Godspeed, Barack Obama

obama-farewell

I found President Obama’s farewell speech magnificent. Maybe he did divide the nation. So did Abraham Lincoln. On matters of principle it’s necessary to force us to face our lesser selves. Social justice, inequality, racial bias, healthcare as a human right, healing our polluted planet, science and data as benchmarks, yeah, those are divisive issues that need to be in our faces.

Where he divided us on the what, he will be a historic figure in the continuum of our empathy — as he said, this is a process and we’re not where we need to be. Where he divided us on the how, I have empathy for the lines where we split — that is political and he is admittedly imperfect, driving us to carry the torch to fix the unsolved problems of implementation.

We should disagree, but not as much about the what as the how. It’s healthy to divide on the how until thesis and antithesis resolve in synthesis. Where we can disagree respectfully on matters of resource allocation, we can commit to working together toward compromise. Where we shouldn’t disagree on matters of fairness and sustainability, we must continue to grow as a nation and people.

Barack Obama leaves office loved by many not just within our borders, but in the global community where he is a welcomed traveler. That kind of passion is extraordinary. His style is content. He is embraced as an ambassador of authenticity, positive change, and achieving complex goals. He reminds us what we can be if we set the bar higher than we can ever imagine.

Among those of us who feel this sense of love, our admiration is heartfelt and has been earned. Love is about inspiration and aspiration. Love causes us to care more, work harder, and believe in a call to service. We know this because we have lived it together, guided by his leadership, knowing we are part of something that has mattered and will continue to matter.

On this Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday, it is my true joy to say the only words I know that express my pride, admiration, and humble gratitude to the outgoing President of the United States: Thank You. His courage, his life example, his visionary contribution to our world may not be repeated in my lifetime. To have shared these eight years with him from afar has reminded me that hope is possible, good deeds are possible, one person’s life can forever make a difference for the better in the legacy of selflessness.

I don’t think I have ever been more inspired to thought and action than I have by this man. He will forever be in my heart. He makes me want to spend my remaining years trying even harder to help lift humanity a tiny inch higher.

Yes, we can.

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

Those Thin Blurred Lines

The more I watch this year’s election unfold — especially the Presidential Debates — the more I am reminded of that old axiom I wrote about early in the life of this blog, “Our greatest strengths are our greatest weaknesses.”

Campaigning for office is no small trick.  A candidate enters the race with a set of convictions, values,and ideas, as well as a personal communication style and inescapable personality quirks.  That individual has to maintain authenticity while winning support from those who might not be all that easy to convince. We play by the rules in a democracy of representation, where majority rule determines our elected officials and they determine our laws, ostensibly voicing the will of the people.  Yet we also seek leadership from aspiring candidates and those elected, to help the electorate understand and embrace new concepts and styles they may not initially support, but leaders believe they may come to support.

How jolly is that?  Be yourself, but not so much that non-supporters rule you out, then enact the will of the people, while helping guide them to points of view they don’t necessarily embrace.  Lots of contradiction.  You’d wonder why anyone would want to do it — yet hardly unique to electoral politics.

Anywhere there are people, there are politics.  If you don’t think you have office politics all around you on the job, perhaps you work under a cone of silence.  There are politics in families, politics in communities, politics among friends.  Our very individuality — those special and defining ideas and elements that make us unique — ensure that we will not always agree with one other individual, let alone a pack.  John Stuart Mill famously wrote about the Tyranny of the Majority, one of the more challenging aspects of democracy, where a single brave voice is sometimes necessary to dissent from common agreement and be willing to be right, however unpopular.

And there you have it, the individual in conflict who has to win support, yet be true to self or risk critique of being a phony.  That individual — whether President Obama, Governor Romney, Vice President Biden, or Representative Ryan — knows most of all that their greatest strengths are surely their greatest weaknesses.  As I have watched them in the debates, well-prepared but under extreme pressure, I have seem them dart in real-time between polar opposites, showing us who they are and what they think, but attempting to course correct for acceptable balance where too much polarity will ensure ultimate failure.  Here’s a short list of what I am seeing push and pull for the proper outcome, like so many other people I know in uncountable contexts:

Confidence vs. Humility.

Courage vs. Recklessness.

Introspection vs. Salesmanship.

Creativity vs. Predictability.

Flexibility vs. Resolve.

Idealism vs. Realism.

Humor vs. Gravitas.

Accountability vs. Deniability.

Talking vs. Listening.

Watching vs. Acting.

Thinking vs. Doing.

Responsiveness vs. Perspective.

Candor vs. Diplomacy.

Attributes as well as ideas always create balancing acts, with true and effective balance so rare, so hard to find.  Perhaps that’s why it is easy to point the finger at our elected officials with accusations of their flip-flopping and being two-faced.  They try to be themselves, yet they try to appeal to those who might find them objectionable — just like the rest of us in our working and non-working interactions.

No one wants to elect or work for a hypocrite or a say-anything, do-anything, be-anything competitor.  Yet maybe we are missing some of the point, that there are those among us who can find balance, slide across the middle and back again, and master the manner of dialing back some of their strengths while bolstering their weaknesses as one and the same act.  Tough to even think about, but where you see a true winner, it is possible you may be seeing someone so in touch with their diverse attributes that they cause you to embrace the unfamiliar and unsuspecting in ways you hadn’t imagined.  Call that person a master politician — or someone who knows how to lead by bridging the resistance of those around them and inspiring the imagination that builds a following.

