Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his outstanding “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Anne Berkowitch, co-founder and chief executive of SelectMinds, a social networking company based in Manhattan. [Please click here.] She earned a B.S. degree in applied mathematics at Brown and an M.B.A. in finance at M.I.T. She says she has learned that “leadership is really about asking questions and letting people answer them.”
To read Bryant’s complete interview and his interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Bryant: You talked about building a new team. Can you talk more about the way you hire has evolved?
Berkowitch: I started out recruiting for skills that I knew I didn’t have and I didn’t understand intuitively. I was putting way too much emphasis on skills and background and what I could see on paper. I wasn’t trusting myself to evaluate whether these were the right people. I’d say I went through a spate where I made the wrong hires. Then I said, “I have to do this differently, and I’m just going to trust my instinct about the right kind of person to bring onto this team.”
I had to hire people who had skills and experience I needed, but who they were as a person played a much bigger role in what I looked for.
Bryant: So how do you hire now?
Berkowitch: The people I want to hire share a number of characteristics. They’re smart. They’re problem-solvers. They’re good at what they do. They are honest with themselves, which to me is extremely important. If you’re not honest with yourself, then too much of your energy goes toward managing what you’re saying to everybody else, rather than what you should be doing. They are curious and they want to do things outside their comfort zone. They’re passionate — it doesn’t matter about what. It could be about theater. It could be about your kids.
The other quality is they’re people who want to be part of a group to build something. They’re not looking for title. They’re really motivated by coming on board. At this point, I feel like I could talk to somebody for five minutes and have a good sense of whether they have those qualities, and I’ll be right 85 percent of the time.
Bryant: So, let’s say you’re interviewing me. How does that conversation go?
Berkowitch: Well, first, I do as little talking as possible. So, I’d just to start out with: “Tell me where you are right now and why are you looking to change? What are the issues?” I’m very curious to see what they put out there and how candid it sounds. And then I’ll ask, “What are the qualities of a job you’re looking for?” Do they talk about the workplace? Do they talk about the kinds of people they want to work with? Do they talk about what kinds of responsibilities they want to have?
I’ll ask them to tell me about a challenge they overcame because I think that if you haven’t overcome some challenge, and if you can’t admit that to yourself, I’m really not interested. I look for people who can be pretty candid about themselves, both in terms of what they’re good at, and what’s hard for them.
Bryant: And if you could only ask two questions, what would they be?
Berkowitch: “What do you think you’re really good at?” And, “Tell me about a challenge you’ve overcome, and don’t tell me a work challenge — in life, what’s a challenge you’ve overcome, either as a child or as an adult?”
The reason I ask both of those is I want somebody who is humble and honest enough to tell me what they’re really good at, without any attitude. I want people who are good at what they do and who have the confidence to tell me, without it coming across as egotistical.
I want to hear about a challenge they overcame somehow because I don’t want people who have had it just totally easy their whole life.
There’s something about their life that’s difficult or was difficult. Until you fall, until your expectations are dashed, until you didn’t know how to get out of a situation and you had to figure something out, until you went to sleep at night crying over something — whatever it is — you don’t get the best of yourself until you’ve overcome something.
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To read several of Bryant’s more recent interviews of other executives, please click here.
(Though we primarily write about business books and business related subjects on this blog, here is a reflection about a terrific author from the “Christian book” market. I hope you don’t mind).
In August of 1930, New York State Supreme Court Justice Joseph Crater simply disappeared. I’ll let Max Lucado pick it up from here:
A search of his apartment revealed one clue. It was a note attached to a check, and both were left for his wife. The check was for a sizable amount, and the note simply read, “I am very weary. Love, Joe.”
The note could have been nothing more than a thought at the end of a hard day. Or it could have meant a great deal more – the epitaph of a despairing man.
Weariness is tough. I don’t mean the physical weariness that comes from mowing the lawn or the mental weariness that follows a hard day of decisions and thinking. No, the weariness that attacked Judge Crater is much worse. It’s the weariness that comes just before you give up. That feeling of honest desperation…
These are words from the first published book by Max Lucado, On the Anvil, and for some reason, the single piece that I most remember from Max.
When I was a minister in a church in California, Max was serving a church in Miami. In those days, we ministers would take each other’s bulletins/newsletters. They would arrive weekly, and I quickly started reading the columns that Max would write every week. I wrote him a note (with pen, and paper – do you remember those days?) and told him he simply had to publish. He says I was the first to encourage him to do so — but I suspect there were many others. (By the way, I still have that first book, On the Anvil, in photocopy form from Max, with a handwritten note asking if I thought it was ready to send to a publisher. Yes, it was!)
Today, he is one of the most widely read and celebrated Christian authors. He does not write academic books – he is a heart builder. And I think there is a place in the world for someone who does that well. And Max does that very well.
I left my denomination, and the ministry, years ago. And my journey has been difficult at times. But I still read Max a little, and know him to be honest, sincere, growing…
He has a new book hitting this week: Out Live Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference. (Max has always been good at titles). I follow Max on Twitter, and a tweet sent me to this article: Max Lucado Focused Social Media Push Next Friday. Here’s an excerpt:
So what makes Max tick? Or more accurately, what makes a Max Lucado book click with readers?
• Biblical message with supporting scriptures
• Easy going, non-preachy writing style
• Broad world view based on contacts and travel outside of the western world (especially helpful with this topic)
• Illustrative original fiction stories
• Practical illustrations from the lives of people he knows
It would be easy for him to rest on his laurels; to assume that his body of writing has reached critical mass and he can just write anything. But he obviously is trying to better his own personal best with each new title.
This is the important line: “he obviously is trying to better his own personal best with each new title.”
Though we have had little contact over the last few years, I know Max well enough to know that this is true about him.
Here is the lesson for all of us: do we keep trying to better our own personal best in every one of our endeavors? Constant innovation – constant improvement. This is the challenge worth tackling, and it never goes away.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michael Schrage for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Before rolling out an enterprise innovation, Tesco (the UK’s supremely innovative supermarketer) insists that it must meet three conditions. [Click here.]
The first is that innovation must in some way be better for customers; second is that it should ultimately prove cheaper for Tesco; and, finally, the innovation must make things simpler for staff.
While doing work with the company a decade ago, I quickly found Tesco’s innovators had little trouble arguing their proposals would be better for customers and successfully take costs out of the firm. That was the easy part. What killed roughly half of Tesco’s innovation ideas was the stubborn challenge of simpler for staff. Innovation champions are great at selling visionary benefits and kneading numbers just so. But supermarket employees are skeptical that innovation will actually make their everyday working lives simpler. They don’t take simple for granted. They want demonstrable proof. So does Tesco. Simple is hard. Show me — don’t tell me —.
The most important thing I learned wasn’t how the supermarket giant made innovations simpler to understand and use. Tesco’s secret sauce for innovation simplification was, appropriately, astonishingly simple: the company made people — and held people — accountable for simplicity.
This may seem astonishingly obvious. It’s not. I’ve gone into scores of organizations, conferences and exec ed programs and asked senior-level line managers and executives alike a very simple question: How many of you have a “VP of simpler-for-staff” or someone who “owns” innovation simplification within the enterprise?
Usually, there’s murmuring and nervous laughter. Occasionally, a hand goes up. Most of the time, that person says that “training” is responsible for making sure people find the innovation simpler and easier to use. That answer reveals one of the pernicious pathologies afflicting so many organizations. Precisely because people know there’s an organizational training department, they don’t take extra efforts to take out the complications and complexities of their innovation. In the same way Hollywood productions say “We’ll fix it in post (production)” [click here] to compensate for a bad shot or bad acting, internal innovators and change champions shrug and say, “They’ll fix it in training and orientation.” Training’s very existence is used as an excuse not to further simplify. What’s more, the training department is happy to go along with the clunky complexity because that makes them more important.
Training can argue, correctly, that nobody could effectively use the innovation if they hadn’t been fully trained. Instead of addressing the simplicity/complexity challenge, training effectively perpetuates it. Talk about perverse incentives. [Click here.]
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Simplicity is best facilitated by accountability. Improved simplicity is a byproduct of improved accountability. Don’t allow a disconnect. The real reason organizations see so many complicated and kludgy process innovations [click here] is not because their people are stupid or lazy — or even because these improvements are inherently difficult — it’s the absence of clarity around accountability. For any given innovation initiative, if it’s not clear who “owns” simplicity, you can be confident no one does.
Accountability means that someone has sat down with the process owner or appropriate business team leaders and asked, “What does ‘simple for staff’ mean and how do we measure it?”
Pick whatever measures of effectiveness you like — time, number of steps, rework, etc. — but doesn’t “simpler for staff” deserve respect comparable to “better for customers” and “cheaper for the firm”? After all, those get measured.
With its three simple innovation heuristics, Tesco ostensibly forbids the shortcuts and cheats that allow perfectly good proposals to get “improved” into a morass of complex features and functionality. The essential simplicity is hiding there somewhere, but it will take hours of your employee’s times to find it. That’s not good management. That’s bad design.
So let’s put it this way: If you’re not making things simpler for staff, the odds are you’re making things more difficult for staff. That’s a bad place to be.
Who should be held accountable for that?
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Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and the forthcoming Getting Beyond Ideas.
What we have in a single volume are 23 essays from 29 contributors, including the three co-editors (Marshall Goldsmith, John Baldoni, and Sarah McArthur), that – together – provide 360º perspectives on leadership. The book’s objective is to enable each reader, in James Kouzes’ words, “to more effectively forge ahead, develop people, engage people, facilitate change, and take the lead.” Continuing to address the reader directly, Kouzes adds, “Your challenge in moving from the page to practice is to make the lessons genuinely yours. It’s essential that you do that, because making them yours is the only route to authentic leadership. Making them yours is the only route to becoming the kind of leader others will want to follow.”
Here in Dallas at the Farmers Market near the downtown area, several merchants offer complimentary slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that same spirit, I now offer brief excerpts (albeit out of context) from three of the essays.
“Today, if we are not developing a richly diverse organization, led by a wonderfully diverse team of leaders, then we are already an organization of the past, led by leaders of the past…The initiative, the imperative for a bright future. Is grounded by values that are palpable. With values that we live by, as mission-focused, values-based, and demographics-driven, we lead into the future. This is the organizational life we are building, the leadership life we are leading. We are the future.” Frances Hesselbein (Pages 9 and 12)
“In my many years of watching leaders successfully grow new leaders, I have observed that three characteristics separate the winners from the also-rans. First, successful leaders have an attitude that supports learning and growth…Second, successful leaders provide feedback and tell the truth…Finally, successful leaders create cultures that value inclusion, not exclusion, and they know that every person can make valuable contributions to the team when encouraged and given the opportunity.” Beverly Kaye (Page 80)
“The first task for change makers is to create real awareness at every level of an organization that (1) these practices [based on fear and depression] create serious problems with powerful negative effects that impede success, and (2) there are policies that make success much more likely. In order to have an impact, the message must resonate with people – it must be an honest, simple, brief, and focused message. It must begin with a sense of alarm that when the core issues are faced, the right changes can be made and then success and a better future become likely. Experience teaches us that this message will need to be repeated often.” Judith M. Bardwick (Page 114)
Note: In Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, Verne Harnish suggests that supervisors keep repeating the “message” they are trying to deliver to their direct-reports until they begin to mock and mimic them.
I urge those who share my high regard for this book to check out Extraordinary Leadership: Addressing the Gaps in Senior Executive Development co-edited by Kerry A. Bunker, Douglas T. Hall, and Kathy E. Kram as well as Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice co-edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana. I also recommend Charles S. Jacobs’ Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science.