designated “feed zones” where team officials hand out bags of food to the racers.  Without this, they would simply use all of the fuel in their bodies and ‘bonk’.  The bonk is a condition where they are completely out of food stores in the body.  You can’t finish the race if you bonk.  To avoid bonking in your career, you must regularly head through the mental feed zone and recharge your batteries.  Take vacations, turn off the cell phone, keep away from the inbox.  Get away from work and do it regularly.  Schedule it if you have to.
  4. Know when to attack. The race champions know when to make their move.  They don’t just run off the front recklessly.  They are calculating.  They know their strengths and their weaknesses as well as their opponents strengths and weaknesses.  They come into the race with a plan that’s been developed months ahead of time.  You need to have a plan for your career as well.  Know where you want to go.  Don’t make a move until you are ready.  Jumping jobs without real purpose doesn’t lead to gain.  Make sure that when you do make a move, it strategically moves you forward.
  5. Be ready to shift on the fly. This point is the balance to point  four above.  The race doesn’t always unfold the ways the riders had planned.  You have to be able to change your plans on the run.  Things happen.  Family members get sick, job cuts come, plans get disrupted.  These may derail your plans, so you’ve got to be able to step back and look at things objectively, then adjust as necessary.  The one thing that you have to do however, is NEVER make changes to your plans in response to emotion.  Take the time necessary to be objective and consult with a trusted adviser if at all possible.  Everyone should have a mentor they can go to.  If you don’t have one, get one.

There are many, many more dynamics of racing that dovetail nicely into real life.  However, those are for another time.  Today’s stage is over, and I’m inspired to ride my own bike.

Until next time…………

Lessons From the Gulf Spill

It’s hard to avoid.  You see it everywhere.  Pictures of the massive Gulf oil spill are plastered all over television, print, and of course the Internet.   For most Americans, this is probably  the largest disaster of their lives, and it is truly painfull to watch.  As a resident of a Gulf state, the spill takes on a greater personal urgency than it would have otherwise.  While we won’t know the true magnitude of this disaster for many years, if ever, there are some things that we can glean now to help us in our personal and professional lives.  Truly, the most dismal failure is the failure to learn from failure.  Whether it be your own failure or someone else’s, there are always lessons to be learned.

I’m not going to take this space to talk about what could or should have been done or to lay blame.  We don’t need another blog talking about that .  Instead, I’m going to talk about lessons that we as leaders can learn from the oil spill in the Gulf.

Problems can be rolled into opportunities if we are ready.  For example, at a previous employer, we had laid out a road map for a massive upgrade project.  We had approval and a time line.  Because of a need that arose (problem) unexpectedly, we were able to begin implementing our plan a full two months ahead of schedule (opportunity).

  1. Take Responsibility.  Early on, we heard some bickering about whether this was BP’s problem or Deep Water’s problem.  For BP, it really didn’t matter.  The perception was that this was BP’s problem and BP needed to take care of it.  This was an opportunity for BP to step up and be visible and involved in the solution whether it really was BP’s problem at the core or not.  Stepping up to be part of the solution instead of playing the blame game builds credibility.  Start working on a solution now.  Deciding who, if anyone,  was at fault can wait until after the problem is solved.
  2. Be transparent.  Hiding things or the perception that you aren’t laying all of your cards on the table builds distrust.  Being honest and admitting you don’t have a full handle on the situation or know all the answers may not be the most comforting thing to the people you are communicating with, but it will build trust if the people around you believe that you are working diligently and you are competent.  Competency doesn’t necessarily mean having all the answers, it often means having the ability to find the answers.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  This point ties in very closely with being transparent.  If the problem is too big for you or outside of your expertise, bring in somebody who can help you.  Bringing in help doesn’t mean you are weak or incompetent.  It means you are human.  In this day of specialization, nobody can be an expert at everything.  Sometimes you’ll have to lean on expertise outside of your department or organization.  Failure to know when you are over your head can lead to costly delays in solving the problem and it quickly eats away at your credibility.
  4. Be proactive.  Don’t wait for the flames to be kissing your eyelids before you grab a fire extinguisher.  Get involved with solving the problem while it’s still small if at all possible.  It’s a lot less messy and a lot less expensive.  It also gives you the opportunity to be a hero.
  5. Stand up and take your beating.  Everyone makes mistakes.  It’s part of the human condition.  If you messed up or an area of your responsibility messed up, then sometimes you’ve got to accept that and throw yourself on the mercy of the court.  We’ve become experts at trying to wring our hands of the blame.  Build credibility by ‘fessing up to it’ and dealing with the repercussions.  If you’ve handled the previous four points, then you should have an opportunity to build credibility with this one.  Nobody likes a weasel, and integrity is becoming so rare that people can be quite taken back when they see it in action.  It may be painful in the short term, but leaders must be long term thinkers.  Point 5a here would be to make sure you learn from your crisis so you won’t have to stand up and take another beating.  For taking too many beatings will surely lead to resume polishing.  Smart leadership learns from its mistakes and the mistakes of others.  Wise leadership puts that acquired knowledge into action.

Problems are going to happen, that’s a given.  Be ready for problems, learn everything you can when problems arise, use your new knowledge to eliminate future problems before they happen, and whenever possible turn your problems into opportunity.