The Little We See

I discovered the NBC television series This Is Us in summer reruns this year and I have become obsessed with it. If you enjoyed shows like Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, you’ll not only recognize the tone and structure in This Is Us, you’ll see familiar names pop up in the directing credits. It probably won’t surprise you that what has most attracted me to this show is the writing, both the quality of dialogue within episodes and the structural connections between episodes. Series creator Dan Fogelman has framed a milestone achievement in word-to-screen translation.

If you are a student of fiction you know that narrative has the highest emotional impact when story and character are revealed on equal footing, one reinforcing the other. Whether you attempt the craft professionally or as an avocation, you know how immensely difficult this is to do, particularly consistently. Characters matter more when the story advances as a result of their arcs. The depth of characters is more fully rendered when plot points drive their change. It’s enormously challenging. Try it sometime. Or you can just watch This Is Us.

I certainly don’t want to give away any spoilers surrounding this show in case you decide to binge on it after reading this post. At its core it is the story of three people born on the same day circa 1980 (the year I graduated from high school, go figure). The storyline follows them from infancy to adulthood with all of the many tangents in their lives around family, friends, loved ones lost and found, career highs and lows, and personal discoveries. The emotional complexity of the characters is what makes it powerful, yet surprise twists in their interwoven journeys jump out all the time, making it the kind of serial that leaves you both satisfied and wanting more.

What consistently blows my mind in this show is how character development is revealed in snippets that link forward and back in time, particularly replaying events with increased detail layered into the unveiling of previously hidden moments. It is these hidden moments that led me to write about the show. What continually strikes me as gripping drama is how little we know about any one character or event at any moment in time, and how adding onto the storyline sheds light on the “why” of every moment. I think about this in life every day as I encounter people, not so much in what I do see but in the stark reality of how little I see.

“The little we see” is the mystery of real-life human drama. Someone could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks with a thin smile, but she may have just come from the hospital visiting someone in critical condition. Someone could run into you on the freeway wildly distracted, when an hour ago he was turned down in his marriage proposal. The person next to you in a bar watching a baseball game might be ordering the beer that sends him tumbling off the wagon. We barely know what we see. We usually have little idea why it is happening, what meaning or consequence it may have, or what life fork in the road it may represent. Good storytelling fills in the blanks. Compounding life events don’t snap together as Lego blocks nearly that solidly.

Returning to my obsessions, in my early writing career when I was learning the craft and reading much more than I was writing, I found myself consumed with the question of what happens to characters when we don’t see them. I spent a lot of time immersed in stage-play texts and repeatedly asked myself purposefully unanswerable questions. What are these characters thinking and doing when they are offstage? What were they doing before the play began? What will they be doing after the final curtain? Certainly writers have to think about these things, but the time-limiting constraint that they never can fill in all the blanks is what can elevate a story from entertainment to a more lasting form of art. The elements of a character’s life that are left open-ended are the entry point where the reader’s imagination can come alive. It is in that synthesis that a work becomes both personalized and shared.

Why might this matter to you even if you aren’t particularly enamored with fiction? Perhaps you are like me and find yourself wondering throughout the day about the backstories and masked details in the lives of the people who walk into and out of your contact each day. When you are in a meeting and the presenter is struggling, what was he doing an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, a year ago? When you hear a co-worker arguing on the phone in the hallway about something that sounds personal and know that you are about to review a business plan together, will that person be paying enough attention to make good decisions and what will happen to resolve the argument by the time you meet again tomorrow? When a co-worker’s child visits your office, what does she see and how will it possibly affect her future decisions about her career?

All of this fascinates me both as a writer and a businessperson, because the long and winding roads of our lives are filled with invisible forks where we choose a path and don’t necessarily know at the time that the decision was of immense consequence. I will be writing more about these invisible forks soon because I think the resonance of our decision-making becomes more consequential when we pay attention to the impact it has on those around us. We can never chart our own fate entirely, but we can think now and again about what might be going on offstage as well as onstage before we act.

One of the best pieces of advice my dad gave me in business was that unless you are in the room where a decision is made, you will never know why that decision was made. My trepidation has gone further, because too often I have been in that room and I still don’t know why many decisions are made. To me that signals what happened in the other room where I wasn’t present and didn’t even know there was a meeting, or what happened in someone’s living room that morning, or what might be happening in some hotel conference room that night. We see what we see and it’s never enough. We see too little, yet we still have to make decisions.

The little we see is a subset of any story. Think about it that way and you might make different choices when you are in the scene. Onstage or off, the story is part public, part private, part secret, part personal, and always conflicted. That is what makes a great television series like This Is Us. What it says about our lives and our business dealings is something else entirely.

