Soft Landing

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It was what they call a “Seattle Sparkler”. The kind of day people move here for. 68 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. The air was fresh, crisp, and clear, with just a slight hint of the ocean. The sky was so blue – a light crystal hue that seemed like it just couldn’t be real.

I had come downtown via the Evergreen Point floating bridge across Lake Washington, a drive like no other on the planet. The roadway is mere feet above the impossibly deep glacial lake, with sailboats to the left, float planes to the right. The horizon is 360 degrees of mountains, dominated to the north by Mount Baker, and to the south by the majestic Mount Rainier. The snow-capped peak is the tallest in the continental US and around here it’s just called “the mountain”. As in, “I see the mountain is out today.” It’s the kind of view, the kind of drive, that makes you forget we have some of the worst traffic in the nation.

I met my potential boss at a Starbucks, of course, in the newest part of the city, the South Lake Union area. Home to tech and biotech, large and small, the area is electric with new buildings and unbounded enthusiasm. Sidewalk tables overflowed with people catching the sunshine. We got our drinks and settled in at a table in a plaza, near where the “free bananas” people were handing them out to all passers-by.

He and I had first met at a restaurant some weeks before and had a fascinating conversation. He was just taking over a new senior role in his company and needed the help of a seasoned executive. I was interested in joining his firm, a friend worked there and spoke highly of it. So, we met for a drink.

He painted his new role as vast, with company-wide reach, but also difficult as it was what could best be described as “corporate service”. Vital to the company’s success, but not a direct business. The role would be largely of developing and pressing the kind of corporate mandate that line managers bristle at or willfully ignore.

I’d had lots of experience in this kind of role and knew I could help him. I had done several corporate service roles. I built and supported tools used company-wide. I evangelized software development best practices. I led Human Resources across a vast international company. I knew how to work company cultures to get broad mandates done. A job helping him to succeed in this arena, so new to him, seemed like a perfect fit for me. He felt it too.

We left that first meeting with him essentially offering me a role as his right hand. In the parking garage he had closed with “let me just shuffle some paperwork with HR, and you’ll do a round of interviews, mostly as a formality. We’ll make this happen. Next week at the latest.”

Our meeting in the sunshine was almost eight weeks later. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this podcast, we’ll take a look at how people meet the challenge of managing smart people in this Brainpower Age. Each episode, we’ll explore everyday problems and provide practical tools you can use to be a better and smarter leader.

This is the fifth and last of our episodes looking at the challenge of hiring brainpower workers. In this episode we’ll look how to convince that great hire to work for you. This is Episode Ten: Soft Landing.

In the plaza that day, he assured me that he still could really use my help. He made a variety of excuses for the many delays and unanswered emails. None rang very true. What seemed so promising in the parking garage now seemed like a missed opportunity.

He blamed HR. They had stumbled and bumbled, not followed up, waiting weeks to even arrange a phone call with me, let alone the requisite interviews. In the meantime, I had done all the research I could into his company and his new role. I had periodically asked him for follow-ups, updates, or contacts I might make to move it ahead. And got little or no response. I had even crafted a two-page writeup on the challenges he might face, and possible approaches he might take. When I sent it to him, it didn’t even get an acknowledgement.

As we sat in the sun, I asked him about the discrepancy in the role he described. Over drinks he had said it was corporate-wide. My research showed it was just for one division. Meaning he’d have peers in other divisions to coordinate, compromise, even compete with. That would make corporate mandate setting difficult, if not impossible. He was visibly startled that I had figured that out and nodded a silent assent.

More distressing was his proposed method of getting the job done. He claimed he had the support of the division head, and he would just tell the line managers what to do. That he’d “force them” to obey. He’d make them fill out exception forms if they wanted to side-step his imposed mandates.

I knew this simply wouldn’t work, and told him so. Line managers have the power of the organization behind them. In a fight between getting real business done and some corporate mandate, the line always wins. Every time. The only way to get this kind of mandate done is through cooperation. Working with the line managers to show them why a given mandate is important. Helping them by having your corporate staff do a lot of the heavy lifting. Making friends with them and showing them you’re really both there for the same end goal.

He dismissed my concerns and was adamant about trying to exercise what he thought was his newfound power. I pushed back a little but realized he would just have to figure it out for himself.

As I drove home with all the windows and sunroof wide open, I decided to let him try. I politely withdrew via email. He again didn’t respond. Just recently, a little more than a year later, I learned he had indeed flamed out. He was removed from that job and returned to his roots.

This is kind of math brainpower workers do when considering a new job. They look not only at their potential role and its challenges. They also look at the leader, their role, and their challenges. Is the leader someone they can respect, someone who will stand up for them, someone who they can learn from?

They also look at their potential new team. Is this a functional group with smart people who enjoy working together? Does the leader delegate effectively and let everyone shine? Do the group dynamics work to their mutual benefit or is there a lot of infighting and needless competition?

And most importantly does the team have a shared, crisp vision for what they’re trying to accomplish? Is that vision compelling, challenging, and interesting? Where does the vision fit in the larger organization? Does everyone on the team know what their goals are and how those fit to make a vision for the team?

These concerns might seem awfully vague or high-level for a potential new employee. But smart brainpower workers know that their success and happiness in a new job depends on these environmental factors. They know that these factors are both vital to the role and often difficult to change.

So, they demand that the new role not only offers them interesting and meaningful challenges personally, but also that they occur in an environment that provides a good chance of success. If not, they’re likely to simply pass on your opportunity for one that does.

A great time for you and the potential employee to explore these issues is in the interview. Once you’ve determined that they’re a smart person who loves to learn, and has some fire in their eyes, it comes time to work on selling them on the job. I like to do this also while learning more about them.

