The Greatest Lesson in Life from the Commencement Address Never Given

As my 50th college reunion approaches, I dusted off some notes I’ve been keeping in case I ever got asked to do a commencement address. As part of this I started to wonder what I would say to a bunch of twenty-somethings who don’t want any advice on the day they graduate especially from an older person. To even things out I figured I’d go back to those early days describing some advice I got then that I still follow 50 years later.

I remember starting my first job as a systems engineer on an aerospace project. My new boss gave me an unusual assignment on my start day. He wanted me to tell him what "E = mC(squared)" and “You can’t push on a rope” meant.

As part of figuring out the answer he said to first ask anyone you want in the department for advice or insight. Of course, I thought he just wanted me to meet everyone on my own since I already knew the answer to both questions.

It turned out I was wrong on all parts.

Here’s what I told him when we met for lunch in the cafeteria on the third day of my first job.

"E = mC(squared)" While I got the scientific principle right the bigger purpose was to understand how this relates to the real world of product design given competing constraints on functionality, time, cost and manufacturability. The lesson: It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you lose sight of the big picture.

"You can’t push on a rope." I thought this one had to do with strength of materials, some kind of force diagram and one of Newton’s laws. But it turned out to be about human nature. The lesson: The most important part is that you can’t push the people involved to do what you want them to do despite overwhelming analysis or engineering evidence. You have to understand their needs first.

I learned later that Zig Zigler said it more eloquently, “You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

That’s a principle everyone needs to apply to get ahead regardless of their age or their job.

Here are a few other useful life principles I learned early on in my career.

In my first engineering design class the professor showed a picture of a bridge across some river that didn’t meet perfectly in the middle. There was a six-inch offset. The professor started by saying that in this course you’ll learn how to ensure this will never happen to you. Planning ahead was the big lesson. Thinking of the consequences of your actions was the more subtle point. Stephen Covey’s “Begin With the End in Mind” pretty much sums it up. While this stuff is easy to say, it’s hard to do whether you’re building a bridge or figuring out how to just get through the day.

Persistence overrides intellect. In most of my engineering classes the answers to the problems were given. My non-engineering friends thought this was too easy. I thought so too until I was given one very complex problem to figure out. It took me all night and a lot of trial and error to get the right answer.

There were a lot of lessons learned that night. The obvious one: Getting the answer right was secondary. Figuring out how to find the right solution was the purpose of having the answer given. A lot of smart people gave up too soon. That’s when I realized that persistence is far more important than intellect.

Some similar things happened a short time later as an intern and during my first full-time engineering job. I was assigned two very complex technical projects. In each case there was an initial 2-3 weeks of total confusion. It was clear I was going around in circles, over my head and an abject failure. After stumbling about, talking with people and thinking about the problem from a totally different perspective, the fog starting lifting. Soon a solution emerged. In both cases it took a few very uncomfortable weeks to go from nothing to a potential solution. Of course, getting the actual solution took a lot longer but that was the easy part. The lesson learned again: It’s okay to be confused but it you keep at you’ll figure out what to do.

I learned later that Winston Churchill said it much better, “Never ever give up. Never!”

But that wasn’t the big lesson in all this. By not giving up too soon you build confidence in yourself to take on any project as long as you can figure out a solution and create a vision of where you’re going. As a result I then started volunteering for projects and positions over my head and even asking for promotions in different departments. And I got them by selling the vision to others and getting them to see how this would personally benefit them. This got them to be allies not foes and they became proactively involved in ensuring we were all successful.

The real lesson is that true confidence is contagious. But you need to struggle a lot before you develop it in yourself. So look for some struggles to tackle. A lot of them. And never give up despite how easy it might be to do. I'm not sure, but maybe this is how leaders are developed, too.

Use the 2-Minute Drill to Answer Any Interview Question

Candidates aren't judged on how well they do their jobs; they're judged on how well they describe how they do their jobs.

Over the past 30+ years I've interviewed hundreds of candidates for director and VP level positions. Very few of these candidates actually applied for the job being filled at the time. Most were found via LinkedIn or a referral. Nonetheless, I was dumbfounded that many of these people weren't great interviewees, yet most were all remarkable people doing their jobs.

Unfortunately, in most cases candidates aren't judged on how well they do their jobs; they're judged on how well they describe how they do their jobs. Recognize that if you're a candidate looking for a job, even a passive candidate, how you present yourself matters a lot. With this in mind, here are some ideas on how to best present yourself.

