T-Shaped Career

I’ve been asked many times whether I’m a generalist or a specialist, and I’ve always struggled to put my self on one side or the other of the divide. Turns out there is a way to describe someone who has elements of both in their career.

T-shaped. The stem of the T applies to the specialist part of your career: your field of expertise or the subject you can go deep on. For me that’s digital. The top of the T applies to the more generalist part of your career, the areas across which you have some knowledge and can collaborate on, often with more of an emphasis on the soft skills.

In my case I know something about, and have worked on projects in, branding, design, marketing communications, human resources and content creation. Most often these projects have had a digital dimension, although I worked on a marketing campaign for Schiphol airport many years ago that was distinctly not digital. (But included a visit to the air-side of Schiphol without buying a ticket which was cool). So the top of my T is communications.

It occurred to me the same pattern exists in relation to other fields. Someone might be interested in sports generally but fanatical about football, another person may love art, but have significant expertise in a single period of art or focus on one medium. Even social justice issues might land the same pattern. If you are against one form of justice then you are against all forms of injustice. That’s the top of the T, but there’s very likely a particular cause that you go deep on: in my darker moments I suspect it’s whatever part of your identity is most likely to get you killed.

But thinking of my career as T-shaped helped me rethink where to focus a recent job search and where I want to spend time developing new skills. It’s also changed how I look at the careers of others, going beyond the title and the narrow skills list to think about cross over skills for teams and ongoing work. It’s been a liberating way to think about careers, more holistic than box-ticking.

What’s in your T?

 

 

Image: Doors choice   |  via pixabay

Behavioural Questions in Job Interviews

I’ve spent a fair bit of time interviewing people over my career, and last year I spent a lot of time being interviewed or preparing for interviews, including the behavioural interview. Behavioural interview questions are designed to help the interview understand how you work. They usually begin with;

  • How did you…
  • Describe a situation when…
  • Give me an example of…
  • What did you do when…

They can feel hard to answer and unpredictable, in fact they’re neither.

Answering Behavioural Questions

There is a way to answer the questions that is easy to prepare for, simple to remember, and relatively quick to deliver. It’s the STAR method.

Situation; Outline the situation that you were acting in
Task; The outcome you needed to achieve
Action; The action or actions you took
Result; The outcome, be clear on what your actions contributed to the outcome, don’t be afraid to take credit for your work. Also be prepared to answer that the result wasn’t as expected if that’s the truth, but then clarify why you didn’t achieve the result you expected.

Here’s how I developed a STAR response to a potential question

Question

Describe a decision you made that was unpopular and how you handled implementing it.

Situation

I was responsible for implementing a new tool to replace old personnel directory, the new tool was better in many ways but did not have all the same functionality. Two groups were unhappy about this decision.

Task 1: Secretaries wanted their contact information connected to their bosses’ profile
2: A group wanted to search by partial phone number, the last four digits
Action 1: We could assess this as valuable for bosses, secretaries and useful for all staff, we implemented this change as a priority
2: We looked at the data and found this was a rare search, we decided not to implement it and explained our decision
Result 1: Secretaries happy, this was a good change and a requirement we’d missed.
2: There were some complaints about our decision for about 10 days. No reaction beyond that.

Usually I only use one situation per response, but in this case I choose to use two as one shows that where other people raise good reasons to alter my view I will change, and the other shows that I can hold my ground when there are no good reasons to change.

Most of my responses were from work situations, but you can use your experience from volunteering organisations, University groups, schools, and your personal life.

Creating this response ahead of an interview means that you will be prepared when the question comes up during the interview, and it will be easy for you to recall the situation and retell the story to the interviewers.

Predicting Behavioural Questions

It might seem that there are an infinity of possible questions an interviewer might ask, but in reality the interviewer is looking for someone to match the job requirements so my first source of behavioural questions is the job vacancy notice. The examples below are all from current vacancy notices for various communications roles on LinkedIn.