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Photo: This Is Us Gallery, NBC.com

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Three Arguments Against Performance Reviews

sb-2015-blog-top-10I don’t like performance reviews. I never liked giving them, and I never liked getting them. They are like school report cards, only less well-meaning and more poorly formed. They make the workplace more political, needlessly enforcing nerve-wracking centers of power. They serve a legal function much more than a creative function. They don’t make products better and they don’t serve customer needs. They are obligatory, perfunctory, dreaded time sucks for both giver and receiver, putting a check mark in an annual rite of passage that is largely ignored until the Earth completes another full orbit around the Sun.

On the other hand, I love feedback—really good, thoughtful, useful, timely, focused feedback. I love to give it and I love to get it as part of a regular routine.  No check boxes, no check marks. Feedback, sometimes known as coaching, requires relevant substance to have impact. It needs to center on step by step improvement in how an individual is doing against goals, how a team is advancing by virtue of an individual’s progress, how innovation is being served by attitudes and decisions on a daily basis, and how an individual’s achievements are translated into outcomes valued by an employer.

I don’t believe anyone can effectively coach, empower, and bolster an individual’s workplace contributions sitting down once a year and filtering a list of positive and negative attributes. The best you can hope for is polite-speak that doesn’t upset anyone too much—unless you are marching someone to the door—and the worst you can muster is demoralization that shuts down all future hope of trust and collaboration.

Here are three thumbnail cases against performance reviews that you should find terrifying.

Argument 1: Performance reviews can put off for up to a year what needs attention now

Performance reviews can be a passive-aggressive haven for managers afraid to lead in the present. You know something wrong is happening, and you know it’s going to be uncomfortable to deal with it. Rather than do the right thing and jump on a concern in real-time, you kick the can, deluding yourself into believing there is a chance the issue will sort itself out. While it’s not sorting itself out, considerable damage is being done. You tell yourself if the individual doing wrong doesn’t figure it out by the next performance review cycle, you will deal with it then. This is pain avoidance up the ladder at the cost of pain induction everywhere else. It’s not leadership. It’s cowardice.

Instead of keeping notes for the big annual summation of all that has gone wrong, how about a simple human conversation today around what is and isn’t working for an employee. Start with an easy question: “How are things going?” If you don’t like the answer, offer your own opinion. Start a dialogue. Make it specific, give-and-take, and optimistic in nature. Do not catalog a set of ills. Begin with previously discussed goals and work forward from those to observations and measurements. Instead of feeling evaluated, an employee is likely to feel directed, supported, and knowledgeable about where he or she stands.

There is no greater fear in an employee than worrying about what the boss thinks. There is no confidence greater than knowing the truth of that opinion right now, while there is still time to do something about it.

Argument 2: Performance reviews are largely clueless  on the value of failure

Imagine this scenario: You are an executive with significant profit and loss responsibility. One of your most promising managers has just led a two-year late-to-market death march on a brand extension that has launched and failed. The team that worked on this product is angry and exhausted. Boatloads of resources, including millions of dollars of investment capital, have gone up in smoke. You have lost market share, customer service complaints are up, and your own boss is pissed off.

In most corporations, you can guess the review would be harsh. There would have to be accountability for the downside, the losses, the ceding of momentum. In the event you chose not to put the manager on a “performance improvement plan” (which both you and the employee know is a scripted formality), the mandated gravitas of your critique might get you the intended outcome—the employee’s resignation. If the employee doesn’t resign, what are the real chances he or she will bounce back and give their all on the next go around? Aren’t they more likely to tread water until they find a way to navigate to a new job elsewhere?

Here’s the problem with this exit: Your employee takes all the learning from the failure directly to your competitor. You have funded the education of your competition and put yourself further behind the curve by virtue of the reprimand. You got what you wanted, except you didn’t. A performance review codifies failure “for the record” as historical documentation of the negative case, and even where it might allude to the notion that learning has occurred, there’s something about those pieces of paper in our “permanent file” that never sits quite right with us. Talk with me as colleague, make me believe you embrace “mi fracaso es su fracaso,” and together we’ll put this learning to work. Mold my upside down experiment into a tombstone and you can forever bury me and all that might someday come of it.

Argument 3: Performance reviews require a level of mentoring expertise few managers ever master

It’s really hard to explain to someone how they can learn from mistakes and get better at what they do. I’m not saying it’s a little hard. It is one of the hardest things any of us are ever asked to do in a job function. Each time we blow it, we never get a chance to repair the enormous damage we create on top of whatever relatively minor damage has already been done. A career is a terrible thing to waste, yours or mine. Do you really feel up to the right to objectively assess where I’ve gone off the rails?

