Awesome Hiring, Awesome Team

I’ve always found First Round Review’s articles to be exceptionally useful. Lately, they are on a roll.

Our company, 60 Decibels, is going to be doing a bunch of hiring in the next six months, so I shared this article with our team:

First Round Review: 20 Underrated Qualities to Look for in Candidates — And 50+ Interview Questions to Suss Them Out

I particularly appreciate both the list of the 20 traits and the practical interview questions for each trait. As interviewers, we often do a poor job of assessing whether a person is right for a job (and whether the company is right for that person). This is because most of us interview infrequently, so we give little thought about how to do it well or we’ve gotten comfortable doing it the way we always have and stick with what’s familiar.

The reality is that there are few things more costly—in terms of money, time and culture—than bad hires, so it’s worth investing the time to try new ways to interview.

But wait…there’s more.

If you squint, you’ll see the other side of the coin: this list is also a helpful guide for what makes a great team member.

Here are the 20 traits of great hires / team members. They:

  1. Embrace change and exhibit adaptability
  2. Can get their team to open up (remotely)
  3. Care about empathy
  4. Tell true tales of failure — not humble brags
  5. Keep DEI top of mind
  6. Sell the team, not themselves
  7. Look for ways to improve processes and reduce administrative burdens
  8. Challenge the defaults
  9. Can iterate and introduce change
  10. Focus on outcomes, not (just) shipping
  11. Will help you avoid bureaucracy
  12. Apply a long-term lens
  13. Are fueled by curiosity
  14. Are clear on the things they don’t want to do.
  15. Exhibit thoughtfulness
  16. Can point to a pattern of taking initiative
  17. Show a need for speed
  18. Are good at spotting superpowers
  19. Demonstrate a knack for finding the 10X — not 10% — improvements
  20. Can tell you what you should be looking for.

As I spent time with these 20 traits, I found myself bucketing them into five categories:

  • Flexible, moves fast, avoids bureaucracy: 1, 11, 17
  • Takes initiative, is curious, is always trying to make things better: 7, 8, 9, 13, 16, 19
  • Empathetic, values diversity, is humble, communicates & connects with others: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  • Keeps an eye on the big picture: 10, 12, 20
  • Is self-aware: 14, 15, 18

These five categories are an excellent jumping off point for what makes a great team member and, consequently, the building blocks for culture.

(Bonus: here’s a google doc with my cut-and-paste of the 50+ interview questions from the article. I hope you use it.)

Let Me Think About That

I’m an engager.

Meaning: put a problem, a question, a concern in front of me, my instinct is to dive right in. Always.

So, I found it confusing when, a few years ago, a coach I was working with encouraged me to practice saying, “That’s a great point, let me think about it and get back to you.”

To me, this response felt tepid and disingenuous, a way to feign interest in reflection to avoid meaningful, heated debate.

But, much as I love Star Trek and the inimitable Jean-Luc Picard, I’ve come to learn the limitations of my always-on engagement approach.

The first and biggest problem with always engaging is the inadvertent trade between listening and responding. When we (always and immediately) jump into “let’s solve that problem” mode, we can, ironically, make people feel less heard. Diving into potential fixes can skip past properly sitting with the problem. The result is missing the opportunity to express solidarity and empathy. Worse, we ignore the fact that often what people care most about is being heard – it is nearly always more important than finding any big solution.

So, try, “It sounds like what you’re saying is [this]. And I imagine that is challenging because [this],” and see where that leads.

Second, jumping ahead to problem-solving means we typically are accepting—hook, line, and sinker—that what the person has said is an accurate representation of what is wrong / of what they are feeling. In truth, it’s just as likely that the first presentation of the problem is what is easiest to say. Before we start solving the problem, we need to make sure we understand what it is. The answer, then, is to express curiosity and inquiry before jumping in.

Such as, “I see. That makes sense. Can you say a little bit more about that?”

Finally, any successful discussion of a difficult topic requires both (all) people involved to be able to productively manage their emotions. This means that we must dance in the productive zone of disequilibrium, maintaining the “heat” of the conversation we’re having without either letting it either (a) dissipate to quickly or, more likely; (b) overwhelm our ability to stay engaged in the conversation.

I don’t want to encourage avoiding serious, real conversations. But I also have seen how easily these conversations can spiral negatively when not managed properly. If one or both of the people involved lacks the skill to navigate heat successfully, no solution is possible: when pushed too hard too fast, our minds can only process emotions like fear, anger or shame.

