Adventures in Interviewing: Shoot Straight or Not?

 

will telling the truth help or hurt in an interview

Just how candid should you be in an interview?

Ever wondered if you should bite your tongue in an interview?  Is it ever a good time to say “Wow, that sounds like a really bad plan?” (It is assumed you don’t follow that up by rolling on the floor laughing).

I’m usually hired to fix things or start them up. This means companies tend to seek me out when they’ve got a vision of some new business line they want to open or when they know something is wrong, have tried lots of things, it’s not working and they need someone else to fix it so they can get on with their main mission.

Now when someone seeks me out, they usually know my reputation. I’m a very straight shooter,  I don’t sugarcoat things, but can take a balled up mess or a really sketchy vision and turn it into something really great. I will also point out very quickly if the glass is half empty and leaking fast. I can fix that too, but not if you’re only seeing sunshine and rainbows. I’m direct because I am going to be responsible for driving results almost immediately, and if there is a blind spot about the problems or hiccups in the plan, it will affect my work. Telling the truth can also let you see how open the company is to adapting their plan.

Sometimes, however, the hiring company doesn’t know me, as I’ve been referred to them by someone else. Hilarity generally ensues.

A personal favorite was the interview with a large bank that wanted to open boutique banking centers in underserved markets throughout the United States. I had been referred to the hiring manager, a Californian, to cover the Southeast. I was the fifth interview in the Atlanta airport lounge, out of five. As this very senior manager sketched out the plan I felt the backs of my eyes beginning to roll. Sure enough, just as every other financial institution headed into the Southeast before had done, they had used census data to select the “perfect” areas for these branches.

The data told them that Location X was an opportunity rich area, moderate, but not too low, income, with a diverse population that was historically under-served by banks. Many were the perfect age for first time home buying.  They were sure they had found the mother lode of an untapped market.

Now there was just one problem. For those of you who can remember the joys of “mean” “median” and “mode” in basic statistics, you may remember that the median is the middle number of all the data in a list. The mean is an average.  The problem with good old Location X was that almost no one in the area was actually making the mean income.  Mode, the number that appears most often, would be the more appropriate measure here. Due to the wild vagaries of the drawing of census tract lines and the strange nature of the city, the residents incomes looked like this (pretend it’s a census tract of 10 people):

1. $10K

2. $10K

3. $11K

4. $170K

5. $10K

6. $ 7K

8. $120K

9. $11K

10. $90K

Wow kids! we’ve got an average (mean) income of $87K!. We’re going to do great! Break out the champagne and the “Grand opening” signs!

Umm, not so fast.

In reality the area was a large cluster of public housing units, surrounding a small college center, with a small area of mid-level housing, mostly occupied as rentals by students (they would be the folks represented# 6, who also helped pull the average age down) or owned by a handful of professors and college administrators ( #10 above) and three gracious streets of grand homes that backed up to another census tract that was much more affluent (that would be #8 and #4). Problem was, the majority of the residents were in public housing (#1, 2,3,5, and 9) and making the income associated with that service. Most were nowhere near ready to make a leap to homeownership.

The gentleman from California was no doubt tired, having been subjected to a long flight, four earnest applicants earlier in the day, and repeatedly mentioned he was catching a plane in 45 minutes, as he hit the highlights of the master plan.

As he listed the areas, I thought for a minute, almost stopped myself, and then said very quietly, “Have you signed the lease yet on Location X?”

I guarantee that was a question no one else had asked that day. I then spelled out why Location X looked good from 10,000 feet up but had never been successful for any of the other lending institutions that had tried similar things in the area.  He looked at me oddly, and wrapped up the interview quickly.

I drove home, cell phone accidentally tossed in my briefcase in the trunk of my car. I may have even lectured myself on the advisability of opening my big mouth.  After the 3o minute drive I had a message. A call from the gentleman’s boss, asking me to call her to talk about the lease, (yes, they had signed it) and explain why I didn’t think it would work. She was about to go into a 6 hour meeting but wanted me to call her as soon as possible, any time, day or night.