What are some of the Yin-Yang qualities that you observe in the candidates, good and bad?  In those with whom you work?  In yourself?  Please share them, let’s see what the list looks like when we build it together as recognition, with a keen focus on impact, implication, and outcome.  Where style is content, look for the bridge to consistency and authenticity.

Debate Takeaways Tallied Tactfully

I try hard in this blog to leave out my personal politics, which isn’t all that hard to do since I consider the topic of business innovation and its various threads to be about as nonpartisan a subject as there should be.  Business enterprise and creativity are as fundamental to a shared sense of values as I can imagine, and where we may often disagree on the “how” I hope we don’t much disagree on the “why.”  Together we create our economy, our opportunities, and our experiment in progress called democracy.  We argue as we should about issues of governance and legal particulars, but we should agree that following the law is our duty as much as evolving it with the times is our right.

What does all that have to do with the Presidential Debates?  While I was watching the first of them this week, I saw as I often do a collection of ideas that can be applied to our business thinking, in complete abstraction of the of the candidates, what they said, or who won, if there is such a thing (anytime rigorous and important discussion is had in front of and with the people, the people win).  Presidential Debates are anything but ordinary, like the Olympics we have to wait four years for the next staging, but other than reinforcing what we already believe or possibly swaying a swing voter, there seems a deeper construct evidenced and worth exploring.

During the first debate one of my friends on Facebook likened it to a supercharged job interview, where the applicants were down to the final two, and given the stakes forced to faceoff in front of a panel consisting of more than 65 million of their prospective employers.  I liked that analogy a lot — I am not even sure it is an analogy — but I was thinking about the event a little differently.  For some reason, the debate struck me as the ultimate competitive sales call, where rather than entering a prospective client’s office before or after your potential competitor, you had to handle the sales call in tandem.  Many of us have been on more sales calls than we want to remember, but seldom have I heard people either leaving or entering the room thinking of the other guy as their opponent.  Perhaps that is more the case than we think — if that were going through our minds, we might approach the business pitch a little differently.

What stood out for me in the debate was the immense amount of time both candidates invested in preparation for the 90 minutes they spent together in the public eye.  That 90 minutes on the rarely shared dais probably felt like a lifetime to the candidates, or opponents, but once it was behind them, it probably felt like a millisecond.  I am sure the time leading up to the debate never felt excessive, as every precious moment invested in preparation was clearly a tradeoff borrowed from some other critical activity.  As they felt the pressure of the event nearing, those tradeoffs had to favor dedicated preparation pods over other pressing conflicts.  Preparation time is always discretionary, but imagine procrastinating too long when you know in heart and mind that preparation is everything.  Definitely reminds me of selling — if you aren’t prepared, you’re sunk, your client expects you to be prepared and has no reason to cut you any slack on a stumble.

Second to preparation, I was struck by its counterpart, the role of extemporaneous behavior, dancing in the moment, listening, reacting, evidencing spontaneity that reflected realtime analysis and response to the unexpected, to the extent anything said might be unexpected.  You can rehearse a speech or pitch perfectly, and both candidates did for multiple segments, but how do you handle the moment when someone says something you believe to be wrong, untrue, or unsupported?  I was wary going into the debate that both opponents had come with a quiver full of “zingers” to flick at the other, where I couldn’t imagine anything less dignified than a canned response played as in the moment.  Luckily we were spared that disrespect, and I take it as a lesson.  There is a huge difference between a heartfelt moment and a too cleverly scripted remark — no one wants to hear B material from an A level player.  The balance of preparation and live playtime is the heart of sales as it was the heart of the debate.  We can argue at will about who did it better, but in my mind I kept thinking how consistently hard this is to pull off, to balance preloaded preparation with inspired retort, the art of the pivot.

Holding the balance between preparation and extemporaneous response was the notion of authenticity.  Each word a candidates says adds to an outcome, and as we all have so often experienced, style is content.  Any debate coach or sales leader will tell you how you say something matters as much or more than what you say, and here again, you have to be careful at all moments under extreme pressure to keep your eyes on the prize.  The presentation layer matters, its visceral nature reflects passion and deliberation, that which people remember more than words.  Yet it can’t be an act, it has to be who you are.  Surely you can say what you want, anything you want, and you can say it any way you want, but ultimately your goal is not to win the debate, it is to win the Presidency.  Cut to the sales call; you need to make a good impression, often you think you need to say what the client wants to hear just to stay in the room, but after you leave the room those words and that style can haunt you.  Are you being consistent with what you said before and what you intend to do after?  Do people believe that is what you really mean?  That is the authenticity of your belief set, it underlies every moment you are on your feet, and it matters.

Only in high school are the trophies handed out after the tournament.  In most of life the true impact comes much later — which means that immediately following the debate is the regroup.  What went right, wrong, better or worse than expected, and how will that be factored into your next encounter.  High stakes exchanges often reward innovation and quick thinking, playing it safe is unlikely to impress, and taking the right risk at the right moment calculated on the spot can be what it takes to close the sale.  These candidates still have time to course correct or double down on their strides, and in the same way, an account is seldom awarded after an early high stakes encounter.  To internalize the impact of your efforts and incorporate that into a subsequent approach is to know you participated in the event rather than performed.  The real prize can still be up for grabs, which takes you back to the process, the cycle — preparation, extemporaneous interaction, authenticity, and strategic evaluation to reposition.

Landing an account of any size will never be the same as a Presidential Debate, but maybe with President Obama and Governor Romney at the podium fixed in your mind, your next high pressured sales call might be a tiny bit better.