Strategy, brainstorming facilitation, and CEO coaching in Ojai, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles

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Effective Interviewing (or how to REALLY get to know someone in 60 minutes)

Hiring is a funny thing – no where else in life do you choose a partner for a long-term, co-dependent relationship based on an hour-long conversation. Thankfully, there are some proven tactics you can use to get the best possible sense for how a candidate will behave on the job, however they do require some work up-front and some discipline when it comes to the interview.

Preparing for interviews and planning your questions

70% of your success lies in this step. The goal of preparing interview questions ahead of time is to make sure you compare candidates on equal footing, and to help you stay on track in the interview. Have you ever concluded an interview only to realize that you chatted for 10 minutes about their experience, but had a great 20 minute chat about the NHL playoffs?

To start creating a list of interview questions, dig out the job description you wrote for the posting. Using the preliminary job description as a starting point, list the essential job functions – the 6 to 10 tasks, goals, or projects that the new hire will focus on day-to-day. For example, a few essential job functions for a VP of Sales might be:

  • Create the yearly sales forecast and break the forecast down into team and individual sales goals
  • Build the overall sales strategy for the company
  • Create and maintain sales funnel metrics to track overall progress

Again, you should have somewhere between 6 and 10 essential job functions for a given job.

Now, for each essential function, list out the technical skills and work habits required for each of those functions – 1 or 2 for each function. Technical skills are WHAT a candidate needs to know to do the job, while work habits describe HOW they perform in a job. For example, if you were hiring a social media coordinator, and an essential job function is to update the Instagram account daily, a technical skill would be “digital photography” and a work habit would be “self-organizing”. When you’re done, prioritize the list and you should have around 5 skills and 5 habits that are a must for the role. You’re ready to start crafting your questions.

Behavior-based interview questions

Behavior-based interviewing isn’t my idea – rather it’s the central theme of an excellent booked titled “High Impact Hiring”. In my opinion, behavior-based interviewing is the least error prone and most effective interviewing method for technical managers.

Candidates are savvy – they’ve read the books, been to many interviews, and are locked and loaded for the “what is your biggest weakness” questions. The purpose of behavior-based interviewing is to dig into the candidate’s behavior – how do they behave on the job? Past behavior is an indicator of future behavior. The trick is to dig beyond what they want you to hear and find specific examples of how they handled tasks and situations on previous jobs.

From each job function you should have about five technical skills and work habits. For each of these skills and habits, you need to come up with at least two questions (for a total of around 10) that help you determine if this person meets your criteria. Use open-ended questions rather than closed-ended questions.  

Open-ended questions start with: “Give me an example of” or “tell me the story about”. An open-ended question gives the candidate the opportunity to describe behaviors in their own words.

Avoid closed-ended questions such as: “Do you have experience working with Salesforce?” or “Have you ever worked in a fast-paced environment?”. When confronted with a closed-ended question, the candidate will tell you what you want to hear, and nothing more.

Behavior-based interviewing requires that you train the candidate to respond with behavior-based examples. Typically, candidates answer questions with a characteristic, for example, “I’m a good problem solver”. If you dig a little more, they might answer with a general process or testimonial, for example, “In my last job I successfully solved a lot of problems using a problem solving method I learned in school”. Pressed further, they may talk about “what we did at Acme co” (as opposed to “what I did at Acme Co). All of these rely on the candidate’s own view of themselves, or their ability to sell themselves – both completely useless to you. None of these responses tell you “does this person really know what they say they know”.

What you need is a behavior-based description – a story recalling a single event with considerable detail what they did given a certain problem or situation. You can train the candidate by asking them open-ended questions built around a handy acronym – STAR: Situation or Task, Action and Result. For example: “Tell me about a specific time when you used your problem solving skills. Tell me about the Situation or Task, what Action you took, and what the Result was.” Keep digging – ask for more detail and rephrase the question until you find out what the real action and result was.

Beyond behavior-based interviewing, here are a few other tips we’ve picked up to getting the most out of every interview:  

Use silence to your advantage. Silence is uncomfortable, but fight the urge to  help the candidate along and give them hints about what you’d like to hear; let them know they have time to think and let them formulate the answer.