I got the gig five minutes into that call. I am certain that no other applicant questioned the wisdom of the plan. And yes, Location X, despite a ton of effort and energy and cash infusions, never delivered as planned, for just the reasons I had mentioned.

On the other hand, lots of people don’t want to “look at the whole picture.” Several years ago I was approached about becoming the regional manager for a large sales team. The hiring manager pointed out that they were currently at 50 people, hoping to move to 90 by the end of the year (it was June). I politely said, “I’ve reviewed your team and by my estimate you have 18 keepers and 32 people who won’t make it, they haven’t made it anywhere else. Which means you have a rebuild on your hands.”

The previous manager had been incented on bringing in bodies without any qualifications tied to the incentive, and bring them in he did. Every single person who had failed at every other sales group in town.  Just by looking at the list of the names it was easy to see who would not be there in 3 months when their guarantees ran out.

The hiring manager hired an out-of-market friend of his, without a sales background, and sure enough, most of the 32 I marked were gone six months later. And the headcount is still nowhere near 50, or 90.

So, do you tell the truth or spout the party line? I think it’s a matter of just how badly you need the role and how much “singing the party line” may cost you individually if you can’t perform at the level expected.  Many companies will lower their expectations as they realize the plan has holes in it, they just don’t want you to be the one to point them out. But if 100% of your compensation is tied to delivery, you can sugarcoat the truth a bit, but YOU need to know what you’re getting into. And maybe, so do they.

What do you think? Tell the truth and shame the devil? Or shut your mouth, get the gig and do what you can once you’re in? What have YOU done? Share in the comments below…

book by Jeanne Goldie

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We Screwed Up.

public relations disasters

When the pressure is on, how will you respond?

A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Tim Ferris

For those of you who may have seen the U.S. news in the past few days you probably heard of Georgia’s disastrous response to 2-3 inches (6.35cm) of snowfall that quickly turned to ice. Thousands of residents of the Atlanta metropolitan area attempted to leave work at the same time to go pick up children at school and outrace the ice.

The result?  Trucks, cars and buses collided, blocking roads and highways rendering them impassable. Over 994 accidents were reported in the first 12 hours of the storm and many more minor ones occurred throughout the night. Commutes of 3 miles (4.82 km) stretched to 5 hours and 25 mile (40.23km) commutes became 24 hour ordeals. A baby was born on a highway, hundreds had to abandon their cars and walk for miles to get home after they ran out of gasoline.

Next was the parade of government officials trying to explain the uncoordinated response and chaos. The styles ranged from smooth to horribly awkward, and they were mercilessly skewered on twitter and social media. Some were in the awkward position of being blamed for jobs they were not responsible for but as leaders, would be held accountable for anyway. Others were openly hostile. As time went on, some leaders clearly got “off” the public relations scripting they had been prepped with while others clung to it like a lifeline, long after it stopped making any sense. Leaders of nearby counties most likely breathed a sigh of relief when they realized that the Mayor of the City of Atlanta (a small fraction of the Atlanta metro area) would be taking the majority of the heat publicly for the disaster.

One of the hardest things to do in public is to admit you are wrong. With the advances in social media and technology, it’s entirely possible that you can claim you’ve fixed something only to have live pictures scrolling alongside you on screen proving the opposite.

How do YOU handle admitting to a mistake?

The Uncomfortable Conversations series on 52weekturnaround gives you the tools to have the difficult conversations that you encounter as a change agent. See the series here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Thinking about making a move? Size up your Corporate Landscape or any other company you may be thinking of moving to by using our free guide, Reading the Terrain. Get your copy today by putting your email address in the subscription box at right. And no, we won’t spam you, you’ll just get our weekly update of articles.

Uncomfortable Conversation #3: Requesting Privileges, Staff Time or Resources You’re Not “Entitled” To Have

begging employee

This is NOT the way you want to ask.

The Situation:

Your Project needs resources from other teams, including staff time, technology resources and/or the ability to bypass normal approval procedures in order to advance your project.

