Archive for May, 2011
Penelope Trunk, my favorite blogger, had a post recently about how prom is a career stepping stone for teens. Why? Because it’s about learning how to fit into a culture. Here’s what she says about careers and culture fit:
“The thing that is most difficult in work life is adjusting to different cultures as seamlessly as possible. People do not lose jobs because they don’t get the job done. People generally lose jobs because of poor cultural fit. If people think you fit on the team, they’ll cut you slack even when you don’t get the job done. In fact, the Harvard Business Review reports that people don’t even care if you don’t get the job done if they like you…The question is not ‘how to always know the rules for blending in’ because you can’t—especially if you are constantly challenging yourself with new work environments. The question is, instead, ‘How can you recover from a cultural misstep?’”
I believe this is true. I lost a job once because of poor culture fit. Well, I quit actually, but if I hadn’t quit I was going to get fired soon. Everyone said it was because I wasn’t getting the job done but I believe the perception that I wasn’t getting the job done stemmed directly from my failure to read and understand how the organizational culture was different from any culture I’d ever worked in before. It was a culture where “employee engagement” was supposed to look like hyper-attention to detail, documentation and follow-up rather than like passion, creativity and big picture thinking. For some reason I just couldn’t get that through my head, and once the perception of me as “disengaged” spread through the organization I could not recover. Hell, I couldn’t even see that it was happening until it was too late.
I’m troubled by this prom analogy though. Because I think teens learn to imitate each other in middle school and high school in order to be accepted, and that’s different than being your own person with your own thoughts and ideas and simply knowing, in a utilitarian fashion, how to modify your behavior in order to fit in with a particular group of people. Teenagers believe in conformity, and if they never get shown another way, they grow up doing things because that’s what they’re supposed to do. They get a solid job with a government agency or a Fortune 500 company and stay there for ten, twenty years. They get married and have 2.5 children and buy a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. And one day they wake up and realize they’re 50 years old and haven’t seen the world or climbed Kilimanjaro or gone out for that “crazy” job they once dreamed about or done anything else they really wanted to do.
Am I out of touch? Is it possible that today’s kids are different than they were when I was a kid, that they understand “fitting in” as a tool instead of a mandate from god? I never had kids so I just don’t know. I hope so.
I just finished reading Seth Godin’s new book Poke the Box. At first I thought it was just a long restatement of the truism that you must not be afraid of failure if you want to innovate; in fact, maybe I still think that. But there was a story towards the end of the book that brought it all to life for me. Godin quotes a man named Cory Doctorow at length as he’s reflecting on becoming a father for the first time. It begins, “Mammals invest a lot of energy in keeping track of the disposition of each copy we spawn…we invest so much energy and so many resources in our offspring that it would be a shocking waste if they were to wander away and fall off the balcony or flush themselves down the garbage disposal.” He goes on to draw an analogy between the way we think of our offspring and the way we think of our ideas and inventions, and this is why we get upset at what we see as the theft of our intellectual property (or, I would add, the failure of our ideas). What if we used a different reproductive strategy as our model, he asks? The dandelion produces 200 seeds a year, “indiscriminately firing them off into the sky at the slightest breeze, without any care for where the seeds are heading and whether they’ll get a hospitable reception when they touch down…the important thing is that every spring, every crack in every pavement is filled with dandelions.”
We should see our ideas in the same vein, Godin says. Spray the world with them and be prepared for some to land on cold, hard, unyielding pavement and fail. Be ready to nurture the ones that take root. It’s an inspiring way of looking at the process of innovation. I can’t help but think of my brother, who constantly comes up with new ideas. Sometimes my family says, “there he goes again” because we know he won’t follow most of his ideas to fruition. And he hasn’t had the big million dollar idea yet. But Godin would say that he’s got the right attitude and will probably get there some day, because he doesn’t let failure get him down. He just goes on to the next idea.
Priscilla Claman, in the HBR blog post Choose Your Boss Wisely, talks about how important it is to evaluate a potential boss’s leadership style when interviewing for a new position. She tells the story of a time early in her career when she interviewed with a manager reputed to have a dictatorial style, and she asked him if he had any superstars working for him. He responded by telling her about an employee whom he considered to be a star because she did exactly what he told her to do even when she didn’t want to, and he told a story about one particular time when she had done that. It made me think, why can’t you use the same behavioral interviewing techniques on the boss that they’re supposed to be using on you? Which is Claman’s point, although she doesn’t actually use the term “behavioral interviewing.”
Behavioral interviewing, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a technique used to bypass a candidate’s natural tendency to tell you what you want to hear by getting him to tell stories about past behavior. Stories about past behavior are pretty good predictors of future behavior, much more so than a candidate’s espoused beliefs about behavior. So for example, instead of asking a candidate how he would normally handle a difficult customer, you ask him to tell a story about a specific time in the past when he had a difficult customer and then describe how he handled him.
I see no reason to suppose the same technique wouldn’t work just as well on a potential boss. Instead of asking her what her philosophy on employee motivation is, you’d ask her to tell about a time when she was having trouble increasing the motivational level of a team and what she did about it. Or instead of asking her about her approach to delegation, you might ask her to describe a time when she had to restructure specific task assignments for a new project.
As we consultants are fond of saying, when people quit a job it’s usually the people they’re leaving, not the job. And who has the most potential to make you miserable out of all the “people” you might choose to leave? Your boss, of course. So as Claman says, find out early on whether you’re about to work for “Mr. Mafia Management Style.” It could save you a lot of time and trouble some day.