Category Archives: Change Management

The Lamest Question

Picture this: you’re at a professional event, and you meet someone new. You extend your hand and introduce yourself. Next, you likely utter the lamest question known to man: what do you do?

Sound familiar? Don’t feel bad. The smart ass in me always wants to offer a reply like, “I help unicorns make magic” or “I run a luxury refuge for stray Siamese cats. We’re up to 4,000 residents. Let me show you all of their pictures!”

The question, “What do you do?” is a standard part of any introduction. But, it’s always struck me as lazy and a little rude. First, it’s so commonplace that it doesn’t make you a memorable conversationalist. Second, it’s no secret that many people mistake vocation for worth. Your job title and company become a proxy for how much money you make. Even worse, the person posing the question is often only doing it to tell you what he does. And, then you get to listen to him drone on about himself.

The point of networking is to make meaningful connections with people so you can achieve great things together. And, intuitively, we all know that there’s much more to someone than a job title. We just have to ask the right questions to learn more and build a foundation for connecting.

Salaam Coleman Smith, former President of Style Network, once gave me a great piece of career advice. She told me that, more than anything else, the ability to make people feel at ease determines career success. It’s a building block for fostering trust. Once you become an executive, your skill set and ability to do the nuts and bolts of the job is a given. But, the ability to make people feel at ease is a game changer.

As part of my attempt to make people feel at ease, I ask people high quality questions when I first meet them. These typically tell me something substantive about the person, and they give us both a springboard for more meaningful interaction. I often like to pose questions about family and hobbies because people tend to care about those things most. Don’t get me wrong: occupation will often come up in the course of the conversation. But, it’s an organic part of the exchange and not the opening shot.

The next time you’re at a professional event, consider some of the following alternatives to the standard “what do you do?” question:

  1. How long have you been coming to [insert event name]?
  2. Are you enjoying the event so far? What did you think of the keynote speaker?
  3. Are you based here in [insert city name]? Are you a native? If not, where are you from?
  4. Do you have kids? This can spawn a million follow-up questions.
  5. Are you married? How long have you been married? How did you and your spouse meet?
  6. Seasonal questions are good ones. In the summer, you might ask, “Have you taken any amazing summer vacations?” If its close to a holiday, you might ask, “Do you have any special holiday plans?”

The next time you’re tempted to ask the lamest question, think about how unimportant job titles are in the grand scheme of life. I know it sounds extreme, but imagine how you want your tombstone to read. I don’t know about you, but “Denise Conroy, President & CEO” just doesn’t cut it for me.

“A” Players Are Everything

The cover of the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) makes a bold yet astute assertion: “It’s time to blow up HR and build something new.” Sign me up.

It’s no secret that I loathe so-called conventional wisdom on anything. And, the modern human resource function at most companies is teeming with wisdom that’s stale, hackneyed and does little to advance the bottom line. In fairness, HR professionals mean well. By design, most have very little interaction with core business functions. Additionally, they’re tasked with having tough conversations when it’s often too late to impact the game. So much of the function has evolved to serve a purely legal purpose. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Netflix does it better. The same folks who lure us into binge watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black have developed a superior approach to HR. Back in 2007, Netflix wrote what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has dubbed “one of the most important documents to come out of Silicon Valley.” That bare bones document is 127 pages of Powerpoint goodness, nothing short of a manifesto for those of us who make things happen.

To read more, click here: https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr

The centerpiece of Netflix’s approach is hiring “A” players. I know, I know…that’s a given, right? Not really. Today’s standard business organization is structured like the classic bell curve with the expectation that mediocrity prevails, and exemplary performance is in short supply.

Conversely, Netflix recognizes that acquiring the best employees money can buy is transformative. One A-level player can often do the work of many mediocre and/or sub-par players. Therefore, it stands to reason that a company full of “A” players is a smaller, more productive organization.

Moreover, “A” players not only have the absolute best skill sets, but they’re also fully formed adults. They act reasonably and always with the company’s best interest at heart. They don’t need a 200-page employee manual to define the company’s best interest. They’re the same people that don’t need to be reminded on deadlines, how to be collaborative or when not to take a vacation. They just get it. Netflix recommends that managers pose the following “keeper test” to identify “A” players: which of my people, if they told me they were leaving for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight hard to keep?

