What Kind of Leadership Do You Want For This Job? January 11, 2013Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, strategy.
Tags: early stage companies, hiring, job search, leadership
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A few weeks ago I listened to an excellent podcast from Harvard Business Review’s HBR IdeaCast about leadership (http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/11/the-indispensable-unlikely-lea.html), featuring Gautam Makunda, author of “Indispensible: When Leaders Really Matter.” Professor Makunda uses historical examples to illustrate the importance of context in determining how effective a leader will be. While Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were certainly extraordinary leaders, the circumstances helped define their greatness. Different leaders may not have been nearly as effective in those times, but those same leaders might not be effective in different times.
Churchill is a particularly interesting example. Although he had been in government service in senior leadership positions for most of his adult life, and was respected as a brilliant and hard-working minister, he was never seriously considered a leading candidate to become Prime Minister before World War II. He was essentially a last resort after other highly-regarded, experienced, and well-qualified politicians resigned or refused the position.
As it turned out, Churchill’s charisma and iconic presence in the months after Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain was exactly what was needed and certainly helped save the day. However, in the elections immediately following the war Churchill was defeated, and although he would return as PM in the early 1950s he was less effective managing domestic affairs during a period of imperial decline.
Professor Makunda suggests that there are lessons here for companies who are considering candidates for leadership positions. Some positions should be filled by a “safe choice,” a person with deep expertise who came up through the ranks, has accumulated all the “right” experiences, and has been thoroughly vetted in the selection process. The interesting thing about a position that can be filled by a safe choice is that it really doesn’t matter much who you choose from the pool of candidates because they’re all essentially equally qualified. That’s OK when the circumstances are not exceptional or demanding and there’s little downside to choosing the “wrong” person.
However, the safe choice with a conventional background is far less likely to have a significant impact on the organization (positive or negative), particularly during periods of transition, ambiguity, or turmoil. This is when companies might benefit from the perspective of an outsider with new or unconventional ideas, or what Professor Makunda would call an “extreme leader.” The risk is greater because the experience of an extreme leader may not be directly applicable to the open position, but the potential gain is also greater. The company must decide if they’re willing to take that chance.
2012 Year In Review: Lessons Learned December 23, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership.
Tags: career growth, job search, leadership, networking
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It’s that time of year when many folks look back to review the events of the last twelve months. I’d like to believe that I’ve somehow improved myself, if only slightly, during my time traveling around the sun once more. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned, or re-learned, in 2012.
- In January the company I worked for filed for bankruptcy. That set in motion the chain of events that ultimately led to the end of our local division, but in the weeks immediately following the filing we had no idea what parts of the company would survive the restructuring. For the product development team I was managing the biggest immediate impact was to our planned expenses, which were essentially re-set to zero. Believe me, it’s not easy to do hardware design, prototyping, or testing when you can’t spend any money. What I learned: how to lead innovation and product development under a tight budget.
- From February through March I was one of many managers in our company trying to keep up the team’s morale while we waited to learn the fate of the division. Senior management did a great job keeping everyone informed about all the filings and proceedings, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise when the announcement was made that a workforce reduction plan would be implemented in early April. What I learned: how to maintain morale and communicate with honesty and integrity in tough times.
- Unfortunately my team was among those designated for the workforce reduction in April. I’ve been laid off before, but for many other folks this was their first experience. I’ve been in perpetual job-search mode, or at least “open to all possibilities,” since 2008, and I guess some people consider me to be a knowledgeable resource about effective strategies (even if those strategies haven’t necessarily worked for me). What I learned: the importance of helping your team, “paying it forward,” and maintaining professional networks after you’re no longer working together.
- I’ve been actively networking throughout the year, but that became even more important after being laid off earlier this year. I’ve met a lot of great people who have generously offered advice and connections, but what I’ll remember most about the networking events this year is an excellent presentation by Cita Walsh (http://citawalsh.com/) about applying traditional marketing techniques to job search. What I learned: why it’s necessary to create a personal brand and use social media in ways that reinforce that brand.
- This year I’ve had a number of phone screenings and job interviews across the country, including one with a company in China. It’s been a frustrating experience, especially for someone like me who’s interested in feedback to improve my performance. More often than not I don’t hear anything after the interview, much less constructive criticism. What I learned: I’m a unique collection of skills and experiences, a purple squirrel; and although I really need to be working right now, I’m going to stop wasting time applying for jobs that I don’t really want.