Career Limiting Approaches (i.e. what not to do):

  • Hope someone will psychically divine that you need some additional resources.
  • Come up with a duct tape solution without even trying to ask for what you need. (Been there, done that, it’s never good!)
  • Threaten a senior executive with blackmail photos of their less than stellar moments at the corporate holiday party if they don’t give up the goods.
  • Send a younger staffer in with the request figuring if it all goes wrong you can disclaim any knowledge of the request. Definitely don’t try this with the interns, they will give you up almost immediately.

What you need to be prepared with:

1. Clear list of Needs: “I will need X hours of technology’s time in order to create the beta test of the new user interface.” “I will need the assistance of facilities to evaluate the projected space. Based on the usual timetable it will require 8 hours of their time.” “I need two members of the operations team to participate on weekly team calls which last for about two hours. They will also need to do some research after each call which we estimate as a total commitment of three hours per week.”

Do the research beforehand to find out the normal turn times that each resource would need. If you’re asking for financial resources, make sure  you have detailed bids (formal or informal, depending on where you work) that will give an accurate representation of the costs. “If you’re asking for expedited approval process for your other project requests, explain why you need the bypass.  You may want to commit these to paper if there are multiple asks. but make sure it is a clear visual, preferably one page, not a 300 page document.

2. The specifics of “why” you need the items in #1. Before you make this request, have another project team member punch holes in your request, to help you make it sharper, particularly if its a complex request. You need your “E.F. Hutton” or Historian for this job. Don’t know who they are? Read about them here.

3. The benefits of your project to any resources you are commandeering. Be sure to include these if they exist. For example: “Tech support gets 400 questions per month on this issue. We’re asking for their time commitment now which will free them up in the future.”

4. If you are requesting additional resources because of an earlier miscalculation on your part, acknowledge the miscalculation in clear, non-judgmental language. You may also want to read this first.

5. Avoid drama. Extreme language such as “There’s no way we can get this project done if I don’t get Joe’s team to cooperate and they aren’t cooperating.” isn’t going to help. Take emotion out of the request. Aim for a clear, objective tone.

6. What is your specific ask for support in terms of getting those resources? Do you need an email sent? Does your sponsor need to hold a meeting with the departments involved? Do you need an authorized signer ability for up to a certain amount?  Have a recommendation but be aware that a different path may be chosen. If there is a significant reason to choose a particular path, mention it in your ask.  But be sure to take the emotion out of it. “I feel that many of the department heads are bombarded with requests weekly for their resources, which is why I think it would be best to have an email coming from you authorizing the staff time” vs. “Look, ain’t no way, no how, that freaking product modeling team is going to help me unless the big cheese orders them to, because they would rather die than cooperate with anyone around here.”

7. Have a fallback plan. Some people will say to never waver off the big ask, but you may not have that luxury if a “no” means the end of your project. Is there an alternative scenario that gets you part of what you need, and will advance the project to a point where the benefit of getting the rest of what you need will be obvious?

8. Consider the “style” of your delivery. Watch your body language, project assurance. If you need some advice on the power of an open stance when asking for something check out this TED talk. If you need to consider the pacing, delivery style and words you choose, read this. Are you presenting to one person or a committee or a board? You’ll need to change your style to meet the situation. Whatever you do, don’t look like the guy in the picture. That’s an automatic “no.”

Having the Conversation:

1. Start with the compelling reason for your project in the first place. Don’t assume everyone knows why the project is in place. Even if they do, restate it. Give a very brief update on where you are in the project.

2. State your list of needs from item 1 above. State any benefits to the resources you are asking for.

3. Wait and keep quiet. (aka known in the negotiation biz as STFU).

4. They’ve got objections?  Use the information from item 2 to answer the questions.

What to expect:

1. Yes: Always great if you get a win the first time out. If you get one, make sure you send a brief, mini-update on the project’s progress on a regular basis to those who granted what you wanted and acknowledge their assistance in it.

