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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Taking Stock of this Week: How Effective were You?

time management

The year is already one quarter gone, what did you do this week?

It’s Friday. How did you measure up this week?

Did you:

1. Drive revenue?

2. Cut expenses in a way that will allow the business to grow?

3. Solve an ongoing challenge in a way that will allow the team to move forward?

4. Open a new market, test a new product, develop a new strategy for growth?

5. Say no to the things that weren’t working and cross them off your list?

6.Seek out a new perspective or new methodology that might help your team move forward?

7.Hold meetings that were relevant, valuable and not “birthday parties.”

8. Pull the tooth?

9. Look for new talent?

10. Have that uncomfortable conversation you’ve been dreading?

If not, what can you do to make sure that next week you spend your time on the things that really matter? (need some more ideas? try this)

Get your free copy today of “Reading the Terrain” by subscribing in the email box. It will help you have many more effective days!

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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

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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