Archives for category: management

Arnold-Schwarzenegger-PredatorI had the opportunity to mentor some fellow coworkers the other day around the usual topics surrounding career advancement.  There was a common theme I heard during these discussions which was to focus on what you’re good at.  It makes logical sense.  Why spend 2x the effort or more effort on your weaknesses to get you to par, when you can spend that same energy piling on to the high value skills/traits you’re already good at?  The problem with this approach is not too far from what you see in Hollywood.  Moviegoers like to see certain actors in specific roles because they just naturally fit. The producers and movie financiers go after winning formulas and in doing so, actors such as Arnold get type cast into specific roles.  How many non-action movies can you name Arnold in?

You may find yourself in this situation where you’ve had much success rising through the ranks, getting more opportunities and wider responsibilities.  Your management team is happy and wants to keep the success coming.  Everything is OK until you decide you want to branch out and take on new challenges unrelated to your current discipline or scope of management.  The company has a responsibility to hit specific goals and in turn your manager has a responsibility to put the best team out there, putting individuals in the right roles to help achieve them.  It’s a tough situation all around, but there are some things you can do to put yourself into the best position to broaden your experience while helping your organization’s goals as well.

Focus on what you’re good at because you still need to pay the bills.  However, ask for stretch assignments in other areas. It’s called “stretch” for a reason, and its because you still need to take care of your current responsibilities.  If you’re in engineering and want to broaden your experience in product management or marketing, schedule some coffee time with leaders from other teams and learn more about the aspect of the business from their perspective.  Ask for advice on helpful learning resources, and at some point ask for stretch assignments.   In doing so you’ll have taken charge of your career development and demonstrated to the management team that you’re committed towards the company’s goals.   Over time you’ll have proved to yourself and others that you’re more than a one-trick pony.   If there is one thing you want to get good at, it’s getting good at exposing yourself to different experiences, learning, and solving problems across different domains.

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Presentations are tough, whether it be that next proposal, the big industry conference, or even that grade school speech.  Some people just seem to be born with good presenting skills, and others are destined to work at it forever to get to some “acceptable” state.  I belong to the latter camp.  There is actually a 3rd camp, and it’s those that don’t care about their audience and make you sit through a 30 slide essay.   Presentations have been part of my work tool set ever since I started my career as a coder to my present job in marketing.  Like it or not, you can’t get away from presenting and you’d be foolish not to spend some of your time investing in this skill.

Some tips that will help you in your presentation journey.  I say journey, because you’re not going to win at this game overnight:

1. Practice as much as you can:  This is a given.  You will not get good if you do not practice.  It’s that simple.  There is a difference between rehearsing and practicing.  Muttering under your breath 30 minutes before show time is not practicing.  That is not even rehearsing.  That is called “setting yourself up for a stumbled delivery”.  The best analogy I can make about the difference between rehearsing and practicing is watching a professional downhill skier on TV just minutes before their run.  They close their eyes and move their body around mimicking and visualizing the course.  That’s rehearsing… a last minute tune up.  Practicing is that same skier during the summer off-season busting their ass in the gym, lifting weights, running around, and beating their body to the ground.  My point is, practice presenting.  There are many conferences, industry networking events, your local PTA meetup, your class, where you can practice.  Don’t wait to get invited… throw your hat into the ring and sign up.  That’s practice.  All of that practice pays off the day you really need to nail a presentation.

2.  Not every presentation is a TED conference to save the world:  I watch TED talks, some of them are very inspiring, and have speakers that I’ve borrowed certain techniques from. However not every presentation requires TED-like material or delivery.  If your boss wants a status report, then give a status report.  If your boss wants cool graphics so he/she can use that in their  presentation, then whip up a few good slides with cool graphics in them.  Your team needs an update on something, stick to the update.  However, in those rare instances where you are called upon to get an audience to take action, you will need to go all out.  This tip could have been called “Know your audience”.  Know who you’re speaking to.  For some big presentations I’ve toured the crowd several minutes beforehand for some small chit chat.  This helps calm the nerves, and at times I’ve adjusted some of my material based on interesting facts I’ve gleamed from them ahead of time.  In other cases, you know who is going to be in attendance.  If you don’t know, ask for the list.  I’ve gone as far as running through attendee LinkedIn profiles for some of my more important presentations to just get a feel of who I was going to be speaking to.  People are giving up their time to hear what you have to say.  Do your homework and try your best to tailor your talk to their life, their problems, their issues.

