Help Me, Help My Boss

Excellent Performance Review

Recently, a good friend of mine told me the story of a sick performance review and reward system. I mean “sick” as ill, broken, maybe even sickening — not “sick” as the youth today refer to something really cool.

The system bases rewards on the performance feedback from those around the person. This has been in vogue as “360 degree feedback” and other names in the past. In this case, it is actually codified in the union contract under which these people suffer.

But while rooted in a concept that seems to make sense (those closest to you are the best judges of your performance), it completely disregards politics, personalities, and fundamental laws of human nature. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: define a system that effects people’s pay and they will find a way to game the system. Period. No exceptions.

Define a system that effects people’s pay and they will find a way to game the system.

In this case, the supervisor gets a significant bonus (>5%) if the people in their organization give them a 95% or better rating. The interesting point is that it doesn’t matter what makes up the definition of a 95% rating, the system is doomed to failure. Because it is relying on people to rate their boss (or their peer, or even their subordinates) it becomes little more than a beauty contest.

This system is no different than American Idol where people can choose to keep voting for a talentless kid just because he’s cute. People will find all kinds of reasons to rate people one way or the other. Especially when money is at stake.

In the case of my friend, soon there was a buzz in the office: “Rate him great, the last thing we want is for him to not get the bonus. He’ll be unbearable to live with if he doesn’t get it.” That’s probably not what the designers of the system had in mind. And remind me again why I should be pulling for my boss to get a big bonus, when all I got was a 2.1% “cost of living” increase (which he also got)?

Some people are naturally hard graders and others are naturally sycophants

But even if you somehow persuade people to treat the system seriously and give ratings that they truly believe in, you’re still stuck with the fact that some people are naturally hard graders, and others are naturally sycophants. I’ve yet to find a system that can account for individual grading “curves”.

I also don’t know how you account for the fact that some people just woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day the review was solicited. In fact, in the case at hand, one employee who was misbehaving was explicitly not disciplined until after the review was turned in, just so as not to spoil the manager’s score and bonus.

Of course, any good pollster will tell you that you can ignore these anomalies through the “law of large numbers”. Any suitably large group will self-control for these kinds of effects and you can basically ignore them (“the poll has an error range of +/- x%”).

But that’s exactly the problem here. Pollsters talk to 500, 1000, or more people. Your manager is unlikely to have more than a dozen or so people filling out their survey. One or two people swinging drastically bad (or good) can spoil the accuracy of the whole system.

One or two people swinging drastically bad (or good) can spoil the accuracy of the whole system.

And there is an even more insidious problem. Like most polls, this system gathers “classification data” — gender, age, ethnicity and so on. The goal is clearly to be able to tell the manager “your african-american staff hates you”, and some such useful feedback. That’s all good, no?

But what if you are the only asian female in the group? “Asian females think you are a jerk” might well be your pink slip ticket out of there.

All in all, these systems are a bust. Yes, I think some good, constructive feedback from those around you can help people become better managers and employees. And I think there is value in knowing how well you are doing, in the eyes of those around you, especially for the criminally un-self-aware.

But you certainly shouldn’t rely on these 360 feedback mechanisms for any kind of vital decisions. And for most folks, there’s little about work that’s more vital than money.

Leadership Lessons from the “No” Meeting

Boeing 787

A good friend of mine is part of the senior management team for the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” project. As a student of project management, I love to catch up with him every now and then to discuss this unbelievably complex endeavor.

While I’ve been up-close-and-personal to tremendously large and complex projects (like Windows NT) involving thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of variables, nothing can compare to the development of a new commercial airplane.

Just imagine hundreds of thousand of parts, some larger than a football field, some smaller than the tip of a pen, and all being built (especially for this project) by suppliers located around the world. Stir in tens of thousands of people, billions of dollars, and oh yeah, don’t forget that peoples’ lives are at stake, and you have a recipe for a project management nightmare. And my friend’s job is a key position in the coordination and assembly of all these various parts. With the plane scheduled for its maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

With the plane scheduled for it’s maiden flight in a few months, he’s having a lot of fun these days.

One of the things that Boeing and many other companies have long struggled with is delivering the best product they can build while simultaneously pleasing their customers. With previous airplanes, Boeing has let customers design their own interiors, galleys, bathrooms, overhead storage, seats, avionics (cockpit controls), and so on. The company essentially offered a shell that flew and let customers make the inside to suit their needs and taste. This explains why your carry-on fits in some overhead bins and not in others. Each airline chooses their own style.

This approach was remarkably customer-friendly, but it exponentially increased the complexity of building aircraft. With every airline choosing different configurations, each plane — even each bathroom, was custom made. At most they would see a customer order 10 or so planes with the same configuration. Imagine the pain that Boeing and its suppliers would be in never getting to scale up production for even the soap dispensers. And try to imagine the complexity of assembling and testing these incredibly complex machines, each one different from the next.

