Kissing Frogs Part 2: Conducting the Interview

You’ve done all your prep, and now the candidate is sitting there looking at you.  You have an hour, at the end of which you are supposed to have a smart and insightful analysis on whether to hire them or not.  How do you spend your time?

Have Them DO Something – Don’t Ask General Questions

One of the most common mistakes is to ask open-ended softball questions.  “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”  The candidate then babbles on about how disciplined and passionate they are, and how their big weakness in life is that they just work so hard, and take things so seriously – they struggle under the burden of an extreme work ethic that was just the despair of their former managers.  And now several precious minutes of your interview are gone, and you haven’t learned a darned thing.

I think it’s infinitely better to ask them to create something.  Write code on the board for a multi-threaded lock implementation.  Write the Javascript code to update the notification count when a new message arrives.  Design a UI for managing notifications.  Design a set of metrics to monitor the state of the business.  Create a plan to track and land a milestone.  Whatever is appropriate for the job you need them to do.

If the design involves a skill they need to have, you will quickly see whether they really have it.  Many people can do a lovely job describing a design they know but are lousy at creating one.  Confronting a blank white board and having to invent something on the spot cuts through a lot of blather.  If it’s a skill they are still learning, you will also discover a lot in watching them try to tackle a real problem.

What To Look For

When I pose a design problem, whether the result is an algorithm or a visual design or a report or anything else, beyond the quality of the work, I’m assessing a number of other things:

  • Do they like solving this kind of problem?  Of course there is some added stress because it is an interview, but you can usually tell if they are enjoying the opportunity to dig into the problem or not.  I try hard to make an interview feel as much as I can like the real job – sometimes I will pose a problem that I’m actually trying to figure out at the time.  If they hate doing it in the interview, they probably aren’t going to love doing it all day long.
  • Do we make each other smart?  If we’re going to be working together in the future, hopefully we have a good working rapport.  Did the design conversation zip along efficiently and cover ground well, or were there constant misunderstandings and false starts?
  • Do they handle pushback well?  I always question some of their decisions (politely, of course).  How they handle that will tell you a lot.  The worst reaction is if they get mad, or they dogmatically insist that theirs is the best approach without explaining why.  Almost as bad is if they cave immediately and ask what you think they should do instead.  A great reaction is to explain the rationale for the original design, and to list a couple of alternative approaches and why they seemed less effective.  I hope they welcome new data, if I share something useful that would influence the design in a better direction.  In general, I want to know if they are passionate about finding the best answer, or about moving forward with their answer.
  • How do they handle underspecified problems?  I like to ask design questions without providing enough information, to see what happens.  The two most common failure modes are to flail around and to make wild sweeping assumptions.  If I ask you to design an airport, do you just freeze up, do you assume that it is LAX (rather than, say, an oilfield airport in Alaska), or do you ask?  In general, I’ve found that people who fall into either of those traps often have trouble if they get hired.  The freezers aren’t good at taking on hard new problems without having their hand held, and the assumers bull off in wrong directions and get themselves (and their teams) into a mess.

Other Questions I Like

 Once you have figured out whether they can do the work that is most important for your role, there are other questions that I’ve found effective:

  • Teach me about X.  Pick something that looks interesting in their resume – a skill they say they have, a project they worked on.  Have them teach it to you.  If it involves a design they did, ask them why they made certain decisions, and what they would have done differently in retrospect.  At the end of the discussion, do you feel well informed about the topic?  Any job I hire somebody to do will almost certainly involve explanations of complex topics, so it’s an important skill in its own right.  And, it will help you figure out how well they actually understood what they were working on.  If a very attentive listener can’t get a decent grasp of it quickly, they probably didn’t.
  • How would YOU interview somebody for this job?  This is a fun question, and I’ve found it is really useful.  It helps me understand what they think is important about the role and how thoughtful they are about testing for those characteristics.  It also reveals whether they have insight into other people and how to work with/manage them.
  • Share a great success and a disappointing failure in managing other people.  What did you do, how did it come out, and what did you learn?  If the person is interviewing for a management role, I want to know how they think about other people.  Are they insightful?  Do they passionately identify with the success of the people whom they managed?  If you are an experienced manager, you are pretty much guaranteed to have succeeded with somebody and failed with somebody, so you should have some interesting stories to talk about.  I also often pose a scenario – “Margaret is a superstar but runs roughshod over others, and you are going to give her a tough review calling her on it.  How do you prepare, what do you say, how do you handle it when she attacks you …”

Making the Call

At the end of the interview, you have to make a decision – “hire” or “no hire”.  Often, it’s obvious.  But if there is any doubt in my mind, I find it really useful to write down the reasons and talk them through with somebody else who has made a lot of hiring decisions.  By the time I finish explaining the analysis, I almost always realize that I’ve made up my mind, and can ground the answer in solid reasons.

The people you hire will largely determine how successful your team is, so choose wisely.  Good luck!

Relay Race vs. Diving Competition

When you are evaluating how people are doing, it seems reasonable to focus on the business results they deliver.  In my previous team, we called this the relay race model.  What matters in a race is finishing, and finishing with the fastest time.  Nobody cares whether your running form was good or terrible – you are measured solely on the results you deliver at the end.  In most work environments, this is appealing, intuitive, measurable … and wrong.

A diving competition is almost the exact opposite of a relay race.  After all, everybody is going to hit the water, and it will take about the same amount of time no matter what you do.  The score is based on your form – how difficult a set of moves you undertake, and how gracefully and perfectly you do them.

