What’s the worst career advice you’ve been given?
From Marc Cenedella
I sat down recently with Adam Bryant of The New York Times, who writes the “Corner Office” feature, to discuss management and hiring. I thought I’d share a bit of the article below, and you can see the entire interview at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/business/12corner.html (registration required).
Q. What was your approach when you started Ladders seven years ago?
A. It became a matter of figuring out how to build a team and share with them what inspired me to start the company. There’s a quote from the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that really spoke to me. It says, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
So the management style that I have is first, share your passion. Explain to people why it’s an exciting idea and how they can be involved in it. In an entrepreneurial business, the most important thing, the thing that creates the most excitement and value and interest in the business, is the big picture — where are we going. You can destroy little bits of it by all these little errors that you make. But if you fix all of them and you don’t have the big picture, then you’re never going to get there. Really engaging people in that big picture is way more important, I think, to success.
So I’ve learned to do the big-picture stuff, and I can be really great at the analytics — sitting down and running the numbers. What I’ve had to learn over time is the middle part about, O.K., how do you build a team? How do you assign a team to do something? How do you give them enough rope to be successful, and when do you take it back? The middle part has been trial and error for me.
Q. Talk more about that.
A. At 30 employees, you can kind of still be an entrepreneur and see everybody and bark out orders. Beyond that you really can’t, so you have to decide, “Hey, is this what I want to do?” There are many serial entrepreneurs and they go on to the next thing and that’s great. For me, this is something I want to be involved with for my life. And if I’m going to be the manager, I ought to learn more about managing.
Q. How did you learn to do it?
A. Getting a coach is the best thing that you can do. I’ve done four years with two different coaches, and it is just fantastic. There’s what you say and there’s what people hear, and the gap between those two is sometimes enormous. What really matters is what people hear, not what you say.
Being a manager also isn’t about trying to become perfect. You’re not going to stop making errors. But it’s about having a mature appreciation for the fact that you’re a flawed human being. Probably everyone around you is a flawed human being. What are your flaws and how are you going to manage around them? What are your strengths? How are you going to optimize those?
I also learned a good trick, which is to ask somebody, “How are you doing?” They’ll usually say, “Good.” And I’ll say, “No, no, really. How are you doing?” And they’ll answer, “Good.” But then I’ll say, “Tell me what would you say if you weren’t doing good? How would you express that to me?” And then they tell you things. It’s partly little tactics, but the more important part is making it clear that you want to hear what they have to say.
Q. How do you hire?
A. We use the “topgrading” system by Geoff Smart. It says that the “How are you doing?” interview has about a 50 percent chance of success. That kind of interview is just a social call, right? You’re not actually seeking to find out anything about somebody’s performance. All you’re talking about is vague generalities.
In this method, the structure is more, “What have you done in the past relative to what this job needs?” So if I’m hiring a direct report, we’ll have four people plus one person from H.R. in the interview committee. We’ll sit down first and say, there are 51 different areas that could be important that we’re looking for in somebody — a good coach, analyst, public speaker, all these different areas that could be important. We have to pick six, and it’s really interesting to have these discussions with your colleagues. In some cases it turns out that everybody’s got a different six, and that’s a problem.
Once you decide on the six characteristics that are most important for the particular job you’re trying to fill, then there’s a series of questions for each one, always focused on past performance. It’s no guarantee of future performance, but it’s the best predictor.
Q. What’s an effective question that you use in most interviews?
A. What’s the best and worst career advice you’ve been given in your career? That gets to the underlying point about what people think is important. The best career advice part gets to what they think is important; worst career advice kind of tells you whether the person is trying to snow you. I want to know if you’re trying to snow me under the stress of the interview and trying to tell me things that you know aren’t true — that you don’t make bad decisions, that you haven’t gotten any bad career advice, that type of stuff.
The point is that the interview is uncomfortable, but so are budget review meetings and so are a lot of meetings in day-to-day life. We’re not a bunch of perfect people who work together. We’re all people with flaws. I want to know if you’re somebody who feels comfortable enough to talk about dumb things that you’ve done or dumb advice that you’ve taken. Phrasing it in the form of, “Hey, what’s the worst advice you got?” at least gives you a half-step of distance from it. It tells you something about the character of the person.
Q. What’s the best question people should ask in an interview?
A. When they ask you, “Hey, do you have any more questions?” ask them, “How do I help you get a gold star in your review next year?” The person who’s interviewing you had to go through a lot of effort to get this opening, particularly in this economy. Be empathetic and realize that they are hoping that this position is going to make their life better. Ask them how you can be a part of that.
OK, Readers, I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I enjoyed having the conversation with Adam Bryant — he’s been doing these “Corner Office” interviews for years, and has a book coming out this spring with lessons learned from all the big honchos he’s spoken with — I’ll make sure to send along the link when it’s published.
Oh! And one last thing. If you’re looking for a great holiday gift for one of the professionals in your life who needs to change jobs next year, may I be so bold as to suggest my book “You’re Better Than Your Job Search” ? My co-author Matthew Rothenberg and I have stuffed it like a stocking hung by the chimney with care: There’s interview advice, resume tips, and job search guidance that make it a great treat for someone who is transitioning in the New Year! You can pick up your copy here and have it in somebody’s hot little hands this week…
Good luck with your search this week!
Marc Cenedella, Founder & CEO, Ladders.com
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I’ve been writing these newsletters weekly for almost a decade in order to provide you with the advice, encouragement, and assistance you need in your professional job hunt. I’ll take what we’ve learned at Ladders during the week, or experiences I’ve had with job-seekers all over the country, and try to find a usable lesson, a valuable insight, or a helpful tip to share with you on Monday morning (my writing deadline is 3 p.m. every Sunday afternoon).
I do read your replies to this newsletter. Because of the volume of replies — typically over 1,000 per week — I’m unable to answer you personally, but one of our very qualified staff from our Job Search Support team will get back to you — most of the time within three hours or less.
As I am interested in every reply I get, I’ll also occasionally reach out directly by phone or by email to say thanks, or ask a question, or to see how we can solve your problem better. Thanks for reading!
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