Thursday, December 19, 2013

Top 5 behaviors to avoid when interviewing with the CEO

I interview everyone. Sounds like overkill I'm sure, but I do interview everyone. No one joins FirstRain without me meeting them in person or talking to them on the phone. I think of myself as the final quality control on culture and IQ. I try to be at the end of the cycle once the candidate is someone the hiring manager wants to hire, but not always and so I do interview some doozies.

So what makes a doozy? Here are the top 5 things that I really don't recommend if you're interviewing with someone like me:

1. Answer a question with a 5+ minute answer. I time the answers if they go over a minute. I had one last month that was 10 minutes long! No check in with me on whether I was interested, no awareness that she was going on, and on, and on.

2. Get so nervous you um and er and can hardly make a sentence. I'm just a person. I put my pants on one leg at a time just like you. If you're that nervous in front of me how are you going to hold your own in an intense discussion with your manager?

3. When I ask you if you have any questions for me tell me no, you know everything already. This happens more often than you'd think. In every interview I always time the interaction to allow for 5-10 minutes of questions from the candidate to me at the end. And sometimes the candidate will literally say "no, I think I know everything about FirstRain" and then start to tell me everything they know about my company. Stunning.

4. Or instead, only have one very unoriginal question "What are you top challenges?". Come on- you can't think of a more interesting question than that?

5. Be indifferent on whether you want the job or not. C'mom you really think we're going to hire someone who doesn't care about whether they get the job, and doesn't care about FirstRain. If you really don't care don't waste my time or yours!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Don't confuse Visibility with Success



It's the age of social media no question. It's ubiquitous and if you are in business you need to be active, but it's also seductive and can make you confuse visibility (wow, I'm famous) with success (I'm truly making a difference). I know a few entrepreneurs like this - do you?

Do you know people who are more concerned with how they look on Facebook and landing speaking gigs than they are with how the company’s quarter went? Are they distracted in the office more than involved? Did they make it onto a "top something-or-other" list but you know their business is fluff?

It’s understandable why people get caught up in being “visible.” Fame is seductive. Celebrity is followed more by the media every year. Even something as simple as getting a like or a comment on a blog post makes you feel good. Research by Dr. Dinah Hurwitz, a psychology professor at California State University, Northridge, shows that people become hooked to the endorphins that come every time someone responds to their post. She said the symptoms are almost the same, when comparing heavy social networking users to drug addicts. It’s gotten to the point where, as an HBR blog post stated, “our unending use of social media has radically elevated the level of ego in our personal lives… we are in the middle of a narcissism epidemic.”

Take that in for a second: It’s an epidemic—that means thousands of people, millions even, are suffering—from narcissism! I'll bet you know some of the people I am talking about. People who are so wrapped up in their social media presence that, like Estelle in No Exit, they can't see that everyone else can see how self-serving they are.

If your goal is to be a celebrity, then it makes sense. For example, the Kardashians’ whole empire is built on a good social foundation and Lady Gaga turned social media fame into a market development strategy. But if you want to be a high growth corporate professional, beware of substituting celebrity for the substance of your business. Because if your business fails, you won’t have much with which to carry on being famous. It's important to find a balance between growing your own brand—which, don’t get me wrong, is certainly mutually beneficial if done correctly—and growing the business.

One way to ground yourself is to never forget what “success” is. Successful businesses are ones that make and grow revenue or have millions of users as proxy for future revenue. Brand recognition (and, yes, that includes you as a representative of the company) is an important cog in the growth wheel. But visibility is not success in and of itself.

So if you find yourself checking Facebook more than a couple of times a day, or promoting yourself on Twitter endlessly, come up with a scheme to strike a balance between your own social presence and your business success. Maybe you allocate only a certain amount of time per day (outside of working hours, perhaps?) to social media. Or limit the number of tweets you send per day. Or, even, have your marketing team help you (they have their own work to do, so they’ll help you if it will help the business—that seems like a good barometer to me!)

The bottom line is: before you set out to make yourself a corporate household name, know what your success metrics are and make sure you don't confuse celebrity and visibility with true success. Those who really matter know the difference.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Forced ranking is about the top, not the bottom


How do you rank against the guy next to you—better, worse, the same? And do you think the process of your managers discussing you relative to your peers is a good thing, or a bad one?

The practice of forced ranking—or the euphemistically named "vitality curve"—was developed by Jack Welch and GE in the 1980's as a way to identify non-performers and so improve the financial results of the company. It was quickly picked up by companies in Silicon Valley with more aggressive cultures, like Intel, and used as a way to force employees onto a bell curve. It was recently dropped by Microsoft, while being picked up by Yahoo.

The ranking process is not a scientific one—it's a process of judgement. My experience has been managers sitting in a conference room, putting names up on a white board, arguing through the lifeboat test: if you had to throw one employee out of the life boat, which one would you throw? Sometimes the process is simply a forced ranking, putting employees in a linear list; other times it's a process to force employees into groupings like A, B and C, or top 20%, middle 60% and bottom 20%.

Sometimes it is a scientific process. In sales, results are ultimately measurable, and I know one tech CEO who used to fire the bottom 10% of his sales team each quarter, irrespective of whether they made quota or not. His purpose was to drive a dog-eat-dog competitive culture within his sales team.

The end result is the same. You end up with the collective judgement of a group of managers on a group of employees and, if you've run the process well, you know who your top and bottom performers are.

It's always illuminating. If nothing else, to find out what other managers think—but I think it's a clumsy, archaic process to manage the performance of your weakest players.

Poor performance needs to be managed continuously, not once a quarter or once a year. When you have someone who is not performing, you need to act quickly. Never forget, if someone's not pulling their weight you can bet everyone around them knows it, and they are pulling down (at a minimum) the morale and (more likely) the performance of everyone on the team with them. So as the manager, you owe it to everyone to intervene and either put some training and coaching in place quickly to bring up the employee's performance, or get them out.

But the top performers are the most valuable people in your organization and the ranking process can make you pay attention to their satisfaction and compensation, as a team, on a rigorous schedule. The pareto principle holds true for your engineer's performance as much as it does for the likely distribution of your customers—80% of your results are probably coming from the contributions of your top 20%. This does not mean that the middle 60% is not important—quite the contrary—but it does mean you need to pay daily attention to the happiness and professional health of your top 20%.

This is where forced ranking can be truly illuminating. When you get your managers from across the organization, responsible for different job types, into a room and get them talking about their top talent, everyone can then pay attention to their careers. You can make sure your top talent has appropriate top compensation (especially stock options and/or RSUs) and that their career interests are being watched over and nurtured by every member of your management team.

Forced ranking is a useful tool, but a tool to be used occasionally and not as a religion. It's not about making your employees compete (and so driving financial performance up). It's not about identifying your bottom performers (you need to be doing that continuously). It's about making sure your leaders know who the top talent in your organization is so you can grow them, and grow their leadership and impact on your company.

Photo: Seth Coal Deviant Art

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