Why the Diving Competition Matters

So what does this have to do with measuring job performance?  It’s the difference between assessing the pure business results that somebody delivers vs. the way they delivered those results.

It’s easier to measure (and talk about) the results that were delivered.  Did the product ship?  How much revenue did it generate?  Did you hit your sales quota?  Was the code quality where it needed to be?  Is the product performance hitting the ship goal?  It depends on your job, of course, but in many cases it’s relatively straight-forward to tell whether the person and/or the team achieved the goals that they were striving towards.

But there is another side of things – the way you behaved in pushing towards that goal.  Did you help build up the team?  Do people find you a good person to work with?  Do you help make the whole team better, smarter, and more capable?  I’ve worked with a lot of aggressive young engineers, and they sometimes are very impatient when I bring up these questions.  “Hey, I wrote the code, the product shipped, and it’s good.  I didn’t have time to humor those other idiots – we were on a tight schedule.  And I was right, wasn’t I?”  Often, yes.  But you are still going to get dinged on your review, because you may have been right about the issue, but you didn’t handle it the right way.  By running roughshod over the other person and leaving them feeling dismissed and mistreated, you blew it.  Why?

Well, for one thing, you are only responsible for part of the project.  Checking high quality code into the build is important, but the crucial thing we need to do is solve the customer’s problem.  Which means we need to understand their problem holistically, build a complete solution that meets their needs, test it, explain it and then sell it to them, support it, and integrate with other products.  That calls for a group of people to work effectively together.

Also, a particular deliverable is just one in a long succession of business results that we have to achieve together.  Sure, we shipped the product .. but that was just the beginning.  Even with packaged software, we have to ship patches.  We immediately start building the next version.  If it’s a service, shipping is the beginning of the hard work, not the end – now we have to run it 24/7 and manage the business that is based on it.

All of these ongoing business deliverables rely on the team working smoothly together.  When you are working on a problem that involves groups of people, no single person’s work alone can make the whole group successful.  If you achieve the goal you are focused on but leave a path behind you strewn with dead bodies, you can easily do more harm than good even if you do achieve what you set out to do.  Every team member has as much of an obligation to help ship the team as they do to help ship the product.  Given our ongoing responsibilities, the team is often the more important deliverable.  In the software business, if we create an unpleasant working environment and everyone leaves, we’ll be left with a big pile of code and no ability to run it, fix it, evolve it, support it, and sell it.

So for very hard-headed business reasons, I think it is necessary to evaluate people based on both the relay race model (the explicit results they achieved) and the diving competition model (whether they work effectively with others).  If you only focus on one, you aren’t encouraging and rewarding the behavior that yields the most value for the organization.  And on a more personal note, who wants to be on a team that’s unhappy and mistreats each other?

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

When I’m managing or mentoring somebody, this is one of my favorite questions.  It’s a good way to crawl into their heads a bit, understand their motivations, and figure out how I can help them.  It’s also not a bad question to ask yourself!

Framing

There are different ways to approach the answer – you might base it on:

  • A particular person’s abilities: code like Guy Steele, move an audience like Meryl Streep, or paint like Raphael.
  • A particular job: be the VP of your division, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or the founder of a growing startup.
  • An achievement:  win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, design a piece of software that millions of people adopt, or take a company public.
  • A state of being: be crazy passionate about your job, feel that you are living in perfect alignment with your principles, or devote your life to serving the community.

How somebody chooses to answer will tell you a lot about their values, ambitions, and self-image.  Be careful about guiding them too much .. we’re talking about their dreams, not yours.

Cheerleader or Critic?

In doing this exercise with many people, it’s usually at least imaginable that they might achieve their ambitions with hard work and some (or a lot) of luck.  However, now and then somebody will come up with a goal where you have to struggle a bit to keep a straight face.  Often it’s about personality and passion – if you are impatient and can’t stay focused on your own, writing novels might not be your best bet.  So what do you do when someone who hates math wants a Nobel Prize in physics?

I try to be a “pragmatic cheerleader”.  I don’t want to be a dream buzzkill – most people are surrounded by plenty of those already.  But I also don’t want to be mindlessly encouraging.  The next question often helps to get things more grounded in reality.

What Does it Take to Achieve That Goal?

Dreaming big is great, but you have to break down the goal and figure out what it takes to achieve it.  One approach I like: if the person wants to be an X, I get them to write down a description of what the absolutely perfect X would be like.  For example, when I was running a relatively large team, I came up with what I thought a perfect team leader should do .. I wrote about that here.

Often, the person doesn’t have a great answer.  They are attracted to the idea of being a CEO, but they don’t actually know much about what the day to day life of a CEO looks like.  After some discussion, we can usually rough out an outline of the skills and qualities needed, but we often agree that a key next step is to validate that list with people who actually have that role or are more familiar with it than we are.  That’s a great practical step forward on the journey.

How Do You Stack Up Today?  How Do You WANT to Stack Up?

The next thing I do is have them assess themselves against those ideal qualities or skills.  At this point, people sometimes realize that their supposed goal doesn’t actually make a lot of sense for them.  I was talking to one person who thought they wanted to be the CFO of a public company.  We talked about the skills you’d need to be a fantastic CFO, and then she thought about when in her work life she had been really happy and why.  And she realized that the things that really did make her passionate and inspired were not the key activities of that job at all.  So I think that was a helpful moment of self-revelation.