We need to be extraordinarily careful where we entrust the authority for talent evaluation in an organization. Too often it’s the battlefield promotion—or drawing the short straw—that puts an inexperienced manager on point for filling out these crazy forms. It’s a mistake to believe you’re ready to handle this delicate task simply because of where you sit on an org chart.

Let’s try that performance review about failure again in the form of higher level feedback rather than evaluation, from someone who has been at it several decades and really wants a winning outcome. The leader entrusted with course correction can ask a single question, and then shut up for about half an hour while listening to the answer: What did you learn from this failure?

If an employee has little or nothing to say in response—if the answer you hear lacks substance or authenticity in addressing what might come next—proceed to complete the performance review. It doesn’t matter what you write on the page. Your competitor is getting nothing but a disingenuous cost center. Lucky you. Yet if you like what you hear, you have the beginnings of a rebound, because all learning is valuable in a comeback. No one knows more than an employee who has failed what went wrong and how to course correct. It’s not about a performance review. It’s about what comes next, and how you get better.

A performance review is a task, feedback is a means

There are a hundred legal reasons your company wants documented performance reviews, every one of them sensible and with precedent. Sadly not one of them has anything to do with innovation. It’s not failure if it’s learning. Not many people ever learn to think this way. Any success subsequent to a failure can pay for the failure ten times over, a hundred times over. Any lost knowledge following a failed initiative is plain old sunk cost.

I write often about employer and employee loyalty and my sense is how employees are evaluated has a lot to do with their predisposition to hanging around for next year’s evaluation. Maybe you shouldn’t wait a year to communicate something that matters so much in a format that makes Human Resources happy. Remember, most employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. The really talented ones who have options are likely to despise performance reviews, but they love talking with someone who cares about what they do and how they can get better.

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This article originally appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.

Photo: SmartBlog on Leadership

The Most Terrifying Job Interview Question of All

InterviewWe’ve all been there, on one side of the desk or the other, possibly both. You’re making the turn on the final few minutes of a later stage job interview. You’ve covered background, work history, strengths, interests, team compatibility, maybe even a few unnecessary logic problems tossed in so the interviewer can show you how clever he or she is. You’ve answered the all too predictable homestretch inquiry: Where do you see yourself in five years? You’ve even managed to answer it well, mixing ambition, humility, and a tiny dose of self-effacing humor. And then it comes, that one ugly question you thought surely the interviewer had forgotten to ask, but you knew was loaded deep in the cannon ready to be fired:

What would you consider some of your areas for improvement?

Gasp! There it is, unmistakable in its clarity, a full-blown cliché in its entrance, unforgiving in its existential presence. You must answer. Let’s play it out three ways that could happen and see what might land.

Scenario 1: I’m Okay, You’re a Meddling Schmoe

Interviewer: Are there any areas of personal development you’d like to improve on in your next position?

Applicant: Uh, no, not really.

Interviewer: None at all? Surely there is something you’d like to do better at this job than you demonstrated at another job.

Applicant: No, can’t say there is. Maybe when I was younger there were some issues, but I think I’ve long since put those to bed.

Interviewer: I’m curious, tell me about some of those areas that needed polish when you were younger.

Applicant: To tell you the truth, I can’t much remember. That was a long time ago, before I figured things out.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of defensiveness, dishonestly, being unprepared, and shutting down the conversation. Interviewer also loses, may have eliminated a decent candidate from the queue by being strident and intrusive.

Scenario 2: I’m Not Okay, You Busted Me in Open Court

Interviewer: You really do seem well-qualified and a potentially excellent fit for this position. I was wondering, are there any areas of improvement you want to focus on that we haven’t covered that might be worth discussing?

Applicant: Well, to be honest, I don’t suffer fools all that well. When certain people on a team aren’t on their game, I can he a little harsh in my criticism.

Interviewer: That’s interesting. So by harsh, you try to rally those around you to give their all and make sure the team’s output is always at its best?

Applicant: I wish that were the case. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that when someone is an idiot, there isn’t much anyone on a team can do to get them to perform. The simple truth is, a team needs to weed out its weakest players. I know I’m at the top of my game, so I only want to play with people at the top of their games. You said your company was committed to excellence. We’re fully aligned there. I will do all I can to make excellence happen, but that can get messy, you know?

Interviewer: Right, so what I think I hear you saying is you’d like to focus a little in the coming years on tolerance and more productive ways of motivating your colleagues.