2. A Punt. Person or committee you’re asking requests time to “study” the request. This may be their normal response or it may be a hedge or delaying tactic. Hopefully you know their style well enough to choose which option to do next:

a. Thank them and ask when you can expect to hear their decision.

b. Calmly restate the benefit of the project, touch on how the resources could help and ask if they have any concerns you haven’t addressed. Make sure you’re projecting assurance (see #8 above, again!) when you do this.

c. If your requestee is a chronic “waffler” by nature, and normally never commits in the hope that things will iron out on their own accord, you will need a different close. Try slightly reversing b.  “Joe, I know you’re concerned that the technology team is overloaded right now, but let me show you exactly how this will actually save them time within the next two months.” Pause a beat. “Joe, this is a good thing, and I need your commitment to make this into a great thing, and a great win for you.”

3. Denied. This is another time where you need to know your audience. Is the “no” coming from a situation that has nothing to do with you or your project? (Read “Why your Project isn’t Getting any Love” to help identify some reasons). Or is the no truly directed at, and solely about, you and/or your project? If so, ask again about concerns or objections, and try to address them. You then have two possibilities:

a. Ask about their overall commitment to this project, is it truly a resource crunch or lack of faith in the project? (Remember, take the emotion out of this question. You are solving a business problem here, not a referendum on your personal worth. And if the response is a referendum on your personal worth, i.e. they hate you, and not your project, read this and run!).

b. Offer the fallback position from #7 in the preparation section. Be sure to state if the fallback position will require narrowing the scope or results of your project.

 How have YOU successfully gotten results when you asked for something you or your team were not entitled to have? Please share in the comments section!  (and if involved sending the intern in with the office holiday pictures I  really don’t want to know, but I do salute you!)

Tim Ferris believes that “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” The Uncomfortable Conversations series on 52weekturnaround gives you the tools to have the difficult conversations that you encounter as a change agent. See the series here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

A Field Guide to Help You Speed Read the Corporate Landscape.

Some great questions to ask yourself and your team about your group’s previous adventures in change are in our Free guide: Reading the Terrain – A Short Field Guide to Understanding the Organizational Landscape. You can get it just for subscribing in the box at right. We don’t share your contact info with anyone else, and you’ll get free updates when this site adds new content. And no, we won’t send the interns to your offices!

 

 

Uncomfortable Conversation #2: The Project has some Cost Overruns. Big Ones.

Uncomfortable conversations series 2

We’re over budget. Way, way over budget.

The Situation:

You’re three quarters of the way through your project and you’ve just had a major setback. You underestimated the costs to get to this phase but the project is useless if only partially finished. Your cost overruns will be more than 20% of your total project budget, even with the contingencies you built in your initial estimate.

What you would like to say:

  • Perhaps if we didn’t always have to hire the lowest bidder for subcontracted work we might have had a chance.
  • It’s Internal Technology’s fault! (Everybody’s favorite fallback.)
  • If any of the components weren’t already held together with duct tape our idea would have worked.

Needless to say, none of these approaches will win friends and influence people.  And waiting to have this conversation does you no favors. You can bet that those who opposed this project in the first place, or those who just aren’t fans of you or your team, are waiting with knives drawn and absolutely have gotten wind of the overruns. If you don’t “beat” them to the decision makers, you lose.  You want to be the one to tell the story first, because otherwise your detractors will be taking out a billboard to tell it for you.

What you need to be prepared with:

  • A carefully vetted budget for the remaining tasks.
  • Suggestions on the remaining steps which could be cut, created as beta versions or scaled back in order to try to recoup some costs. Would adding time to the expected completion points of various project segments allow you to cut costs? (i.e. reducing overtime costs etc.)
  • Your original cost benefit analysis of the project and a revised version with the new budget figured in.
  • Proof of any additional productivity, sales results, or cost consolidations that have already occurred during the project implementation (which are directly due to the project). Look for numbers, not just “feel good” stories.   Revert to “feel good” stories only if there aren’t any numbers yet.
  • A firm idea of the “why’s” and “how’s” of what happened. Was it a true miscalculation? Were there so many change orders that the project grew or changed in scope? Did you hire the wrong subcontractor or make a mistake in calculating what the cost of each element of the project would be? What steps have you taken to prevent this going forward or are you still moving forward on hope alone?
  • Create a “Lessons Learned” list, making sure you’ve taken all snark or emotion out of it. Do any of these lessons indicate a similar issue may arise as you move towards project completion? Have you identified any potential future risks?