This exercise also tests self-awareness.  Sometimes, they are confident that they have some needed quality .. and you think they are wrong.  It’s tricky to handle this.  I tend to tread pretty lightly – the goal here is self-revelation, not a lecture on their weaknesses, which tends to bring the discussion to a halt in a hurry.

But if people have at least a basic level of clue about their true nature and abilities, this exercise can have quite a profound impact.  I’ve watched people realize that they were carrying around outmoded ideals foisted on them by authority figures from their youth, and realize that they have an inspiring path open to them in a quite different direction.  That’s what you hope for – an opportunity to enable somebody to achieve a profound moment of self-discovery.

How Does One Actually Get That Job?

Next, I like to consider how people actually get the job or the opportunity to achieve the goal in question.  If it is a well-defined role, then the answer is usually straight-forward, but many people don’t think about it very practically.  I’ve repeatedly asked, “how do you become a VP” (or whatever).  People go on about a demonstrated track record, a well rounded set of skills, and all sorts of worthy things … but none of those are the real answer.

The actual answer is, “somebody who hires VPs chooses you”!  Now why would they do that?  All these ideas about skills and roundedness are fine, but often the true reason is that the hiring manager has confidence in you to do a great job and trusts you.  They’ll almost always pick somebody with strong skills, whom they deeply trust, over an unknown with a potentially stronger resume but who might be a whacko.  And they trust you because they know you over a long period of time, and have watched how you handle many different situations.  So one of the things that might be necessary to achieve your goal is to deeply commit to a particular team or company for an extended period of time, rather than bouncing around all the time.

Alternatively, the goal might be something that has to be created rather than granted – becoming the CEO of a new startup is self-elected (!).  But they need to have enough money to survive without an income and perhaps to fund the company for a while.  They may need a network of people they can hire.  And so forth.  Pretty much any ambitious goal will require something in order to open up the opportunity.

What Are Your Next Steps?

Now they have identified the goal, what it takes to get that opportunity, what they need to be successful, and where they stand now.  For each skill or ability where they aren’t already strong and experienced, I’ll brainstorm with them about a specific action that will develop it.  For example,  they can often build up skills that aren’t a direct part of their job by volunteering for extra projects – what I like to call “hobbies”.  I’ve learned a ton from hobbies – helping to organize and run a large developer conference, participating in working groups considering radical new directions to take the team, teaching classes, etc.  None of those had much to do with my core job, but I practiced new skills, learned about new areas, met really cool people .. and had a lot of fun.

The goal is to finish the discussion by identifying very concrete steps that will build the skills they need to achieve their dreams.  And if you have an ongoing relationship, hold them to it.  If you can really help somebody achieve their dreams, that is one of the best feelings in the world!

Beware the Shining Paladin From Afar

Companies often fall into the trap of believing they can hire some external person to be their salvation – a shining knight who will lead them out of the darkness and into the promised land.  There are times when this works, but in my experience those are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the failures.  Why?  And can we learn something from the failures to try and avoid them?

The idea is very appealing.  If we as an organization are failing – maybe we are getting creamed by some competitor, or our formerly successful product is moldering into obsolescence and we can’t seem to get with the program on a modern reinvention of it.  Shouldn’t we invigorate the tired old blood in the team with a turbo-shot of new thinking?  Well, maybe.  But if we do, we’d better think about the many ways that this tends to fail.

Internal Pathology

We might be failing because of a systemic problem within the company.  This problem might be organizational (there is no team that cleanly owns the charter, so it keeps falling between groups), personal (somebody influential and passionate is preventing us from pursuing a workable strategy), failure of execution (the team that owns it isn’t healthy or effective), failure to focus (the team that owns the problem fundamentally doesn’t care about solving it), or strategic (the team gets pushed by company leaders into building overly general solutions that collapse of their own weight).

Fixing these problems can require a lot of organizational savvy and trust from the rest of the company; a newcomer is often much less capable of solving them than a seasoned employee.  Add to that the burden of expectations, and you have a situation designed to create failure.

Teacher’s Pet

Many times, I’ve watched a senior person get frustrated with a team, so they stick in some new blood and hope for the best.  The team can resent the newcomer as a teacher’s pet or “golden child” who hasn’t paid any dues.  Who are they to come in and start shooting off their mouth, without knowing anything about the team or the product?

For example, a friend of mine was hired by the president of a division to come in and shake things up in a new direction.  My friend gave an exciting pitch about the opportunities the team had and wasn’t taking advantage of.  He was put inside a group that had no buy-in to those new ideas, and which took its cue from somebody who had helped create the division and been responsible for some of its great successes.  Who also wasn’t bought in.  How receptive do you think the team was to my friend’s ideas?  Right, zero.  It was a massively frustrating experience for him and a waste of energy for the team, which of course went on to do exactly as it had before. 

Cultural Rejection

Teams can be a lot like the immune system, which “will try to destroy or neutralize any antigen that is recognized as a foreign and potentially harmful invader.”  People coming into the team, especially people brought in because they think differently and aren’t bound by the dominant assumptions shared by everyone else, are just bristling with antigens.  They use different language and terminology, they say things that seem off-key.  Often the instinctive rejection is so strong that their ideas don’t get a fair hearing.

Missing Key Skills

Having worked at both startups and large companies, I know how deeply different the success factors can be in those two environments.  People who flourish in a smaller community don’t always have (or value!) the skills to negotiate the internal landscape of a large company.  A big company might hire somebody who was winning, and the big company hoped that this person can transform its efforts.  If I’m that new person, why would I abandon my successful approach and adopt ideas from this team that has failed?  What could they have to teach me?