- I haven’t just been waiting for the phone to ring for the last few months. This blog has provided a great way to channel my thoughts about how I would start a new job in product development, quality engineering or program management (See for example my posts “Starting a Product Development Team,” and “Designing a Quality System.”). In September I decided to get certified as a PMI Project Management Professional (PMP), and I passed the exam in October. I’m scheduled to take the ASQ Six Sigma Black Belt exam in March 2013. And, I’m in the interview process for a teaching position at a local campus of a nationally-known for-profit university. What I learned: it’s important to acquire new skills and maintain the old ones throughout your career. Continuous improvement applies to individuals as well as businesses.
Here’s hoping for a another year of learning in 2013.
Predicting Future Success for a Project Manager November 20, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, Project management.
Tags: hiring, job search, management, project management
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If you were interviewing people for a project manager job, what criteria would you use to make the decision? What results or characteristics differentiate an above-average project managers from the rest? Today it’s relatively easy to become a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), and that may be a reasonable minimum requirement for many positions, but you would surely also want to hear something about the candidate’s recent achievements.
“Successfully completed the project” doesn’t tell you much since a project may fail or be abandoned for reasons that have nothing to do with the project manager’s performance. Only slightly better is a statement that the project was completed “on-time and under budget.” That sounds good, but it’s easy to claim and usually impossible to verify.
So, what exactly does a project manager do, and how can we tell if they’ve done a good job? Can we isolate the performance of the PM from the rest of the team? What information can we use to assess the probability of the PM’s success in the future?
I think it may be impossible to isolate and quantitatively measure the performance of a PM, primarily because of the many unforeseen and uncontrollable factors that can lead to schedule variances, budget variances, and other high-level measures of a project. Certainly a closely-monitored project with effective risk management and contingency planning may be less susceptible to these factors. However, unless the PM is guilty of failing to incorporate key inputs to the project plan, or failing to plan altogether, it’s not necessarily the fault of the PM if the project doesn’t meet its objectives.
The basic process of project management is pretty straightforward. Any assessment of a PM should include how well they respond to things that are not part of the standard process or the original plan. Can they cite examples of adaptability and creativity when managing the inevitable changes that happen in any project?
The length of the project, the number and variety of stakeholders, and the degree of leverage from previous projects can provide an indication of the project complexity this PM has handled in the past, and what they will be more likely to manage successfully in the future.
I also believe that past failure is better predictor than past success, specifically what the PM has learned from past failures. Certainly I would want to hear about the candidate’s experiences in overcoming obstacles and solving problems, but I also want to know what they learned about avoiding those obstacles and problems in their next project.
Those are three indicators of future success for a PM: adaptability, familiarity with complex projects, and a commitment to learning and continuous improvement based on experience.
Sales Techniques for Better Interviews September 12, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, job search.
Tags: hiring, job search
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Yesterday I attended a networking meeting for local job seekers that featured a speaker who encouraged the audience to consider a job interview as a sales call, and apply the same techniques used by many successful salespeople (specifically the “Up-Front Contracts” methodology in the popular Sandler Selling System). This reminded me of something I wrote about in an earlier post (see Raising Visibility During a Job Search), when a facilitator at a different networking meeting pointed out that anyone who is looking for a job is absolutely working in sales.
Here are a few of the key messages from this week’s meeting:
1. In most cases the person being interviewed (interviewee) settles into one of two roles, depending on their natural style: either a passive receiver who waits for questions, or a stereotypical salesperson who uses every opportunity to promote themselves. Both are bad. The interviewee needs to take an active role to exert more control over the direction of the interview, but that doesn’t mean aggressively “selling.”
2. Successful salespeople understand that if you look or act like a salesperson, you’re likely to trigger a negative response from the buyer. Spend less time selling and more time gathering information and intelligence. Use the interview as an opportunity to ask questions to learn more about the company’s needs and the process they’re using to fill this position. Why were you invited for this interview? What was it about your background and skills that they found appealing?
3. No matter how much you might want this job, it’s important to avoid becoming emotionally attached to the outcome of the interview process. You have to be comfortable with the possibility (probability?) that the outcome will be a “no.”
4. In fact, the sooner you can learn whether it’s a “no,” the better. This is a tough one for me because I tend to think of “no news” as “good news.” “They haven’t said no yet, so I guess I’m still in the running.” It’s much more likely that they made up their mind before your interview ended, and if it’s a “no,” then it’s better to know and move on.
5. To avoid an open-ended “we’ll get back to you next week” message at the end of the interview, it’s suggested that the interviewee ask two questions: “Is it OK if I tell you that I’m not right for this position at the end of this meeting?” The second is: “Are you OK with telling me that I’m not right for this position at the end of this meeting?” This will reveal the process that’s being used to make the hiring decision. If their process requires some additional internal discussion or meetings with other candidates, put yourself in control of the notification process by asking “When can I contact you to learn the outcome?” instead of making yourself crazy waiting for a phone call.