Applicant: Yeah, I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work. And come on, tolerance? Do you want people who tolerate idiots on your payroll along with the idiots? That’s an expensive proposition.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant loses on the counts of self-centered obsession, lack of tact, lack of diplomacy, and potential sociopathic narcissism. Interviewer wins on the count of revelation, transparency, and avoidance of dozens of team sit-downs in search of collegiality.

Scenario 3: I Want to Grow, Together We Can Get to New Heights

Interviewer: I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you today. One question that comes up sometimes in interviews—and I know this can be a little awkward—but are there any growth areas in your career where you might want to advance from good to great in your next position?

Applicant: If you’re asking are there any areas where I can improve, the answer is most certainly yes. How could it be otherwise? Every job we tackle is an opportunity, and part of that opportunity is the chance to get better at what we do. For me, it’s about carving out the time to dissect the prior day’s work before continuing with the next day’s work, no matter how fast things are moving.

Interviewer: Are you saying that in the past you have been too spontaneous, too impulsive around getting more done before you have nailed down the details of what already has been accomplished?

Applicant: That’s an interesting way of phrasing it. I don’t think I have ever thought about it that way. No, that doesn’t really sound like me. But teams in high performance environments tend to feed off each other’s energy, and sometimes the tiniest details that didn’t seem to matter the day before really do open or close doors to the next phase of development. What I’d like to be able to do is take a leadership role in planning each day’s work more carefully, rather than just jumping in and getting stuff done because we’re on a deadline.

Interviewer: Around here we are always on deadlines. Do you think you’ll be able to get your teammates on board to devote the extra thought cycles to strategy before action?

Applicant: Actually I do, because I come to you with many examples from my past work where forging ahead without reflection cost us time instead of creating it. I think as I work on this myself, others will see the value, and together all our work will rise to a higher level.

Buzzer sounds. End of interview. Applicant wins on proposing a clearly valuable area of self-improvement that isn’t so much a confession as it is a rallying cry for shared experience in an improved workplace. Interviewer wins because an honest relationship has been established where probing does not lead to indictment, but authenticity and leadership by example.

Can a Minus Be a Plus?

If a minus can’t be a plus, why would an interviewer ask the question? That’s the whole point of asking an applicant if they have any self-identified areas for improvement. In Scenario 1, the Applicant bats away the question, the Interviewer is immediately suspicious, and no relationship can be established. In Scenario 2, the Applicant is unnecessarily candid, to the point of celebrating a shortcoming rather than addressing it, leaving the Interviewer permanently fearful and unable to bridge to a relationship. In Scenario 3, the Applicant is ready for the question, hungry to embrace personal challenge as real opportunity, and the Interviewer’s imagination can blossom to a broadening relationship that benefits the entire organization.

Two key takeaways: First, once you’re past competency, an interview is about character and compatibility—in other words, forming a relationship. If you don’t use the interview to explore the underpinnings of a relationship such that the values of a candidate align with the values of a company, a real fit isn’t going to be there. Second, if you know an interview question has a 75% or better chance of being asked, don’t wait until the question is asked to form an answer, and don’t become defensive because you don’t like the question. Thoughtfulness and preparation are your best friends before you walk into a room. You’re going to get asked these things, so please think about them in advance and always answer with authority as well as authenticity.

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This article originally appeared on Beyond.com

Rotten Choices, Rotten Jobs

Tenure 2010 BLSMaybe I’m getting a tad older. Or maybe with a few added laugh lines I can see a tad more clearly. Here’s what I see:

Too many people leaving too many jobs much too quickly.

What might that mean?

When I look around, I see way too many folks I know pushing themselves to perspiration to land a job, then in the first few weeks discovering they don’t like it (or it doesn’t like them). They leave in a year or less, maybe two years, three becomes a stretch. Then they leave and step on the conveyor belt anew.

What’s going on here? Is it generational? Is this a millennial thing?

Afraid not. It’s an epidemic. I am seeing it across the board, people of all ages and levels of experience. We might like to believe the way of the world now is job-hopping and we should get used to it, but I would like to suggest it’s more than “internet time” that’s wasting these human cycles. I think too often we bring it on ourselves and then make excuses for it.

Perhaps all this casual turnover is a symptom of a more pernicious ill—the unstructured, undisciplined application of choice.

Rotten choices. Rotten jobs. Crappy bosses treading in goo. Crappy performances by individuals biding their time before they get caught dialing it in.

Gee, Ken, there’s a dose of optimism! So glad I stopped by the open door.