First, understand that all interviewers think they're attempting to evaluate the following:

  • How skilled you are and how you applied these skills on the job
  • If what you've accomplished is comparable to what needs to be accomplished
  • How you'd fit with the team, work well with the hiring manager, and fit with the company "culture"
  • Your level of drive, initiative, and motivation
  • Your upside potential

While all of these factors are important, how they're measured is pretty unscientific. Techies overvalue the depth of a person's technical brilliance. Just about all non-techies overvalue the candidate's first impression, appearance, warmth, and assertiveness. Most managers overvalue their intuition and gut feel. On top of this, everyone considers their private pet questions the definitive means for judging competency. And right, or mostly wrong, everyone makes their assessment on all of these things based on how well you communicate your answers.

Given this state of affairs, here's some advice on how to become a better interviewee.

Talk in paragraphs, not sentences.

The big idea here is to give 1-2 minute answers to any question. Short one or two sentence answers are deal-breakers. In these cases, the interviewer has to work too hard to pry the information out of the candidate, and since they don't know what information they need to pry out, it will likely be wrong. So talk more than less with the upper limit about two minutes per answer, maybe three minutes, now and then. When longer, you're considered boring, ego-centric, or insensitive.

A good two-minute answer needs to be in the SAFW format described below including some SMARTTe or STAR details.

SAFW: Say A Few Words. To format your basic answers start by making a general opening Statement, Amplify or clarify this opening statement with a few sentences, then provide a Few examples to prove your opening point. End your answer with a summary Wrap-up and some hooks to get the interviewer to ask a logical follow-up question.

Give SMARTTe Examples. For the example chosen, describe the Specific task; throw in some Metrics to add color, scope, and scale; add Action verbs describing what you Actually did; define the Result as a deliverable; put a Timeframe around the task, describing when it took place and how long it took; describe the Team involved; and then describe the environment including the pace, the resources available, the challenges involved, and the role your boss played.

Follow-up with STAR details. This is an alternative approach for interviewers asking behavioral questions. When they ask you to give an example of when you used some behavior, skill, or competency, they'll follow up by asking about the Situation, Task, Action taken, and the Result achieved. You can beat them to the punch by framing your responses the STAR way.

End with a Hook. Don't spill everything out at once. You only have two minutes so leave a few key details unanswered. This will prompt the interviewer to follow up with some logical questions. A forced hook is something like, "Is this type of project relevant to what you need done?"

Remember the Big E for Example. If you forget all of this don't forget to provide a detailed example of an actual accomplishment to prove every strength and neutralize every weakness.

Interviewers really like it when they don't have to work too hard to figure out if you're competent. Well-constructed answers provide insight into your intelligence and potential, your enthusiasm and motivation, your ability to deal with people, and of course how competent you are. And most important, recognize that your ability to influence others to make important decisions starts by influencing them to hire you.

How to Hire for Thinking Skills

This post is part four in a continuing series on how to hire extraordinary people using the performance-based hiring and interviewing process I advocate. Following is the version of the program and a quick summary of the process.

A Quick Summary of Performance-based Interviewing

  1. Prepare a performance-based job description. Eliminate the use of skills-laden job descriptions by defining the work as a series of time-phased performance objectives.
  2. Conduct a detailed work history. Spend at least 30 minutes reviewing the candidate’s work history looking for progression, impact and recognition. Find out why the person changed jobs and if the purpose for changing was achieved.
  3. Ask the most significant job accomplishment question. For each performance objective ask the candidate to describe a related accomplishment to determine if the candidate is both competent AND motivated to do the actual work required.
  4. Ask the most significant team accomplishment question. This is the most important of all of the interview questions since it confirms all of the individual accomplishments.
  5. Determine culture fit. A great hire is someone who is competent to do the actual work AND motivated to do the actual work AND fits the culture.
  6. Ask the problem-solving question to assess thinking skills. Ask the person to solve a realistic job-related problem to determine thinking skills.

Asking about a Major Job-related Problem is My Favorite Interview Question

While all of the questions are important, the problem-solving question is my favorite. It reveals job-specific problem-solving, insight, intelligence, potential, vision, and leadership. The question is:

"One of the biggest challenges in our job is (provide 30 second description). If you were to get the job, how would you go about solving it?”

For example, if you're hiring a sales manager, the form of the question might be, "How would you go about ensuring the team met quota every month?" For an engineer, it might be, "How would you design and test this product to ensure it's in production by next March?"