6. Regarding interview logistics, an interviewee needs a known interval of uninterrupted and private time with the interviewer. That means holding all calls, turning off the phones, and ideally conducting the meeting in a conference room away from the distractions of the interviewer’s office. This may be difficult to manage as the interviewee, but you can at least suggest a change of schedule or venue if interruptions are becoming a problem.
7. Finally, another hard one: if you already know there are soft spots in your qualifications for this job, or concerns about your background that have been raised in the past, proactively raise these issues to communicate self-awareness, defuse a potential problem, and put yourself in control. Again, this is something I understand in principle but might have trouble following in practice. I agree that it’s important to be aware of and objectively assess your weaknesses, but I’m uncomfortable with volunteering this information. I think I would be more comfortable with asking the interviewer what concerns they have about my fitness for the job, and then responding accordingly, drawing from a set of prepared answers.
Good tips, and I look forward to trying these on my next interview. Not sure when that will be.
Establishing Credibility When You’re an Unknown September 9, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
Tags: job search, networking
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Here’s another thing I’ve learned during my current job search: it’s harder to convince people that you’re qualified for a job and deserving of consideration when you’re just another faceless applicant. I’ve written before about networking as a way of distinguishing yourself, and specifically why it’s important to create and maintain connections with people, ideally with those who have experience working alongside you (see The Value of Networking). A recommendation from a former or current colleague carries a lot more weight than almost anything you include in your resume about experiences and accomplishments.
However, the recommendation is more significant to the recruiter or the hiring manager when it comes from a known, reliable source. If they don’t have a personal or professional connection to the person who’s vouching for you, then that recommendation may not have a big impact.
Which brings us back to your resume. It seems to me that there are really only two things in your resume that can help establish your credibility as a job applicant: what you know, and what you’ve done.
What you know is represented by your degrees and certifications and other credentials. I realize that there’s a wide range of intelligence and capabilities in the population of alumni from any degree or certification program, but successful completion of that program does imply that you’ve acquired some specialized knowledge. A job description includes education requirements because the person who occupies that position is expected to have that specialized knowledge. Completion of the program also means that you set a goal and achieved that goal, which I think is an under-rated feat, especially for those who had to struggle with financial or other personal barriers.
Quick aside: I could be wrong about this, but it seems that professional certifications are becoming more important and meaningful than academic degrees for job seekers, possibly because certifications are considered more practical in the real world of business.
What you’ve done is your experiences and accomplishments, but here’s the catch: a lot of what you’ve done doesn’t matter. You might want to argue that your accomplishments can be generalized to many different kinds of jobs and organizations, but if you make it hard for the recruiter or hiring manager to make the connection between what they need and what you’ve done, then you can forget it. You have to customize your application and resume and cover letter to put a spotlight on the subset of things you’ve done that are relevant for this job.
So, that’s what I’m trying to do now. This reminds me an advertising campaign that relies on television commercials. You have to create a message that appeals to your target audience.
Not What Are You Worth, What’s the Job Worth? September 7, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
Tags: hiring, job satisfaction, job search
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I think one of the biggest opportunities for second-guessing when you’re unemployed is the answer you give when a recruiter or hiring manager asks the question “What are your salary expectations?” Many people try to figure out what answer will keep them in the running, or at least keep the conversation going. If you aim too high, you may have just eliminated yourself from further consideration. If you aim too low, maybe thinking that you can accept a lower salary because you really want this job, you’re probably under-valuing yourself. You still might not get the job, but if you do, you’ll feel cheated every day you go to work.
The question isn’t “What are you worth?” The question is “What is the job worth?” What is your assessment of the fair market value for this position, based on the published job description and qualifications?
The answer requires some thought, and ideally some research before you’re asked the question. There are online services that can provide some help here, including LinkedIn and Glassdoor. Your own salary history is relevant only if you previously held a position that was approximately the same as this one. Obviously it’s a good starting point, but you should think about how that number should be adjusted based on other considerations.
You have to think about the company’s size and financial position. Start-ups and early-stage companies are unlikely to have the capital to be able to pay mid to high market value.
This one is harder to assess, but what is the strategic importance of this position to the company? In other words, how important is it to the company to get top talent for this position?
You have to consider the geographic location of the position to account for local housing and other cost-of-living expenses which influence local salary benchmarks.