Interrupt to maintain control: Mom always taught you that interrupting is rude, but in an interview, you have to interrupt from time to time to make sure you get through the full set of questions. If you run out of time with seven questions unanswered, you will have no way of comparing this candidate on an equal, objective footing.

Never answer your own questions: It’s tempting sometimes, especially if the candidate is keen, to give hints or help answer questions. Let the candidate sweat it out if they don’t know the answer. Give them a reasonable amount of time (a minute) to answer and move on to the next question. If they don’t know the answer, it’s not your responsibility to teach them either.

Pressure cooker questions: I like to introduce a question or two that is a little uncomfortable to answer, but will give me some insight into how they work with others. One of my favorites is “what did you and your manager disagree on most often?”. The key is to not let them off the hook. Their first answer will almost always be “nothing, we got along great”, to which your follow up should be “Of course, but there has to be something on which you didn’t see eye to eye”. Their answer can give you interesting insights into how they manage conflict.

The Impossible Question: The Impossible Question is something I borrowed from Microsoft and Joel Spolsky. It’s fallen a little out of favor lately, but I still like it as a way of judging how open-minded someone is, and how they react to challenges. It’s a question the candidate will have no hope of answering correctly, which gives you a strong indication of how they will react to tough problems. An example of an impossible question would be, “how many gas stations are there in Philidelphia?” or “how would you move the Washington Monument to Los Angeles?”  A smart candidate will realize you’re not quizzing them on their knowledge, and enthusiastically jump into trying to solve it – these are the people I look for. Others will look at you like you’re crazy, and will need a lot of prompting. An important thing to note is that The Impossible Question is NOT a puzzle or a brainteaser. Brainteasers tell you nothing except whether or not the candidate has heard the puzzle in the past.

Leave time for their questions: One of the most insightful parts of an interview are when you turn it over to the candidate and say “What would you like to know about working here? Ask me anything”. What they ask (and don’t ask) tells you a lot about their values, and about how well they prepared for the interview.

In the next (and final) installment on hiring, I’ll dig into how to decide among candidates, how (and why) to do reference checks, and making the offer. Stay tuned!

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Screening resumes

If you’re lucky, you’ll receive lots of eligible resumes, but everyone dreads the drudgery of screening resumes. Hopefully, your self-screening tactics have whittled the number of resumes down to dozens, rather than over a hundred, but still, that’s dozens of resumes to read and evaluate. Here are a few tips to make the process a little less painful.

When you’re screening resumes, don’t try to jump straight to a Yes or No on the first pass. You’ll find yourself reading, and re-reading resumes and either throwing out too many or including too many to interview. It’s really hard to tell if someone’s a fit based on the resume. At this stage, you’re just trying to stack-rank them so that you can prioritize your interviews. Instead of a Yes/No, grade them from AA to D:

  • AA: Wow. Looks like exactly the person you were looking for. E.g., has exactly the right amount of relevant industry experience (you’ll probably only have a few of these)
  • A: Relevant experience, at the right level of responsibility; no red flags
  • B: Some experience, but maybe a little more junior than you were looking for or not quite the scope of experience
  • C: Has some of the right experience, but there are some red flags, like jumping from job to job, resume typos
  • D:  Not enough experience, the wrong kind of experience, or a poorly written resume

If you don’t have a resume-tracking tool or hiring portal, an easy way to manage the process and keep them organized is to put all the resumes in a folder, and rename the file leading with your ranking. For example, “B_JohnDoeResume”. You can add a suffix to keep track of where they are in the process, e.g. “B_JohnDoeResume_screened”.

Trust your gut. Don’t overthink it, or you’ll be at it for days. Only go back and do a second pass if you find yourself putting everyone in the B category, or if you end up with more than a few AAs and As.
Hopefully you have 2-3 AAs, and something like 5-7 As. Set up a screening interview with these candidates first. If you eliminate too many in the screening process, you can always move on to the more promising B candidates, but chances are your final candidate is somewhere in this initial list.