The problem is that the way you run an independent team for success, and the way you run a team inside of a big company, is quite different.  There is some overlap, but there is a lot of non-overlap.  As the new person, I have a lot to learn.  It’s very hard to figure out which traits I bring that are uniquely valuable and must be preserved, and which ones I have to supplement or replace in order to be effective in my new environment.

Wrap Up

I’m certainly not advocating that companies refuse to bring in new blood – it is crucial that they do.  But those people, especially if they are brought in to turn around a failing situation, have to negotiate a minefield.  The company needs to think hard about whether the problem it has is one that an outsider is really equipped to solve.  And it can’t expect that outsider to solve it alone – he or she is likely to need seasoned partners who can help translate that new perspective into a form that others can understand and act on.  Paladins seem like lone crusaders, but they wouldn’t have gotten very far without a host of supporters ranging from squires to armorers (not to mention the most important one – their horse!).  Before you try to hire one, make sure it’s what you really need … and don’t leave them unmounted and unsupported, or you are likely to have a bruised and grumpy knight on your hands pretty soon.

Ready to Ace Your Exit Interview?

When I’m having a management or a mentoring conversation, I like to pose the following challenge: “You just got offered an amazing new job .. it’s one you’ve always dreamed of.  But before you leave, you have an exit interview with your manager and your successor.  What do you want to tell them about your tenure, your team, and your projects?  What burning issues will your successor inherit and are they on track to being resolved?”

The answers depend, of course, on the nature of your current role.

  • If you are a manager, you probably want to talk about what a great, high morale team you have.  How the people are on a good trajectory, or how you are working with the ones who aren’t to get on a clear path for addressing the problems.  How you have a strong bench of future leaders you’ve been developing (hopefully your successor is one of them).  The mission is inspiring, the goals are clear and reflect the biggest opportunities available, the strategy is compelling, and the execution is effective.
  • The projects that you are responsible for are on a great path to success.  As you leave, things will continue seamlessly forward because the work is well organized and you have made sure that it an be passed over cleanly to somebody else.  No commitments will be missed, no balls dropped.
  • The issues that potentially block success have been analyzed and are being addressed and/or mitigated.

If you can say all that, congratulations on having aced your exit interview!  The person who is taking over for you is truly set up for success, but they have some big shoes to fill.

*****

Is that how it’s going to go?  If not (and I have yet to meet anyone who says it will!), what are the biggest reasons you won’t be taking a victory lap at your exit interview?

Usually, I find that there are a handful of big issues that people are worried about and that aren’t on a good track to resolution.  They might be:

Unpleasant.  People problems often fall into this bucket.  Sure, things aren’t great, and yes, something really ought to be done about it, but dealing with it is going to suck.  It’s often doubtful whether there will be a clear resolution at the end, especially if the other person doesn’t work for you and hence you have limited options for adjusting the situation.   So, it’s easier to just avoid the whole thing and keep bumbling along.

Important but not urgent.  Creating that new market would be an amazing win for the company.  Hiring a senior architect could transform the ability of the team to build great software.  But there is no particular urgency – no deadline will be missed, there is no forcing function.  And there are a hundred emails to answer, and that milestone is coming up, and my schedule is packed, and …

Hard.  I know that I should really be working on this big issue or opportunity, but I don’t exactly know how to do it.  I have to go get educated in some new area, or break through a tough analysis, or learn a new skill that I secretly fear I’ll be lousy at.  One way or another, it’s going to be a ton of work, and I’m not sure that I’ll really get anywhere, and my plate is full of things I do know how to do.

I’ve found that these big issues that people feel bad about are often the most important things they should be focused on.  So, I get them to write down the list of those issues, and then I ask the key next question: what specific actions are you going to take about each one, and when?  Because feeling bad doesn’t accomplish anything .. you need to take action.  I keep track, too, and the next time we talk, I bring it up again to see whether there has been progress.

Are you ready to ace your exit interview?  Why not?  What are you going to do about it?

Do You Want To Work For You?

So here’s your challenge: you just got a new manager and it is … yourself.  How do you feel about that?  I think it’s a good test to figure out what managers are for, and how to be a better one.

Say you are Worker Bee, pounding away on a daunting array of projects.  And your new manager is Fearless Leader, who happens to be your exact clone.

Are You Happy?

If you aren’t happy and excited about having yourself as your new manager, you should think really hard about why not.  Mostly, those reasons are things you need to fix, because they will bug other people who might work for you, too.  And no, you aren’t so fabulously special that you need a different kind of manager than all those “normal” people.

A reasonable sounding answer (that I think is bogus) is that you want a manager who is much more experienced and senior than you are, so you can learn from them.  Sure, maybe, but there is a good chance in life that you will be managing people who are just as experienced as you are, or more.  So you’d better find ways for managers to add value, even when you aren’t wiser and more expert than the team, or there are going to be a very limited number of management roles you are going to be good at.

You Won’t Be Clones For Long

One of the interesting side effects of a new role is that it inevitably changes your perspective .. and it happens much more quickly than you’d think.  As Mark Twain says, “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”

Worker Bee will start grumbling that Fearless Leader doesn’t understand how difficult some of the challenges are in getting the key projects done on time and needs to back off.  Fearless Leader thinks that Worker Bee is mired in the details and just can’t get with it on the big picture.  Why can’t he understand what is really important, and why does he keep going dark on key issues and leave me, Fearless Leader, out of the loop?  And so forth.

That’s both good and bad.  It means that you will each have to do some work to understand the other’s point of view, but it is also the key that will solve our puzzle.

How Does Fearless Leader Add Value?

There is some notion that managers are supposed to be wiser and more skillful than the people working for them.  But often, they aren’t.  And especially as you get more senior and manage larger teams, it’s pretty much impossible to be better than all of your direct reports at their job.  You will have people working for you with years or decades of experience and deep expertise in their fields .. fields that you often know little or nothing about.  At an extreme, a CEO is very unlikely to be a better engineer than the VP of engineering, a better marketer than the VP of marketing, AND a better salesperson than the VP of sales.  But the CEO is still supposed to lead the team and add value, despite being (often) incapable of doing their job.

In our thought experiment, Fearless Leader is fortunate enough to start out exactly as skillful and capable as Worker Bee.  But, he adds exactly zero value from his additional expertise – he hasn’t got any.  In fact, very shortly he’s going to know less than Worker Bee.  He’s going to meetings (maybe useful ones, or maybe about exciting things like “building an empowered team and enhancing manager capability”) while Worker Bee is writing code or designing products or whatever it is that he or she does.  Fearless Leader’s “doer IQ” will probably be on a steady slope downward, especially if Fearless is a good manager and keeps getting more responsibility.

The more cynical among us might say that Leader’s job is to “do no harm” while others get the job done.  But that is selling the job of manager too short – there are a lot of ways that they should be helping the team:

  • Clearly articulate the mission, strategy, and execution plan.  Since we know that Fearless has no lock on expertise in the team, they aren’t supposed to be the all-knowing sage.  In fact, they generally will not (can not) be the most knowledgeable person about the details of most issues.  Sometimes the answers are defined by somebody else – maybe Fearless’s manager has made it clear what the mission of the team is.  Fearless might not be a programmer but has a lead developer who owns the coding plan and schedule.  Exactly how the mission and plan are determined can vary all over the map – that’s fine.  The thing that Fearless must do is make sure that there is a clear plan, that it has been appropriately validated, and that everyone who needs to know is kept informed.
  • Be a channel of communication up and sideways.  Fearless is in meetings with people up the management chain and in other teams, while Worker Bee is heads down getting things done.   Fearless should be acting as a communication network up, down, and sideways .. representing the team, getting information about what’s going on elsewhere, and bringing it back.
  • Be a fair advocate.  When people are being evaluated, Fearless needs to be a strong but honest advocate.  He or she needs to make sure that everyone in the management team understands the performance of the people on the team, that compensation and promotion are being handled well, and so forth.
  • Be a great coach.  As the manager, Fearless is “watching the movie” that Worker Bee is acting in.  Just like you get a totally different experience (often uncomfortable) watching a video of yourself , Fearless is in the audience for Worker Bee’s movie.  That puts Fearless in a great position to give honest feedback, push Worker Bee to go beyond the comfort zone, and hold Worker Bee accountable.  The best tennis or basketball players in the world have coaches, whom they could generally crush in one-on-one competition .. but still get tremendous value from.  It may be harder, but you can be a fantastic coach without being better at the activity than the person you are coaching.

These are things that I believe managers should be great at, regardless of whether they are more experienced than the people working for them.  Master them, and I think you will be able to say honestly that you’d be a great manager for yourself.

How do you stack up?

What Makes Mentoring Work

If you haven’t had or been a mentor, it’s something that is worth thinking about.  The right mentor can be inspiring, opening your eyes to new ideas and helping you tackle bigger and bolder challenges.  It can also be a lot of fun for the mentor, who gets to coach enthusiastic people without having to deal with the day to day stresses of direct management (I think it’s a bit like being a grandparent – you get to do a lot of the fun parts, without all the responsibility).  I’ve been lucky enough to have some really good experiences with mentoring, though I’ve also seen plenty that didn’t work out so well.

Picking the Right Mentor

Since this is a relationship between two people, obviously it matters a lot whether there is a good fit.  What kind of person should you look for as a mentor?  Some things to consider:

  • The mentor probably should be further along in their career, but maybe not too much further.  You want the mentor to have some wisdom and perspective you don’t have (yet).   However, if they are vastly more senior, they may not be as useful in terms of helping you get your job done.  A lot of really senior people have forgotten how to be effective at more practical jobs.  They may have really interesting ideas and advice to share that are eye-opening and inspiring (or depressing!) to hear about, but often those insights have relatively little relevance to you day to day.  So if you are shooting the moon in terms of connecting with somebody much farther along than you are, keep in mind that you may get less immediately useful advice.
  • Look for somebody with different life experiences.  When I first become responsible for a business, my background was in pure engineering.  I was lucky enough to have a mentor who had successfully created a billion dollar business within Microsoft.  He was full of insights that I desperately needed to understand, and I learned a tremendous amount from him during our discussions.  I bombarded him with questions about working with the sellers, pitching to enterprise customers, helping to close deals, and doing the crucial back office arm wrestling with the sales team.
  • It’s helpful if you have something in common.  There are many benefits of diversity, but there is a lot of evidence from relationship research that people who have more in common tend to be more likely to form lasting relationships.  I’ve found that it can be harder for mentors to really connect and add value if they come at the world with a radically different model than their mentee.

At the end of the day, probably the most critical thing about making a mentoring relationship work is “do you like each other and want to spend time together?”  Mentoring is usually optional, and everyone is very busy, so it will take an effort to get and keep meetings on the calendar with a hundred other priorities competing for attention.

What Do You Talk About?

You might get a mentor who has a very well defined notion of what to do during your 1:1, and has a plan for it.  You might also sprout wings and discover that you can fly (hey, it could happen!).  For everyone else, you want to have a plan – most mentors feel like they’ve done their bit if they have actually cleared space on their calendar and are ready to meet with you.

I like to prep for a mentoring session by bringing in a set of topics to see which ones intrigue the mentor.  I usually bring in three or four for an hour discussion, so we have good fodder even if one or two of them aren’t a success.

A couple of things that have worked well for me:

  • Pose a problem I’m wrestling with.  Obviously you will get more value if it is in a domain they know about.  For example, if they are an experienced manager, they are likely to have been in a situation similar to one you are dealing with and have ideas about how to handle it.  At least they can usually give you lots of cases where they tried things that didn’t work!  Once, I was working with a direct who was really struggling, and I talked things through with my mentor.  I knew in my heart that it probably wasn’t going to work out, but I didn’t want to admit it.  After we talked, my mentor said something that really stuck with me: “Every time I have failed with somebody, I always waited too long.  I’ve never moved too quickly.”  That’s been true for me, too.  I don’t like to give up on anyone, especially a talented person I like but who is in a role where they aren’t and won’t be successful.  Getting a trusted outsider’s opinion can help you realize when you’ve dug yourself into a hole.
  • Hunt for best practices.  Yes, I will admit that I am a bit obsessed with best practices – that’s a lot of what I write about on this blog – because I love to find tools, ideas, approaches that are really effective.  I’ve gathered a tremendous number of great ideas from other people, and I’m always on the hunt for more of them.  I’ve found that most successful people have a “toolbox” that they apply in a wide variety of situations.  Some people are very “meta” and will be able to quickly articulate those best practices.  So you can ask “When you <do some activity>, what works really well for you?” (where the activity might be anything from managing a team to doing an all-hands presentation to preparing a board review to architecting a high-scale distributed system).  Others are not so good at this, so you need to tease the best practices out by asking more specific questions: “Last fiscal year, how did you get your scorecard targets right, and what worked/didn’t work well?”  “When you built the back end for that service, how did you minimize the time to recovery when the database instance failed?  How would you change your design if you were starting over?”

As a mentor, I use some of the same conversations that I have with my directs as a manager (and which I’ll be writing up as separate posts), like “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and “how to ace your exit interview”.  These are exercises that I think can really help people introspect and come to useful insights.

Have you had great or awful mentoring experiences?  What worked and didn’t work?

 

What Should Managers Do All Day Long?

What managers spend their time on is often the source of (frequently cynical) commentary by the people who work for them.  I have found that it is also a source of anxiety for a lot of managers.  They often aren’t quite sure what they should be doing to add the most value.  It becomes even tougher, I’ve found, as you get more senior and have larger organizations to worry about.  You become very detached from the real work that is going on and what you do seems pretty distantly related to anything concrete.

Let’s take an example.  When I was the general manager of a pretty large team (400 people), I had a clear idea what the team needed to do – deliver a high quality next release of the product and grow the business 20% this year.  Great, but since I’m not writing any code or carrying a quota, how do I contribute to those goals?  What do I prioritize Monday afternoon at 3pm to help the team hit its goals?

To keep my sanity, I needed something that was my north star.  I created a document which I called “My Job”, and I reviewed it at least once a week.  It has the activities that I did, not the goals of the team.  For example, the first one is “Inspire” – I want to inspire the people on the team with a vision of where we are headed and why it is important and convince them that it is within reach.  Another is “Drive Rhythms” – for a team at scale, you have to have efficient rhythms to review the state of the business, check in with the engineering team each milestone, manage budgets, etc.

I scheduled an hour every Monday morning to plan the week, and one of the most important things I did was to take the “My Job” page and walk through these four steps:

1.  What’s F-ed up?

For each activity, I asked myself the question, “what’s f-ed up?”  And if I felt ambitious, “how can I move this forward proactively?”  This was an opportunity to dump all the hopes and anxieties buzzing around in my head down on paper.  The key thing was not to hold back – I wanted to get it all out.  And I wanted to make myself think about each activity in case it needed more attention than I was giving it.

2.  What can be done about it?

Next, I went back through the list to figure out what could be done about everything I had written down.  I needed to be in a very different state of mind – to go from a free-flowing brainstorm to focusing on concrete steps I could take.  I’ve found that it can be hard to switch back and forth quickly – once I’m being detailed and practical, the ideas don’t flow as freely.  So that’s why I do the whole second column first, then go back and do the third.  The things in the third column are very straight-forward and doable (“next actions” in Getting Things Done lingo).  These are specific actions I can do right away.

3.  Should I be the one doing it?

One easy trap to fall into (I am highly prone to this) when you are a manager is to over-function .. to jump in and do work that properly ought to be done by the people who work for you.  It’s like the over-protective parent who does everything for their kids, so they never learn how to do things for themselves.  It’s very annoying for the direct report who wants to solve their own problems.  So before I start firing off emails and diving into all those actions, I look them over to make sure that I’m the right person to do them.