This was all supposed to end with the 777 model a few years ago. My friend was told repeatedly by management that customers would be given only a few choices to make for each item, and that configurations would be standardized. But then the sales team began selling the planes. And customers began expecting the same custom-built planes they always had in the past. The sales people had a hard time telling a customer who was placing a multi-BILLION dollar order, “no, you can’t have fries with that”.

Boeing 787 Assembly

Pretty soon, the number of bathroom configurations mushroomed from 4 to 40, and they were back where they started. The 777 is widely different when flown by United than when flown by British Airways. It’s a complex and difficult product to build and test. And it’s nowhere near as profitable as the company had hoped it would be.

For the 787 project, to quote Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!” This project is made significantly more complex by the choice of vendors quite literally from around the globe. Parts are being made in Italy, Japan, and all over the US. To allow customers to choose from an infinite variety of configurations would be a potential coordination disaster. So with this plane the company is being far stricter about forcing customers to stay “on catalog”.

In fact, my friend leads a weekly meeting they call the “no” meeting. Sales people from all around the globe call in trying to convince manufacturing to build just this one custom part for this very special customer. And the answer is always “no”. They push the sales person to escort the customer back to the catalog.

My friend leads a weekly “no” meeting.

And you know what? The customers are fine with that. The 787 is the fastest selling plane in commercial aviation history, with almost 600 orders before the thing has even left the ground [pun intended]. Turns out customers recognize the value of standardization in cost savings, quality, training, and time to delivery. They didn’t really need custom soap dispensers, they were just pushing as far as they could, because they could.

So far the “no” meeting has held, except for one special case. The galley carts (you know, those knee bashing things they drag up and down the aisle) are customized. You see, the airlines already have thousands of them, with each airline’s different from the next. Boeing just couldn’t tell them “no” in this case. So they’ve built adapters to make the standard galley accept your special cart. But they’re holding the line everywhere else.

What’s the leadership lesson here? The same lesson I preach about all the time: have a vision, stick to it, and sell the heck out of it. Your team will love you, and customers will beat a path to your door.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price.

When the Boeing leadership let the customers run roughshod over the manufacturing team, they paid the price. Now that they have decided to stick by their team, sales are up, morale is up, all signs are that the product will be better, and it certainly will cost less.

How can you learn from the experience of one of the largest manufacturers in the world handling a project a thousand times more complex than yours? The same thing: believe in your vision, your product, and your team. The customer isn’t always right, sometimes you need to stand up for your vision. Sure you need to recognize your own “galley cart” case, but most customers, like children, appreciate it when you show a little discipline.

Quick, Cut the Good People

Cover of the New Yorker Magazine
New Yorker – April 30, 2007

The current issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article this week entitled “It’s the Workforce, Stupid!”. The article highlights the short-sidedness of companies that layoff huge portions of their workforce in an effort to appease Wall Street and other critics.

Using the current examples of Citibank and Circuit City, the article takes the leadership of these companies to task for their recent layoffs. It points out that layoffs rarely have any real long term effect on the finances of the company. But, with CEO tenures running so short (around six years), it doesn’t matter because layoffs aren’t done for the long-term. They are done in hopes of a near-term stock lift to fatten the option-laden leadership team.

The article touches on the ham-handed way so many companies handle “downsizing”:

More recently, however, downsizing has become less a response to disaster than a default business strategy, part of an inexorable drive to cut costs. That’s why Circuit City can proclaim, “Our associates are our greatest assets,” and then lay off veteran salespeople because they earn fifty-one cents an hour too much.

This, to me, is the crux of the issue with downsizing. In my experience with layoffs, the problem is the effect they have on the team. There is no way to do a layoff for purely financial reasons that doesn’t play havoc with organizational morale.

There is no way to do a layoff for purely financial reasons that doesn’t play havoc with organizational morale.

The problem is, as I have said repeatedly, that you can’t treat people like automatons. Constantly repeating “people are our most important asset” doesn’t make them feel any more valuable. In fact, it often makes them believe you think of them like the other assets — cash in the bank or that drill press over there.

The catch is that people can think. They draw their own conclusions about what you think is the most important part of the business. And it’s just really hard to send a good signal to person A while kicking person B out the door. It’s one thing if B was a loser who deserved to go. But more often than not, B just lost the layoff lottery, and A thinks “there but for the grace of god, goes me.”

In my experience, as a member of a leadership team trying to cut staff, as a member of a team with people being cut around me, and as a consultant trying to help people do it right, there is almost no way to cut people without causing collateral damage. There are only two ways to cut people for financial reasons: 1) voluntarily, where you ask people to self-select, or b) involuntarily, where management chooses the losers. This is a lose-lose situation.

In the first case, where you ask for volunteers, it should be obvious that the first people to leave are those with the best prospects for other employment — the good people. What remains are the losers who either can’t or won’t find work elsewhere. Not really the kind of team you upon which you want to build a turnaround strategy.