I asked something similar for a Senior Director of Tax search I just completed. "Given the changing U.S. tax rules how would you modify or develop the company’s global tax strategy?” I then spent 20 minutes in a give-and-take discussion making sure the candidate understood the problem and had a logical approach for developing a solution.

The best candidates out of thousands I've met in my 35 years in executive search not only have the ability to understand the needs of the job before starting it, they also ask the right types of questions to figure out the underlying problem. The quality of these questions provides the interviewer another dimension to assess the candidate's understanding and competency.

During this segment of the interview shift to a more natural give-and-take discussion about real job needs. When you focus more on the person's process of figuring out a solution rather than a specific answer this approach reveals the following five dimensions of thinking.

The Five Dimensions of Thinking and Problem-solving

  1. Depth. Determine if the reasoning is complex, advanced or superficial. The best candidates demonstrate a good understanding of the cause and effect of a problem and can determine how to find the root cause. Superficial reasoning is evidenced by a bunch of seemingly unrelated ideas.
  2. Focus. Is the focus technical, tactical, or strategic? Candidates with a pure technical focus get into process details. Those with a tactical bent address the results of the process more. A strategic focus is represented by a longer time horizon with consideration of the implications and the unintended consequences.
  3. Team or individual emphasis. Understand if the candidate's ideas and approaches involve others or if the ideas are more individual or self-focused. This is an important consideration if the person will be managing others or involved in a number of team projects.
  4. Functional or multifunctional perspective. The best candidates understand the implications of their job on other people and other functions. Listen for this as the candidate plans out a task and asks questions.
  5. Breadth and potential. As you make the problem more complex note where the candidate’s problem-solving insight shifts from specific to general to vague. This represents the person’s current ability to take on a bigger role.

While this approach reveals strong problem-solving and thinking skills, it's not enough. You also need to ensure the person can deliver the required results. To determine this, ask the candidate to describe something he/she has accomplished that’s most related to the problem under discussion. This two-question combination is called the Anchor and Visualize approach. A track record of comparable past performance and the ability to visualize the future is a great predictor of future performance. When combined with a clear understanding of real job needs using a performance-based job description, the problem-solving question might soon become your favorite question, too.

These Six 2016 Hiring Trends Will Affect Your Future

In my opinion more time is wasted talking to candidates who aren’t seen or hired by their hiring manager clients than any other recruiting activity. And even when these candidates are seen, hiring managers need to see too many before pulling the yes/no hiring trigger. Worse, some of the best people opt-out long before ever getting an offer so you are back to square one. It’s like doing the same search over and over again.

The primary reason for this problem is the lack of alignment between the recruiter, hiring manager and candidate regarding the actual job needs. Solving this problem will increase recruiter productivity by 100% by not having to present more than four candidates to get one person hired. Bottom line: Recruiters will be able to do one search once rather than sending an endless stream of candidates to get one moderately qualified person hired.

The 3 questions you should ask to align around actual job needs

To help you understand what it takes to align around job needs, I will share with you a project I am working on.

One of our medical device clients is planning on hiring 100 sales representatives during 2016. In 2015, using a list of skills, experiences and competencies as their selection tool, the company hired more than 60 reps. As of December 2015, more than half are underperforming. Worse, to hire the 60, they interviewed hundreds and screened more than 500. To prevent this problem from ever recurring I suggested their sales managers answer the following questions:

1. What are the 2-3 major objectives a person in the role needed to perform over the course of the year that you’d all agree defined on-the-job success?

It was easy to get agreement on “Make their quarterly and annual sales objectives,” as a starting point. But getting agreement on the major objectives on what needed to be done to achieve this overriding objective took hours. For this we came up with these three big objectives:

  • Maximize territory performance and growth.
  • Use advanced solution selling to develop an account-by-account calendared plan.
  • Project manage the entire territory sales effort to leverage the company’s internal resources of technical, marketing and sales support teams.

2. For each major objective, what are the one or two subtasks the best people do differently to ensure the major objective is met?

I call these the deal-breakers. They’re the tasks or abilities the hiring manager shouldn’t compromise on. After a few discussions these turned out to be: 1) conducting detailed discovery to identify real buying needs and create demand for the company’s solution, 2) being able to prioritize accounts based on size and opportunity and 3) being able to meet the key influencers at each account long before too much effort was invested in the project.