4. Am I doing the really important “only I” things?

One of my favorite questions on this front comes from Peter Drucker, who was one of the people who basically invented management theory.  He wrote many useful books (try “The Essential Drucker” if you are interested – it’s a good survey of his ideas across a variety of topics).   And he challenges managers to ask themselves a very important question: “What can I, and only I, do, that, if done well, would have the most impact on the organization?”  This is a great question to ask yourself.  I suspect that every action item you identified is a useful thing to do, and will be of some value for the team.  So the question shouldn’t be “what adds value?”  Most or all of them will, hopefully, if you have a clue.  The question is, “what adds the most value that nobody else can do?”  Make sure you do those, before you fritter away all your time doing random things that aren’t going to have as much impact or that somebody else can do equally well.

Once I’ve gone through this exercise, I really feel like I have a handle on what I am worried about, what I should be worried about, what I could do about it, and what I will do.  This exercise translates high-level goals like “grow the business” into “set up a meeting with Mary to adjust quotas” and turns “ship a high quality release” into “review the latest benchmark numbers on the performance issues with the new version of the database.”   And it (helped) keep me out of the way of the team when they didn’t need me.

Do you have a north star that tells you what your job is?  What tools help you figure it out?

Managing Up vs. Sucking Up

“Managing up” has a bad reputation – it’s often seen as a synonym for sucking up.  Isn’t it a waste of time that could have been used productively to move the team forward?  I disagree.  If you have a manager, managing up is part of your job.  And it should be.

Why Bother?

Let’s think for a minute about what a manager is supposed to do.  Among other things, they should

  • Have a clue about what you are doing and help, as appropriate (and no more than appropriate)
  • Backstop you to make sure your projects aren’t going off the rails
  • Manage up to their manager
  • Advocate and scout on your behalf
  • Understand key risks the team faces and make sure they are being managed
  • Give you guidance and hold you accountable

Now how are they supposed to do all that, if they don’t get any information flow from you?  If you’ve ever managed somebody, you may have discovered that mostly you have no idea what they do all day long.  This plays into one of the things I’ve noticed, which is that people often become easier to manage after they become a manager.

Many people push back on this idea of managing up.  They might object that

  • My accomplishments should speak for themselves, right?  Well, no.  Most managers see a tiny fraction of what you do.  They often can’t tell how much of the outcome you were responsible for.  And, they (should) care not just about what you achieve, but how.
  • Isn’t this overhead that makes us less efficient?  Yes.  Tough.  Part of the reality of being in a team is that it takes overhead to get groups of people to work well together.  Get over it.
  • Isn’t this a disguised name for sucking up?  Sometimes.  Stay tuned.

Ways to Screw This Up

From what I’ve seen, a lot of people aren’t very good at managing up.  They tend to fall into one of two traps:

  • Refusal to engage.  “I shouldn’t have to manage up – my work should speak for itself.”  If your manager is basically engaged in the same activity that you are, this may in fact be true – say your manager is a lead programmer who is in the codebase with you all day long.  But if your manager is not deeply and directly involved in your work, this is probably not going to work out well for you.  By failing to manage up, leaving your management chain in the dark, you are hurting the team and hurting yourself.  You are sabotaging your manager’s ability to do their job well.  If you hear phrases from your manager like “I feel out of the loop” or “I don’t have good visibility into this project” or “where did <this disaster> come from – I thought we were on track”, then you are probably failing to manage up well enough.
  • Looking like a suck up.  Managers vary a lot in their ability and desire to discourage this kind of behavior.  They are never as immune as they think, but even the lame ones can tell if you are really obvious about it.  Once they decide that you are a suck-up, they won’t trust what you tell them.   Your peers are also very good at sniffing it out .. and they won’t like you better for it.  Two quick tests to check yourself:
    • Are you reporting at least as much bad news as good?  If so, you are much less likely to be seen as a suck-up.  Don’t spend your “manage up” time taking victory laps.
    • Are you talking about other people’s accomplishments more often than your own?  That’s another good antidote.

When you bring bad news to your manager, they will often be inclined to start trying to fix it (with or without you).  If you want help, then that’s just what you were hoping for.  But often, you don’t want help.  You own the problem, you are on it, and you are just keeping your manager informed.  So make sure that you are clear when reporting a problem whether you want help.

Food for Thought

Here are some principles that I have found helpful:

  • Managing up is part of your job – help your manager be effective in doing their job
  • Be transparent: bad news is the news they have to have.  Don’t sandbag your management chain – they hate that.
  • Be very explicit in your own mind and with your manager whether you want help with a problem that you are reporting
  • Shine the light on others more often than yourself
  • Figure out how your manager likes to be kept in the loop – it varies a lot depending on the person

Are you doing this part of your job well?  What’s worked for you?

The Sacredness of Ownership

sa·cred (sākrid) – secured as by a religious feeling or sense of justice against any defamation, violation, or intrusion; inviolate

The word “sacred” is not one to be used lightly, but I chose it on purpose to talk about a principle I believe is at the heart of any healthy team culture: ownership.  I’ve spent most of my career building large scale software projects, and these are intensely complex systems.  No one person can understand all that complexity and track all the infinite detail of a large-scale project.  And it only takes one person writing a few lines of sloppy code to introduce a security hole that can cause tremendous damage to your customers and to your company.  The success of the whole venture rests on the decisions that the people at the front lines of the team are making every day.  So they’d better feel like they own their work, and they’d better be right!

What It Means to “Own” Something

Does “owning” something mean you get to do whatever you want with it?  No.  In defining ownership, many people focus on making decisions, which is important.  But to me, the most important thing about being an owner is that you are accountable for the success of what you own.  Therefore, the first and most important thing that an owner should do is to define success.  This sounds easy, but it isn’t, and many people do this wrong.  If you are a developer and own a feature, success doesn’t mean that you wrote good code and checked it in.  Success means that the whole feature team understands the feature and why it is needed, you coded it, you nailed the basics like performance and security, it works well, it shipped, and many happy customers are using it to solve real needs that they have.  A good owner defines success in terms of impact, not activity.  They include key stakeholders.  They feel accountable for the whole success, not a narrow part of it.