Rats deserting a sinking ship is an apt visual.

In the latter case, even if you chose to jettison only the lesser performers, the remaining good people are scared about the potential next round of layoffs. Since they have the best alternative job prospects, they leave as fast as they can. Now you have little or no team left at all to effect the desired turnaround.

I’ve seen several examples of both cases up close and personal. Rats deserting a sinking ship is an apt visual. And every scenario ended up getting far worse before they ever got back to anything resembling normal.

There’s only one way I can imagine a downsizing working effectively. I say “imagine” because I’ve yet to see it be done this way. The leadership needs to be absolutely positive about the stable financial state they need to obtain. They need to calculate precisely how many people need to go, with complete confidence, so that they can do one, and only one, layoff. Repeated fits and starts toward the final workforce numbers are just the kind of thing that makes people panic.

There’s only one way I can imagine a downsizing working effectively.

Then the management team needs to be stunningly frank with the employees, admitting the problem in detail, and drawing out the precise path to success. Like any other project they need to have a very clear, concise, and credible vision for the future, and be able to sell that vision to everyone. It’s vital that this vision is believable by everyone, as they will be almost infinitely skeptical.

Then, they need to individually go to the people they want to keep and sell them on that vision. Each “keeper” needs to understand why they are a key part of that future vision for success. Management can’t just be reassuring, the case has to be personal and credible. Remember, these people are just short of panic, they will be skeptical. They need to truly believe, so that they won’t bolt for the door.

Finally, the layoff needs to be done quickly — like tearing off a band-aid. Downsizing rumors ripen with age, and not in a good way. The mean-time to implosion is days, a couple of weeks weeks at most. Having something out there for a month or two just gives the good people time to polish their résumé. So once, it’s clear this has to be done, do it promptly.

This is a path to success with downsizing. But as I said, I’ve never seen it executed this way. Perhaps you have. I’d love to know about your experience with downsizing. Add your comment to the discussion to tell me about your take on it.

HT to Nancy for the pointer to the story

Proud Member of the Cult of Buffet

Warren Buffet

As I noted in this post, it’s annual report season again. I just opened my Berkshire Hathaway annual report and once again was not the least bit disappointed.

The Berkshire report confirms, as it does every year, why I am a card-carrying, stock-owning, unabashed member of the Cult of Warren Buffet.

The report, most of which can be found here, is such a wonderful read. Warren crafts his usual narrative about the state of the company, and it is with out a doubt the most readable annual report I’ve ever seen. Even though his note is long, at over 20 pages, there’s almost no business jargon, there’s no filler, and not a smidge of the spin so many reports are drowning in. I read every word — and every word of all the accompanying documents. All in one sitting on the airplane.

The report confirms again what a really great manager and leader he is. He simply does just about everything right, and does it with such frankness, charm, and sincerity, that I can’t help but gush over the guy.

It’s not that he’s perfect, and not that he’s magic. He’s made mistakes, and rubs a number of people the wrong way. But I think most of those people need to untwist their underwear and take some deep breathes (or a couple Valium).

Just like Warren, I’ll be straight with you: I’m a shareholder in Berkshire, and it’s just hard not to like the guy when the returns are so great. But in reality, that’s just a small part about what I think makes the guy so special.

Berkshire's Home Page
Berkshire Hathaway Home Page

Reading his report, or even looking at the Berkshire web site (seen at left), the first thing you notice is how upfront and frank the whole operation is. Who else has their link to their SEC filings as the fourth item on their home page, or includes the last 30 years of Chairman’s letters right in plain sight, or has their answer to the most controversial of their shareholder motions posted on the home page?

With most companies, this kind of stuff is buried in the filings, if it is available at all. Nothing is ever said that some spin doctor hasn’t crafted beyond intelligibility. And acknowledging mistakes? Well that just isn’t done, doncha know.

But with Warren, it’s all right there. In plain sight, in plain english, and it’s just the plain truth. After plowing through miles of other poop in other glossy annual reports, this one is like a cool ocean breeze. And there’s not a glossy picture of the CEO, or the Board, or the remarkably (intentionally?) diverse workforce in sight.

So stop reading me, go read Warren’s letter. Here’s the PDF file:

Then come back here, and tell me what you think.

The Art of the Annual Report

Closeup of financial documents

It’s annual report season again, and with it comes the flood of plastic wrapped envelopes to our mailbox that carry the once-a-year bounty of glossy, over-polished, and saccharin manifestos from publicly traded firms. This is “the art of the annual report”.

I look forward to this flood, it offers insights that are hard to get any other way. Inside these envelopes, you get an unmodified view of the company. Certainly it is not an objective view, yet that is what makes it such a clear view.

You can tell volumes about companies and their culture by what they choose to portray in their annual report. Once a year, companies get a chance to tell the world who they are, what they stand for, and what they are trying to accomplish. And they can do it in a forum that is completely unadulterated by outside forces like the media or their critics.