I’ll usually start by telling them about what we do, what our team is about, and some of the challenges we’re facing. I clearly explain the vision for the team. And I make sure to leave space for them to ask questions. I look to the candidate for the same kind of listening and questioning I tried to demonstrate with them. Are they picking up nuances that you might offer about the challenges you face? Do they ask smart questions about you, your team, and the organization at large?

Great brainpower workers will have done homework about the organization, your team, and about you. They’ll ask good questions about what you’re doing, and how things work. The very best will have the bravery to raise controversial topics about your organization or the job and see if you’re up to the challenge as well.

This is the part of the interview I love the best. It’s a chance to help the candidate see the interesting things you and your team work on. To share the excitement you have about the road ahead, and to share your vision of how you and the team will succeed.

It’s important to be open and honest about how things work, both in the team and the organization at large. Warts and all. If your organization is going through a rough spot, especially one that’s publicly known, don’t whitewash it, own up to it. Discuss how this has affected your team and you, and how you’re handling it.

The goal here is less a “sell job” for your team and the company than it is to help them feel like it’s a challenging and interesting place to work. A place where they can contribute. Remember, great brainpower workers are looking to make a contribution, to do cool things, to even change the world, even just this little corner of it. You “sell” the job not by rattling off marketing drivel, but by showing them that there are interesting problems to be solved. And that you’d be a great partner and leader in helping to solve them.

This a great chance to learn more about the candidate. Do they recoil when they hear unvarnished truth, or do they seem to want to pitch in? Are they strong enough to push back on what you say, to ask frank and tough questions? That’s just the kind of brainpower worker you want. A valuable member of the team.

This part of the interview is when you both start to decide if this is a good match. Does the organization and this opportunity work for them? And can they imagine themselves working in your team — and for you.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to determine when hiring someone is what do they want? What are they looking for in a new job? Money? Work/life balance? Fantastic health care? A chance to change the world? Lots of mentally difficult challenges? The support to grow with new skills and techniques? To be a part of a great team? It’s useful to figure out which are the most important to them, to see if they match well with your opportunity.

The candidate often won’t tell you directly. Or worse, they’ll tell you “all of the above”. While that may be true to a degree, it’s important to figure out the one or two key drivers. What those drivers are can tell you a lot about the candidate. For example, if someone is driven largely by money, they can be easily stolen from you by little more than a higher offer. On the other hand, if they have an affinity for your team and its vision, the lure of a larger paycheck will be substantially less enticing.

In discussing these elements of the job and their importance to the candidate, a vital lesson is: don’t lie. Smart prospects will have done their research and will catch you. Nothing will send a candidate running faster than lying to their face.

While some aspects are fairly cut and dried – it’s difficult to lie about health care, for example – one common area for fabrication is work/life balance and the organizational culture surrounding it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “you can have a life here, we’re not like those other firms.” Or “we never answer emails in the evening or on the weekend”. I hear that repeatedly from a leader I know. Someone whose emails almost always arrive when I’m asleep.

One local tech firm has a broad reputation as a virtual slave ship, people work insane hours and the company drives them hard. But every senior person I’ve met insists the exact opposite. My son, with a newly minted master’s degree in computer science, spoke with friends who work there and declined to even apply because of this blatant hypocrisy. And it’s not just people with connections who will figure this out, sites like Glassdoor will expose this as well.

So, if you as a leader can’t fix it, just own up to it. “Yes, we work hard, but we also pay very well, and provide a lot of paid time off. But yes, where you’re working, we’re a 110% kind of place.” That may turn off some prospects, but it will serve you well in the long term.

It can be tough to discern which of aspects of a job are most important to the candidate while in the interview. Both of you are exploring each other, and neither of you will likely be completely frank. But all is not lost. Once you’ve decided a candidate is at the top of your list, you can further explore their drivers to determine if they and you are looking for the same things.

I like to use the follow-up conversations to suss them out further. If they’re a thoughtful candidate, they’ll have reached out to thank you for the interview. That’s a great opening to follow up, and learn more about them. I strongly prefer to do this either in person or over the phone. You miss too many nuances trying to explore these soft issues electronically.

I’ve frequently heard things in these follow-up conversations that help to land the candidate. Perhaps their significant other is reluctant to move. Perhaps there is a home care situation that adds to work/life stress. Perhaps there is history with previous employers that makes them cautious. If you know these things, you can tilt the offer or leverage resources to help them. This not only can address their specific needs but is a very clear demonstration of your ability to listen to them, and willingness to support them. And that is often the kind of action that turns a great candidate into a great hire.

Throughout it all, though, I’ve found that the most valuable tool when trying to woo candidates is a great team vision. Smart, talented people want to work on something important, something meaningful, something that makes a difference. That’s true in the smallest startup, or the largest corporation. Even if that thing is just a small part in making a huge organization function well. They want to feel like what they do matters.

Nothing makes that case better than a clear, crisp vision for what you and your team are trying to do. If you can say it clearly, and demonstrate your genuine enthusiasm for it, the feeling will be infectious. That alone will land many candidates.

Next time, we’ll begin a series of episodes on the importance of a great vision, how to decide on one, how to use it, and how to communicate it. But that’s next time.

For now, remember that the best way to lure that perfect candidate is with a frank and honest conversation about what matters. To them and to you. If you listen carefully, address their needs, and match them well with your opportunity, you can bring them in for a great, soft landing.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, That’s

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That’s it for this episode, and for our look at hiring, at least for now. In the next episode we’ll begin to explore a leader’s most valuable tool. It’s called “2020 Hindsight”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.