HR professionals spend significant time on employee morale programs. This includes everything from providing premium coffee to organizing employee carnivals to hiring on-site personal chefs. In a culture of “A” players, the caliber of player IS the perq. This is the same as an athlete like J.J. Watt preferring to play with the best players in the NFL rather than have his favorite flavor of Gatorade on the sideline. As Netflix eloquently puts it, “Great workplace is stunning colleagues.”

Here are five additional pointers from the Neflix playbook on creating a distinct culture where “A” players thrive:

  1.  Give Generous Severance Packages. As part of evolving to an “A” player organization, you have to be willing to let go of employees whose skills don’t fit. That also applies to those people who have contributed historically and no longer fit the organization’s current needs. Awarding generous severance packages helps eliminate the emotion for everyone, and it gives people a positive and practical reason to move on.
  2. Eliminate Performance Reviews. Communication about performance between managers and employees should be organic. Conventional performance reviews are outdated, and they do little if anything to improve employee performance. Instead, consider implementing company-wide 360 reviews which tell an employee what her colleagues (supervisor, peers and direct reports) think of her and how she can improve. The companies with the highest performing and most collaborative cultures do these face to face rather than anonymously.
  3. Eliminate Performance Bonuses. It’s blasphemous, I know. But, most employees don’t know what factors drive their bonus and how they can impact it. If you’re disciplined about hiring “A” players and paying them at the top of the market, the performance bonus is unnecessary. “A” players play at the top of their game every day because it’s how they’re wired. A bonus doesn’t impact their performance.
  4. Emphasize Freedom and Responsibility. Cultures populated by “A” players don’t need incessant policies to govern behavior. For example, Netflix doesn’t formally track vacation for its employees. Their expense policy reads, “Act in Netflix’s best interest.”
  5. Don’t Tolerate Brilliant Jerks. Everyone knows at least one brilliant jerk. Maybe it’s the guy in your organization who’s been the number one sales person ten years in a row. He’s the definition of a rainmaker, but nobody can stand to interact with him. And, his emails…the epitome of obnoxious. Brilliant jerks are an enormous threat to high-performance, collaborative cultures. Resist them.

Manufacturing Opportunity

Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, recently wrote a piece in Harvard Business Review’s June issue about creating opportunity that really resonated with me. In it, he wrote:

Some people think of opportunity the way it’s defined in the dictionary—as a set of circumstances that make something possible—and they talk about it as if it just arrives organically. You “spot opportunity” or wait around for “opportunity to knock.” 

“I look at it differently. I believe that you have to be the architect of the circumstances—that opportunity is something you manufacture, not something you wait for.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve long been a firm believer that the person who has a plan wins. It doesn’t have to be a perfect plan, but it does have to be thoughtful and rational. And, it has to be presented with conviction.

Passionate, driven people with a clear and proactive point of view stand out from the rest of the herd. I know that sounds ridiculously simplistic, but we human beings often make things way more difficult than they need to be. How many times have you heard a colleague lament about “if things were different” or “what we ought to do is _______”? Far too many people wait for someone else to initiate change and improvement, missing out on opportunity in the process.

The problem with waiting for opportunity is three-fold. First, it may never come along. Second, waiting wastes precious time for you and your business. And, third, languishing in the status quo creates unnecessary frustration for everyone involved.

I’ve manufactured opportunity throughout my entire career. The best example of this is my time at Outdoor Channel. I started at the network as the Director of Research in late 2004. Very quickly, I noticed that there was no coordinated marketing function – highly unusual for a network in 30 million homes with $100 million in revenue. Instead of promoting our brand with a unified voice, various people inside the network were doing random and disparate marketing activities. There was no cohesive look or message and no organized approach to driving viewership. Surprisingly, we were actually spending a significant amount on marketing activities. Yet, we had no tangible strategy nor were we tracking the return on our marketing investment.

So, after about 10 months in the business, I put together a proposal to start a consolidated marketing function. I presented it to my boss and asked for permission to forward it to the CEO. My boss graciously agreed, and two weeks later, the CEO invited me to his office to discuss my plan. He liked what he saw and presented my proposal to the Board of Directors. A few months later, I was named the network’s first Vice President of Marketing.

Over the next five years, I was promoted two more times under vastly different management regimes. More importantly, I assembled a team of some of the best and most entrepreneurial marketers in all of television. Together, we helped propel Outdoor Channel and had a lot of fun in the process. In 2011, that team won CableFax’s “Marketing Team of the Year Award.” Our “little engine that could” reigned supreme against much larger networks like TBS, TNT and TLC.