Yes, of course, the government and tradition mandate that some information be included. And since most companies include their proxy information in the same mailing, included are some required documents to support their voting process. But if you take the time to look carefully at the whole package, the insights are many.

First and foremost, the report itself is a gold mine of company culture information. Because most companies try so hard to make the report a show piece, it is quite telling to see how they present it. There are some very interesting things to look at:

  • Is it a very polished, glossy document (over-polished)? Or a businesslike and direct report (not professional enough)?
  • Does it feature pictures of just the CEO (are they an egotist)? Or the executive staff (diverse)? Or the products (hiding the leadership team)? Or the employees (trying too hard to appear egalitarian)?
  • Does it overflow with flowery language about “the world today” and “XYZ Corp.’s place in it” (taking themselves a little too seriously)? Does it have a sense of humor (or even too much) Or is it just a dry recounting of economics (oh, lighten up)?
  • Is it written in the form of a letter from the leader(s) or with the polish of a marketing piece?
  • Who is that target audience? Shareholders? Employees? Competitors?
  • How much did it cost to produce? Those are your shareholder dollars you’re holding…
  • Most importantly, what does it say about the vision for the company? What are they trying to accomplish? Is it clear, obvious, obtainable and yet still a stretch?

These are all interesting questions, and they tell you a great deal about the culture. I like to read it wearing several hats. What would this mean to me if I worked there? Is this company just a vehicle to express the ego of the CEO? What would I think if I were their competition?

It’s a gold mine of information about the company and its leadership.

And then there are the wonderful proxy materials. Here’s where you get a lot of interesting stuff. In here are all the gory details of executive compensation, perks, and other dark secrets they try to bury in pages of dense text on toilet-paper-thin paper. It’s a gold mine of information about the company and its leadership.

The proxy materials are where I (and most of the world) found out about Robert Nardelli (formerly CEO of Home Depot) and his truly absurd contract and pay package. I wrote about it here, and since they were required to quote essentially the whole contract, it was great fun to read. This info proved to be a key part of Nardelli’s downfall. But you had to read the annual report to see it.

So I encourage you to welcome this bounty of “annual report art”. Next, I’ll talk about my favorite one of them, but in the meantime, don’t just toss them in the recycle bin. Plumb each and every one for the hidden gems that lay within.

The A-Rod’ing of Executive Pay

Bundle of Money

Today’s Wall Street Journal observes “Limits on Executive Pay: Easy to Set, Hard to Keep”. It is just one more sign that as long as executives are rewarded for the wrong things, their pay will continue to spiral out of control. It’s the “A-Rod’ing” of executive compensation.

In case you don’t know who “A-Rod” is, he is Alex Rodriguez, the highest paid player in baseball. A-Rod was the mercurial former star of the Seattle Mariners where he was the youngest player to achieve greatness. I watched him excel before his 18th birthday, with dazzling defense on the diamond, wonderful prowess at the plate, and the three C’s: charm, class, and charisma. He was, in short, a delight.

The Mariners nurtured A-Rod until he became a free agent and his agent, Scott Boros, threw chum in the water and attracted all the usual sharks to the feeding frenzy. After an exceptionally vigorous bidding battle, the Texas Rangers (of all people) outbid the big boys — notably George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees — to land Alex with a breathtaking contract worth $25 million a year for 10 years, and a huge signing bonus. So large was the package that it remains unmatched even today, many years later.

It takes a bit more than one superstar to make a team.

I’m betting, even if you aren’t a follower of baseball, you can guess the rest of the story. As I noted in this post about teamwork, it takes a bit more than one superstar to make a team. So things just didn’t work out for A-Rod with the Rangers. It turns out that casually discarding your journeyman shortstop to bring in a single over-priced superstar wasn’t popular with the rest of the team. It didn’t help that he was paid more than 10 times any other player on the team, sucking up something like 60% of the payroll. I bet the snickers in the dugout after each strikeout still reverberate in his head.

And A-Rod wasn’t happy either. He’s a fierce competitor and losing just rubbed him raw. And it turns out playing outside in Texas in the summer is hot — who would’ve guessed that? So he begged to be traded.

NY Yankees Logo

Here too, I’m sure you can predict the rest of the story. The only team with the revenue or chutzpah to be able to pick up his contract was the New York Yankees. So A-Rod joined the Yankees, a team filled with over-priced talent. A-Rod was right at home with his fellow multi-millionaires.

But alas, the New York crowds are brutal, and they love to chew up and spit out people who don’t live up the the hype. Even while performing well, A-Rod seems miserable. And the Yankees certainly are, having been summarily dismissed from the playoffs more times lately than suits Mr. Steinbrenner.

Translating this to the executive pay world, the same is true. Having the CEO or top executives quite publicly paid exorbitant sums makes everyone sick — from the stockholders to the employees. It just doesn’t make logical sense that anyone is worth that kind of money. And just like in the world of baseball, it makes even the mediocre players demand silly pay packages, spiraling the whole thing out of control.

