Wednesday, November 22, 2017

How to avoid the corporate hall of mirrors!

Why do we ask interview questions that push for evidence of personal accomplishment?

If the candidate answers in terms of "we", "us" and "our", we are inclined to dismiss them as weak and unassertive and not leadership material.

And we wonder why we end up in a corporate hall of mirrors reflecting only the most self-serving and narcissistic of leadership behaviours.

Work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution doesn't work like that, not anymore. In complex, dynamic environments identifying how you single-handedly powered the project or won the day or brought the innovation to market is impossible. The best you can say is "here is how I contributed. Sometimes I inspired and encouraged those around me, and sometimes less so".

Jack Ma, founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba famously failed his way to success. Interviewers were not impressed with his individual accomplishments. He could not demonstrate any of the behavioural evidence they were looking for, so he failed to be accepted by KFC, by the Police, by Harvard University. He could only say, "I have an idea, and I think if we work together we could achieve something great. Sometimes I've failed, and sometimes we collectively have made it happen". Not great interview material. Yet today he has an  estimated net worth of $47.5 billion.

After University, Tim Westergren could only find a job as a nanny. For 5 years he would get up and practice piano for 6 hours, and then babysit the children in the afternoon. He joined a band, and spent 5 years touring and living out of a van, but his own band never found success. In 1999, still a struggling musician at the age of 34, he had an incredible business idea. He thought it could change the music industry.

With the little money he raised from investors, he hired 50 musicians to listen to hundreds of thousands of songs. Two weeks later, the stock market crashed making his company a very bad idea to other investors. He maxed out 11 credit cards for $150,000 of debt, just to make sure they got some pay. He had to ask his employees to defer all their salary and work for free after he had deferred his own salary long before he asked anyone else to. He finally secured venture capital investment in 2003. It was his 348th pitch to raise money. And at the next company meeting, he pulled out a stack of envelopes. Each one contained 2.5 years of back salary for his employees, totaling $1.5 million. 

The idea? Pandora Internet Radio. His company went public in 2011 and reported $138 million in revenue that year. By 2013, Pandora accounted for 70% of all Internet radio listening in the United States. By 2016, Pandora had 100 million monthly users.

If we only select for the behaviours of individual success, we miss the far bigger opportunity of hiring people for their ideas and for their potential to make a difference in the world. Most ideas are crazy because they are not part of the existing intellectual structure.

We should instead be searching for characteristics such as values and purpose and persistence. We should be seeking to determine how many times the candidate has failed, not how many trophies they have won. We should be asking what they learned about themselves and others from their failures, and how many times they picked themselves up.

Most importantly, we should be asking, "what can we do to harness that personal energy towards the creation of a better future. What enterprise platform can we offer to help bring this about?"

The problem is that we typically ask candidates "what can you do for us and how can you fit in here?" The "right" answers to those questions yield a hall of mirrors that only reflects what has worked in the past. In the open source era that is a recipe for disaster.