Job Vacancy Notice Behavioural Question
A track record of rapidly expanding the reach of social media accounts How did you grow the reach of one or more social media accounts?
Identify and act upon communications issues whilst keeping senior management informed How have you managed the communications around a crisis or a company issue?
Manage relations with external contacts and key stakeholders within the business Describe a situation where you managed the conflicting demands of different stakeholders.
Leading cross-functional project teams to design, deliver, test and successfully roll-out multi-channel projects. Give me an example of a project you led, that delivered across multiple channels.

Note that the question on the right doesn’t include all of what they have said they were looking for in the vacancy notice, but by analysing and planning your responses you’ll cover much more of what they are looking for.

For each item on the vacancy notice that points to activities in your new role design questions and STAR method responses.

I did this for all the vacancies I applied for, and I researched online for common behavioural questions and found multiple lists that cover more generic job requirements such as handling conflict, managing deadlines, learning new skills and motivating others. I made a list with all the questions I came up with and filled in my STAR method responses to create a tool that helped me in my job search.

I then practised telling those stories sometimes to myself (yes, I do talk to myself) and sometimes with a friend, until I could tell the stories in a natural way. I really do recommend practising with someone, it’s hugely helpful.

Tricky Questions

You can predict the behavioural questions and plan your answer, when you’ve practised your responses a few times you’ll be able to adapt your response for various ways interviewers pose the question. But there are a couple of ways you could still get tricky questions.

If you don’t have a situation that matches a behavioural question for the job, say what you would do, for example;

How have you managed the communications around a crisis or a company issue?

I have not had to do this in previous roles, based on my experience in customer care I would …

If you have used one situation to cover more than one Behavioural Question, and you get asked both, refer to your previous answer and take the opportunity to expand on it, for example

Give me an example of a project you led, that delivered across multiple channels.

As I mentioned regarding the Gemini Project, I lead a project that developed multiple forms of content for a range of audiences, let me explain further how we used those for different channels…

If the result wasn’t as good as expected, you can still use the example, but explain why the result was different. For example;

How did you grow the reach of one or more social media accounts?

Our Twitter account had few followers, and our goal was to build those numbers to half a million by year end. We began by building a strong content calendar, and increasing the rate of tweeting from once a day to 4-8 times per day, and repeating content for different timezones. We then ran a series of targeted paid campaigns aimed at increasing our follower numbers, with each sprint we analysed what had worked and adjusted the campaign. At the end of the year we made it to 417,000 which was a great result, but short of our goal. We severely underestimated the amount of paid advertising we would need to commit to, and it was only a late increase in spending that got us over the 400,000 mark.

Preparing well for interviews means you can present yourself in your best light, showing your expertise and demonstrating effective communication skills. That means doing the work; planning for your interview, thinking how you will respond, and practising those responses.

Here’s my list of Behavioural Interview Questions, feel free to download it and adapt it for your own job search. Fill in your own responses and find a friend to practice retelling your responses to. Let them go off script – after all your interviewer is working from their own script.

Good luck!

 

Image: Banner Question Mark  |  geralt  |  CC0 1.0

 

Building Diversity

CM2017_02_diversity.pngThis video came up on the Facebook page of Clementine Ford, an Australian Feminist. It’s about “unconscious bias” the biases we all carry that affect decisions we make, including hiring decisions. It cites the orchestra that auditioned musicians from behind a curtain so that the judges could not determine their gender. Now an Australian film festival is doing something similar after noticing that only 5% of finalists were women, following blind judging that number rose to 50%.

Sexism is not the only bias judges and employers hold, there are reports from the US, Canada, the UK and the Netherlands that associations of race and nationality are made based on a person’s name, often to the disadvantage of non-white candidates. And we all remember the Academy awards a few years ago releasing #OscarsSoWhite.

We know that diversity is good for business, but we’re bad at it.  So how could we make our hiring or judging processes better for diversity?

Use Data

You need to make the unconscious bias visible. In the Tropfest case the organisation looked at their finalists and found that only 5% were female. I’d bet good money that was a lower percentage than anyone realised before doing the research.