Relying on superstars alone to build a winning team doesn’t work

The moral here is clear: relying on superstars alone to build a winning team doesn’t work, and rewarding people like it does just makes it worse. Everyone needs a compensation plan that doesn’t reward them for greatness, but rewards them as part of a great team. There should be little individual gain that is not backed up by outstanding teamwork.

No, I don’t think socialism (everyone gets paid the same) works. First, people are individuals, and deserve to be treated as such. Pay packages that don’t recognize this are doomed to failure.

And yes, (as I’ll note in another article) I fanatically believe that great performers aren’t just better than average, but as much as 10 times better. So there needs to be some significant commensurate compensation difference as well.

But when companies start abandoning reasonable rules like limiting executive pay to 10 (or 12 or…) times that of the average worker, things are getting out of control. You have to believe that in setting it to 19x at Whole Foods there was someone who had some kind of internal alarm go off that said “no, we can’t set it to 20, that would be laughable”. I mean after all, can you really look anyone straight in the face and say that Jim is worth 20 times what John is?

News Flash: People work for things other than money.

Companies cry “but we can’t get the talent” or “our managers are being poached by other firms”. They fail to understand the basic fundamental rule of compensation that it’s not all about the money. News Flash: People work for things other than money. Like a challenge, or respect, or a great work environment, or a great team, or … fun.

Smart companies need to realize that when the new CEO candidate demands an absurd pay package, perhaps this isn’t the right candidate. No matter what excuses about “what the market will bear” exists, maybe it’s more about what the team will bear. And perhaps the better choice is to go for the best team builder, not the best negotiator.

And today’s WSJ also has a great article with tips for boards on conquering the problem of executive pay. Not coincidentally, they bring up many of the same points.

How do I get in the door?

Picture of a résumé

In the world of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to me, one of the most frequent is “how do I get a job at Microsoft?”. If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked it, at parties, on the street, and especially when I post comments on the internet, I’d have… probably a couple of hundred dollars.

Microsoft is not that much different than most large companies with respect to getting in the door. The keys remain the same: apply for a specific job not just “any job”, work to make yourself stand out (in professional ways), and, if possible, leverage any kind of personal connection you can make.

The things that make MS different are things that only make these more important — they have thousands of hiring managers, many thousands of open positions, and tens of thousands of applicants.

At Microsoft, the crush of tens of thousands of applicants a month meant that we resorted to “data management” to get the pile under control. If you simply add your name to this pile, your odds of getting lost increase exponentially. So, just like at other companies, the need to become an individual, not just a résumé, is paramount.

So what does that mean? Sure, you can submit your résumé through the web. In fact, you should do that. But don’t expect this “shot in the dark” to work. Your résumé will be scanned into a huge database, searched for keywords, and maybe, just maybe, will get pulled up by the recruiter trying to fill the job for a hiring manager as a potential candidate. But the odds are, literally, 10,000 to 1 of that happening.

It means you need a great résumé, and I’m sure you’ve worked on yours.

It means you need a great résumé, and I’m sure you’ve worked on yours. I’m working on a post that will help with that. I’ll update this link when I get it completed. A great résumé helps you get it out of the pile and onto the short list.

It also means you really should decide exactly what you want to do, or at most a couple of jobs that are what you want to do. Search the career site, and narrow your application to just a couple. Huge “anything you’ll take me for” kinds of applications are just ignored. You clearly don’t have any meaningful goals, you just want in. That’s not interesting. So research heavily what the jobs are, and what you want to do.

Be realistic, don’t apply for a higher position than one for which you can be an obvious candidate.

Be realistic, don’t apply for a higher position than one for which you can be an obvious candidate. You want to be a clear consideration, not a stretch and not “overqualified”. So apply perhaps just a tad low. There are a million jobs at the company, people move around all the time, so just get started in a job you can be great at, then move on to your dream job from there.

But, the best way in is with some recommendation, or at least some contact with someone in the company. Résumés that come in from someone in the company (even if just with a note that says “I don’t really know this person, but…”) come in the system through a different pipe and have a better chance of spending 10 seconds on the desk of someone who can move it on to a short list. Coming in through the normal channels just gets it into the massive pile with everyone else.

You should leverage any contacts you have.

This means you should leverage any contacts you have. And before you ask, I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t have any direct contacts any more. At one point I was a super contact. As VP of HR, I could virtually guarantee that someone who cared would look at your résumé. But that time has long passed.

So, if you know anyone (and I mean anyone) who works at the company, buy them a drink, ask them about working there, and ask them if you can send them your résumé for them to forward on to their HR person, and maybe a manager they might know who would be hiring. Most people will do it, and most people provide just enough added emphasis to get your résumé read.

I can guess that your best friend doesn’t work there, or you wouldn’t be asking me for help. But, I’m sure you know people indirectly. You’ve met people at parties, or someone lives down the hall in your apartment complex, or you have a friend who knows someone.