Don’t worry, the optimism is coming, down in the punchline at the end. First let’s look at why these jobs are so short-term. I’ll give you four legs of the stool (metaphor intended):

1) Mediocre Products: Seriously, how can anyone do a great job jamming a me-too knock-off? On my weekly radio spot with Barb Adams last week we talked at length about the failure of Google Plus. Imagine working that hard on a death march with all the resources of a powerful company behind you, only to release a weak knock off of your rival, Facebook. A very quick way to burn up the employee-employer relationship is to sound the rallying cry of importance, then have to explain why it was all words and little action. Solution: Think strategy before you think deployment of resources. Ask What and Why before How and When—what customer problem are you solving, and why are you the right company to solve it. Then grind!

2) Amateur Leadership: I’ve said it many times in these articles—people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. If you’ve never had a good boss, you probably will repeat the cycle and stink at it. It’s wonderful to see so much young energy driving the latest wave of startups, but as these New World startups get momentum, they take on many of the same problems as Old World companies. Battlefield promotions abound, and you can’t fake it in front of an army of grizzled veterans no matter how clever you think your quips are. Solution: Mentorship! If you never had a good boss, find one of those grizzled veterans who was a good boss and surgically attach yourself to him or her. You can do this privately or publicly, but don’t be afraid to ask innumerable questions, and whatever you may ultimately choose to do, be sure you LISTEN! Also remember that anytime you choose to have a boss you are leaving some money on the table (the value you create pays your boss’s salary), so if you are giving up income, you should be getting something for that, and it’s called LEARNING. Ask for this benefit upfront. If you’re not getting better at what you do because of your boss, you’re getting burned.

3) Hiring by SEO: Indeed I Love LinkedIn, but if the primary reason a manager makes a hire is because of the keyword overlap between what they need and what someone else has done (evidenced by lots of highlights in the overlay), start the countdown clock. This cuts both ways, company and applicant. Solution: Hire and accept a position for character and compatibility as well as competency. Every company has a culture (and if you think your company doesn’t have a culture, that’s the company culture). A hiring manager needs to Think Different as a team expands. A star individual achiever may not be a consensus player. Legendary companies begin and grow through culture, and that comes from people. And don’t forget diversity. Without it, your products are going to be mighty ordinary.

4) Job Application without Roadmap: If you the hiring manager don’t know what is going to light your fire, what makes you think the person with the offer letter has flint? You must have a notion of what you need now as well as where that relationship can evolve before you begin interviewing. A candidate also has to evaluate not just whether he or she is a fit today but where this position might lead over time. If you think of the opportunity as a relationship, you’ll know you need to leave room to let it expand. Solution: Get clear about yourself first, then start to think about soliciting or fielding offers. If you’re thinking short-term, don’t be surprised if the results are short-term. The immediate need before you is not an end in itself but a launching point. If you’re not thinking that way, the revolving door will soon be spinning.

There’s no question the employment landscape has changed significantly with the generational shift. There is now little stigma associated with short job tenure on a resume. Few pensions remain to hold people in place. Headhunters comb online profiles for middle management as well as senior positions (sometimes entry-level positions!). Self-employment and consulting are becoming increasingly viable alternatives to third-party employment. Many people now value lifestyle over career achievement and will dump a job if it underperforms their personal expectations. Yet even with all that, I hear one heartbreaking story after another about talented individuals departing gigs before they could make a lasting contribution or feel proud about their productivity. You can switch jobs all you want, but you still get one life. What do you want it to be about?

About that punchline and a scoop of optimism—try this on for size: Anyone can change the world, but few people will. You can change the world. That’s not a slogan and it’s not hyperbole. It’s the fuel of innovation, the only true gas in the tank of the companies we admire. Decide how you want to change the world, at any scale large or small, and connect that vision to an employer’s honest promise to let you have that chance. Do you think anyone could pry you out of that job with a flame-heated crowbar? Fat chance. You’ll stay where you’re wanted, and where people let you do the best work of your career. Find that, and the words “rotten” and “crappy” will be replaced by more upbeat adjectives than exist in any vocabulary.

Stop whining. Start growing. Stop offering and accepting dead-end gigs you already know are terminal. Our time is precious, and you’re running out of it. Change the world.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Mentoring is the Secret Sauce

YodaLast month I gave a talk at Innovate Pasadena on mentoring. I shared some reflections on what it has meant to me to have mentors in my personal and work life, and what it means to me to be a mentor when I have the opportunity. I talked about my former staff members who still call me up, the new people whose journey I have joined, and how all that creates an ecosystem of mutual support, vibrant feedback loops, and trusted opinion testing.