Do some research in your own organisation; how many women and minorities are hired? How many are making it through to the highest decision-maker level? If you’re organising a conference do you have a diverse range of speakers? (if you have to try harder it’s your network at fault) If you’re an award giving organisation how many of your nominees are people of colour, LGBT+ or women? And how many of your judges… you get the idea.

Be aware of stereotypes associated with roles, I had a somewhat technical role in a communications department. The head of department congratulated me on helping the department’s diversity figures by hiring a man into a comms team. In reality I’d hired a guy into a slightly technical team – hardly striking a blow for equality. (For the record the gender split in my team was 40:60 women to men, while across the department the split was around 70:30)

Address the Gap

Make sure your company policies and practices encourage diversity – write new policies for your organisation if they don’t. Hint; do this with a diverse group for best results.

I wrote about other steps you can take in an earlier post called Diversity Works. This won’t get better just on good intentions, you will need to take action.

  • make your hiring process more open; from neutral job ads to diversity on the interview panel, can you remove gender and ethnicity signifiers from the CVs for the first round of assessment?
  • look for role models across the company from diverse groups, help them gain visibility across the company and outside the company. Think of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, their slogan is “if she can see it, she can be it”.
  • support groups set up to help minorities in your organisation
  • state your diversity practices on your website and in your job advertisements (Shell has a statement about women in leadership that it puts on every job vacancy)
  • make sure senior people in your company are able to speak about diversity, and do so comfortably – nothing will sink your diversity efforts more quickly than an insincere executive.
  • educate your leaders, your managers, your teams
  • build diversity into your personal network

Diversify Your Network

We all gravitate towards people who look like us, sound like us, share our values. Start building your network to be more inclusive; follow people on twitter who are not like you, read different perspectives, listen to speakers from radically different backgrounds. LISTEN to what they have to say. Resist the temptation to disagree, to put your point of view, to defend yourselves (this is the misstep made by all those well meaning #notallmen posters).

One of the best posts around on this is from Tin Geber, he’s talking about male privilege in relation to inviting women to speak at conferences, but the principles still apply. As he concludes;

It’s on me — and each person reading this — to actively strive to rebalance the playing field.

Measure Progress

The Australian Film Festival went to 5% women finalists to 50% women finalists. They measured their progress and then they talked about it. It must have given aspiring women film directors a boost.

Measure your progress, and talk about it only once you have seen specific improvements.

A lack of diversity won’t change without specific, sustained action. Starting with people of privilege listening and making room.

Image: Diversity  |  Nabeelah Is  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Diversity Works

CM2017_02_diversityworks.png

Diversity works. I know this from personal experience, I’ve always sought to hire people from a range of backgrounds. I know I don’t have all the skills needed in my team so there’s no point hiring more of me. To be specific I’m not great at fine detail; I can go through massive ugly spreadsheets but it’s not my strength. I hire people into my team who have those skills and I value them – partly because I admire the skills and partly because I’m so grateful. In addition for me it’s more fun to hear about Romanian culture, Spanish idioms and Turkish cuisine over lunch than all Dutch stories.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. McKinsey’s research reports a “diversity dividend” of 15% for companies that are gender diverse, and a rocking 35% for companies with ethnic diversity. Correlation does not equate to causation; it may be that high performing companies choose diverse workforces and executive teams rather than diverse teams causing improved performance.

Harvard Business Review unpacks behaviours around diversity a little further and reports on some behaviours that point to diverse teams being smarter. Apparently diverse teams focus more on facts, which contributes to better decision making. Diversity also contributes to innovation.

The studies mentioned so far focus on gender and cultural diversity, but we should look at other personal characteristics such as national origin, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability/disability. I’ve also heard one argument that the NASA team responsible for the first moon landing was more diverse than today’s team; back then there weren’t specialised astronautical studies programmes so the team was the best they could find from a range of fields. Which suggests we should be open to different training and work experience backgrounds (when the role allows it; don’t hire a plumber to a medical team!)