Finally, you have to remember that base salary is only one element of the overall compensation package, and I don’t mean only money. Would you consider a package that includes a greater emphasis on performance-based bonuses, deferred pay, or stock options? Are there non-financial considerations about the job or the company that would make you willing to accept less pay? For example, does the company’s culture match your own style and preferences? Does this job give you the chance to work with new technology, or develop valuable new skills, or be inspired?
If you can answer the question “What are your salary expectations?” by showing that you’ve given it some thought based on the specific combination of job description and company characteristics, you do two things. You show that you’ve done your homework and prepared for the interview, and you can avoid the confidence crisis that comes from over- or under-valuing yourself.
How I Became a Purple Squirrel August 29, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
Tags: career growth, job search, job security
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From Wikipedia: “Purple squirrel is a term used by employment recruiters to describe an unlikely job candidate with precisely the right education, experience, and qualifications that perfectly fits a job’s multifaceted requirements. In theory, this prized ‘purple squirrel’ could immediately handle all the expansive variety of responsibilities of a job description with no training and would allow businesses to function with fewer workers.”
Apparently I’ve become a purple squirrel, but (so far) not the one recruiters are looking for. It wasn’t what I planned. Here’s how it happened.
Throughout my career I tried to avoid specialization. I was always a little paranoid about the future and whether my technical expertise in one domain would translate to a different industry, rendering my skills obsolete. When I joined Hewlett-Packard in 1988 I worked in a division that was an internal supplier of printed circuit boards, part of HP’s vertical integration strategy. It was a great place to start because all of the HP product divisions were our customers and I had the opportunity to learn and network within the company. As the company shifted to an outsourcing strategy, my experience helped me move into a procurement engineering roles where I helped identify and qualify new suppliers to keep up with the technology needs of our product design teams.
By the late 1990s most of HP’s suppliers were located in Asia. To reduce overhead, the company centralized and consolidated many of the procurement organizations that were supporting individual product divisions and shifted responsibilities to HP teams that were closer to the supply base. The time was right for me to make a change, and I was fortunate to have a manager who recommended me for a job leading a software quality team. I hadn’t written code since I was in graduate school, but I was told that wasn’t what the team needed. As an outsider I was able to bring a fresh perspective, keeping the team focused on business objectives without getting personally bogged down by looking over everyone’s shoulders.
I was thrilled by the daily challenge and learning curve, and I occupied myself with developing strategy, improving processes, re-allocating resources, and growing the team during a time of rapid business expansion. Software felt like a more stable place to make a career, and when we started outsourcing testing and development I was able to apply my skills in supplier management to help ensure a seamless delivery model.
What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that my choice to focus on organizational effectiveness over technical expertise would seriously limit my mobility within the world of software. When the recession hit in late 2008, I discovered that I wasn’t a very attractive candidate for software management positions. I was quickly eliminated from the applicant pool, apparently because I didn’t have the hands-on development experience attached to every job description.
When I finally did land a job it was return to manufacturing, quality engineering, and supplier management, this time as a senior manager at a China-based contract manufacturer. I was once again working closely with our client’s design and customer satisfaction teams, engaged at all levels of the entire product development lifecycle. My ten-year detour in software helped to develop my skills in strategic planning and international management, and after almost two years in China I felt well-prepared to move into a engineering and product development leadership role at a large OEM back in the U.S.
Now I’m in-transition again, and I’m getting the feeling that my resume just confuses people. To some, my career to this point looks like a disjointed collection of diverse experiences. Recruiters and hiring managers want to know if I’m an animal, vegetable, or mineral. My generalized skills are apparently not enough to overcome a lack of experience and deep domain expertise in the industries that are currently growing and hiring. They’re trying to find a purple squirrel to fit their job description. I’m a purple squirrel working on being found.
Hired Because of Talents, Not Skills August 26, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership.
Tags: career growth, hiring, job search, job security, networking
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During my current job search I’ve been thinking a lot about the previous job transitions I’ve made during my career, looking for patterns and best practices that might be helpful this time around. There were times when I got a job by applying for a position after reading a job description and deciding that my experience and qualifications were a close match for the published requirements. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, applying for jobs that I’m highly qualified for, but there are a lot of qualified people looking for jobs these days and it has become hard to stand out in the crowd.
There were other times when I was recruited by people who found me, either from word-of-mouth referrals or, more recently, from my public profile. That’s the networking strategy for job search: leveraging your network of friends and former co-workers, and getting out there to make a good impression on new people who might introduce you to other people who know other people, eventually leading to a job offer from out of the blue.