The screening interview

You can save yourself a considerable amount of time by screening candidates by phone before conducting face-to-face interviews. There’s nothing worse than spending an hour or more in an in-person interview only to find out they can’t move to your location, don’t really have the experience they are touting, or aren’t interested in working on your product.  Phone interviews should be no more than 20 minutes, and should mostly be focused on verifying the facts on the resume – current position, current responsibilities, basic contact information, location preferences, willingness to relocate, and salary expectations. Take a few minutes to ask them about their current role and responsibilities. There’s no need to go too deep here, rather, try to get a sense of whether they are embellishing on their resume, or if they do really have the level of responsibility they are stating in the resume.

The screening interview also gives you the opportunity to gauge their communication skills, both in the process of setting up the phone call, and the call itself. How quickly did they respond to your email requesting a phone call? Was their response succinct and well written?

Incorporate one question that helps you determine if they have the single most important technical skill for the role. For example, if you’re hiring software developers, it might be a question to determine if they really understand OO programming. If you’re hiring automotive technicians, it might be a question about how they’d diagnose a tricky non-start condition on a specific make/model.

Next week we’re going to dive into the interview – how to prepare questions, how to really dig if you’re not getting the right level of detail from a candidate, and dos & don’ts for the interview itself.

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As I write this, we’re in what we hope to be the tail end of the pandemic. Businesses are reopening and hiring (or if you’re in certain industries like Powersports, you’re having a record year). Several of my clients have asked me to either help them hire for a key position, or to help coach and train their team on effective interviewing and hiring. Over the years, and over countless hires (and even more interviews), I’ve tried to refine my hiring process to make it more repeatable and less error prone. Hopefully, you too are hiring, and this process can help you make your next hire a little easier. Here’s Part One – laying the groundwork and creating your job posting.

The groundwork – writing the job description and the posting

The key to successful hiring starts with a solid job description. Not only will it help you write a posting that attracts the right candidates, but it will help you build your interview questions. The job description needs to include: 

  • Title
  • Primary tasks and duties
  • Responsibilities and authority
  • Reporting relationships (who will their manager be?)
  • Qualifications and characteristics (what skills and personality traits do you need for this role?)
  • Desired experience
  • Organization level (Jr., Intermediate, Manager?)
  • Education requirements
  • Salary range

These bullet points give you all the information you need to write your job posting, but describing the job is table stakes. Despite what the media may tell you, qualified talent is scarce. Your job posting needs to stand out. Don’t be dry. Let the personality of your company come through. Tell applicants why you’re a great place to work, and what to expect from the culture.

Let your candidates help you screen the resumes

Screening resumes is a drag. With any luck, you’ll get dozens or hundreds of applicants, and trying to whittle that down to 5 or 6 people you want to interview can be really time consuming.  Make this more manageable by having the candidates do this for you.

Whenever I post a job, I try to devise a way to separate the people who are genuinely interested from the people who are just carpet-bombing companies with their resumes in hopes of a hit. In the job posting, I include – in plain sight – detailed instructions of how to apply for the job. For example, I might say that we only accept applications through email, and that we don’t want a separate cover letter –  instead, write us an email, and we’ll only accept resumes in PDF or Word format. Anyone who doesn’t follow the instructions, I immediately delete. It might sound counterintuitive,  but that self-eliminates the bottom half of the applicants. My theory is, if you can’t follow simple instructions, or you can’t take the time to read the whole posting, I don’t want to work with you. From time to time, to test my theory, I’ll interview a candidate who has a decent resume but didn’t follow the instructions. In every case, the interview was a waste of time. The candidate either lacked attention to detail, had a sense of entitlement, or had a massive ego.

I’ll also make a second ask to help me narrow the field down further. If I’m hiring for a specific skill-set, say a designer or a writer, I’ll ask for samples or a portfolio. In other roles, I’ll simply ask them to write an email describing why they think they are a fit for the role, and why they are passionate about the industry. Another 10% of  applicants won’t follow the instructions, which I immediately delete. For another 10%, their portfolio or samples won’t be up to par, or their email will be poorly written or simply sloppy (punctuation anyone?). Before even starting to screen resumes, you’ve already eliminated 70% of the work.

