Years ago, I was having dinner with one of my daughters at a local restaurant and we got to talking about the classes she was taking at her high school. Even when I was a student – and your own experience is no doubt the same – I was struck by the enormous variation in teacher quality at every level of my education. And so as we were talking about her own teachers, I asked: “What do you think makes your best teachers great? What separates the great teachers you’ve had from the other ones?”
She immediately answered it – in a way that someone answers a question they’ve already thought a lot about – and it was an answer I’ll never forget. When I asked her what made her best teachers great, she immediately said “they want to be there”.
They want to be there.
This tells us those teachers are bringing their passion and energy to the classroom. Their
customers and fellow employees students could immediately tell that these teachers weren’t mailing it in, and these same customers and fellow employees students were infected by the teachers’ passion.
Most of us have lost someone close to us (bear with me during this sudden transition). When that happens, we grieve and reflect upon how short even a long life can seem to be. We also recognize that our own time is limited.
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
– Jerry Seinfeld
We often read that people’s fear of public speaking is greater than their fear of death. The science behind this claim is probably dubious, but like any other juicy factoid this one has a life of it’s own. I have spoken in front of many audiences, and some people mistakenly think that I don’t get nervous before walking on stage. But I do, and I want to share with you two mindsets that can help you as your heart rate elevates, your palms start to sweat, and your “fight or flight” instinct tells you to run for the nearest exit.
If these mindsets were on Sesame Street, we would say that they were “brought to you by the letter P” since each use alliteration and the letter P to help us remember them.
I was talking to someone about interviewing. I told him I have found that interviewing is easy to do poorly and very hard to do well. Like any skill, it requires training and practice to refine and improve, yet few companies invest much time in developing interview skills. It’s ironic how little time is spent developing a skill that directly impacts the quality of hires a company makes. It’s like expecting an amateur to do a good job removing your appendix without giving him any training.
One of the all-time classic interviews, from the movie Office Space
As I thought more about interviewing, I recalled a great bit of wisdom I once heard on the subject of interviewing, and I pass it along here.
It is a rule to keep in mind when you’re interviewing a candidate. There are times when, as an interviewer, you’re distracted. You believe you have more important things to do (many times an interviewer is interviewing candidates who will end up in another organization if they’re hired at all). Or maybe you decide early in the interview that this candidate is a poor fit, and spend the rest of the interview nodding your head and trying to look interested. Or you pretend to be a hard-ass to see how they’ll react to difficult personalities. Or you got to the interview late and plan to leave early.
Whatever the case, there are interviews where we don’t put our best foot forward. It is at those moments that it is best to remember the Three C’s: Every person you interview in your career is a future….
In all three cases, you want them to remember you, and your company, in the best possible light.
Interviewing takes preparation and focus. It is easy to get lazy. At those moments, it might help you to remember the three C’s.
P.S. For past posts on interviewing, go here and here.
When I was at my Military Intelligence Officer’s course in the mid-1980’s, our coursework was almost completely focused on encountering Soviet armored divisions storming into Germany’s Fulda Gap, despite the fact a) that battle had already been thoroughly planned and we weren’t going to add any insights, and b) it was clear at that point that the Cold War was shifting to new venues. Within four years of that time the Berlin Wall had fallen and I was in a war in the Middle East.
Here’s another example of how organizations have been resistant to change: In the hilarious memo below, written in 1935, Col. Hoffman – a member of the Army Air Corps – objects to taking “Equitation” (horsemanship) classes in part because he fails “… to see that horses have any place in the science of aviation”. Unsurprisingly, his request was denied.
It’s not just the military however. We humans are terrible at change. It frightens us – a fact that deserves some consideration given the fact change is coming faster than ever.
Luddites were people who smashed machinery they saw threatening their jobs. Now it’s a term used to describe hopelessly backwards-looking people who think they can beat back technology. Nobody wants to be called a Luddite.
When the first railway opened, detractors said that the human body was not meant to travel at 30 miles per hour and could possibly melt at that speed (similar concerns were voiced about super-sonic flight several decades later).
The newly-invented telephone was claimed by some to be an instrument of the devil. Versions of this accusation have been voiced about virtually every other new communication method, except for the fax machine – which may in fact have actually been an instrument of the devil (word of the fax machine’s death has not yet reached the HIPAA-regulated medical community: “no we can’t email your health information directly to your personal, password-protected email address, but we can send images of that same medical info to a fax machine located in a high-traffic area at your place of work”).
It’s easy to be smart about bad ideas of the past. But we humans repeat our mistakes. Here are some changes that are coming:
I’m in a Mastermind group. You might think that a Mastermind group is comprised of villains who are hatching fiendish plans of world domination, or even superheroes planning to thwart them, but you would be wrong. In fact, it’s much cooler than that.
Mastermind groups have been around for a long time, and are small groups of peers who come together to hold each other accountable toward their respective objectives and help members solve problems.
Recently, our group has been discussing and (imperfectly) practicing the concepts found in the book The 12 Week Year – a concept where annual objectives are tossed out the window in favor of 12 week objectives. I’ll be writing more about this concept in a later blog post.
There’s more to the 12 week year than compressed time horizons. I won’t cover it all here, but obviously recommend you check it out. However let’s focus on just one aspect from the book, and what I like and don’t like about this powerful quote:
If you read my About Me page, you will see that it ends with this: “Finally, I am an optimist. It’s an exciting time to be alive”.
I thought that now would be the perfect time to revisit optimism – not just as a way of viewing external events and avoiding despair, but as a way to impact events. Let’s start with three well-known characters: Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet.
Last week, the Gates Foundation released their annual letter. Since Warren Buffet gave the bulk of his wealth – $30B or so – to the Gates Foundation in 2006, Bill and Melinda addressed this year’s letter directly to Warren. I recommend you read through the letter in its entirety.