It is worth noting given the inescapable subjectivity in this meditation that this is simply how I think about the world, one mentor’s opinion as it were, and not meant to be an encyclopedic statement for all worthy mentors at large. That said, here are some of the key ideas I covered:

What is mentoring? My definition: One person who has ideas and experience to offer engaging in a relationship with another person who has ideas and experience to offer. It’s a two-way street. If it’s not a relationship—which means give and take—it does not work.

What isn’t it? It isn’t me making the hard decisions for you that you don’t want to make for yourself. I think of this as a Socratic dialogue where I get to ask you a lot of questions. You’re going to do all the work, because it’s your work, and I won’t let you dump your work on me.

Am I going to step on your fingers or tell you you’re awesome? Yes. It depends on what you need. This is jazz. I go with the flow. BTW, if you’re not awesome, I’m not going to be interested at all. If I’m hard on you, it’s because I need to be, not because I want to be. If I don’t say anything at all, it’s because I have given up—that’s the worst thing that can happen.

What’s the difference between consulting, coaching, and mentoring? I have given a three-day seminar on this, but think of it this way: When I’m consulting, you’re paying for my experience to fix a problem; you want a recommendation and you want it backed up. When I’m coaching, you’re paying me for my time to bring out the best in you. I think of both consulting and coaching as relatively shorter-term assignments that surely can be extended, and while mentoring encompasses elements of both, I think of it as a longer-term engagement, even if sporadic. When I’m mentoring, we’re both investing in a relationship that helps you do your job, that brings both of us benefits, tangible and intangible. I don’t expect anything when I consult except to get paid on time, which is why I don’t do much of it. I don’t expect you to give back when I’m coaching, I expect you to perform. When I’m mentoring, I expect to get something back from you, even if it’s just satisfaction, but I also expect to learn things from you that I can redirect elsewhere.

Can your boss be your mentor? Yes, if you are very lucky. I’ve had a few bosses who were fantastic mentors. They were 100% in my corner. They were not competing with me. I have also had awful bosses who said all the buzzwords but couldn’t have cared less if I lived or died as long as I made them rich. If you don’t have a good boss, and odds are you don’t, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, then find yourself a mentor. I promise you, the mountain climb ahead is going to hurt a lot less if you have someone who really cares about you—other than your spouse, who is truly tired of hearing all your business problems and probably can’t help you more than she or he already has.

How do I find a mentor? They will probably find you, and the question is, will you be paying attention? Almost no one fills out a mentoring application or posts a listing on Craigslist to be a mentor. Coaches and consultants do that. Mentors opt into a relationship as it naturally expands. Keep your eyes open! If someone is taking an interest in your work, go with it. Incubators and accelerators offer formal and informal ways to meet industry experts, but so do community centers and shared-interest groups. If someone invests in your company and he or she is showing an interest in more than your financial performance, spend more time with them. Do things for people all the time and they will do things for you, often when you least expect it and most need it. You don’t have to ask, “Will you be my mentor?” In fact, most of the time I find out years afterward that someone thought of me as a mentor. It happens naturally.

Will I open my Rolodex to you? OK, first, what’s a Rolodex? The answer is yes, selectively, as trust builds. If I’m financially invested in your success and I think you’ll do well with an open door, I may open it. If I’m not personally invested in you but I think there is a win-win introducing you to someone I know, I may do it, but understand, my network and my reputation are among my most important assets, so if you take advantage of my network, it’s one and done.

Do I get compensated? This can be tricky. Sometimes there is money involved in mentoring, sometimes not. First and foremost, if I admire your commitment or like what you’re brave enough to be attempting, I just do it because thank goodness someone did it for me. I have about 200 or so people from past gigs whom I still call back for free. If you worked for me in the past and reach out to me and you weren’t a turd, I’ll always call you back promptly. Sometimes in a board situation I might get paid something meaningful at liquidity. Sometimes if liquidity is a long way off and it makes sense for everyone involved given the time commitment, I might take a retainer fee. Often I get involved in a project on pure spec with the vague potential of phantom equity. A lot here depends on how much sequential time is involved, as well as how curious I am about your vision. Free or paid, cash or stock, what matters is that we both feel good about it, that the material and spiritual rewards all feel fair, and we are always transparent in our expectations.

Do you have to listen to your mentor for it to work? Yes, you have to listen. You don’t have to do what I say, but I have to know you’re listening. If you’re not listening, then why am I talking? If you just want my contacts or my money, I’m not a mentor, I’m something else. If I say something and you decide you don’t want to do it, that’s cool; just explain your thought process so I know that we are in this together. If you blow me off or don’t afford me that level of respect, I am going to bail.