Where to post

Where you post your job depends on the type of skills you’re looking for. Overall, I find LinkedIn works best for knowledge-based roles and management positions, especially if you pay to boost the posting and broadcast the job to your LinkedIn network. Many of my clients have had good luck with Indeed, and for technician roles or entry-level positions, you can’t beat Craigslist. Make sure you post the job to your company website, and encourage your staff to share the job posting to their social media networks. Often the best candidates come from staff referrals.

In the next article, I’ll show you how to make it easier to screen and track resumes, and how the screening interview can save you a ton of time in the interview process.

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What if I told you that there is One Thing that, if you rallied your team around and focused your attention on in the next year, could grow your business by double-digits?

One of the most misunderstood and controversial topics in company strategy is the idea of the One Thing. Nine times out of ten, when I introduce the concept to a management team, the response is “It’s impossible for us to choose just one thing. We just finished our strategic planning, and we have 10 key priorities this year. If we drop any of these balls we’re dead in the water. Our business just isn’t that simple.”

Don’t confuse the One Thing with your operating priorities. In any well-run business, each department is going to have multiple priorities for the year – things they need to improve on, process they need to optimize, and so on.

I’m also not talking about a silver bullet, which typically sounds something like “if we had this one feature”, “if we sold in this one country” or, “if we would just lower our price”. Silver bullets are grasping at easy solutions to tough problems, and there’s nothing easy about the One Thing. To paraphrase Ben Horowitz in the Hard Thing about Hard Things, there are no silver bullets, just lots of iron nails.

The One Thing is about focus, and finding the 80/20 rule for your business. It’s the answer to the question – “What that one thing that, if we’re able to get every team and every department rallied behind, would be our biggest lever to growth this year?”

When this concept was first explained to me, it was by a former CPG executive who took over as CEO at an aging and declining food brand, and by focusing on their One Thing, achieved 3x growth in less than 3 years. After struggling to figure out why sales were declining, the CEO and his direct reports went out into the field to visit grocery stores first-hand. After visiting just a few dozen stores around the country, they observed that, as an older brand, they were consistently being moved to the bottom shelf in favor of younger brands. They quickly realized their One Thing was shelf positioning. Was it as simple as asking to be moved up a shelf? No, it required a coordinated strategy of meetings with the executives at the nationwide grocery chains, participation and cooperation of dozens of broker teams, special promotions, and much more. Having One Thing doesn’t mean your strategy will be easy to execute, but it does mean you will simplify the goal and the message to make it easy for everyone to understand.

We’ve used the One Thing to help transform and turn around a number of businesses. In a manufacturing company, our One Thing was improving the relationship with their dealers. Sales were sliding, so we started traveling around the country to reconnect with our dealers to try to figure out what was going on at the source. We expected to hear that we were missing something in our product suite, or that we were too expensive. Instead, we heard a number of deeply concerning things – “you’re difficult to work with”, “you take forever to ship”, and my favorite, “sometimes I can’t even get a hold of you”. When we got back to the factory, we also tuned in to how we talked about our dealers internally, and we heard things like “our customers are so demanding” and “XYZ customer is a pain to deal with”. We realized were taking our dealers for granted, and we had created adversarial relationships with the channel. A new competitor simply wanted the business more, and they were willing to be more flexible, they were doing a better job of listening to their needs, and they were providing better service. They were stealing away our dealers all across the country. To turn our sliding sales into growth, we realized we’d need to rebuild our trust with the channel. Sounds simple, right? On the contrary, it meant everything from changing how we managed finished goods inventory to how we invoiced. Every department needed to be on board. Having a single overarching priority that year meant we all shared a common goal, and a common language. It meant we tracked our progress to that goal. Most importantly, it meant it was top of everyone’s mind. The result? Our sales slide turned into double-digit sales growth.