“That’s a great point, let me think about it and get back to you,” when said honestly and with good intent, really means, “this is important to me, and I need time to process it.”

It also might say, “I’m concerned that my emotions are spiking to a place where I can’t productively engage in this right now. So let’s come back to it later.”

Now, if you’re not an engager—if you know that you’re more likely to avoid the “real” conversation—then this strategy is probably not for you.

But if you’re like me, this might be an important tool to add to your arsenal.

Because, on top of everything else, we’re all less able than we think to hear and process, in real time, a different, difficult perspective.

Buying ourselves a little time allows us to properly reflect on new points of view. It’s a way to give ourselves time to do the work that we, individually, need to do before engaging with our counterpart to work through the issue at hand.

 

 

Close to the Bone

The more people I’ve gotten to reconnect with this summer—our respite, in the US, between wave after horrible COVID-19 wave—the more I’ve seen a pattern.

Each of us, no matter our circumstance, background, and personal situation, has found our resilience shaken. Our reserves are low. At some point in the past 18 months, we’ve gotten cut too close to the bone.

We carry the accumulated toll of month after month of fear, uncertainty, new responsibilities and isolation.

And while we had a brief window when it felt like the worst was behind us, now we’re entering yet another season with a rising caseload and rising uncertainty; the prospect of putting COVID-19 behind us might be replaced with the prospect that this is the new world we all live in.

Most of this change in us is invisible. From the outside, we look OK. But when we dig a bit deeper and ask more questions, we can see the cracks in the foundation, a shift in our emotional structural underpinning that places us on less stable ground.

I, for one, don’t have a quick answer for how to address this in ourselves. Surely part of the answer is to go easy on ourselves, make time in our days to be in nature, to quiet our minds, to put down our devices and to break a good sweat.

I would also suggest that we can help one another by remembering that no one will come out of this unscathed: while we may emerge stronger in the end, we have some deep valleys to get through from here to there.

Since we don’t need a special occasion to do so, let’s choose to act towards each other with more forgiveness, kindness and generosity of spirit.

Let’s commit to being more open-hearted with each other.

Let’s commit, starting today, to ask each other real questions, and to stay fully present for the answers.

Most of the time, and especially now, accompaniment is the greatest gift we can give to one another.

Because It’s Inconvenient

We make a plan and commit to something.

An initial buzz hits us, as we visualize the results that will come from our hard work.

A few days in, our commitment feels awfully inconvenient.

The time doesn’t feel right; we don’t the energy, again, for this hard thing.

Maybe we have a legitimate conflict, another something or somethings to get done that we’d have to give up.

These somethings all seem more fun or more important.

Plus, didn’t we just do this yesterday?

We did, but that was yesterday, and this is today.

So…

We do it today, because we committed.

We do it today, because it’s hard.

We do it today, because it’s inconvenient.

And in the doing we see what it takes to hit our goal.

The things we have to give up.

The things we have to push through.

All the noise that used to scare us off but doesn’t, this time.

The Willingness to Throw it Out

A lot of my work days are about efficiency.

Tearing through my Inbox.

Having as few meetings as possible and making them as short as they need to be.

An overall feeling and attitude of moving fast and keeping an eye on the clock.

I’ve been in an overdrive version of this mode for the past few months, with an intensive focus on external sales and fundraising.

Then the other day, working on an important document, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea.

I started on it, made a terrible first draft, played around with the document, trying to make it resemble the original bolt of inspiration.

And then I had a paralyzing thought, “What if this is a waste of time? What if I work on this for the full two hours, give it my best shot, and then discover that it’s no good?”

And, if that’s a possibility, should I stop before I start—would that be the efficient thing to do?

Of course it would, and it would be a terrible idea.

The only way to create something truly worthwhile, something that only you can create, is if you walk along the This Might Not Work edge.

That means that you are actively aware that what you’re doing might not be good enough, that you’re dancing with that fear. You’re aware that even if it doesn’t work this time, the only way, in the long run, that you produce anything worth anything is if you consistently spend time doing things that might not work.

Which means that the point of all that efficiency is to create space that plays by a different set of rules.

It’s a space where you get to dance and make a fool of yourself and try daring things, many of which may end up in the trash, so that some of them can be amazing.

