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Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

16 Ways to Make Meetings Tolerable

In ! Jen, General Work on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 1:11 am

Generally speaking, I don’t mind attending meetings. I always bring a notebook and pen, so even if the meeting is wickedly dreadful, I daydream ways to build a better mousetrap, make anagrams of attendees’ names, and the like. But if you’re on the facilitating end, here are some tips to encourage people to refrain from such amusements.

1. Cardinal rule of meetings: if you tell them you will bring food and bring food, they will come.

2. Meet in the smallest meeting room that will comfortably accommodate your participants + 10%. Obviously, this will require some significant forethought, because it’s much easier to get the biggest room possible to accommodate everybody. My experience has been that the better-fitting the room, the more people participate and stay engaged. Too tight and it’s claustrophobic. Too big and it’s anonymizing. Way too cavernous and you’re encouraging sideline conversations. You want to be ready for Goldilocks.

3. Send out the agenda ahead of time. My company has a tidy standardized meeting agenda form, but even a short bulleted list does the job. Start your meeting with a reminder of your goal(s) for the meeting and key items on the agenda.

4. Ensure that the people you’re inviting really do need to be there. If it’s more informational for them, be clear on the group invite/agenda that this meeting is informational for them. They will appreciate this. If they can simply glean or learn what they need from the meeting notes, so be it. Treat people like intelligent adults.

5. Bring in the light. There’s a lot to be said for natural lighting. Bright trumps dark for holding attention.

6. If you’re the assigned facilitator don’t also be the one taking notes. You should be focused on facilitating. Ask someone else to take notes.

7. Assign action steps to participant(s) at the meeting. Stay away from having to follow up offline with action items. There’s a better chance it won’t get done, if it doesn’t get explicit accountability assigned at the meeting.

8. Don’t prolong an item into the next meeting if you can help it. If you’re running out of time, better to hold over an entire subject for the next meeting than have to do it halfway. Because at the next meeting, you will spend time discussing what was partially discussed in the last meeting, and then have to pick up to move forward. This can take more time than just starting anew.

9. The sooner other voices are heard, the better the engagement levels will be. Push discussion items up early, if possible. There is better energy in a room when people hear their own voice and can feel they are participating in the discussion.

10. Nix your own blackberry and other distractors. If you even peek at your own phone, that gives implied permission for everyone else to sneak a peek, too.

11. Call out non-agenda items and put them in a parking lot. This involves little more than making a list on a separate sheet, for future discussion.

12. To reinforce points, add a participatory element if possible. I was recently at a meeting where a colleague shared changes to a policy. Excruciatingly boring subject, really. Then came the creative twist. After briefly covering the basics, her slides morphed into a game show format, quizzing our knowledge of the policy usage. Brilliant. And she brought candy prizes for first respondents, to boot.

13. Thank people for coming.

14. End on time, or aim to end 5 minutes earlier than scheduled.

15. Send out minutes or notes within 24 hours. Obviously, this is idealistic vs realistic. But the sooner, the better.

16. This suggestion probably should have been first, but consider if there are better ways of addressing the issues than having the meeting in the first place. Is a meeting truly the best format for what you’re trying to accomplish? I’m convinced if we had to sum the $ cost of every participant’s hour of time, nonessential meetings would not occur.


16 Tips for Lunch Interviews

In ! Jen, Candidate Tips on Monday, October 19, 2009 at 1:11 am

As an interviewer, 12:00 is my least favorite time slot. This means that I have to take the candidate to lunch. And chances are, it’s only one hour and I’ve got to the get the candidate from the last interview, to the caf or restaurant, get them to their next interview on time. And get my interview questions answered. Yet at the same time, lunch can be the most telling and fun interview, because candidates typically are at their least guarded, most themselves. Here are some tips, from the candidate perspective, for these 12:00 lunch interviews:

If dining at the company cafeteria:

1.  As you approach the cafeteria and the interviewer shows you the lay of the land:  where the grill is, salad bar is, etc., ask “where should I meet you?” so you are clear where you will physically reconnect with your interviewer. Select your meal items before your interviewer finishes selecting his, and be waiting at the designated rendezvous point. Don’t lag behind creating a salad masterpiece and keep him waiting for you.

If dining at an off-site restaurant:

2.  After you settle in, ask your interviewer “what would you recommend here?” or “what are you getting?” Choose something at roughly the same price point. This is not the time to order surf and turf, unless that is what your interviewer is also getting. And it goes without saying, absolutely no alcohol.

3.  Let your interviewer pay and be sure to say “thank you” for lunch, both when she picks up the tab and also (“thanks again for lunch”) when she introduces you to the next interviewer.

4.  Don’t plan to eat much. You’ll be doing the majority of the talking, so you don’t want to have your mouth full most of the time. If this means scarfing down a Clif or Snickers bar prior to going to lunch to nix hunger pangs, do it.

5.  Select easy-to-eat food. Food that either comes in bite-size pieces or is easy to cut into bite-size pieces. Nix stringy or noodley soups, and complicated foods requiring more tools than the requisite fork, spoon, knife. No drippy and/or stuffed burgers and hot dogs. No onions, no garlic.

6.  Take notes during your interview. Yes, even during lunch interviews. Bring a pad of paper and pen or a portfolio. One of the ways you tacitly show respect and interest is by writing things down. This says to your interviewer: what you’re saying is important enough that I want to ensure I take it down, to remember for future reference. Obviously, you’re not taking copious notes, just key items, or tidbits that’ll be nice to refer to in the future, such as your thank-you note.

7.  Pack a tin of mints in your bag. As you take out the tin, offer the tin to your interviewer after your meal. Mint, not gum. This shows that you’re thoughtful (offering to your interviewer) and prepared.

8. Don’t be weird and quirky. Idiosyncracies like biting your straw into a mangled sculpture or taking five spoons may be cute and endearing when you’re with friends, but you don’t want to display them now. Being memorable does not equate to being seen as effective.

9. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Seriously. I know this is basic, but at least half of the lunch embarrassments I’ve witnessed (or experienced myself, truth be told) are from spitting while talking or coughing fits from talking with eating. And take little bites.

10. Exhibit good dining manners. Cut meat with your knife in your right hand, fork in left. If presented with a plethora of forks and spoons, use the utensil furthest from your plate and work your way in toward your plate with each course. No slurping. Chew with mouth closed, elbows off the table, napkin in lap. If you didn’t learn classic American dining manners growing up because your parents were immigrants or it just wasn’t a priority, no worries. Preeminent etiquette expert Jodi Smith has a perfect book for you (you can probably find it at <$10) that will show what you need, without the fussy pretense.

11.  Turn off your cell phone and blackberry. If you’re waiting for a bona fide emergency call or message, start any meeting with a heads-up: “I’m waiting for an emergency message that normally, on an important day like today, I’d wait until the end of the day. But please pardon me if I check my blackberry for 15 seconds if it beeps at 10:15. I just want to learn whether my god-daughter got a kidney.”

12.  Have more questions prepared for lunch interviews. And be more prepared to lead the discussion. The interviewer may be more casual than in an office setting, so there may be more air time for you. Here’s a good opportunity to ask questions about the corporate culture: Do people in your department usually eat lunch at their desks? what surprised you about working here, your first week? what do you wish you knew before you accepted your offer to work here?

13.  Visit the restroom before your next interview. Check your appearance, especially your teeth–you’ll feel more confident knowing that you don’t have pepper in between your teeth.

14.  Don’t be rude to wait staff or cafeteria employees. As an interviewer, I notice if candidates are boorish toward admin assistants, front desk personnel, and others who are clearly not the hire selection decision makers. A lack of respect toward these individuals is a good predictor of lack of respect toward others in future projects. How would the candidate treat those who are coworkers but not key decision makers.

15.  Don’t ask for a doggy bag. It’s not the time.

16.  Don’t forget you’re still in interview mode. The entire time. Stay on. This is not the time to bitch about how late the first interviewer was, or commiserate over how controlling the boss seems. Even if the interviewer engages in such prattle, stay professional and in full-on candidate mode. And be prepared to talk about yourself, as if you were meeting with any other interviewer: if you use sales aids or have a brag book, bring it to the lunch interview too. Go get ’em, tiger!

Use your magic powers for good, not evil

In ! Kristy, Development, Manager Tips on Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 2:29 pm

I spent two days last week becoming a certified facilitator of FranklinCovey’s The Speed of Trust materials. I’m a huge Covey fan; The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has majorly influenced how I go about my life, and The Speed of Trust is in that same vein. In short, it’s Good Stuff, and it’s now part of my toolkit along with other favorites like the MBTI and Right Management’s career development material.

I’m a proud OD geek, and I’m passionate about helping others find insight using these tools. But in the wrong situation, they can eff up a team or an organization like nobody’s business, worsening the dysfunction and creating a zombie army of cynical team members.  It all depends on how you use the magic powers.

These tools rock when:

  • The leader has done the hard work of getting self-aware, identifying how she contributes to the team dynamic, and demonstrating changed behavior as a result of the feedback she received
  • The leader has made some tough people decisions and removed team members who don’t play well in the sandbox; i.e., the leader has implemented the No Assholes Rule
  • The leader is committing to a long-term development process for her team, not just a one-hit wonder “teambuilding day”

These tools crash and burn spectacularly when:

  • The leader is checking a box, particularly on his own development plan
  • The leader is trying to fix the team without fixing himself
  • The leader is assuming that a one-day “training,” followed (god forbid) by some Whirlyball, is going to fix everything
  • The leader misuses the information shared by team members during the session

How do we avoid misuse?

Certified facilitators have an ethical obligation to ensure that each tool is used in the right circumstances with the right intent. It can be difficult to speak truth to power when a client “just wants you to come in for an hour” and run through some MBTI concepts. But you’ve got to do the true consulting work.  That’s why you get paid the big bucks and have such a nice cube.

Leaders have an ethical obligation to do the hard work of change, which starts with changing you, which starts with getting self-aware and becomes real when you show others you’ve listened to their feedback by changing how you act. Also, there are some tough conversations and decisions ahead of you if you really do want to help your team. But this is the true work of leadership. That’s why you get paid even more money and may even have wood furniture.

Use those magic powers wisely, peeps.

16 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview (As a Candidate)

In ! Jen, Employee Tips, General Work, Listen, Look on Monday, October 12, 2009 at 3:33 am

You’ve prepared, you’ve researched, you even ironed your socks. You look the part. You’ve answered the interviewer’s questions brilliantly, you’ve generated good vibes of camaraderie, and your confidence is high. There’s just fifteen minutes to go until your next interview. You’ve just got to close this one out.

Then the interviewer asks: “okay, that’s all I’ve got. What questions do you have for me?”


In grad school, I had on-site interviews with a company that had one interviewer who asked no questions. She simply said to candidates: “Ok, so what do you want to know from me?” At the time, I was terrified at the prospect of 60 minutes with a total stranger who was just going to answer my questions. But in retrospect, this was an excellent opportunity. One that I didn’t know how to quite take full advantage of, being new to the work world.

This is your opportunity to interview the company. What? I’m trying to get employment here. I need an offer, I don’t need to interview the company! Yes, you do. Better to make an informed decision on fit, even if you know you must accept the job if it’s offered. Here are some questions that will assist you with getting more information about the candidate company, send the message that you are interested and curious, and additionally, enable you to wend the conversation to selling yourself as the selected candidate.

Questions to ask your prospective manager:

  1. Tell me more about why this position is open.
    • How long has it been open?
    • What happened to the previous incumbent?
    • How many people have held this position in the last three years?
    • Has the job’s responsibilities changed in the last year? in what way?
    • Get at: is this a winnable position? One that people stay in? One that people grow in and move over or up? The type that grinds people up and spits them out?
  2. Tell me about the other members of your team.
    • Then bring up how your portfolio of experiences and expertise helps round out the team, is complementary, or adds strength.
  3. What do you envision my goals would look like for the first year?
    • Come prepared! Share your own 30/60/90-day plan.
    • Get at: how well do you know and appreciate this position?
  4. If I were to have extraordinary success in the first six months of my tenure, what would be some examples of what I would have accomplished?
    • Share previous examples from your work history where you have had easily-transferable successes.
    • Get at: have you thought about what criteria on which I will be assessed?
  5. What problems should I expect to encounter on the job in the short-term?
    • Get at: where are the potential land mines: people, projects, politics, departments?
  6. How does upper management view our department / division?
    • What are the department’s goals and how do they align with the company’s mission?
    • Get at: is your work and/or department respected? Seen as valuable players? Catch the blame a lot?
  7. Imagine your ideal candidate. What specific experience or expertise does she have that makes her “ideal?”
    • Now, sell your little heart out! Address how you fit the bill.
  8. What keeps you up at night? -or- What is the most significant project on your desk today? -or- What is the most challenging issue you’re dealing with this week?
    • Ask this if you can think quickly on your feet. Provide insightful feedback on what’s shared. Clarify, brainstorm, show your worth and efficiency.

Questions for key decision makers on the interview panel:

  1. What can you tell me about the prevailing management style here?
    • How do people recognize achievements? Are there avenues outside of those set between manager-and-employee?
    • Walk me through how decisions get made here, using a recent project.
  2. How does the company support and promote professional growth?
    • Some companies have set-aside $’s for each employee to pursue learning. Some have a minimum learning requirement, 40 hours per year, two classes a year, etc. And a lucky few have true learning cultures, where there are ample opportunities to engage in synapse sparks.
  3. What are the best and worst aspects of the company’s culture?
    • What makes this a great place to work?
  4. Do you do employee surveys?
    • What was the last participation rate?
    • What positive feedback came out of the last survey? negative? most surprising?

Questions for peers:

  1. What have you liked most about working here?
    • Least? Most unexpected thing about working here?
  2. What do you wish you had known prior to joining this company?
    • Listen to how carefully the person answers this question. If they are upending words considering how to share information with you–and this is a pattern you’ve seen with others–you should be concerned.
  3. If you were my best friend, what would you tell me about this job that I may not have discussed in general interviews?
    • I like this question. It is so open-ended and has the potential to tell you a lot.
  4. What is [manager]’s reputation for developing people?
    • What you really want to know is his reputation for managing people, but “developing” hints at growth and the managing part will follow if you’re with an astute employee.

I have scads of questions for candidates to ask the HR interviewer or representative. But that’s a post for another day.

Netflix, talent density and trust

In ! Kristy, Culture, Leaders, Uncategorized on Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 12:25 pm

I’m late to the Netflix culture slideshow conversation, but it pushed my thinking about talent, culture and leadership so far forward that it deserves a minute, even now.

If you haven’t checked it out yet, take a gander. Don’t freak at the slide count;  it’ll take you less than 10 minutes to read but will fill up your brain for days. It’s chock-full of common-sense, simple-but-not-easy concepts (who doesn’t love their vacation or travel expense policies?), but what stuck with me the most was the concept of talent density.

Simply put, when organizations grow more quickly than their percentage of high-performing employees, the density of their talent decreases. Growth breeds complexity, and where there is complexity, chaos tends to lurk, and fear of chaos leads organizations to create processes and policy manuals. We started small and freewheeling with 10 of 10 rockstars, but once we hit 100 employees we might only have 50 rockstars, and we can’t just randomly TRUST these people (can we?) so we need to let them know that Crocs are unacceptable workplace attire.

What’s the tipping point for policy and process? I imagine it, simplistically, as such: Joe Manager notices that Ed Employee is consistently late for work. Instead of 1) asking himself whether it’s really important that Ed be in the office at a certain time (and it may be, but not as often as you’d think),  and depending on the outcome of step 1, 2) having a tough conversation with Ed about why he needs to be on time, what might be getting in the way of his punctuality, and what the consequences will be if he continues to be late, what does Joe do? He calls HR and demands that an attendance policy be written so he can throw it at Ed — or better yet, have HR throw it at Ed.  Voila, an easy out for the hard work of being a people manager is born. This example is simplistic, but apply it to expense reporting, project management, vendor management, and the principle still applies: fear of chaos and destruction is the mother of process.

Are processes and policies inherently a bad thing? Absolutely not. Protecting an organization from liability is a noble and necessary function. And the intent of most processes and policies is always to increase efficiencies and decrease risk; no one gets up in the morning intending to gum up the works (do they?).

Unfortunately, when implementing process we ignore the unintended consequences that may very well outweigh the benefits. Guess what?  The people who joined your entrepreneurial, egalitarian, work-hard play-hard, innovative company hate process. They hate policies. And when they see that the form for requesting IT resources for their kickass new marketing strategy is going to take them three weeks to complete, and that they get nickel-and-dimed on the tip they gave the only taxi driver who stopped during the blizzard, one of two things will happen: 1) they will leave. Nah, you say, the economy sucks and there’s nowhere to go.  In that case, 2) they will stay and disengage and become a waste of oxygen and a downer to everyone who comes into contact with them. Neither option is particularly attractive, and both lead to a decrease in the percentage of stellar employees in your company.

Do you see the downward spiral starting? The less kick-ass employees, the more process and policy are needed to govern and direct and control. And the increase in bureaucracy drives the remaining great talent underground or out the door. Etcetera.

Which is why Netflix’s policy on expensing, entertainment, gifts and travel for salaried employees reads: “Act in Netflix’s best interests.”

This is where the finance people get apoplectic. You mean we have to trust every single salaried employee to manage their own expenses and not take advantage of the company? But we can’t do that. We can’t trust everyone!  Bring on the chaos and destruction!

Folks, if you can’t trust everyone in your company, identify who has proven themselves untrustworthy through example, fire them, and examine your hiring practices to find out how you ended up with untrustworthy people in the first place. And don’t replace them until you find someone you’d trust with your own PIN. And that’s the crux of the Netflix talent density theory: Never increase the size and complexity of your business faster than the strength and quality of your talent. Growing, and then scrambling for talent — or worse, hiring in haste — will always get you on the wrong side of this equation.

If you’ve read the Netflix manifesto, do you agree with my take? What else resonated with you?

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