Citing Steve Jobs at the D8 (being interviewed by Walt Mossberg):
If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to, you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise good people don’t stay.
/via Daring Fireball
(Since this turned into a thousand words, here the tl;dr version: things I need to do before my next job interview, and things I would do differently when I hire people.)
I can neither confirm nor deny that I participated in a job interview early this week. If I had, however, I can now firmly and officially say that the committee “will not be extending this position” to me.
If this were the case, I can happily say that I’m totally OK with this.
(For the next section of this post, assume I’m properly interjecting words like “hypothetically” and making air-quotes the entire time.)
Some post-mortem of the experience from my perspective
I knowingly sunk my own ship before the interview even began by—at nearly the last minute—refusing to foot the travel bill and attempting to back out of the interview. They were kind enough to still do the interview remotely over Skype and phone. But if the tables were turned, I would have seen me as a non-option as well. Someone willing to make the on-site trip is going to immediately have the advantage over the schmuck who says he’s coming and then whines about cost.
Questions-wise, some I nailed and some I missed entirely. I need to prep a little better with the following next time.
Consider the PC questions
I always forget that these are obligatory and must come from HR. Example: “Our students come from a broad range of backgrounds, ages, races, experiences, etc. How do you accomodate that in your classroom?” I botch these questions because, well, I don’t give a damn about my students’ background, age, race, etc.—I’m there to prep them with the skill sets they need to get to work. HR wants more than “I treat them all the same.”
List my projects
I need to prep a list of projects that I’ve worked on that will showcase my skill set and have it handy for reference. I do this at work (I never know what I’ve worked on during the week unless I go back and consult the “done” list), so I’m not sure why I wouldn’t think to do it for questions about “relevant and exciting projects.”
Just like above, I need to have a list of industry buzzwords and be prepared to explain where I’ve employed them. I already know what they are, but wow did I draw a blank on the “future of the industry” question.
I need to have a set of positive stories/examples on hand that I can interweave into the canned interview questions. Lifehacker called them “soundbites.”
Formulate a better “I don’t know”
I honestly think it’s OK not to know the answer to an interview question. I don’t want to be BS’d, so I think perhaps I shouldn’t try to BS a hiring committee. But I can indicate as part of my “I don’t know” how I’m going to find out.
Example: the question was something akin to “How do you incorporate the needs of ESL students.” (HI AGAIN PC QUESTIONS!) I have no idea. We’re talking about teaching college-level students in a technology program, so I assume two fundamental things right off the bat at the beginning of every semester: 1) You understand English well enough to be there, and 2) When I say “right-click the mouse,” you know what I’m talking about.
In retrospect, I’m inclined to think I could have formulated a better “I don’t know” by answering more like this: “In my six years of teaching, I don’t believe I’ve had the opportunity to work with any ESL students, so I don’t know that I’d know what their needs really are. It sounds like that’s something I’ll need to be familiar with for this program, so one of the first things I’ll do is make an appointment to touch base with the ESL coordinator.”
Format the answer into a positive. Always.
Negative experience with a student? Explain how it became a good thing for them, you, and the program. Always drive the answer towards the positive outcome.
Things to keep in mind for when I’m on the other side of the table
Someday I will hire people, and I hope to make it a good experience for both them and me. Below are some random thoughts about how I might want to do that. (And I realize I’m not the originator of most of these ideas.)
- Canned questions are the worst. HR requires them to cover their asses, but they often don’t lead to an organic and real experience. I think it’d be better to create a list of topics you want to cover beforehand, then just chat. Before you’re formally done, consult the list to see what hasn’t been covered and work it in.
- HR says we have to have canned questions (and we have to stick to the script for each candidate)? Fine. Then why are they a secret, to be sprung on candidates like a snake in a gag peanut can? Why not supply the questions to the candidates and let them prepare? In the case of hiring instructors (or salespeople, or technicians, etc.), don’t I want someone who prepares? I fail to see how surprise questions prove that the person can do anything other than work on a game show.
- Take some time. 30 minutes to an hour to decide if this person should totally change their life, or to potentially find someone who’s going to change the direction of your company? Please. Put the person in a room with their possible co-workers for a while and see what the chemistry is like.
- Make it easy for candidates to get on site. Pre-screen well, video-interview, then pony up for the bill to bring in the strongest candidates (two? three?).
What did I miss? What’s way off the mark? What should I add?
One highlight from my alleged interview: even though it breaks some of the guidelines I’ve posted above, I’m particularly proud of my answer about the so-called Millennials.
Question: What do you do to account for the needs of the Millennials?
Answer: Otherwise known as the “Everyone gets a trophy generation”? I let them know up front that they actually have to produce something—trying really hard isn’t going to cut it.
Can you tell my heart wasn’t really in this one?
Mike Davidson, while discussing the sale of his startup a few years back:
[Do] everything you can to avoid performance-based earnouts. They were never even proposed as part of our deal, but I had been warned about them from the beginning, and it’s easy to understand why: an acquirer’s ability to scuttle your potential for success is even more powerful than their ability to help it. Because our team has no financial agenda that is separate from the rest of the company’s, we are able to service requests from across the organization without ever having to ask “does this help or hurt our earnout?”
important lessons learned from a conference call with a committee of people in charge of stuff
- Trying to solve tomorrow’s potential problem at the detriment of today’s real solution is not a good plan.
- Don’t participate in conference calls with a committee of people in charge of stuff.
Addendum: I had a high school social studies teacher who used to say he’d prefer a benevolent dictator over any other form of governance. His reasoning was that, under such rule, things might actually get done.
I see his point.
I really do wonder what this would be like.
[…] If there’s anything I learned when I used to manage people, it’s that one of a manager’s fundamental responsibilities is to help workers sift through what’s important to work on now versus what can be worked on later. And for reference, often it wasn’t the work with the noisiest sponsors that was the most urgent.
Andy Ihnatko on potential failure:
1) It’s not over until you say it’s over. In most situations, you didn’t lose because you got beat. You lost because you accepted the loss while there was still time left on the clock, when instead you should have focused on the ways you could still win. And maybe you actually can’t win…but at minimum, you can do a better job of losing.
Google’s 8-Point Plan to Help Managers Improve
The boys at work are constantly hearing me plagiarize this quote: “The best widget makers don’t necessarily make the best managers/leaders of widget makers.” (I’m pretty sure that’s a quote from Daniel H. Pink’s Drive.) Google is finding out the same thing.
But Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.
Remember “Don’t Hire Jerks?” Seems like we could easily add “Don’t Promote Jerks” to the credo.
Managers also had a much greater impact on employees’ performance and how they felt about their job than any other factor, Google found.
“The starting point was that our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier — they do everything better,” Mr. Bock says. “So the biggest controllable factor that we could see was the quality of the manager, and how they sort of made things happen. The question we then asked was: What if every manager was that good? And then you start saying: Well, what makes them that good? And how do you do it?”
Let people put out their own fires
Of course, handing things off is hard when you’re a perfectionist. You have to hire well, and more importantly, let people put out their own fires. When I started hiring contractors to help with my workload, I made a critical mistake: If their first mockup wasn’t great, or a client got unhappy, I’d immediately step in and put out the fire. You need to let things blow up in people’s faces. Let them make mistakes. If one of your employees misses a deadline, force them to talk to the client directly. If you’re the middle-man jumping into the fray whenever anything goes amiss, you’ll be stuck micro-managing everyone. Step back and let people clean up their own messes and they’ll make the necessary course corrections on their own. Your team will respect you for it, and you’ll save yourself tons of headaches.