Global PillageFor a very light-hearted look at diversity, in fact an experiment in diversity, listen to the Global Pillage podcast. Each episode takes on a theme and opens with contestants identifying the ways they are diverse – gay, transgender, brown, immigrant, multi-lingual, vegan, left-handed all get a mention. The format is then a quiz between two teams of two people, with the audience able to give their answer. Spoiler alert; the audience (a bigger and presumably more diverse group) usually wins.

To get a more diverse team you have to change how you hire and how you work. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Writing the vacancy notice
    Use gender neutral words, define the role in human language, state your diversity policy (don’t have one? write one). More tips here.
  2. Place the vacancy where it will be visible to diverse groups
    Look for publications, online communities and organisations associated with a range of groups. Reach out to Women in Tech groups for example.
  3. Interviewing across cultures
    Take some time to understand what cultural differences might exist between you and your interviewees. Habits of eye-contact may differ, some cultures show more deference which may seem like a weakness through an anglo-saxon filter.
  4. Flexible working environment
    Are you ready to accommodate someone with disability needs? What about someone who observes Ramadan? Or who celebrates Easter a week later than your company does? Are you able to allow people flexible hours and working from home options? The more you can answer “yes” to these hypotheticals the easier it will be to hire a diverse team.
  5. Culture of inclusion
    It’s not enough to just hire a cast of diverse colleagues, you need a workplace culture that is inclusive – where, as a colleague put it, “everyone can be their best selves”. The more widespread this is, the better. But you can have it in place in your own team, after all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I’ve lived in several different countries, I’ve learnt several languages, my influences are from different sources. For me diversity is an important part of the work environment and yet from the outside I appear to be of the majority. Maybe diversity practices are good for us all.

Image: WOCinTech Chat  |  WOCinTech  | CC BY 2.0 

 

Job Interview

The basics of interview technique are pretty well covered; arrive on time, dress appropriately for the job, research the company, don’t take calls during the interview (wait – people need to be told that?).  These are the things that you need to get right to stay in the running for the job. I’ve just been through a round of recruiting and found a great person to hire. Here are some of the things candidates did that made them stand out.

  1. Show Some Personality
    In how you dress, how you speak, how you behave, and in the stories you tell.
    One of the questions we asked related to working with people resistant to change.  Most people gave a textbook answer about change management. The stand out answer was from the person who began “It cost me a lot of pizza” with a laugh.
  2. Be Enthusiastic
    About the company, the role, what you can bring to it, what it can bring you.This goes beyond research the company, find a way to connect something personal or from your work history to the company. And for goodness sake know which products or services you use. We asked everyone we interviewed what products they had in their home from our company – I didn’t have a predefined “perfect answer” for this, but the guy who recalled seeing an old radio from our company at his grandfather’s house scored bonus points for showing some knowledge of the company’s legacy
  3. Interview the Company
    Think of an interview as a date in that both sides need to learn about each other – you both need to know that this is a relationship worth pursuing. I was at an all day interview a while ago, half way through the day I realised that this was not the right company for me. Frankly it was a relief when they turned me down. Ask questions about work expectations, career advancement, company  values by all means. But ask more, ask your future boss how she (or he) likes to work, ask about the company’s most recent success, ask how they correct mistakes. As about the ambitions of the company, the department and the team you’ll be joining. You’ll learn more about whether this is a match for you from those answers.

You’re going to spend a lot of time with the company working with the people there, it needs to be a match.

As the candidates had been screened based on their CVs and an initial phone interview the people I met were all strong candidates. Following the interviews there were several I would have been happy to bring on board, and one outstanding candidate who starts next month.

The candidates who stood out in the interviews I’ve conducted in the last six weeks showed something beyond a professional confidence – they dared to be themselves.

Image; Beast of a Job Interview / Mike Licht / CC BY 2.0

Employee Engagement

 

 

 

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is often cited as a contributing factor to improved company results, and Kevin Kruse defines it as;

Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.

Engaged employees will go to extra lengths to do their job and serve the business and the customers. Kruse cites examples of people choosing to work overtime without being asked because the work needed to be finished. Essentially they’ll care for the company and its customers.