In one part of the letter they touch upon why they remain optimistic about many of the major health challenges facing the world. This optimism runs contrary to rampant pessimism. For instance the statistic below:
Bill puts it well here:
“One of my favorite books is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. It shows how violence has dropped dramatically over time. That’s startling news to people, because they tend to think things are not improving as much as they are. Actually, in significant ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been. Global poverty is going down, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.”
Optimism (and pessimism) perpetuates itself. While the political world has become practiced in leveraging fear, that approach doesn’t work as well in the private sector, where leaders create outcomes based upon the shared belief and passion of their teams.
Which leads me to a related point: the importance of active optimism, or “applied hope”. Before I get into the provenance of this phrase, let me drop one last (telling) quote from the Gates letter, this line specifically from Melinda:
How many times has this happened to you?
There’s a group of people in a conference room, and someone is presenting to that group on a plan that they are proposing. You are not in that conference room. You are on the phone.
This is you on a conference call
During the presentation, the presenter says things like this:
- “As you can see, this number indicates that we should move these things right here over to this part of the operation.”
- “Look at this number here! Quite surprising!”
- “As you can from this area, we have some work to do.”
Meanwhile, you’re not exactly sure which slide they’re on.
I have been on the receiving end of these presentations throughout my career. As a result, I’ve become pretty focused on doing the following. For the sake of your presentation’s success, I recommend you try to adopt these same practices, if you don’t already.
What would you accomplish if you were more disagreeable?
The term “disagreeable” has all sorts of negative connotations. Someone who we refer to as disagreeable is understood to be ill tempered and unpleasant. But there is another way to look at the term – a more literal way.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath, talks about the willingness to move ahead with an idea without “social approval”. Here’s a recap of a recent talk he gave at a business school:
“Combined with a sense of openness and discipline, a willingness to “follow through even in the face of social disapproval” is critical. He illustrated this with the growth of IKEA in the 1950s, which persevered with an unlikely concept of unassembled “shipped flat” furniture from a then-unpopular lower-cost source of labor (Poland). It wasn’t just that Sweden was higher cost, but also that the furniture establishment rejected his disruptive model.”
I want to share with you two examples of being disagreeable. The first is about Rick Barry. Gladwell did a great podcast on the topic of Rick Barry and his famous free throw style.
Rick was one of the great basketball players of all time. He led the NCAA and the NBA in scoring during his career. And over the course of his storied professional career he had a free-throw percentage of 89.3%. The thing was, he shot his free throws “granny style”.
Rick figured out that the granny-style of throwing a ball was more consistent, and physiologically more natural, than the common method of shooting free throws. Can you imagine the abuse Rick took throughout his career as he stood at the line and shot his free throws this way? Check out this video:
Consider this description.
“Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.”
Which of the below descriptions do you think is more likely?
1. Linda is a bank teller
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement
If you selected number 2 – that Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement – then you would be like the vast majority of people, regardless of their education level. You would also be wrong.
If you look at the options without thinking too much about the description that preceded it, you would quickly see that the idea that option 2 could be more probable than option 1 is totally illogical. Expressed as a Venn Diagram, “Linda as a Bank Teller” is a big, huge circle, and “Linda as a Bank Teller and an active feminist” could only be a small circle within it. It’s impossible for number 2 to be more probable than option 1.
This common mistake is one of many cognitive quirks we humans have that cause us to make errors in judgement. This particular one is an example of the Representative Heuristic, where we overcompensate for some random fact that causes us to make a mental shortcut to a destination that seems likely, but is wrong. Like many groundbreaking cognitive bias insights, this one was the work of the psychology world’s dynamic duo: Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whose years of collaboration are the subject of the latest book by Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project.
I probably have read a number of articles that referenced Kahneman and Tversky’s research over the years without really registering their names. However, when Kahneman wrote a book that made much of their academic research accessible for the general interest reader (me!) a few years ago, I took notice. Here’s a video that highlights some of the main themes in Kahneman’s book.
In an ever changing business environment where leaders are confronted with every sort of barrier to success – competition, limited resources, fire drills, regulation, and so forth – there is one huge barrier to our success which we are only in the earliest stages of understanding: our minds.
The explosion of social psychology insights has been a recent phenomenon. It was less than a hundred years ago when many psychology “experts” adhered to the concept a phrenology, where a person’s personality and character could be determined by evaluating the shape of the skull. To say that humanity has come a long way since then is an understatement.
Phrenology chart. Use with caution.
Much of our insights over the past few decades have demonstrated what we humans are up against. Our brains have evolved a number of biases over the millennia and frankly, many of them were more useful for our distant relatives who had to fend off frequent attacks from wild animals, bad weather and local enemies.
The evolutionary distance between those relatives and ourselves is small. The fact that we spend more time answering email messages than our caveman forefathers shouldn’t kid us about how similarly we confront threats.
One of the differences however is the explosion of incoming information and associated uncertainty.
To help ourselves assert control in such the face of chaotic information overload, we humans consistently exhibit Confirmation Bias – the inclination to seek out and attach emphasis to information which confirm our previously held beliefs. A cousin of confirmation bias is “selective perception” – a similar habit of avoiding emotional discomfort by selecting only information friendly to prior viewpoints.
I’m always interested to hear stories with confirmation bias at play, and I recently ran across one that is a classic business blunder we might relate to. The key here is to not feel superior when you read this. These were smart people who were stuck in a confirmation loop that you may very well be in yourself right now.
The story came via the Fortune Power Sheet, and concerned a story that writer Geoff Colvin had written about Sears, which based upon recent announcements appears to be in a painful death spiral: