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“Making it work” : Lessons from the real world of “do or die.”

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

Call them cliche, but those sayings about finding the silver lining and making lemonade when life hands you lemons, they aren’t just hot air.

When I was in the French Fusiliers Marins, the unspoken motto, the underlying mission imperative was always “make it work.”

The intelligence is wrong? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

The insertion routes are compromised? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

You got dropped 15 miles off target? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

Nobody ever had to say it. Nobody ever had to bark the order. From day one of training, it was pounded into us:

Make it work.

Make it happen.

Find a way.

(If you don’t, people will die.)

The first officer I served under, 1st Lieutenant Rannou, had a saying: “There are no problems. Only solutions.”

He was right.

Sometimes, everything just clicks and works perfectly the first time. You don’t have to do a thing. You might as well be on autopilot: From start to finish, your project, your law suit, your surgery, your product launch, your hostage rescue mission, your ad campaign, your theater production, it all goes well. The planets are aligned. The cosmos is on your side. Everything goes so smoothly that you wonder if you aren’t dreaming.

Most of the time though, things don’t go your way. The unexpected happens. Gremlins. Ghosts in the machine. Flies in the soup. Whatever. The cosmos has a way of throwing obstacles your way at the most inopportune times.

That’s just a given.

A butterfly beats its wings in Buenos Aires, and a week later, your stamp machines in Taiwan are down for a month.

A health crisis in East Africa forces the cargo ship carrying the first shipment of your brand new product to spend three extra weeks at sea.

Your new boss is an self-serving imbecile.

Or in the case of teammate Jay Hewitt (photo above), you lay your bike down going 30mph at mile 51 of a Half-Ironman distance triathlon.

What do you do?

No… really. What do you do?

Murphy’s law isn’t an anecdote. It’s an engine of predictability. Use it.

Let me take a quick break from the full list of mishaps and just say that – in case you hadn’t guessed – skin + gritty pavement + speed don’t feel great.

Imagine getting thrown out of a car moving at 30mph, wearing nothing but your underwear.

Not fun.

Now imagine brushing yourself off, getting back on your bike, finishing the ride as fast as you can, switching out the cartridge in your insulin pump, and then completing a very fast half marathon.

Why? Because no matter what happens, there’s still a finish line to cross. A reputation to preserve. A project to complete. A movie to finish shooting. A new product to launch. An essential part to manufacture.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a military officer, a product manager, a movie director, a chef, a fashion designer, a newspaper editor or a CMO. This is something you can be absolutely certain of: Though sometimes, everything will click and flow smoothly as if by divine intervention, most of the time, obstacle after obstacle will get between you and your goal.

Call it Murphy’s Law. Call it whatever you want. It’s just life.

And in real life, shit happens. No matter what you do, something almost always goes wrong.

The more complicated or ambitious your endeavor, the more likely it is that obstacles will find a way to get between you and that golden finish line. Expect that. Plan for it. Train for it.

Heck, embrace it.

You might as well.

Still, I notice that most people freak out when their plan goes awry. They panic. They lose their cool. They suddenly find themselves feeling… lost. They make everything come to a grinding halt while they regroup.

Why?

Poor planning. Lack of training. They didn’t take the time to plan for failure. They didn’t think to come up with contingency plans.

Most of the time though, it just comes down to one simple thing: Lack of experience.

So for those of you who don’t quite know how to manage cool, crazy, ambitious projects, here’s a little bit of advice:

The Ten Basic Rules of Project Management

Rule #1: Never expect things to work right the first time. (If they do, great.  Just don’t expect them to.)

Rule #2: Expect everything to take at least twice as long as you know they should.

Rule #3: Expect the unexpected.

Rule #4: When everything is going well, worry. (You probably missed something.)

Rule #5: Find out what doesn’t work before your customers do. (That’s what prototypes are for.)

Rule #6: You learn more from how and why a product fails than how and why it works the way you expect it to. (So push your prototypes to failure as often and in as many different ways as possible.)

Rule #7: “Design By Committee” never works.

Rule #8: Trust your instincts.

Rule #9: Listen to the people who will use your product. Their opinion matters more than anyone else’s.

Rule #10: Have fun.

Why experience matters: A simple list.

Back to Jay: Jay has crashed in races before. Jay knows how broken bones feel. Jay knows that even with no skin on his shoulder, he can keep racing. He’s been there. He’s done that. He has already faced and concquered pretty-much every obstacle in the book when it comes to endurance racing. As a result, when problems happen, his resolution time is almost instantaneous. He doesn’t have to spend thirty minutes wondering if he’s badly hurt or just in pain. He doesn’t have to seek professional advice. He doesn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of anything. Knowing where he stands allows him to make the right decision in the blink of an eye: Keep going.

Experience builds confidence. Experience breeds forethought and insight. Experience takes doubt, uncertainty, and fear out of the equation. Jay knows that if he crashes, he can probably still finish the race. He knows how to fix a flat. He knows how to repair a broken chain. He knows a dozen ways to fix problems on his bike or with his body, and the ones he doesn’t know how to fix, he can probably improvise if need be.

There are no problems. Only solutions.

Simple enough.

More often than not, projects that appear to have gone smoothly from the outside didn’t go smoothly at all. Every day brought a new hurdle. Hundreds of fires had to be put out. Thousands of split-second decisions had to be made. Course adjustments. Quick fixes. A folder-full of improvised solutions. Personel changes. Vendor replacements. Timeline adjustments. Budget attrition. Whatever. The list never stops growing.

That’s how it really works.

Perfect illustration: Below is Jay at the finish. From the right side, he looks fine. His injuries are out of sight. He looks like a guy who just breezed through a Half Ironman the way most of us breeze through a Taco bell drivethrough.

To an outsider, a bystander, he had a flawless, fun race.

To someone with inside knowledge, he finished despite a horrible bike accident that could have cost him a whole lot more than another medal.

He crashed. He got up. He quickly assessed the situation. He got back on his bike. He finished the race. He added the experience to his knowledge bank.

He made it happen.

If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate the way a project is driven forward, I don’t know what does.


Project manager. Triathlete. Adventure Racer. Creative Director. Platoon Leader. Customer Service Rep. Design Engineer. Toolmaker. Sous-Chef. Football Coach. It’s all the same.

Project/Program Managers are wired differently. Hire and promote with that in mind.

Great project managers aren’t just natural multi-taskers. They’re also natural strategic masterminds. Improvisation kings (and queens). Crisis jugglers. Fearless creative acrobats. Their job (their nature) is to constantly find and implement solutions to problems, foreseen and not. Their job is to embrace hurdles and obstacles, because each one brings them one step closer to their goal. They thrive on making things happen. The more untraveled the road, the better. The more complex the gameboard, the better.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to a) do that kind of work well, and b) love every minute of it.

It isn’t for everybody.

Excuses and blame don’t exist in our little world. Neither does bullshit. At the end of the day, there’s only what you did and what you didn’t do.

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

For most people, that’s not a good thing…

…and for some of us, that’s when the real fun begins. (And we do like our fun.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. 🙂

(Hat tip to Tamsen McMahon/@tamadear at Sametz Blackstone for pointing out that this should be a manifesto and not a primer)

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I had a great conversation with someone about the topic of leaders vs. managers earlier this week, and was reminded of this post from about a year ago:

(Note – If you are an HR professional, you may not like what follows.)

“Managers make sure that work follows an established process. They don’t like change. Leaders, on the other hand, are restless creatures like gamblers who get excited about doing things a new way.”Now, here’s the problem: There’s a great need for talent and a glut of unqualified candidates. It’s going to take a leader to figure out how to move forward. And Recruiting is full of managers.

“One solution: take recruiting away from HR and give it to marketing people who know how to sell. Another: give it to the operational leaders who have the knowledge needed to assess the candidates technical skills.”

Per Kevin Wheeler, via The Recruiting Animal blog.

Whether you think that’s genius or complete bunk, read Kevin’s entire article here. Whatever side of the fence you happen to be on, it is well worth ten minutes.

By the way, I’m in the ATL today, so I will be slower than a slug when it comes to approving and responding to comments. 😉

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Lance Armstrong, by Olivier Blanchard - 2005

Lance Armstrong, by Olivier Blanchard - 2005

Sometime this year, chances are that you will get a chance to hire one or several individuals to come join your team. On his blog some time ago, Guy Kawasaki’s “The Art Of Recruiting” post gave us some pretty crucial pointers that are worth printing and pinning to our respective office walls.

The first of these is this:

“The art of recruiting is the purest form of evangelism because you’re not simply asking people to try your product, buy your product, or partner with you. Instead, you are asking them to bet their lives on your organization.”

Bingo.

But it goes well beyond that. Some companies hire for skills or talent. Others, on the other hand, hire for vision and attitude. The difference is this: Companies that hire for skills and talent tend to attract relatively talented, ambitious folks who do a terrific job… for a while. Until they get bored. Until their work grows stale. Until they start looking for greener pastures. They do great work, and then they leave. The process gets repeated. The process gets repeated. The process gets repeated. Other than adding neat pages to their employers’ portfolios (and their own), nothing much happens.