Looking When You Know It’s There

Entrepreneurs are famous for seeing the things others cannot. They believe in a truth that seems like fiction to everyone else.

For example, AirBnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia failed to raise any outside money from late 2007 until early 2009. Maybe it makes sense: a business where strangers stay in each other’s homes doesn’t seem like a winner. In fact, they famously had to sell Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains Cereal to fund their startup, raising $30,000 in the process.

The big challenge, when we are attempting something new and difficult, is to know what to do with outside feedback:

Does what I’m hearing tell me a fundamental truth about the validity of my idea?

OR

Do I have so much conviction in my idea that I’m sure it’s right, despite not having found a customer for what I’m selling…yet.

Our level of conviction determines how we interpret outside feedback.

For example, consider the widespread phenomenon of “kitchen blindness:” the inability to find an item of food that is sitting right in front of you – milk, OJ, the salt or, famously, butter.

While “kitchen blindness” is often be the byproduct of laziness, it’s also true that there are two ways that we look for things:

  1. When we look without prior knowledge, we use the data that’s coming in (“I’m not finding the baking soda where it’s supposed to be”) as information to confirm or refute our hypothesis that we have baking soda.
  2. Whereas if we are sure we bought baking soda, and we simply are not finding it in the freezer, we take that to mean that we’ve got to look in the pantry, in the shopping bags, and in the trunk of the car.

One of the hardest lines to walk as an entrepreneur or creator is the daily choice between using outside feedback to adjust / refute our hypothesis vs. sticking to our guns. (for more on learning when to quit, there’s no better book than The Dip by Seth Godin.)

Are they telling me something true that they know and I need to learn?

Or is this my “naysayers be damned” moment, and do I believe, like Steve Jobs did in 2007, that I can design and sell a smartphone that doesn’t have a keypad?

Deep down, it’s a question of conviction:

How sure am I that what I’m looking for is there?

Because if I’m really, really sure, then it really is there, and all I have to do is find it.

 

 

 

 

Why We Need Impact Performance Data

Last week, I published an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) together with Tom, Lindsay and Devin from the 60 Decibels team.

Here it is: This is Not an Impact Performance Report.

The article explains why we think it’s so important to listen to customers, beneficiaries and producers if we aim to create and understand social impact. And it argues that we must have a performance mindset when it comes to social impact – differentiating between best and worst performers, and always looking to learn and improve.

It’s hard to overstate the accelerated focus and energy around social impact and ESG investing these days. A investor friend of mine just sent me the special report that Pensions and Investments Magazine did on impact investing. This report profiles everything from what “impact investing” means to how to measure impact. This work is going mainstream in a big way.

While the issue of what and how to measure might seem esoteric or even complex, it needn’t be. Indeed, what we argue for is blindingly simple: if the well-being of human beings is part of your social impact thesis, you can’t know if you’re having social impact without hearing directly from those human beings.

That may seem obvious, but it is far from standard practice.

In fact, most impact investors rely on “triangulation” of their social impact: find a study of a business or intervention that looks similar to your business / investment. Then assume that its impact can be applied to your business / investment. This approach often misstates the impact created and it, by definition, makes it impossible to distinguish impact performance of different businesses.

Here’s the opening of our SSIR article. I hope you jump over to their site and read the whole thing.

In a world of increasing transparency, we expect that what’s on the label will reflect what’s inside the package. This is as true for an “organic, cage-free” label on a carton of eggs as it is for a B Corporation Certification or a fund categorized as “ESG.” These terms communicate something specific to the buyer. Their credibility rests on whether what’s on the label is consistent with the product itself.

(Keep reading)

Goodbye Notebook, Hello Notion

For years I carried around a nice, small Moleskin notebook to every meeting. I had various systems, each typically lasting about a year, to distinguish between note-taking content and next steps.

Moleskin Notebook
Photo by Stationary Nerd

My notebook was a sacred object which, if lost, set my productivity back by weeks or more. That said, the constant iterating on how to manage the space and my to do list, the inability to search for anything, and my crummy handwriting combined for a system that I knew needed improvement.

This last year, when Zoom meetings started, I stopped using my notebook almost immediately.

This wasn’t a conscious choice: it had more to do with the physical setup of my desk and where I was sitting around my house. For a while I wasn’t taking notes, and I used other systems to track to do’s. It felt like things were working well enough, though I was nervous about what was falling through the cracks.