It all started with a simple plan.

I’d love to tell you that the plans and strategies I’ve crafted in my long history of creating opportunity have been magical and complex. I’d also love to tell you that they’re something only I could have created. The truth is that anyone with tenacity, conviction and good observation skills can manufacture opportunity.

The next time you find yourself “waiting for opportunity to knock,” knock it on its ass, and come up with your own plan. Always remember that the person with the plan – any plan – usually wins.

To read the entire article on Biz Stone’s inspiring story about creating opportunity, go here: https://hbr.org/2015/06/twitters-cofounder-on-creating-opportunities

 

Constructive Conflict

When I was in graduate school, I worked with kids involved in gangs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood. My work was part of a federally funded program to teach gang members conflict resolution skills. Every week, we’d have group sessions with these young gang members so they could talk through their issues and learn the language of constructive conflict resolution. I know it sounds very “touchy-feely,” but it worked.

One morning, one of our group members arrived late and visibly shaken. He apologized and explained that his mother and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight the night before. The fight went on all night and ended with the boyfriend holding his mother at knifepoint well into the morning. When we all voiced our sympathy, he quickly responded, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

I’ve thought about that kid a lot throughout the years – and that quote. (NOTE: It’s actually part of a longer, very powerful Frederick Douglass quote.) Work environments tend to be conflict averse. When examined within the context of that kid’s struggles and those of the quote’s original author, our aversion is, well…pathetic.

155HHow conflict averse are we? A recent survey published in June’s Harvard Business Review revealed that over a quarter of people hint at disagreement rather than objecting outright. Furthermore, only 28% say they “always speak up when they feel they’ve been misunderstood.”

That’s unfortunate, as conflict can often give birth to great things, especially when that conflict is constructive. At its best, conflict gives daylight to divergent views and starts a meaningful dialogue among smart people. It can also be a great way to destroy silos, build team cohesion and improve working relationships.

People tend to think that conflict has to be unpleasant and include yelling. It doesn’t. Here are five things to keep in mind when initiating constructive conflict at work:

  1. You’re Paid to Have a Clear Point of View. People value individuals with a clear perspective. In order to show yours, you may need to disagree with your colleagues. That’s ok. Keep it calm, professional and thoughtful.
  2. Minimize Emotion…And, PLEASE Don’t Whine or Cry. I’m amazed at the number of high-level executives I have witnessed resort to whining when they disagree. Resist the urge. It makes you look like a two year-old and diminishes your reputation. Similarly, if you’re going to cry, don’t. Take a step back, get some perspective and address the issue when you can do it sans tears. I’d like to say that tip is directed solely at women. Sadly, it is not.
  3. Use Your Words. Instead of bluntly saying, “I disagree,” sometimes it’s better to say something like, “I have a bit of a different view. Let me explain…” For the really sensitive one-on-one discussions, use the classic active listening formula. For example, let’s say someone leading another department (Bob) hasn’t been responsive to collaborating with your team, and it’s no bueno for growth and progress. I recommend approaching Bob and saying something like, “I feel frustrated when you don’t respond to my calls/emails to improve our teams’ working relationship. I’d like to work with you to find a way forward.”
  4. Keep It Out in the Open. Passive-aggressive behavior is so common in today’s workplace. And, it’s absolutely destructive. If you have to disagree with someone, go directly to that person and privately explain your perspective. If you need to offer an opposing perspective to a group, do it with the group instead of complaining after the group has disbanded. Being open and direct will lead people to view you as a straight shooter, and that’s a good thing.
  5. Get Over It. Once you’ve offered your differing point of view, move on. Grudges are toxic – for you and the people around you.

Keep these simple things in mind, and remember that constructive conflict is the surest route to progress. And, as my friend from grad school reminds me daily, progress is the goal.

Virtuosity

I started doing Crossfit almost three years ago. I was living in Knoxville, bored out of my mind outside of work and looking for a new fitness routine. A few friends suggested that I try Crossfit. I’d never heard of it. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Crossfit is a fitness regimen that entails constantly varied functional movement performed at relatively high intensity. Simply put, one day you might be doing heavy back squats; the next day you might be doing 200-meter sprints, push-ups and pull-ups. Every day presents a new and exciting challenge.

So, one muggy June evening, I showed up at Crossfit Knoxville after work. You never forget your first WOD (workout of the day). A lot of Crossfit workouts have names. My first one was called “Badger,” a hero workout done in honor of a fallen soldier. In this case, that soldier was a Navy Seal named Mark Carter. Badger consisted of three rounds for time of 30 65-lb. squat cleans, 30 pull-ups and an 800 meter run.

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Competing in my second Crossfit competition in 2014

Needless to say, I scaled the workout – Crossfit lingo for modifying weights and movements to fit your capabilities. I did very ugly 55-lb. squat cleans, assisted (banded) pull-ups, and my running was APPALLINGLY slow – zombies from The Walking Dead could have caught me. It was a brutal workout that left me exhausted. I was instantly hooked and couldn’t wait for the next one!

As I got more immersed into the culture of functional fitness, I kept hearing the term virtuosity. Virtuosity is doing the common uncommonly well. In any serious functional fitness routine, you’re always trying to get better. Small tweaks and improvements add up over time and make a significant difference in performance. For example, you might practice a clean and jerk fifty times, making minuscule technique improvements to increase your weight by a mere five pounds. The improved results are important, but what you learn in the process is the real treasure.

The same applies to leading people. Seeking even small ways to improve on everyday things that are at the heart of your organization can pay big dividends over time. Furthermore, the more you pursue your own virtuosity at work, the closer you get to your team. And, close teams can accomplish anything (see Five Things the Pittsburgh Steelers Can Teach Us About Leadership http://www.deniseconroy.com/?p=38).

For example, I’m continuously tweaking meetings at work. I’m obsessed with having a few hard working ones that matter as opposed to a calendar full of hour-long sessions that have no real agenda or purpose. I’m fearless about canceling meetings that have lost relevance. Rather, I’m most concerned with creating get-togethers that are smart communication forums focused on action and accountability. I often solicit feedback from my team and colleagues on how to make these forums better. Each time, I learn something valuable about improvement and my team/colleagues. Virtuosity in action.

Don’t get me wrong: I love forging a new course as much as the next person. Just don’t save your innovation and energy for start-up initiatives. Give some attention to making everyday practices better. And, remember that your goal isn’t perfection. We all know that’s elusive. But, as Vince Lombardi once said, “We will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

Have a North Star

I’ve always been a strategic soul, plodding and planning my way through life. Along those lines, I’m a big proponent of having a central point of focus in both my personal and professional life. Some people call it a rallying cry. Others may call it a reason for being. The French call it a raison d’être which is just too cool for me to pull off. I call it my North Star.

Writing about my North Star seems especially appropriate, as this is a very important week in my life. You see, it’s the week of my wedding. On Saturday, my fiancé Ned and I are getting married in New York. Without a doubt, the North Star in my personal life is Ned. He’s my anchor, the one who holds the ground while I fly. He keeps me grounded, makes me laugh and makes ordinary days idyllic. He’s my barometer of sorts: if he’s content, it’s likely that I am too.

In my professional life, my North Star operates the same way. It’s the focal point for all strategy and goal setting. It’s what aligns my team and helps everyone focus on what matters. In my 20+ years of professional experience, THIS is the difference maker.

What’s that? You don’t have a North Star at work? No problem! Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to establish one.

Fair warning: for some people who are less math/numbers inclined, this exercise is going to seem like one giant, horrendous word problem from your SAT’s. Fear not! With a little perseverance and some help from your numerically inclined friends, you’ll find your North Star in no time.

Figure Out Your Key Metric. This sounds simple, but it’s stunning to me how many top executives within multibillion-dollar organizations don’t know what their key metric is. Every employee, from the top to the bottom of your organization, should know how your money is made and be oriented towards that thing.

Simply put, the key metric is what drives revenue. At this point in your journey to find a North Star, I recommend enlisting a savvy numbers person in your organization. This might be a financial person or someone in your research department. These people are close to the metrics that move your business, and they’ll likely help you find the right path more quickly than going it alone.

In television, the key metric is ratings or impressions within a given consumer demographic (e.g., Adults age 18-49). For an online retailer, it might be average dollars per order. Keep in mind though, this step is only the tip of the iceberg.

Levers: What Drives the Key Metric? Knowing this is truly crucial. Typically a few things – I call them levers – underlie your key metric. These levers are things that you and your team can directly control, and that’s how progress happens.