It is very tempting to define success in terms of what you control.  This is a classic mistake that people make, especially when they are early in their career.  They only feel accountable for the part they fully control.  “But I’m the developer .. isn’t it enough that I write great code that works?”  NO.  The customer does not care if you wrote good code.  The customer cares if you solved their problem.  Shareholders don’t care if you wrote good code.  They care if customers love the product and buy a lot of it.  You need to feel accountable for the whole success, even though you almost certainly don’t control it.  If you did everything right that you control, and the feature fails to be successfully used by many happy customers, then you failed.  The reason this is so important is that people generally try very hard to succeed.  If you define success broadly, you won’t settle for the excuse that “my part works – it was the other bonehead who blew it”.  You’ll go the extra mile, you’ll escalate if somebody else is screwing up and taking the whole ship down.  It doesn’t matter how beautifully you polished the handrail on the Titanic.  You still drowned.

Decision Making and Overlapping Ownership

One thing that’s confusing about ownership is that multiple people can seemingly own the same thing.  For example, the people designing a product and the engineering team that builds it all need to own what they work on.  Doesn’t that violate the whole idea of ownership?  No, if you internalize the accountability model.  All of the groups contributing must feel accountable for the whole success of their work.

Great, but then how do decisions get made?  The answer is that it depends what you are deciding.  For example, the ultimate decision maker about the way to code a feature better be the developer.  But there are other stakeholders – developers might have to do a code review with their lead or a fellow developer.  They might need to follow development guidelines set up by the development manager, so other people can understand the code and it fits in with the rest of the system.  The designer needs the feature to actually meet the user’s needs.  The developer still owns the code and is accountable for its success, but they must honor the (legitimate!) roles of other people in achieving that success.

Stakeholders

Let’s say you are the owner and hence the decision maker.  One of your responsibilities as owner is to understand who else has a stake in the decisions you are making and what their role is.  Sometimes this is obvious, or you can just use intuition and it all works out.  That’s often the case in small teams.  But as you own more important and complicated things and are part of larger organizations, you will run into the limits of the ad hoc approach.  That’s when it becomes useful to think explicitly about the other stakeholders and their roles.

Once upon a time, the Windows team realized that decision-making was a mess – people weren’t sure whom they had to consult, who was the butt on the line for key decisions, etc.  And so things fell through the cracks or there was gridlock, and accountability was lacking.  As a result, they created a role/stakeholder model that has been used with a lot of success at Microsoft (called OARP).  There are industry equivalents (a popular one is called RACI) – which one you pick isn’t that important.  The key thing is to be explicit about the roles in a particular decision and make sure everyone understands what their role is.  Writing this down will often reveal misunderstandings (“what do you mean I don’t get to review the decision before it is finalized??!!!”) and problems (“we have to review this with twenty people before we lock the decision down?  That’s not going to work.”).  In general, the owner’s life and the team’s efficiency will improve radically as you reduce the number of reviewers, approvers, and other obstacles to progress.

Dealing With Misbehaving Stakeholders

Just because you have done a great job defining the ownership model and gotten everyone to understand it and agree to it in theory doesn’t mean that’s actually how things are going to work out.  People will frequently violate their role, often through the best of intentions.  Maybe your lead says you are the owner but they don’t respect your ownership and are always micromanaging you or giving direction to your team without including you in the conversation.  Maybe people elsewhere in the organization who are supposed to review decisions start turning into participants or are making decisions on your behalf.  And so forth – the opportunities for misbehavior are legion.  Sometimes they happen because people are too eager to help, often because people are being thoughtless, and sometimes from malice.

Your responsibility as the owner is to treat these as problems and get them fixed.  That super-helpful senior manager who comes down and straightens things out for you without you asking for help?  Problem.  Either you blew it, or that very helpful manager did, or you both did.  The participant who thinks you are blowing it as an owner and second guesses your decisions without confronting you about it?  Problem.

If someone in your management chain comes in and starts proclaiming this and that, there are two common reactions: 1) denial/rejection/anger and 2) “yes, sir, thank you”.  Both are wrong.  The right response from the owner is “good input, thanks”.  Then YOU go take action.  Don’t ignore what the manager thinks.  Sometimes they are giving you new data, sometimes advice (hopefully good).  Sometimes you are screwing up and they feel a need to jump in.  But if you are going to be a good owner, then you have to get the dynamics right.  You own the decision until ownership is taken away.  That should always be an explicit act – you might ask the manager to take over, they might inform you that they are taking over; that can be the right thing, but it is a very important change in the state of the project.  If ownership is leaving you and going somewhere else, you are no longer accountable for success.  That’s a big deal, and everyone needs to be clear about it.  You don’t have the right to demand to stay on as owner if your manager becomes convinced that you are not up to it.  You do have the right to demand clarity.

Final Thoughts

In my opinion, ownership is a crucial tenet of a healthy team culture.  How to take action on it?

  1. Figure out what you own.  Make sure everyone (including your manager) agrees.
  2. Define success.  Don’t be narrow.
  3. Figure out who the stakeholders are and respect their role.
  4. Go own the hell out of it.  Everyone is depending on you to get it right.