Companies that hire for vision and attitude, however, kick ass. They always do. The people they hire are agents of change. They’re evangelists. They’re contextual commandos. They’re dreamers and groundbreakers. They’re risk takers. They take the companies they work for further than they were when they first landed there. They attract more people like them and build cultures around their companies.

A good friend of mine, Randy McDougald, hires for vision and attitude, and the results are unbelievable. His business is booming. His customer base is growing. His customers are actually creating a community – a culture – even, around his stores.

Resumes are a good first step. Skills are a nice foundation… But attitude, passion and enthusiasm are the traits that Randy considers when hiring new folks. Believe me, I know every one of his employees, and I can tell you this: I would hire them all in a heartbeat.

Okay, okay, we’ll come back to Randy’s golden touch later this week. Right now, here are Guy’s ten bits of advice when it comes to hiring your next team member:

1. Hire better than yourself.
2. Hire infected people.
3. Ignore the irrelevant.
4. Double check your intuition.
5. Check independent references.
6. Apply the Shopping Center Test.
7. Use all your weapons.
8. Sell all the decision makers.
9. Wait to compensate.
10. Don’t assume you’re done.

(You can check out the full version here.)

What Guy hints at but doesn’t get into is the fact that sometimes, you’ll run into enigmas. Multi-talented folks who don’t quite fit any of the profiles that you’re used to running into, like accountants, copywriters, account executives, product managers or media Planners. Sometimes, you meet people who transcend traditional professional roles. People whose impact on their industry or communities could be felt for years. Decades, even. Some of us would call them game-changers, but I guess “change agent” is a little more subtle. David Armano sometimes calls them “T-shaped” and “sun-shaped” people and I kind of like that.

Only when you run into them, they still haven’t had a chance to break out their superpowers, but they’re just about to. All they need is that little extra push. That little extra help and encouragement. Just a sprinkle of faith on your part.

Among the brightest stars in this group are people like Peter Drucker, Lance Armstrong, Sir Richard Branson and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Mahatma Gandhi. Steve Jobs. The list is long. To a lesser extent, folks like John Winsor, John Moore, Michele Miller, David Wolfe, Kevin Farnham, Valeria Maltoni, Loic Lemeur and William Gordon also belong on the much longer list of kids who didn’t quite fit the mold and grew up to re-invent (or expand the boundaries of) their respective industries and communities.

Consider that they were all kids once. They all applied for that first job. I’d be willing to bet that a great deal of people on that list were turned down by well-meaning managers more concerned with hiring what they knew and understood than taking a chance on something that didn’t quite fit between the lines.

Shame on them.

Why do you think so many of them end up branching off on their own? It isn’t necessarily because they want to spend years working their butts off to be able to say “hey, I did it my way!” No. It’s because they didn’t have a choice. It’s because the people who could have chosen to take a chance on them didn’t.

You would be amazed at how many companies that sell “different” don’t actually have the huevos to actually practice what they preach.

Trust me, there’s nothing more tragic than to see passionate, talented, groundbreaking kids get turned away again and again and again by hiring managers because they didn’t quit match the position’s profile.

“We’re looking for someone with more experience.”

“We’re looking for someone who’s worked in this specific industry.”

“We’re looking for a carbon-copy of the last guy who sat in that chair… only in a different flavor. Because we like to talk about being different and better and more innovative, but we don’t really have the courage to put our money where our mouth is.”

If your company is guilty of this, it’s time to stop. Right now.

One, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by turning away what could very possibly be the most crucial strategic investment your company will ever make.

Two, unfortunately for you, maybe your fiercest competitor won’t be as blind as you were.

Three, you’re breaking spirits. You probably don’t realize it, but you are, and for that, there is no excuse. None. And the karma on this isn’t something you ever want to even ponder.

So here’s a tip: When a dreamer – one of the crazy ones – comes rapping at your door, don’t turn them away because they don’t quite fit the profile that you had in mind. Skilled is necessary. Different is good. Prolific is great. Passionate is even better. Enthusiastic is magical. Unique is genius.

Always consider the pros and cons carefully, but don’t be afraid to take a chance on the occasional wild card.

If you’re willing to ask your new hires to bet their lives on your organization, shouldn’t you also be willing to bet your organization on them?

This isn’t a rhetorical question.

While you ponder the finer points of your answer, here’s one last thing to think about: Exceptional doesn’t mean “really good”. Exceptional means “unique”. It means “the exception to the norm.”

It means different.

Don’t lose sight of that. That tiny little bit of insight could make the difference between your company becoming everything it could be, or just being… well, what it is.