Having the conversation:

  1. Have a meeting first with the Project Sponsor to go over what has happened. Make sure they are fully aware of what you’ve done to correct things, what the new budget looks like, and any wins you have had. Show them the wins on paper or better yet, live. You need a true believer when the going gets rough. If the project sponsor isn’t a true believer, try to locate some of your allies on the management committee and go over your plan with them.
  2. Ask for the meeting with the executive team to apprise them of the situation. Be Calm. Be Factual. Be Precise.  Here is where we are. Here is what went wrong. Here is what is working. Here is how we plan to get it back on track. Here is what we’ve learned and how we will prevent it from happening again. Here is our best estimate of the costs. Here is our expected benefit of this project. Here are some of the savings/revenue/positive changes already resulting from our work.
  3. Use visuals. Clear, simple visuals of the budget, the changes, and the new budget are key. Show the new cost/benefit analysis (with the new charges) as well.
  4. Take responsibility for not catching the issue sooner.  Ask for their support of the new budget.
  5. Shut up.

What to expect:

  • As we’ve said before, once you have the conversation, you have to somewhat relinquish control of the results.
  • Understand that while there may be real consternation at the increased cost aspects of the project, you will also likely get reactions based on the internal politics between the members of the team you presented to.  If they are jockeying for political survival, they may overemphasize the “disastrous” aspects of the costs or may attack leadership or managerial skills, of you, your team or others that were part of the project. Others, surprisingly, may downplay the cost issue, perhaps because your project serves their needs for something they have planned for a later date.  It’s rare that you get a “pure” response in a meeting like this.
  • The best strategy is to have a firm strategy on how to go forward. After the team has had the time to absorb your initial message, ask for their support on the newly renegotiated timetable, budget and plan.
  • Increase communications on the project’s progress in relation to budget as part of your follow up to the committee. Determine if a weekly, monthly or daily update would be appropriate to the current scope of the project and develop a simple “at-a-glance” report that can be sent out.

How have you delivered this sort of bad news before? How did it go? Please share in the comments section!

Tim Ferris believes that “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” The Uncomfortable Conversations series on 52weekturnaround gives you the tools to have the difficult conversations that you encounter as a change agent. See the series here.

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Some great questions to ask yourself and your team about your group’s previous adventures in change are in our Free guide: Reading the Terrain – A Short Field Guide to Understanding the Organizational Landscape. You can get it just for subscribing in the box at right. We don’t share your contact info with anyone else, and you’ll get free updates when this site adds new content.

 

Uncomfortable Conversation #1: “We need to shut down a business line”

 

Empty interior of building

Making the Tough Call isn’t Easy

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Tim Ferris

The Situation:

Your team, after doing your research, running the numbers and looking at a challenge from every angle has come to the conclusion that a business line or project needs to be closed.  This will impact staff, facility leases, and even some customers who have come to rely on the services or products of that team.  You need to present the information to the Sr. Leadership team, two of whom made their careers by working in the very business you are proposing to close, and some of their protégé’s are working in that division right now.

What you wish would happen:

  1. Someone else would do this. Anyone else. Maybe that external auditor could suggest it.
  2. You could just drop the anonymous suggestion in a suggestion box.
  3. A recruiter would call you with the job of the century this morning so you could skip the conversation entirely.

Things to have with you:

  1. A clear, simple visual of financial projections that can be viewed at a glance, along with much more detailed information in a separate package. Graphs or charts are a good option for the overview.
  2. A plan showing the impact of keeping the line open, vs. the costs and impact of closing the line. Do one for best case, worst case and average scenarios for each option.  Be sure to incorporate your country’s or state’s requirements for staff reductions etc., in your projections (i.e. legal notice, severance. Also include the non-staff costs – leases, equipment etc).
  3. A clear proactive plan for notifying staff, customers and media (if applicable) along with a budget and timeline for the wind down effort.