Sometimes the One Thing isn’t self evident. More often than not, discovering your One Thing requires time in the field, polling customers, listening to employees, and lots of self-reflection. Having someone from the outside provide a fresh, non-biased perspective doesn’t hurt either. If you’re intrigued by the One Thing and want to chat about how to find the One Thing for your business, drop me a line at

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We’ve all attended  unproductive meetings – strategy meetings that don’t wrap with an actionable plan, meetings to decide on a direction where no decision is made, or brainstorming meetings that result in zero new ideas. While sometimes that’s because there wasn’t a clear agenda or maybe because of a lack of coffee, I’m willing to bet that, 80% of the time, the meeting was derailed by one of four personality types. As a manager or facilitator, you need to know how to recognize these personalities and have strategies for mitigating their counterproductive tendencies.

Tell me if you recognize these behavior patterns:

The Arm Crosser: Sits through the entire meeting not saying anything, usually with arms crossed, often frowning, and sometimes harrumphing. Typically engages in “meetings after the meeting” where they complain to a colleague that the meeting was a waste of time, or that the direction chosen was clearly the wrong one, and what they would have done differently.

The Multitasker: Uses the meeting to catch up on email. Interrupts halfway through to repeat something someone said 15 minutes ago. Calls another meeting two days later to rehash the same topic.

The Dominator: Tries to wrestle control of the meeting as early as possible to press their ideas or agenda. They are the most recognizable personality type because their voice is 20dB louder than everyone else, and they are doing 80% of the talking. A variation on this theme is the Passive Dominator, who listens just long enough to make the team feel they are being heard, but uses the remaining time to tell everyone why their viewpoint is the right one.

The Nay Sayer: Responds to every new idea with “let me tell you why that won’t work”.

The Tangent Taker: At first opportunity introduces a completely tangential topic – e.g. “What we really need to be talking about is why we don’t have Stumptown Coffee anymore in the break room and the impact that’s having on morale.”

You probably won’t change personalities and habits, at least not in the short-term, but you can dramatically reduce their impact on the meeting with a few key techniques.

Post-It: Time to break out the Post-it Notes and Sharpie markers. Whether you’re looking for new ideas, or running a project post-mortem, when it comes to getting everyone’s input, use Post-its rather than an open discussion, which tends to be dominated by one or two people.

Make sure everyone has a marker and a few packs of Post-Its. Using a large, blank piece of paper, write down the issue you’re trying to address, whether that’s new potential uses for a product, brainstorming on a new feature, or a SWOT analysis, and paste it on the wall. Invite everyone to take 10 minutes and write down as many ideas and input as they can think of, and post them on the blank sheet. When the time is up, go through the Post-Its with the team, asking for more detail and grouping like ideas. Depending on the goals, you can then start prioritizing or narrowing down the ideas with the group or moving them into an action plan.

Post-Its give people time to think, and let the introverts have as much impact and input as the extroverts in the room, while the extroverts still have the same opportunity to contribute. I much prefer Post-Its to whiteboards, which make it difficult for everyone to crowd around and make it harder to prioritize and group ideas.

Plan: We all know that a meeting should always have an agenda, but the structure of that agenda makes a world of difference in how productive it is. In a brainstorming meeting, or one where a decision needs to be made, start with getting all of the ideas on the table. This is where visual techniques really come in handy.  Go broad, then cluster and group, then narrow and prioritize.

Set ground rules: In the email invite, and before the meeting starts, circulate and reiterate the ground rules for the meeting. No phones, no laptops, and everyone participates. No ideas are bad ideas – there will be an opportunity for the group to synthesize and prioritize, so no interrupting or shooting down people’s input.

Facilitate: One of the hardest things for a new facilitator or manager can be getting used to interrupting. To keep the energy level high and keep the pace of the meeting moving, you’ll need to interrupt or prompt the team from time to time, and every personality will need a different approach. To the Arm Crosser, “we haven’t heard from you yet”. To the Dominator “hold that thought a second”. To the Nay Sayer “we’re going to get to prioritizing and eliminating ideas soon”. To the Tangent Taker ” let’s put that in the Parking Lot list, and we’ll either come back to it if we have time or set a separate meeting”

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on strategies for more productive brainstorming and getting the most participating in a meeting. Submit your comments below! And of course, if you’d like to chat about having an expert facilitator moderate your next brainstorming or strategy meeting, drop us a line.

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