Let’s go back to the traditional ad-supported TV example. In television, there are only three ways to affect ratings: get new viewers, get viewers to watch more frequently and get viewers to watch for longer periods of time. Those three things have the potential to be directly affected by things that people do every day, from marketing to scheduling to production.

In the online retailer example, you might affect average dollars per order by finding more high value customers, getting existing customers to buy more and/or getting existing customers to buy products at a higher price point. Again, all of these levers can be directly impacted by things people do including promotion, pricing, research and product development.

Set Goals Based on your Levers, NOT Just Your Key Metric. I know, I know. This seems counterintuitive. If it’s all about moving the key metric, shouldn’t goals only be based on the key metric? Goals should be based largely on things you can directly control. They should also set a timeline for your progress: from x to y in a given timeframe.

I like having one BHAG and a few lever goals. BHAG is a term coined by Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great, and it stands for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.”

Let’s play this out in our online retailer example:

BHAG: To increase average dollars per order from $100 to $110 in 2015.

Lever Goal #1 – High Value Customers: To increase high value customers (AVG order size >$125) from 20,000 to 25,000 customers.

Lever Goal #2 – Premium Package Orders: To increase sales of premium packages from 1 million orders to 1.2 million orders in 2015.

Over-communicate Your Goals. Once you establish your goals, you’ll need to communicate them to your team. I’m a big fan of kicking it old school and creating a simple infographic that people can hang in their workspaces. I also like to see these hung in common areas like break rooms, conference rooms and even on the door inside bathroom stalls. When I said “over-communicate,” I meant it!

Keep Score. Business is inherently competitive. Yet, so many organizations refuse to keep score in a meaningful way so their employees understand the health of the business and can act accordingly. I love sports, and I love the notion of an ever-present scoreboard. Once you establish your goals, you need to decide what form your scoreboard will take. I like a simple weekly email that states the goals and how you’re pacing. Additionally, an online dashboard is great, provided that that it only tracks your goals and not a bunch of other metrics. Simplicity is the goal here so people can stay focused.

Set Meetings to Stay on Track. Full disclosure: I abhor most meetings. They lack focus, are too long and seem to be a real life compendium for human neuroses. That said, a weekly meeting where you discuss progress on your goals with your direct reports is a beautiful thing. I recommend setting a weekly 30-minute meeting late in the afternoon every Monday. Every people manager, from the top to the bottom of the organization should have his meeting. It creates an unmatched cadence of accountability.

Open the meeting by talking about the latest progress towards the goals. Then, talk about what you personally did the previous week to advance the goals. Next, commit to what you’re going to do this week to move the ball forward. Go around the room and have each team member do the same.

FYI…you don’t have to commit to vast, sweeping activities. For a CMO, this could be as simple as reviewing a contract for a new consumer research vendor that will help you segment your customers more effectively. For a web designer, this could be making progress on a phase of design for your mobile site that will attract more high value consumers. Always remember: small steps to greatness. Just be sure that every team member’s activities can directly impact the goals. And, if they don’t, call them out on it, and redirect activities.

At first, these meetings will be awkward because you’re talking about things that matter as opposed to the typical “round-robin” staff meetings where everyone tells you what he or she did on summer vacation. Give it time. In a few weeks, this will be the best meeting on your schedule. Better yet, the efficiency and importance of this one meeting will forever change how you and your team conduct meetings.

And, BOOM! You’ve completed all of the necessary steps for finding your North Star at work. On the personal front, I can’t help you. I’m just grateful that I found mine!

 

Do the Hard Things First

When I was a kid, I hated math. This is totally ironic because I’ve dedicated my career to a very “mathy” discipline of marketing. Nonetheless, growing up, I abhorred what seemed like an endless supply of math homework. One day in the third grade, I was complaining mightily about my personal feud with numbers. I was also procrastinating. My mom, a wizard at time management and pragmatism, looked at me and flatly said, “Life will be a lot easier for you if you do the hard things first.”

That bit of wisdom stuck with me, and it has been a guiding principle throughout my life. It applies to every facet of my being, from fitness to work life.

Doing easy things is, well, easy. Our tech savvy culture is increasingly conditioned to do a bunch of little things now. Over the years, I’ve watched some of my smartest colleagues focus on the smallest things: endless emails, unproductive meetings and random tactics that do nothing to advance the business in measurable and significant ways. These are otherwise smart people who allowed themselves to be sucked into the quotidian.

Why? My theory is that crossing small things off of a list makes humans feel accomplished. It’s the “Hey, Mom…Look what I Did!” approach to management. Additionally, most people are conditioned to avoid conflict. Doing hard things often requires conflict.

I once worked for an incredible company full of energetic, talented people. Let’s call it Nice, Inc. because it was also known as having perhaps the “nicest” culture in its industry.

When I came into Nice, Inc., I was charged with growing our consumer audience which had been flatlining for almost six years.   After about a month in the business, I figured out what was hampering growth: an unwillingless to do hard things – not merely doing them first but doing them at all. The company’s renowned niceness often translated into a culture that avoided conflict and played what I call “small ball.” “Small ball” is my very technical term for doing a litany of random and often fun things that do nothing to move the needle on growth.

In the early days, I did a bunch of hard things that were not always well received. I assessed the team and restructured based on the people and skill sets our business needed to grow. I actively and aggressively implemented a goal setting and tracking program, creating a cadence of accountability in every corner of my marketing organization. I put an end to endless unproductive meetings and instead, encouraged my people to (gasp!) have the courage to decline unnecessary ones with their colleagues. Plus, I encouraged them to hold shorter meetings as opposed to the longer, soul-sucking 60-minute ones. Most importantly, I also stopped greenlighting small, random ideas and instead, helped my team understand how to do big things that matter (A.K.A. big ball).

The bottom line is that all of this worked. Within a few years, we were able to become a top 10 player in our competitive set. Plus, most of the folks on my team appreciated the clarity of direction. To this day, when I see someone from my former team at Nice, Inc., he/she almost always references the term “big ball” or the phrase “do the hard things first.”

Pop quiz: what might doing the hard things first look like in the typical week of a people manager?

A)  Take a 90-minute meeting to hear Jane Sadface, your chronically dissatisfied non-collaborative employee drone on about her unfulfilling work life

B)  Engage in a 27-deep email tete-a-tete with Bob McAnger about a silly turf war between departments

C)  Have a hard talk with an underperforming employee on your team

D)  Launch a new project, well, because it’s super cool!

Of course the answer is “C” because it’s the hardest thing on the list. And, while it has the potential to be emotionally charged, it also has the highest probability of pay off. With your exemplary coaching, that underperforming employee may become a great turnaround story. And, if not, you’ve put them on notice that underperformance won’t be tolerated, and change will be imminent at some point in the future. You’re laying the groundwork for your team’s success. Successful teams are happy teams.

So, if you want to be genuinely accomplished, I recommend tackling the tough issues first. It forces you to play “big ball,” and it makes the rest of your “to do” list a breeze. More importantly, it moves things forward for your business – quickly and with purpose. Now, suck it up, and do something hard.

Collecting People

My fiancé Ned and I have a running joke. Inevitably, we’ll be out somewhere, and I’ll say, “I’ll take him.”  Thankfully, Ned knows me well enough by now to know that I’m not being creepy, nor am I calling dibs on someone for my virtual all-star kickball dream team. Although, I am assembling a dream team of sorts: I’m pointing out someone I would hire.

Remarkably talented people are all around us – both inside and outside of our organizations. We just have to slow down a little, listen, look and be relentless about finding a place for them. I’ve recruited people on airplanes and in bars and restaurants. Last week, I met a potential employee at Lululemon.

As leaders, we should be the ultimate talent scouts. But, amazingly, most of us spend very little time on this critical activity. It’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind of putting out fires and churning through emails. But, people who actively and consistently make time to seek talent are the ones who move the ball forward.

Don’t let corporate conventional wisdom fool you into thinking that recruiting is only done by your HR department. That approach is antiquated and rarely results in the best finds.

When I first started as the head of marketing at HGTV, I inherited a team of 60 people. In my first few months, I did a lot of listening and worked hard to identify my successor. Why was I already thinking about finding a successor when I had only been on the job for such a short time? Because it takes time to groom people to fill your shoes. The sooner you identify “the next you,” the sooner the coaching and development can begin. Additionally, you never know what might happen next in this crazy thing called life. As a leader, you have a fiduciary (love that word) duty to make sure that your business never misses a beat, regardless of what happens.

