December 2009

Given the Holidays and the accompanying chaos, this will be the last newsletter of the year. I have really appreciated the feedback you’ve given me, and have been touched by the number of comments about how useful and meaningful the letter has been to a number of you. I will pick up again in January and hope to stick to a tighter schedule next year. I hope all of you have a great holiday season and a happy new year.
Business Tips
Recruiting Winners & Keepers: Effectively and Accurately Assessing Talent
There seems to be a heightened emphasis these days on the selection aspect of the recruiting process. A part of this emphasis comes from dissatisfaction with the results versus the time, energy and resources dedicated to the process. Too many new hires are delivering mediocre performance, melting down at the first encounter with critical feedback or leaving their jobs shortly after beginning them, with no explanation or communication.

From our experience, the reason for this is simple, but not necessarily obvious – We are still hiring people for what they know; not for who they are. The proliferation of information has made technical skills, lots of knowledge, and even brilliance, simply commodities. It has also slowed down and delayed maturation and left people with huge deficits of common sense, people skills and problem solving abilities. Consequently, the selection process needs to focus and zero in on the candidate’s life experience more than any other single factor. We need to find out, in particular, the quantative and qualitative nature of the candidate’s experiences in two key areas: decision-making and relationship-building. If they are good at those two things, they can usually learn a lot of job content very quickly. If they’re not, everything else is usually an agonizing struggle. Towards the end of this section, I’ll discuss the key questions that focus in on these characteristics.

What about some of the traditional assessment factors that have been a part of recruiting and selection forever: the resume, formal education, and recommendations?

We have found that resume content is fairly useless. A slew of studies of resumes show that upwards of 70% of them contain wild exaggerations and embellishments as well as outright fabrications. They are good though for two reasons. First, are they neat and clean and don’t look like a pet walked on them. Second, does the writing resemble English syntax and grammar? If you want something practical to assess, have the candidate give you a writing sample (the content is irrelevant). The organization and flow of writing is highly connected to logical thinking and what we call “common sense”.

The key variable in assessing formal education is when it occurred. An uninterrupted history of schooling – high school, college, grad school – with no interludes of life experiences, do not usually bode well. This more than likely produces someone who is armed, dangerous, and has no aim.

The area of schooling inevitably raises the issue of reputation, an issue I frequently see my clients struggle with. What’s a good school? My experience, as student, professor and business advisor, is as follows: the best teaching in America goes on at community colleges; the next best are urban branches of state universities; the next at traditional small liberal arts colleges; and lastly, at the main campuses of state institutions. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that the reputation of universities is based, almost exclusively, on non-teaching criteria – publications, research, grants generated; and that students rarely, if ever, see the faculty in a classroom, that created the reputation. Most often, students at high profile schools spend a lot of their time with teaching assistants who frequently struggle with their English.

Given our litigious society, recommendations have ceased to have a great deal of value. People are hesitant to put negative comments (or even mildly critical feedback) in writing, for fear of a lawsuit or other legal harassment. You may have a shot at a sound balanced recommendation, if the recommender is known to you personally and is willing to speak “off the record”.

What this leaves us with, then, is a tremendous weight put on the interview; a tool which has not changed much over decades and decades.

The biggest mistake made in interviewing candidates, is to “sell” the candidate on the position and to make the interview as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. The logical absurdity of this doesn’t seem to dawn on us. None of my clients have ever hired people to do easy, comfortable, and low stress work. So what do you think we’re going to find out about someone’s suitability by conducting a comfortable interview? If, then, the interview is going to be a genuinely useful tool, it must mirror the most significant challenges inherent in the job. It must contain feedback to the candidate about how you’re experiencing him, and how you feel about his responses to your questions. And it must involve going deep with a few questions, not staying shallow with many questions. For example, don’t ever let a “throwaway” response slide. A comment like “You know what that business is like”, should invite further scrutiny and drilling down. An in-depth interview is essential, then, if you’re going to find out if the candidate’s life experience is sufficient to work with (once she’s on board) and if there is a significant and meaningful values match.

In terms of interview questions, there are three key areas that will be of immeasurable help in assessing the candidate’s life experience and capabilities in the critical areas of decision-making and relationship-building. These areas are: conflict, stress and loss. The specific questions are:

  • Tell me about a conflict situation that did not go well.
    • Why didn’t it go well?
    • How was it resolved (if not, why not)?
    • What did you learn about yourself as a result of this conflict?
  • Up to today’s date, what has been the most stressful experience in your life?
    • What was its impact on you at the time?
    • How did it change you?
    • What did you learn about yourself as a result of this experience?
  • Up to today’s date, what has been the greatest loss you have sustained?
    • What was its impact upon you at the time?
    • How did it change you?
    • What did you learn about yourself as a result of this loss?
The key to an effective selection process is to treat candidates as highly resilient people who cannot only deal with a highly challenging interaction, but who will also respect and be attracted to the organization behind it.
Political and Cultural Observations
The Beauty and Symmetry of our Disagreeableness  
I’ve been involved for some time now, in a running debate with a close friend over health care reform specifically and the political direction of the country in general. We are pretty much diametrically opposed in our points of view. I believe that the current legislation under consideration is a disaster and will create many more problems and burdens than it will solve; and he believes that it will remedy a social ill, long neglected in our country. Likewise, I see the direction the Obama administration is trying to take us in, as moving our society away from the core values and principles that have made us a great nation and he sees that same direction as moving us toward an even further realization of our greatness.

What I have been struck by is that in spite of the fact that we are both strong-willed, opinionated, and deeply convinced of the rightness of our respective positions, our disagreement has not damaged our relationship. And this fact got me thinking about how we deal with our opposing points of view and our disagreeableness in our country and how it is quite different from most other societies in the world.

It is almost impossible nowadays to get away from the heated, acrimonious, and often hostile debate over health care reform and a slew of the other initiatives proposed by the current administration. The divisiveness is at a level I’ve not seen since the height of protests over the Vietnam War and I can’t remember a time when the President was called a liar by a member of the Congress in a public, nationally televised address (I thought it was interesting, telling and wryly humorous that in a BBC interview with a long-standing member of the British Parliament, shortly after Joe Wilson’s outburst, the MP said, “We would never call our Prime Minister a liar; an idiot or a moron perhaps, but never a liar”).

In most other countries, severe political disagreements precipitate crippling strikes and demonstrations, fisticuffs on the floor of legislatures, brutal assaults on protestors, and military revolts and coups. When I lived in Europe, it seemed like every month or so, daily life and commerce were disrupted or completely shut down by a new labor action, student protest, or the latest anarchist movement calling for the destruction of society as we know it. There would be lots of grumbling and grousing about it, but most people seemed to accept it as part and parcel of what went along with political disagreements.

I have a wondered lately why we handle things differently here; and one of the things that has struck me is that we are the quintessential pragmatists. We certainly like ideas and we’re not adverse to a good debate. But when push comes to shove, we get something done and we do what works. Our labor strikes are rarely extended, nor overtly self-destructive, and our political divisions are usually resolved with a clear winner and a clear loser; not a dysfunctional coalition that is incapable of taking decisive action. We compromise on policy and tactics, not on whose values will prevail. We are highly competitive and we love to win. And even though we hate to lose, we accept it; we lick our wounds and we being the process of strategizing for the next battle, committed to being winners again.

Almost without exception, we accept results we don’t like and we follow the new rules, knowing that whatever the new game is, we can somehow make it work for us. Part of the reason for this is that our opportunities are so much greater than any other place on earth.

However, our greatest strength is that we continue to reject orthodoxies and unquestioned traditions and readily entertain new ideas, new processes, and new structures. In addition, we have rejected tribalism and rigid social stratification, in spite of numerous attempts to inject them into our cultural fabric. Sometimes these practices and attitudes have worked well for us and sometimes they have caused us much distress. They have certainly made us a target for parts of the world.