3. Get a life:  I can’t help you here.  There is more to life than work.  Some of my best presentations incorporated some part of my life outside of work.  People like stories, and if you can tie your material to a story outside of work, or someone else’s personal story, you will do that much better holding the audience.

 4. Give your slides space to breathe:  Have you sat through other presentations fighting sleep while someone throws up one essay after the next?  I have.  It’s not fun.  I’m not a designer, but there are two very good authors who have written excellent books on presentation design AND delivery.  One being Garr Reynolds who wrote the book “Presentation Zen” and the other being Nancy Duarte who wrote “Slideology”.

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These two books have been worn down from my repeat references back to them.  Go buy them, read them, apply them, and keep it within reach.  Some of the best presentations I’ve seen are without slideware, but if you need visual aids the tips in these two books will surely fit the bill.  Graduated from that set?  Then move on to their follow up books “Presentation Zen Design” and “Resonate”.

I hope these tips will help you on your way to presentation success.  Happy practicing!

ImageI remember during one of my high school basketball games, the coach called me off the bench late in the game.  He called the team over and scribbled some crazy set play for us to execute.  I clearly remember freaking out because I had no idea what in the world he was scribbling on the board, “Tzau, I need you to roll off the screen, cut across their zone defense, and get to the post”.  I just nodded my head pretending that I knew what he was talking about.  The game started and somehow the ball found its way into my hands and my brain went into full mental lapse mode.  I made some desperately weak pass to the opposing team.  Turnover.   We never did win that game and I was subsequently benched for the rest of the game.  Now I could have fessed up and let the coach know I didn’t understand the play.  He would have done two things:

  1. Bench me, and pick another player to run the play.
  2. Explain the play over again.

Either way he would have been able to make a much better decision with that small piece of information.  Heck, we might have won the game.   However, I didn’t fess up.  I didn’t want to.  I wanted to exude confidence and respect the coach for placing his trust in me that split second to run the play.  I also didn’t fess up because the coach blew a gasket during half time kicking down water bottles and hurling a basketball at Mach 1 in the locker room because we were losing.  There was an inherent fear to fess up, not just with me, but with the rest of my team mates.

This got me thinking about the work environment as it relates to making good decisions when you’re the team lead/boss/manager.   You want all the information readily available to make the best decisions, and hope your team will bring to the surface everything that is working but also everything that isn’t.  It’s the latter that much people have a hard time doing and the reason is simple.  We all want to please the boss and showcase only the good things.  The danger with this culture is that the bad things, and there are on any given initiative, can get swept under the rug.   It is the accumulation of those things that can really hurt your team and eventually your business because you end up making decisions based on only the good things.  Ouch.

So, how do you encourage a culture where the people on your team feel comfortable fessing up?

  1. Don’t blow a gasket.
  2. Ask “what do we need to stop doing right now?” at the next status meeting.
  3. Coach through mistakes.

What you’ll find over time is a team that will evolve and put all the information on the table, both the good and the bad.  The team will be able to make better decisions, and they will appreciate you for not hurling basketballs at their heads.

One of the few things I wish I had when I first started out managing teams was a veteran leader who would have given me advice on all the bad and good hires they made over the years.  I received tips from other managers at the time, read the “how-to-interview” books, and dug through my personal experiences trying to remember what questions I was asked during some of my interviews.  Over the course of my career I’ve made some good hiring decisions and some questionable ones.  I sat down the other day to reflect on some of those hiring decisions to try and pin point those critical qualities that ended up in a great hire.  Over and over again it came down to problem solving ability and communication effectiveness.

Here’s the conundrum.  How do you evaluate these two critical qualities over a 1-hr, 2-hr, or even a multi-day interview process?   What complicates matters is when you bring in several different people who end up asking the same questions over and over again:

“So tell me a little bit about yourself?”

“What’s your biggest weakness?”

“Can you tell me what CPC and Quality Score is?”

“How many years of experience do you have with Google Analytics?”