What’s in it for employees?

If you’re engaged at work you feel pride in your work, in the company you work for, a loyalty to the company. You’re likely to have more intrinsic motivation; a sense of purpose, a willingness to take responsibility, and a desire to learn.

What’s in it for companies?

Engaged employees are seen to be more productive, more service oriented, and better for the profits of the company. It’s so important to companies that they put considerable, and growing effort, into measuring engagement year on year. There is criticism on how it’s measured, but large companies still find value in measuring it.

What do the cynics say?

It’s a term that is an easy target of cynics, some label it as a new name for employee satisfaction, or teamwork. Others consider it a measure of window dressing to make the company look good. It’s often connected to “manager speak” as in this brilliant Dilbert cartoon.

Can you have too much employee engagement?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points to a dark side of employee engagement, reminding readers that engagement is a means to an end – companies pursue it for the productivity results. He also points out that it’s dangerous to expect higher performance to automatically come from higher engagement, managers should instead focus on developing performance at a higher level.

So much for the company perspective, what about for individuals? I believe that in some cases burnout is the direct result of excessive employee engagement. I’ve seen more than one highly professional, highly motivated, engaged employee take on levels of responsibility beyond their capacity, when the company failed to notice – and failed to support them – burnout was the awful outcome.

Can companies build employee engagement?

A friend whose work in internal communications I admire has suggested that engagement is something intrinsic to the person and not dependent on the company. I think there’s some truth in that but I’m not quite so pessimistic. I think you can destroy engagement or you can build it up.

I would like to see a change in how we talk about engagement, the conversation now centres on expectations on the employee and benefits to a company.

Instead I propose that we recognise that the contract between an employee and a company is about the exchange of money for skills and time. That agreement must be a fair exchange. Beyond that it’s up to a company to earn the engagement of all employees by how they treat their staff.

So next time people talk about “building employee engagement”, suggest a switch to “earning employee engagement” and go on from there. It’s a one word change but the approach is completely different.

image happy

Hire Slowly; Fire Quickly

That’s a direct quote from Loren Becker from Zappos, speaking at the International Social Media and PR Summit here in Amsterdam.

Hire Slowly

Zappos’ hiring process includes multiple meetings, including informal meetings with groups of colleagues. Part of the company culture includes socialising together so for them it’s important to know that new hires are good to socialise with.

There were some tweets of concern; seeing this as a step too far into the person’s private time, and perhaps disturbing the work/life balance. But I think most people on the hiring side of the equation have a similar test; we’re all looking for “fit”, will this new person work well in our team, and fit the company’s culture.

Maybe the Zappos approach is too extreme for your company, how about the beer test? I recommended this to a colleague who was recruiting a while ago. When you’re interviewing someone ask yourself “on a random evening after work would I have a beer with this guy?” He applied the test, the answer was “no”, and he hired anyway on the basis that he rarely goes for drinks after work so it didn’t matter. But it’s not whether you will actually have that beer, it’s how you feel about doing it. By the way, in his case the hire was a mistake.

Fire Quickly

If you know you’ve made a mistake hiring someone, fire them quickly.

This is easier to put into effect in the US where the principle of “at-will employment” is used, and harder in Europe where there is a stronger social contract between the employer and the employee. But that’s all the more reason to hire slowly, and to use a probation period. It’s important to communicate with the new hire what you expect in the probation period and to make a fair assessment before taking the step to fire someone.

If you don’t take steps to fire someone who doesn’t perform or who really does not fit the culture (I’m not talking quirky, but major behaviour difference) it’s a drain on the team. They see that low performance is tolerated which reduces their motivation, they can also find it difficult to cope with the different behaviour. A highly co-operative team may absorb a highly competitive colleague – until on a bad day she shouts demands at a junior colleague.

So fire quickly, remove what will otherwise become a festering problem in your team. but the best way to avoid having to fire someone, is to hire slowly.

 Images;
Snail snail /Aleksandar Cocek/ CC BY-SA 2.0
Cheetah Cheetah Run 4 /Gary Eyring/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0