Then, in March when I really ramped up my external sales and fundraising, I started taking notes in Notion.

Notion is a very powerful tool, and I use about 1% of its functionality (probably less). For me, it’s just Google Docs on steroids, but it’s so fabulous at what I’m using it for that I would miss it terribly if I couldn’t use it.

I like it much much more than Google Docs because:

  1. The interface is slicker, particularly the keystrokes (e.g. I type ‘/to do’ and a to do list appears; I type a dash and hit ‘tab’ and I’m making a bulleted list).
  2. I find file storage in Google Docs disorienting: it always feels like a jumble of searchable docs, instead of “here’s everything all in one place.” With Notion, I click on one URL and all my meeting notes are there, easily organized, and well-structured.
  3. Google tracking all my keystrokes and suggesting what I type next wigs me out.

I create one Notion page per meeting, with clear follow-ups, organized in a super-simple week-to-week structure. It looks like this.

Notion Sales Meeting Notes

This has transformed my work in two ways.

The more obvious point is that it’s so clean and organized. Everything is in one place, I know exactly where to find it, and the to-do’s are so black and white (and so fun to check off) that it makes staying on top of everything a breeze. Plus, because of the simple interface, I find myself using it consistently. At the end of a day with 8+ external meetings, I cannot remember what I promised anyone in the first half of the day…thankfully it’s all there in Notion.

The more subtle point is that taking notes during a meeting keeps me more focused. I listen harder and stay fully dialed in, something that can be difficult with hours of external calls every day.

I like this approach so much that I wonder what I’m going to do when in-person meetings come back, since I don’t think banging away on my keyboard with someone right in front of me is going to work.

Until then, I’m totally devoted to Notion, and I think you might like it too.

 

 

 

And Goals, Or Goals

When we work to develop new skills or habits, we must always ask ourselves: do these skills naturally complement each other, or are they at cross purposes?

For example: I want to exercise more AND sleep more / better.

For most of us, these goals will pull in the same direction. When I exercise regularly, I’m more tired at the end of the day, which leads to me sleeping better (and often more), which means I have more energy the next day and often feel more ready to exercise again.

Versus: I really need more time to relax, so I’m going to watch at least an hour of TV to unwind AND I’m also really tired and need to sleep more / better.

While both late-night TV-watching and sleep both appear to be in the ‘relaxing’ category, personally I find them to cut in opposite directions. I sleep neither more nor better in the rare phases when I’m regularly watching TV at night. (best example: when traveling for work).

Here are a few common AND/OR choices you might face:

Be 100% responsive to email [AND / OR] do deep strategic work.

Focus heavily on external sales / fundraising [AND / OR] clarify our strategic priorities.

Bump up our social media activity [AND / OR] get closer to our customers.

Push hard for this deadline [AND / OR] get closer as a team

Never take a day off [AND / OR] be as productive as possible

Schedule meetings 5 days a week [AND / OR] be in charge of my time

Do outrageous things for our customers [AND / OR] ensure our profitability

Always be efficient [AND / OR] be present for those around me

Promote what we have to offer [AND / OR] promote what our peers have to offer

They say the true mark of intelligence is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts at the same time.

Perhaps the true mark of someone who is on a growth path is the ability to make seemingly contradictory goals complementary, while also discovering and eliminating the goals that are in true conflict with each other.

Rejection or Rehearsal

Let’s be honest, being rejected feels awful. And being told that we learn from failure does little to ease the pain.

Especially when we are offering is something we truly care about, rejections can cut deep.

And yet, if we are bringing anything new and worthwhile to the world, we are going to get rejected. A lot.

What to do?

Perhaps a reframing is in order.

The rejections—the responses to what we’ve offered—typically suck up all of our attention when the fact is, these results aren’t what matter.

What matters are the conversations we’ve had.

These are our rehearsals.

A chance to practice our pitch.

A chance to test which stories are memorable enough that they get repeated back to us.

A chance to file the rough edges and let go of the parts that we love(d) but that aren’t needed by our audience.

Until, one day, it really is showtime.

The conversation we’ve been waiting for.

The one that we’ve been lucky enough to be practicing for all this time.

And this time, we nail it, thanks not to all the previous rejections, but thanks to all the chances we’ve had to practice.

I don’t like rejections, but I love dress rehearsals.

How else could I ever be ready for the spotlight?