Must you pay it forward and backward? You must. If you’re not planning to help someone down the road, don’t expect to keep my interest. Good people attract good people. If you join this club, expect to stay in it for life.

 

Stop Dropping the Ball

MittBallI get called frequently to help companies with their brands. Usually this involves helping identify the competitive advantages in products and services, articulating the unique selling proposition around innovations that constitute a customer promise, and then devising a sustainable communications strategy around that promise. That’s the hard part.

There is also an easy part. At the potential obviating of substantial advisory services going forward, here is an exceptionally simple way to solve half your problems. Ready? This applies equally to your personal life and your professional life. Copy and paste the following two words on the palms of your hands so you can see them every hour of every day:

Follow through.

Yes, it is that easy. A brand is a promise. There are three potential paths that follow a promise: (1) you fulfill the promise, wherein you satisfy and keep a customer, at least until someone leapfrogs you; (2) you exceed the promise, wherein you create an evangelist who markets for you; or (3) you violate the promise, wherein you create nasty noise in the marketplace that speaks ill of your offering at every possible turn.

When you break a business promise, you undermine the brand. When you break a personal promise, you undermine your own credibility. This is not negotiable. This is as hard-core real and irreversible as it gets. You need to follow through.

Here are several recent examples of broken brand promises:

  • My wife left her mobile phone on a plane. We went to baggage services. They couldn’t find it. They said they would call us the next day. They didn’t.
  • I went to pay my health insurance bill online as I do every month (I’m told recurring billing is for some reason not available on my plan). This time the system was broken. After on hour on the phone, I got a customer service representative who said she saw the problem in their system, that it would be fixed in 24 hours, and she would call me back. She didn’t call me back, and it wasn’t fixed. A week later I called again and began the process anew. This time another rep gave me entirely different instructions and said he had no idea why the previous rep had instructed me as she did.
  • We hired a contractor to do some work at the house. He didn’t show up. He didn’t call. When we rescheduled and he did show up the next time four hours late, my wife asked why he missed the previous appointment and was now four hours late. He said, “Well, I’m here.”
  • I filled out a time sensitive form online with a state agency. About a week later, I received a personalized letter via snail mail acknowledging my inquiry, conveying that the signer of the letter would get back to me promptly with an action plan. I never heard from him again.
  • A journalist for a high-profile financial periodical contacted me by email to conduct an interview about my book. I agreed and suggested a time. She asked if I could change that to a time that was more convenient for her and I agreed to that time. I gave her my mobile number. She did not call me at the appointed time. After 15 minutes I emailed her and asked if we were still on. Two hours later she emailed and apologized for missing the call because of an emergency. She asked if she could email me the questions. I said yes and she said she would send them. She never did.
  • A producer from a media company emailed me an inquiry to help his company launch a new venture. I said I would be happy to talk about it and suggested some times. I never heard from him again.

Yes, I know, everyone is busy. It’s completely normal to leave loose ends open in our fragmented, email overloaded lives. It can happen to anyone. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave people hanging if you have a good excuse. They will forgive you as soon as the words “I’m sorry” cross your lips.

Baloney! You’re living in a fantasy world if this is what you’ve convinced yourself, no matter if you are a rookie or a veteran. And you’re not as good as you think you are. Not even close. Otherwise you wouldn’t have left me blowing in the wind to be picked off by a competitor.

Winners say what they are going to do and then do it. I don’t care if you have to make lists of your lists. If you aren’t going to do something, don’t tell someone that you areand you’re scot-free off the hook. If you say you are going to do something and then you don’t do it, you lied. Yes, you lied. Or your company representative lied. And by transitive logic, your company lied. To a customer. That is the customer’s perception.

Think you can buy a big bubbly bag of advertising to win back the trust of that customer? Have fun calculating the ROI.

Think you can apologize and win back my trust? You can’t.

Maybe I have choices at the moment, maybe I don’t. If I don’t have choices now, I will soon. That’s what creative destruction is all about, old failed systems being replaced by better ones. Constraints on distribution are lifted from entrenchment every day. No matter what you have to offer, no matter how good you are at what you do, if you don’t show up as promised, you will be replaced. No one will feel sorry for you. No one will bat an eye when you crumble under your own incompetence or arrogance.

This really isn’t hard. In fact it’s as easy as it can possibly get. Make a promise, keep a promise. Follow through all the time. Do that and call me for the other half of your brand problems.

Help, You Need Someone

“Hope you are well.”