Having “The Conversation”:

  1. Pick your spot. Don’t just slide it in during a random meeting or a regular staff meeting. This calls for a special meeting to just focus on this issue.
  2. Line up your sponsors beforehand.  This means having lots of one-on-one small, private meetings with discreet senior people to serve as advocates.  If everyone at the meeting is grappling with a new idea at once, the normal response would be to shoot it down or delay it.
  3. Expect that there will be delays.  Most executives will want to do a deep dive on your methodology and your numbers. (That’s what the supporting details in Item 1 of “things to have with you” are for.) However, make sure one of your exhibits shows the costs of delaying the decision by more than a month.
  4. Be sure to acknowledge the human costs involved as you discuss the topic. This is a fine balance; do not recount every detail of every family that will be affected (“Of course we’ll have to cut Mike Smith, and he’s the sole provider for his widowed mother, her six children and he has a disabled son at home”) but don’t go to the opposite extreme either, treating staff as widgets that need to be offloaded.  That will make people question your judgment. Suggest areas of opportunities for the people in the affected unit, by pointing out growing units that require similar skill sets or staffing. If there truly is no internal option, suggest an outplacement strategy.

What will happen next (most likely):

  1. Understand that once you have “dropped the bomb” you lose control of how the information is absorbed and acted upon. Don’t be so strongly wed to your proposal that you devalue attempts at compromise or restructuring. Simply stay firm, polite and open to input. Use your alternative case scenarios to help look at various options that may be proposed.
  2. Once the decision has been made, having the clear communications and action plan ready is imperative.  If you have executives who argue for delay, and it appears that even with delay, the company will have to cut the unit, you will want to point out that doing it sooner rather than later may allow the company to allot a greater amount of resources towards the displaced staff than waiting will.
  3. Take the heat. No matter who makes the final call, you and your team will eventually be “outed” as the architects of the plan. That means you’ll have some team members, even those who get to stay, looking at you in a different way.  Respond to inquiries with a firm, compassionate response and rehearse other team members as well. This is also not the time to upgrade to a better car (even if you’ve been saving forever for it) or take a long exotic vacation.  Low key empathy is the best response.

This post is part of our “Uncomfortable Conversations” series. Our next Uncomfortable Conversation: The project budget has cost overruns. Big Ones.

Have you ever been the “lucky” person who got to deliver this piece of bad news? Share how you did it and what did or didn’t work in the comment section!

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Thinking about making a move? Size up your Corporate Landscape or any other company you may be thinking of moving to by using our free guide, Reading the Terrain. Get your copy today by putting your email address in the subscription box. And no, we won’t spam you, you’ll just get our weekly update of articles.

 

Uncomfortable Conversations: The Key to a Successful Turnaround

 

unpleasant discussions

It’s never good when someone says “We need to talk.”

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Tim Ferris

Getting a business or any team to change direction can be challenging. Throughout the process you’ll be gathering supporters, convincing stakeholders, working to change the minds of doubters while overcoming roadblocks.  And you may be doing it all without official authority or only lukewarm support.

It’s great to have a vision, but how do you get buy-in? You’ll likely have to have many uncomfortable conversations, usually prefaced by a few sleepless nights where you endlessly run variations of the encounter in your head.

We’re going to share what we’ve learned about uncomfortable conversations: how to have them, how to choose your words and how to maximize your opportunities for success.  And, most importantly,  how NOT to wind up dead in the game of “Kill the Messenger.”

Because if this was easy, everyone would do it!

Upcoming topics include:

What are some of the Uncomfortable Conversations you’ve had to have? Share in the comment section!

book by Jeanne Goldie

Speed Read an Organization with our Easy Guide

Thinking about making a move? Size up your Corporate Landscape or any other company you may be thinking of moving to by using our free guide, Reading the Terrain. Get your copy today by putting your email address in the subscription box. And no, we won’t spam you, you’ll just get our weekly update of articles.

© Jeanne Goldie 2015