My sleuthing in my early days at HGTV led me to a talented VP at one of our smaller emerging networks. I met with her for 30 minutes and knew immediately that she would take my job someday. For the next few months, I made it my mission to get her on my team. Finally, I did. And, last year, when I resigned, she replaced me without missing a beat.

People ask me all the time about how I identify talent. Many of the qualities I look for can’t be taught. I have seven hiring filters:

  1. A positive attitude. I know. You just muttered, “duh.” But, it’s stunning how many organizations are populated with glass-half-empty people. These are they folks who aspire to nothing and criticize everything. And, they’re absolutely toxic. In contrast, positive people tend to move mountains because they believe they can. You can do a lot with that.
  2. Competitive fire. People with competitive fire won’t settle for anything less than the best. They display a sense of urgency and commitment that crushes mediocrity. They kick ass and take names in everything they do.
  3. Experience playing team sports. I look for people who have played a team sport at some point in their lives. It’s not important what the sport was or if they were especially good at it; it’s just important for them to have had that experience. Individuals who have played team sports understand concepts like collaboration, sacrifice, adversity, practice, discipline, winning and losing.
  4. Intellectual curiosity. Some people constantly seek knowledge. Others accept things on face value. The seekers are the ones who reinvent businesses.
  5. The ability to hold a conversation. I know this sounds ridiculously basic, but I look for people who can hold a good conversation. Social acumen is everything in business, and a person who lacks it will struggle mightily.
  6. Layers.  People are a lot like onions: the very best ones have multiple layers. I like people with varied interests who can call on a bunch of different disciplines and experiences to enrich their work life. I also look for people who have a life outside of work. These people tend to be happier, and that translates into their performance at work.
  7. Better than me. That’s right. I look for people who are better than me in key aspects. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Have the confidence to hire people who are good at the things you’re not.

So, the next time you find yourself stranded in an airport, look for the superstar amid the chaos and remember his or her name.   What’s that you say…you’re not really hiring right now? Wrong. The best leaders are always hiring.

“Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way”

How does a Thomas Paine quote relate to me starting a leadership blog? Stick with me. I’ll get there.

I love this simple quote that has been attributed, perhaps erroneously, to Paine. Whether he said it or not doesn’t matter. It’s in line with who he seemed to be. I’ve always admired “T-Paine”, the oft forgotten founding father and author of Common Sense. On the surface, he wasn’t as overtly cerebral as Thomas Jefferson nor as amenable as Ben Franklin, but nobody can dispute that he was a guy who got things done – big things. His radical style was “go big or go home,” and it often scared people (hint/foreshadowing: another common trait of really effective leaders).

One of the original American radicals, the optimistic Paine saw grand potential in the world around him. Specifically, he saw potential in people, recognizing that humans can do incredible things against incredible odds. In that way, he was the quintessential leader.

Back to the quote “lead, follow or get out of the way.” It’s always resonated with me because it perfectly and succinctly describes what the best leaders do throughout their careers. The leading part gets all of the glory because it’s very sexy and tangible. But, it’s the following and getting out of the way that sometimes moves mountains without all of the applause.

I’ve been fascinated with leadership since I was a little kid. Back then, I didn’t know about the term “leadership” of course. I just read everything I could get my hands on about the presidents and how they accomplished things in difficult times. Lincoln and Kennedy were my favorites.

Let’s put down the history books and fast-forward to now. I’m a Chief Marketing Officer who has been leading people for over two decades. I’ve worked in a variety of industries including television, management consulting and steel (yes, steel – the stuff your car is made of!). I’ve run my own businesses, worked for large corporations and small, entrepreneurial companies. And, with all of this variety, I’ve noticed that people are universal and absolutely critical to the ultimate success or failure of a business. No asset matters more. Yet, amazingly, it’s the asset that people are the least prepared to leverage. I can help with that.

I’m a capitalist. Leveraging assets is the reason I get out of bed in the morning. If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you think the same way. I hope that this blog will tell you things you don’t know, things you can use every day in your quest to leverage your assets. Fair warning: you’ll get the unvarnished truth from me, not some watered-down, academic, HR-approved, politically correct manifesto you can get from ask.com. Similarly, I promise these entries will typically be much shorter than this, as I’m obsessed with brevity. We all have lives. Let’s learn something and get on with it.

In the end, my wish is to tell you things you may not want to hear but you need to hear. Much in the spirit of Thomas Paine, “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.”

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