We are all guilty of typing those words. It’s the email equivalent of “Have a nice day,” though usually as a salutation. It means that in a few sentences someone is going to ask you for a favor. In customary parlance, it’s someone you haven’t heard from in quite some time. It’s also likely someone who doesn’t much care if you are well.

Help2In the very early days of this blog, I wrote a piece of advice about networking. I thought about that a lot these past few weeks with the release of my novel. Launching a first book at mid-life is a somewhat absurd task. The odds of commercial success are so tiny, you almost can’t calculate them. When countless people in my network—from high school through college through each phase of my career—rallied to my support across the board, I was literally breathless. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for these people: job referral, job reference, resume review, preparation for a pitch, media training, media intervention, hospital visit, you name it! I am there for them in perpetuity, and they are here for me now.

Don’t take this for granted. It does not happen by accident, nor does it happen as the norm. If you haven’t yet been crushed by that discovery, you will soon enough. Don’t be dismayed. Only you can fix the problem, and it’s a problem worth fixing. But it’s not a sticky patch on a leaky roof.

Networking is still so bizarrely misunderstood, it boggles my mind. It is not a system of stored and replaced favors. It is the building of bonding relationships where people want and choose to help each other. Pay It Forward is about as constructive a strategy for longevity as I’ve experienced. Relentless excellence and indefatigable commitment aren’t bad either.

If you want to have a robust network that might help you someday when you truly need the help, build it now; you’re already behind. If you think you can pull off a big-time favor swap real-time, you’re almost certainly deluding yourself. Build your network for the future by offering to do things for others, even if it’s an inconvenience. If you do it enough, some of that work will create powerful memories of connection, even more than appreciation. That’s a well filled with sweet water when you are someday thirsty.

At the very least, if you have nothing to offer someone, show a keen interest in what they do. A few weeks ago I gave a talk about my book at Stanford. I did it because a friend who loved the book asked me. My friend showed enthusiasm, her friend (the teacher) showed enthusiasm, I responded with enthusiasm. No tangible value was created, no business leads exchanged; it was all just goodwill. Yet that wasn’t what won in the networking. One of the students reached out to me after the class with a well-composed email discussing an enigma surrounding one of the characters in the book. The student asked me how that applied to a real-world work situation. It took me a while but I responded, which opened the door for the student to ask some more heartfelt questions. I liked the heartfelt part, that’s just me, but that student has now bridged access to what was once a total stranger’s network. To me, that’s good business practice. We’ll see how he works it over the next decade. I’ll bet he handles it well.

Here’s another example: A few years ago I was in a weekend workshop, not as instructor but participant. I saw promise in the material and was there for the learning. There were people at all levels of their careers and personal development; ages spanned four decades. One individual was quite young and struggling, fresh from college outside the United States, but passionate and curious about everyone’s life path. I asked her after the workshop to email me once or twice a year to let me know how her career was going. Strangely enough, she has. I’ve received about a half-dozen updates, not too many but enough that I remember her name and long-term goals. I’ve given her some advice, but nothing of real value yet. I’m guessing at some point I will. Maybe she’s banking on it, or maybe she’s just sincere. English is not her first language, but she has not as yet typed the words “Hope you are well.”

Staying in touch is not a onetime event. It takes work to be connected, give and take, sharing ideas and information, not just asking for something. If you don’t want to do the work, don’t bother extending the outreach. You would be shocked at how many people I’ve suggested stay in touch with me after an initial meeting and never do. They forget, or they don’t care, or they don’t see value in it, or they are disheartened by the lack of immediate gratification. I am grateful to them. It helps me manage my workload—one less rising star I might someday champion.

Watching new grads bang their heads against the job market is terribly frustrating, because they haven’t had the experience to know how they could approach it better, with fortitude and resilience. Watching later career professionals suffer the same resistance is even more frustrating, because by now they should have powerful networks of their own, but if they didn’t invest along the way in others, that network today is likely too thin. Remember that LinkedIn and Facebook are tools, but networks are between people. The glue that bonds networks is history, and history comes from doing things, often and selflessly, for and with each other. When it comes to bolstering a platform of human support for your unlikely and unexpected needs, you’ll need to make that brand deposit now for future withdrawal. No surprise, you have to Think Different. It’s not a quid pro quo, you don’t get a favor for giving a favor (not a good one, anyway), but if you authentically invest in goodwill, you’ll enjoy a deep reserve of goodwill. When it’s time to dip your ladle, you want it to be an underground lake.

Networking is not what you can do for me. Networking is what I can do for you. Before you ask.