Life is a network, leverage it. Get an introduction, strike up a conversation, and enlist their help. If you are kind, earnest, and sincere, it’s almost impossible to people to resist helping you.

If you don’t know anyone who works at the company, fix that.

If you really don’t know anyone, fix that. Find out where people go have lunch or go after work, and find a way to introduce yourself. Look for the telltale employee badge and find some way to strike up a conversation.

“What’s it like to work there?” “How long have you been there, do you like it?” “Wow, it’s always been my dream to work there, how do I get in?” Just listen, and be interested. Everyone is human and likes to be listened to, and even though you may strike out, eventually someone will be a friend and will help you get past the door.

Don’t paper the place with your résumé. Don’t send in hundreds, don’t ask everyone you’ve ever met to send in one, and don’t play games (like “cute” or “trick” résumés). They will notice. And will immediately put you on the (informal) black list. It’s not a game, don’t treat it like one.

Once you do get a call from a recruiter, make sure you hit the ball out of the park. You are likely to only get only one shot at it. The recruiter is doing a phone screen and will get a feel for who you are from that phone call.

While they are probably calling about one specific job, they have more power than that. If you are interesting, and someone worth following up on, they will consider you for other openings they are working on, or even pass your resume on to a colleague. In any case, really work on making that phone call the best you can make it.

Interviews are never fun, and for some reason Microsoft seems to delight in beating people up.

If you do get called in for an interview, be prepared for a really lousy experience. Interviews are never fun, and for some reason Microsoft seems to delight in beating people up.

There are books about it (one example is: “How would you move Mount Fuji”), and lots of anecdotes on the internet. It all should be taken with a grain of salt, but like most things they are based in some fact. In any case, the results are a day that is not a joy, but can be worth the pain.

Whatever you do, don’t exaggerate your experience or your skill set. They will check up on it, and during the interview, they will test you on it. Don’t be overly modest, it comes off as insincere. Be confident of your abilities, but be careful about blowing smoke as people will detect it immediately, and that will be the end of it. As in most things, a good balance is hard to find, but when you do, it will feel right and will seem sincere. Practice these conversations, it will pay off.

Remember that your goal is to get in the door, not to get the perfect job. Just work on that, then once you’re in, you can get what you really want in the long term.

As I said in the beginning, Microsoft isn’t that much different than most other companies, so most of this will apply to other companies as well. Best of luck in your search.

Testing By Any Other Name


I’ve written about testing of employees before (see here and here), and it seems like a topic that just won’t go away. The other day, I made a comment on Matt Mullenweg’s blog about hiring and age discrimination and such. This prompted an email from someone on the cutting edge of employee testing.

Seeing that I used to be the VP of HR at Microsoft, Bryan Kennedy of Pairwise sent me an email asking for comment on his company’s new testing tool (you can see it here). They have developed a personality test that relies on images rather than words, a high tech Rorschach test. They are trying to sell it to companies like Microsoft and Google for their recruiting efforts. As Bryan sees it working:

An employer, such as Microsoft, asks their current employees to take the 5-10 min test. The test is posted on their web site for candidates to play.

After an interested candidate takes the test, they would see comparative results with current MS employee generalizations. Ex:
“You’re more outgoing than the average engineer.” or “You have a similar work-play ethic.”

It might even suggest for which teams you’d be most interested in applying. At that point, you’d be encouraged to submit your resume. The hiring director would see a report about the findings from the test and could use them at their discretion.

  • It’s far less (if not nearly impossible) to game than other written tests
  • It empowers candidates to do their own evaluation – rather than being a hidden metric of assessment, it’s a tool for figuring out if you’d like it there
  • It’s a way for companies to attract hires in a new and interesting way

When I sent him off to read my opinion on testing (see here and here), he replied with: “I side with the argument that as long as they’re used properly and taken with a grain of salt, their value is probably (!) not null.”

I respectfully disagree. The more I look into testing, the closer the value asymptotically approaches zero. I responded to Bryan with a million questions. Here are some of my concerns:

  • How does one get the 50,000 employees of Microsoft to take the test? Why would an employee want to take the test? Some mandate from above? Wouldn’t it just reinforce the impression that HR is just a bunch of wishy-washy voodoo? If there’s nothing in it for me to take it, except potential bad outcomes, why should I take it? What kind of complete rate would one expect (10% – 20%)? Doesn’t that make the results useless?
  • The best engineers/employees are the ones least likely to complete the test. For tests like Myers-Briggs most people who take it are people who are a) having some difficulty and have turned to the test to help them out, b) are trying to please management in some way, or C) just the “I love to examine my navel” kinds of people. That doesn’t seem like a good healthy cross-section.
  • “The hiring director would see a report about the findings from the test and could use them at their discretion” is extremely dangerous. Doesn’t it risk them making homogenous teams, intentionally or not, just as Matt’s post was commenting on? Doesn’t it even risk lawsuits from candidates challenging the use of the test in the hiring process?
  • They say it’s impossible to game, but I find that difficult to swallow. A picture of a puppy, a picture of a skateboarder… hmmm… let me guess what you want me to like, then I’ll answer that way. Or, “I’m feeling mischievous today, I’m going to answer A or B based on the drum solo in Inna Gadda Da Vidda”. I tried it with my photography background in mind — I picked ones more in focus. The result was gibberish.
They say it’s impossible to game, but I find that difficult to swallow.
  • It raises the “what do I do with this info” question. Let’s say it comes up with “you are an unmotivated, introverted, a&$hole”, what do I do now? Take it again and choose all the other pictures? Try to change? Go see a shrink?
  • How do I know if I’d like it there from the results of this test? Because everyone is like me? And just as the post on photomatt was talking about, don’t I want to be different? Isn’t is a good thing to not be like everyone else? Or should I want to go there just to change the culture?
  • As for enticing people to apply, I find this assertion stunning… If I was asked for any kind of psychological test, I’d immediately withdraw my candidacy. It tells volumes about the kind of company it is, (see this post). It speaks to the kind of company culture there is. They don’t see people as individuals and potential valuable assets, but rather as test subjects, resources, automatons. I think this drives away candidates, not attracts them.
  • Is the testing based on lots of psychological merit, or is this just some guys who have a great idea? Do they have PHDs on staff who are developing these tests? Have the tests received any kind of peer review in the psychology world?
  • Do they charge by the test? Or by the results? Does [Microsoft/Google/hiring company] get the results in some permanent way, or am I tied to their web site? Do they own the results or do I?
  • How do they control access to the tests? Who can see results? My manager? Only HR? The police/FBI (we caught a child-porn king at your company, we want this as evidence)? How do I tell them who controls that access? Doesn’t that mean I basically have to upload a complete company-wide global hierarchy? Do I host the test on my systems? If not, how do I know their systems are secure (aren’t being keylogged, etc.)?
  • Can I stop the test (my phone just rang) and pick it up tomorrow? Doesn’t that potentially change my answers? What’s preventing me from “team-taking” the test, with me and 6 of my drinking buddies sitting around and having fun taking it?
  • There are many stills from movies and television, as well as some familiar looking images. Are they all licensed properly?
  • Last but not least, how does one define “like better”, as in “which picture do you like better”?

That’s a lot of questions/concerns to be sure. But it doesn’t even hit my most important concern: bias. Do people from the US or India or Europe or China all respond to the same pictures in the same way? Do they even know what some of the images are in the pictures?

But it doesn’t even hit my most important concern: bias.

There’s the classic story about an original version of MS Mail that used a mailbox for a symbol (you know the long box with the round top and a flag on the side). Turns out that’s not at all what a mailbox looked like in 85% of the world, and most people thought it was a trash can. How do they control for that?

What about racial/ethnic bias? In some parts of the world black people are rare/unheard of and are symbols of evil, in other parts of the world they are what everyone looks like. And certainly, to some people a skater-boy with baggy pants is an icon, to others it’s a nuisance, to still others it’s a “rich white kid”.

And reviewing the site only makes me more concerned. As I noted there are dozens of culturally specific images. Stills from the Sound of Music, the Lord of the Rings, the roadrunner, the Three Stooges, South Park, Titanic, Gladiator – won’t results differ depending on whether I’ve seen these?

There are snowy scenes, what if I’ve never seen snow? An old dial phone, a marijuana plant, and the Eiffel tower – isn’t it possible I have no idea what these are? Food dishes with meat and shrimp, what if I’m a vegan? Things written only in English on the images (“die” in one example).

And it turns out I didn’t need to be concerned about pictures of black people. All of the people I saw on the test were white. Ouch.

This test looks like just a new take on the long history of testing nightmares. I don’t know how anyone could or would want to use the results to tell them anything they’d want to know. Cute game, but not much more.

How Not To Fire People

Alberto Gonzales
Alberto Gonzales

Once again, I’m going to risk taking this blog into the political realm by discussing a current political controversy. But, I promise, the emphasis here is not on the who, or the why, but rather the how.

Alberto Gonzales, the United States Attorney General, is in a lot of hot water lately about the firing of eight US Attorneys around the country. This action has stirred up a hornet’s nest of political noise, and has once again backed the Bush administration into a corner. No matter the outcome, there is a lot to be learned from how this was handled.

Let’s begin by stating that I firmly believe the Bush administration has every right to have whoever they want as US Attorneys. These are political appointments, and often turnover between administrations.

But there are ways to handle this problem, and ways to not handle it. With most incoming administrations, the typical approach to these political appointments is to fire the whole lot of them, then fill the positions with people you want. This has the great advantage that you get all your own team, and more importantly is it eminently fair. Nobody feels singled out because everyone was escorted out. Sure it feels harsh, but it is hard to argue with the process.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gonzales took another approach. Drawn into the incessant politics that seem to permeate the Bush whitehouse, it appears that he yielded to the pressure of the machine. He picked only a few attorneys who had somehow angered the powers that be, and summarily fired them.