Remember that your company’s mojo doesn’t come from your products or your logo or your tagline. It comes from your people. So if you haven’t done so already, get out of the skills market mentality and hire like your life depends on it. Hire the best that money can buy. Hire the exceptional. Hire the extraordinary. Invest in your own future.
You owe it to yourselves and to your customers. And in this economy, the difference between survival and failure may very well depend on rethinking what types of people you want working for you.
Related reads: H.R. 2.0 and Innovation Starts Here

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Via community Strategist Connie Bensen comes this great little list from Tish Grier that outlines the seven core traits of a great community manager:

  1. Commitment to “the cause”. It’s very important for your community manager to believe in your cause. Their communications need to be transparent & authentic. The job has many challenges so they need to inherently believe in their work & the brand.
  2. Love people. The position is about connecting & communicating. There is interaction with all types, so a community manager needs to enjoy it. (This is why it’s a great position under marketing).
  3. Must enjoy technology. It’s a web 2.0 job. Technology is changing quickly. The tools are constantly shifting & evolving. One has to thoroughly enjoy being immersed. And if your product/brand is technology oriented then it’s natural to be involved in product development & providing feedback.
  4. Must understand online culture. Did I mention this a web 2.0 job? Working online is a bit different than face-to-face. A person needs to maintain a sense of humor & not take things personally. Working online requires a level of perceptiveness so that you can interact with all types of people.
  5. Powers of Observation. I just mentioned being perceptive but it’s more than that. Providing feedback on trends, monitoring brand & being ever present require one to be ever watchful. As a metacustomer the community manager is the eyes & ears for the company – all teams – and responsible for providing feedback from the customers.
  6. Flexibility. Community work is 7 days a week. Checking in on my communities & responding to their needs isn’t a 9 – 5 job. (I do sleep though). But I’m cognizant of the time zones when I add people to teams. It’s nice to have people providing assistance from around the world (so I can sleep! 🙂 ).
  7. Life experience trumps youthful energy. Tish’s point is to not entrust this important job to an intern or someone who is a short-timer. The more life experiences a person has, the more they have to offer the community.

I like that “commitment to the cause” was #1 on the list. If I could add a few more, they would be:

8. Coupled with #2 (love of people) is the need to be a solid communicator. Even a great one. In any type of management – especially community management – understanding the value of communications (and being a natural communicator) can have a tremendous impact on the success of that community. (Note that the description of #2 is 100% about communication.)

9. Connectedness. Natural community managers tend to be active in a number of communities already. Look for a diverse socio-professional network on their LinkedIn and Myspace accounts. Also look for telltale signs that they are social media power-users (Blog activity, Twitter, Plurk, Seesmic, etc.) The ability to mesh social media tools with their propensity to be an active member within their chosen communities is a sign of good things to come. Also in the connectedness vein, great community managers tend to be natural connectors: They see the synergies between communities, organizations and individuals. They are often the folks who will provide the types of introductions that will strengthen bonds within communities and organically recruit new members.

Also picked up from Tish’s original piece:

“Your potential community manager should be open, congenial, and can handle difficult situations with tact and diplomacy (not like a cop or Marine sergeant).”

“Don’t confuse liking technology with loving it beyond everything else.”

Remember (per Tish) that “a lot will be riding on this person – more so than which tools are used. Your community manager should understand people well and be good at creating and maintaining relationships and ability to create relationships, regardless of which tools are available.”

With so many companies turning to user/customer community engagement to strengthen their brands, this little primer is worth its weight in gold.

Incidentally, Connie will be speaking at the Social Media Strategies Conference in San Francisco (October 29-30) with fellow Marketing 2.0 contributor and social media expert Francois Gossieaux, Jive Software CMO Sam Lawrence, and a very solid panel of other (hopefully) familiar names. Check your calendars.

Cheers.

Image source: TID

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I had a great conversation with someone about the topic of leaders vs. managers earlier this week, and was reminded of this post from about a year ago:

(Note – If you are an HR professional, you may not like what follows.)

“Managers make sure that work follows an established process. They don’t like change. Leaders, on the other hand, are restless creatures like gamblers who get excited about doing things a new way.

“Now, here’s the problem: There’s a great need for talent and a glut of unqualified candidates. It’s going to take a leader to figure out how to move forward. And Recruiting is full of managers.

“One solution: take recruiting away from HR and give it to marketing people who know how to sell. Another: give it to the operational leaders who have the knowledge needed to assess the candidates technical skills.”

Per Kevin Wheeler, via The Recruiting Animal blog.

Whether you think that’s genius or complete bunk, read Kevin’s entire article here. Whatever side of the fence you happen to be on, it is well worth ten minutes.

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