All in all, I continue to be impressed by how we deal with disagreements, even with disagreeableness. I know that no one’s going to be completely happy with whatever comes out of Washington in the next few months (and even in the next few years), however, I’m equally certain that we will deal with it and adapt to it, and sustain our relationships with each other. I certainly plan to do so.

Personal Notes
The Holidays: Reviewing Necessary Losses  
I have just finished looking at my favorite website – “Old Jews Telling” and was aware, after some hysterical laughter, of some sadness about the loss of some rich part of my past. By the way, if you like Jewish humor, this site will not only keep you in stitches, it’ll be guaranteed to pick you up on one of those blah days. An example:

Rabbi Goldstein, attending a conference, has just checked into his hotel room, when there’s a knock at his door. He opens the door to find a gorgeous, statuesque blond, in a full length mink coat, standing in front of him. She enters the room and before he can utter a word, she drops her coat around her, and is standing in front of the rabbi, completely naked. He mumbles something about why she’s in his room, and she tells him that she’s a gift from Rabbi Schwartz. He recovers his composure and launches into a rant about being a man of God, pure in his life, and beyond the temptations of the flesh; and how outrageous it is for Rabbi Schwartz to do this, particularly at a religious conference. He picks up the phone and asks to be connected to Rabbi Schwartz’s room. When the latter answers, he launches into a tirade about how offended he was and how this was insulting to him. While he’s castigating his colleague, the young woman starts walking toward the door. Rabbi Goldstein stops his invective and asks the young woman – “Where are you going?” She responds that she’s leaving, and he says –”Don’t go; I’m mad at him, not you.”

I miss that part of my heritage. I grew up with that humor; almost on a daily basis. It was simply part of our life. Not just professional comedians, but all my relatives were joke tellers. It was the way they coped with the regular and irregular challenges of life; of being immigrants, of being Jews, of running businesses, and of dealing with the characters and kooks in our huge extended family. It’s hard to imagine now, but I grew up in a neighborhood with 40 to 50 relatives within a four block radius. As a kid, I never needed money to go to the store and get candy. They knew who I was and who I belonged to, and they kept a running account of what we spent, and settled up at the end of the month. One Sunday night, each month, we all got together at someone’s apartment, for an orgy of eating and arguing. We called it “The Cousin’s Club.” If you didn’t want to argue directly, you could play cards and get into an argument that way. One of my relatives, a quiet, good-natured, and very rotund lady, came to the get-together with a huge shopping bag, and went from table to table filling up her bag. All of us kids thought she was nuts, but no one said a word. It was clear, though unspoken, that she was certainly weird, but that there was, and would always be a place for her. Sort of an urban version of the village idiot.

The Cousin’s Club lasted almost three generations and then slowly but surely disappeared. Everyone’s scattered now-literally all over the globe. There are some small pockets of a few family members living around each other, but they’re the exception to the rule. The old culture is dead and diluted; by mobility, by “mixed marriages,’ and by success and affluence.

What killed the culture were the aspirations it taught its children. The bantering, the debating, the arguing, were all in the service of raising our expectations. We were taught never to accept the obvious; to ask more questions; to challenge the prevailing wisdom. Sometimes tactfully, more often not. I remember the stir I caused, in my adolescence, by challenging our rabbi on a number of theological and intellectual fronts. It was my first realization of the contradictions inherent in my upbringing and the angst I was heading toward. It was good to challenge, I was told. But not with the Rabbi. The situation was resolved, soap opera style, when the rabbi ran off with his secretary, much to the chagrin of his supporters, but no surprise to his detractors.

The contradictions I first encountered in my teens, grew and deepened as I pursued my aspirations. I went off to college, became exposed to different people than I had grown up with, and different ideas, went on to graduate school, professional school, living in a foreign country, marrying a gentile, and on and on. All of this driven by my early training; to keep learning, to keep exploring and to keep growing. And all of this undermined the glue that bound the old culture together.

All these necessary losses are an integral part of who I am now. I am saddened, at times, by them, and occasionally wish I had some of that old culture back. At the same time, I wouldn’t change any of the choices I’ve made. That old culture, in a very meaningful way, is still a part of me, and I cherish it.


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