And then there were a few times when I was offered a job that was completely different from anything I had ever done before, when my experience up to that point was clearly and objectively a poor match to the published requirements. I had never worked in marketing, and then I was hired to be a product marketing manager. I had never worked in software, and then I was hired to be a software quality manager. I had never worked in a factory, and then I was hired to be a factory quality director. How did that happen? And what, if anything, can be learned from those career discontinuities?
I can only guess the reasons why I was asked to take a job when I seemed so unqualified on paper, but I think it’s because in each case the hiring manager saw something that wouldn’t have been flagged by a keyword search on my resume. In First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999), Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman make this distinction between skills and talents: skills are things you can learn, talents are things you are born with. “A love of precision is not a skill. Nor is it knowledge. It is a talent. If you don’t possess it, you will never excel as an accountant.” (Page 85)
The people who hired me when I wasn’t qualified valued my talents, not my skills. They knew I would have to learn certain specialized skills in order to achieve success, but they also knew a person without certain talents would not succeed. Your talents may be visible and meaningful to those who have worked alongside you or know your reputation. Unfortunately they’re harder to discern and generally irrelevant to companies that are focused on hiring the best match to their job description. When there’s no allowance for a learning curve, there’s no tolerance for lack of knowledge or skills.
For job search, I think the lesson is that the people in your network who understand your talents might surprise you with a suggestion that seems inconsistent with your past experiences. I’ve had an interesting career, in-part because of the variety of jobs and experiences. My worry is that a career path with discontinuities that relies too much on “talent recognition” has turned me into a purple squirrel. More on that in a future post.
Hiring at Early Stage Companies August 17, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership.
Tags: early stage companies, hiring, job search, manager
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A quick observation: over the last several years I’ve had the opportunity to interview with a number of start-ups and early stage companies. In many cases the firm seems to be looking for a person with a very specific and narrowly-defined technical skill set to address an immediate gap. I understand that money is tight and they need to be careful about adding staff, but a near-term hiring strategy focused on today’s needs can seriously limit the firm’s future growth.
This reminds me of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm (HarperBusiness, 1991). The strategy and priorities of a company that’s trying to establish a leadership position in a mass market will change as they progress through the technology adoption lifecycle. Moore advises his readers (page 66) to: “Cross the chasm by targeting a very specific niche market where you can dominate from the outset, force your competitors out of that market niche, and then use it as a base for broader operations.”
Specialists may be necessary to achieve that goal. However, once the chasm has been crossed, the organization needs different people with different skills. From page 203 of Moore’s book: “In the development organization, pioneers are the ones who push the edge of the technology application envelope. They do not institutionalize. The do not like to create infrastructure. They don’t even like to document. They want to do great deeds, and when there are no more great deeds to be done, they want to move on. Their brilliance fuels the early market, and without them, there would be no such thing as high tech. Nonetheless, once you have crossed the chasm, these people can become a potential liability.”
In his later book Inside the Tornado (HarperBusiness, 1995), Moore goes into more detail about later phases in the technology adoption lifecycle. Again, the skills that the firm needs to successfully transition through the phases are different. Early stage companies must recognize where they are in the lifecycle in order to develop a staffing strategy that adds the right skills.
Compensation, Financial and Otherwise July 29, 2012Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search.
Tags: career growth, hiring, job search, job security
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During this current period of non-employment I’ve often been asked about my “expected” or “required” level of compensation for my next position. I suppose it’s an important question in the sense that the answer gives recruiters or potential employers a quick check on the suitability of a candidate given the salary they’re willing to offer. If the candidate is willing to work for significantly less money, then they’re not really calibrated for the position they’re applying for, and may in fact not be qualified at all. If the candidate wants significantly more money, then there’s a strong belief that this person will not be satisfied in the position and will surely leave as soon as they find a different position with a higher salary. I think there’s also a belief that people who have recently worked in jobs with greater pay have become unwilling to roll up their sleeves and put in the effort and long hours that may be required.
It’s not that simple. I’ve worked at jobs where I’ve had a high level of base pay and the probability of a large performance-based bonus, but where I’ve been miserable nearly every day because the job was unfulfilling, the work environment was soul-crushing, or the outlook was gloomy. I have gladly traded thousands of dollars of annual income for the chance to work with people I respect and trust, in a culture that’s entrepreneurial and ambitious. Yes, money is important and everyone has some minimum salary that they need to maintain a comfortable and familiar lifestyle. However, job candidates shouldn’t be screened out solely on the basis of their salary history, and job candidates should be open to positions that pay less but offer more.