No job action should be a surprise.

The problem with this approach, aside from the overtly political nature of the process (a discussion I’ll leave to others) is that is was inherently unfair. Of course it was biased by the politics of the decision, but more importantly to our discussion, it violated my number one rule for job actions: no job action should be a surprise. As witnessed by the testimony of the fired attorneys on capitol hill a few days ago, clearly every one of these people was at least somewhat surprised by their termination.

All of the terminated attorneys received stellar performance reviews in the last several appraisals. They were praised for their hard work, their integrity, and their results. Then they walked in one day and — poof, they were fired.

Now this is just simply bad management. I’d like to recommend that Mr. Gonzales, the entire Bush administration, and you all read my FAQ on how to fire people correctly. It is a clear guide on how to move someone out when you’ve decided they need to go.

But to make matters worse, and perhaps a more devastating political issue than the suddenness of the firings, was the uniform denial of the reason for the action by the entire Bush clan. They denied the fact that they were political actions (which I will remind everyone the Bush administration has every right to do), but instead called them actions based on performance problems.

The facts do not back up a claim of performance issues.

Just as I note in the FAQ article, this is bad management because it’s not being honest and straightforward with the victim, and is likely to cause them to get upset. Especially when the facts do not back up a claim of performance issues. Quite the opposite, in fact.

So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the terminated employees cried “foul!” And it should come as even less of a surprise that an overtly political process handled poorly would become a firestorm.

Too bad, because if they had simply handled it right, we’d all be arguing about vastly more important things, like how to get out of a quagmire and who the next person to lead us there should be.

How do I fire someone?

Getting the boot

If you’ve been following along with me, you know that I’m a huge fan of clearing dead or diseased wood from your organization. Nothing rots an organization more effectively than people who don’t carry their share of the load, or who complain all the time, or are jerks. These people become a cancer to the team, and if you leave them around you send a very strong signal that this behavior is not only tolerated, but perhaps even preferred. Removing these people from your organization is often the fastest, best, and maybe even the only cure.

So, after much pain and deliberation, you’ve decided that the only really good solution to your problem with that person is to simply get them out of your organization. Good for you. Now the question is: how do I do it?

The short answer is: quickly, like removing a band-aid. Dragging it out is just like slow death, and it doesn’t make it any easier for either party. You just need to buck up, sit down with the victim, and fire away.

No, I don’t mean to let them have it with both barrels. If you’re firing someone, they don’t need to hear your long litany of reasons why this is the right thing to do. You may in fact be better off just keeping it simple, and not getting into specifics.

But you do need to be honest. You do have to tell them that there is a problem, you consider that problem insurmountable, and the time has come for them to leave.

You should do it quickly, frankly, and professionally.

You should do it quickly, frankly, and professionally. Don’t talk about the weather and “those darn Red Sox”. Don’t get wishy-washy and say “I think that maybe this is the right thing.” You have to be definitive and not make this seem like a time for negotiation.

And you absolutely have to be a professional and take responsibility. It’s not “the company is making me do this”, it is “I am doing this because…”. Just like every other aspect of being a leader, it’s not “them” that are doing this, it’s you. You have to be an adult and take ownership.

None of this is to suggest, however that you violate my number one rule for all employee job actions: no job action should ever be a surprise. Period. I don’t care if you are hiring or firing, promoting or demoting, giving a raise or laying them off. If you sit down with the person, and the action comes as a surprise, you, not they, have done something wrong.

No job action should ever be a surprise

If you are firing someone, this is especially true. They should have received steadily more dire performance appraisals. They should have had at least a couple of different private conversations warning that the behavior is not what’s expected. And they should never get mixed messages that makes them think that the behavior is sometimes OK. It needs to be clearly, and always wrong.

This progression of warnings is not only true because it’s just good management, but it’s also the law in many places. You can’t simply go merrily along telling someone they are doing fine, and then — BOOM — drop the hammer on them one day. It’s morally (maybe criminally) wrong, and it leads to the whole organization wondering if they are next.

So be sure you telegraph your intentions, in several different ways. Make that final conversation when you let them go be one they knew was coming, and is now finally here. It will make the conversation easier for both of you, and will also make it less likely to turn into a debate, a negotiation, or worse, a lawsuit.

Finally, you also really should check out your local (usually state) laws and/or union rules if they apply. As I say in my disclaimer, I am most definitely not a lawyer, nothing about this is to indicate you should violate any laws, regulations, or contracts. Your mileage may vary. Some conditions apply. Yadda, yadda.

But, you’ve made huge progress, you’ve decided they need to go. Good for you. Now get it done with and move on with your life, and make your organization into that great team you envisioned all along. Everyone, the team, you, and maybe someday even the victim, will be proud of you for it.