There is nothing worse to turn off that really good candidate you were looking for, by asking these types of questions over and over again.  What amplifies the problem is when you base your hiring decisions on responses to these types of questions.  This approach does not address those two critical qualities of problem solving and communication.  Hire the wrong person and it will cost you dearly as they will drag the rest of your team down.  While you spend hours and days performance managing the bad hire, the top performers on your team who deserve your time wonder where you are.

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This got me thinking about football, and how some teams seem to have a knack for hiring good players to put them in contention year after year (ex. New England Patriots).  Can a team make bad hires?  Of course, but the cay can also substitute a quarterback or bench a player in the middle of the game when things aren’t working out.  This is something you can’t do very easily in a corporate setting.  So if you take that bench away and you are only allowed to hire 1 quarterback, 1 kicker, or 1 punt returner, how does a football team make the best choice? The answer is simple.  They watch prospects play the game, and asking bad interview questions or letting your prejudices creep in when you see the Ivy League degree on a resume doesn’t allow you to see the candidate play the game.  More importantly it doesn’t allow you to see them play the game on your turf.

Hire like a football scout.

Every year scouts attend the NFL Scouting Combine where they can evaluate prospects on basic measures such as how fast they can run 40 yards and how they fare on the Wonderlic test.  These tests allow teams to evaluate players across a broad set of standards. However these aren’t the only attributes informing a team’s hiring decision.  The scouts do a lot of work beforehand attending games and spending hours watching tape to see how prospects play in game situations.  In doing so they can evaluate the players ability to problem solve (how they read the opposing defense and make adjustments) and how they communicate (are the players moving to the right spots before the snap, and is the player working with their team mates on the sidelines after a failed play to make corrections).

So how do you boil that entire process down into something that scales when you’re trying to hire the right programmer, the right salesperson, or the right marketer?  You throw out a case study or problem to work on in advance of the interview.

Why issue an case study or work assignment?

There are several reasons to have a job candidate work on a case study:

  • It allows you to see how they are with time management balanced against their other commitments.  There is a hard deadline, the job interview date.  Will they hit it?
  • You weed out the candidates who are just surfing for the next gig.  What you’re left with are candidates who really want the job and willing to do that extra bit of research about your company.
  • In business there are hardly any black/white answers.  Most of the time you are working in grey areas where there are multiple solutions to a single problem.  Are they going to dig and leverage all of their available resources to solve a problem?  The case study level sets everything and allows you to see how they apply their experience to your business domain.
  • Structure the case study right and inform the candidate they need to present their solution to your team on interview day.  By doing so, you get a clear line of sight in to their communication abilities.  Can they break down a complex problem, and clearly articulate the solution?  Better yet, did they probe for more clarifying questions to firm up some of their assumptions?

Getting specific with a case study:

If you’re looking to hire a sales person, have the candidate develop a sales plan for your product or service.  This is better than asking them questions about their prior sales experience.

Hiring a developer for your mobile team?  Have them deliver a mobile version of your product page.  This is better than asking them a question about what jquery.mobile.loadPage() does.

I’m going dive a bit deeper into an example for Search Marketing, whereby the main goal is to drive customers to your website from search engines to do something, whether that is to buy something, submit contact information, or subscribe to an email list.

Take a snapshot of data from your Google Adwords account and manually manipulate the data to make a set of keywords look really bad (ex. high cost, low sales) and another set look really good (ex. low cost, high sales) and develop a series of related questions about the data:

  • What parts of our campaign are working?  What isn’t?
  • Develop an action plan to address the problem areas of the account.
  • Would you change any of the landing pages?  If so, what would you change and how would you validate success?
  • If your media budget was increased by 25%, how would you allocate your investments?

These 4 questions alone will address the candidate’s ability to use Excel to identify anomalies, solve problems, think creatively, prioritize, and make decisions.  Send this in advance of the interview and you get a sense of their time management skills.  On the day of the interview you have an opportunity to assess of their ability to communicate.

If this approach looks familiar, credit goes to Joel Splosky of FogCreek Software, and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals.  I’ve used these techniques to hire developers in the past and have had success adapting the approach for marketing roles.

At the end of the day, find a way to watch the player play the game before you make that next hiring decision.

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