3. What are the most important skills, behaviors or competencies essential for success in this role?

When asked, most managers describe generic terms like drive, problem-solving ability or team skills. The more important question is, “How does the person use this ability on the job?” Unless you know how the skill is used on the job too much leeway is left to the interviewer on how to assess the skill. However, for example, when “problem-solving skills” gets converted to “develop a territory strategy that ensures even quarterly sales growth,” it’s easy to ask candidates to give you examples of doing this.

Final thoughts

Most jobs can be defined by 5-6 performance objectives developed using this simple questioning technique. I refer to these as performance-based job descriptions or performance profiles. Before sourcing and presenting candidates, recruiters need to first get agreement that the hiring manager will see 100% of the people who have achieved comparable results even if the person has a non-traditional mix of skills and experiences. Then when it comes to assessing candidates everyone on the hiring team needs to agree to these objectives and their order of importance. This is how you get internal alignment around real job needs.

Getting alignment with the candidate starts by suggesting that in order for the job to represent a career move the person needs to get a 30% non-monetary increase. This consists of job stretch, job growth and an increased mix of more satisfying work. Tell candidates up front that you’ll be using a series of exploratory meetings and discovery interviews to determine if this can be achieved.

By getting alignment around real job needs and as long as your candidates have done comparable work your hiring managers will only need to see four candidates to get one person hired. And if the job represents a true career move, you’ll hire one of them on fair and equitable terms. This is how you stop doing the same search over and over again.

The BEST Way to Figure Out Whom to Hire

While personality tests like BEST are useful confirming indicators, they're not predictive. Regardless, they do have value when used to understand how a person's personality has changed over time.

Since Jung-based personality assessments like DISC, MBTI, Predictive Index and BEST, measure preferences instead of competencies, they are inappropriate for screening purposes. Regardless, they can be used during the interview to better understand the process candidates use to achieve their results.


This short video will get you up to speed quickly on the BEST test. It only takes these two questions to determine your BEST style, that’s why it’s “Simply the BEST.” (Here's a form to download).

Horizontal Axis: Do you prefer to make decisions quickly with limited data (right) or are you more cautious and prefer lots of data before deciding (left)?

Vertical Axis: When working on a team project are you more interested in the needs of the people (bottom) on the team or on achieving the results (top)?

By itself, someone's BEST style has little value, but using it as a guide can help improve interviewing accuracy significantly. Here’s how:

Use Simply the BEST Personality Test to Increase Interviewer Objectivity

  1. Prepare a performance-based job description to assess the person's competency, fit and motivation. I could write a book about this but this short post will demonstrate why skills-laden job descriptions are bad as assessment tests for screening candidates.
  2. Conduct the interview using your diagonally opposite BEST style. If you're an intuitive decision-maker (those on the right), slow way down. Focus on the process of success, not just the person's assertiveness and first impression. If you're a more cautious decision-maker (those on the left) don't just focus on the depth of the person's technical or team skills. Instead, understand how he/she collaborated with others to achieve significant technical and business results.
  3. Eliminate the bias of other interviewers. During the debriefing session filter each interviewer's assessment by his or her BEST style bias. One way to do this is to use evidence, not emotions to make a yes/no decision.
  4. Organize the interview by BEST style. Force people out of their BEST comfort zone by having them ask performance-based questions about their less dominant styles. For example, have Engagers ask about the person's most significant technical accomplishment. The Performance-based Interview I advocate describes this process.

Understand How the Candidate's BEST Style Affected Performance

  1. Determine the candidate's dominant BEST style. Dig into a few of the candidate's most recent significant accomplishments figuring out how he/she made major decisions and overcame big problems. The candidate's BEST style will stand out.
  2. Determine competency by style. Ask the person to describe a major accomplishment for each BEST style. Get one for results achieved, one for influencing others, one for a big team project and one for analytical thinking or technical prowess. This will also reveal the differences between competencies and preferences.
  3. Assess flexibility across styles. As you ask these BEST performance-based questions notice if the person is able to adapt his or her style depending on the circumstances. The best people can. This is a sign of growth, maturity, potential and cultural fit. Be concerned if the person tends to use one or two styles for all situations. This indicates the person is inflexible and less able to adapt to changing circumstances.
  4. Assess ability to deal with different types of people. For each major project have the candidate describe everyone on the team and their roles and levels. Then get examples of how the person dealt with conflict and/or influenced those who were different styles, different functions and were more senior and junior to the candidate.
  5. Evaluate competency growth in dominant style over time. As part of asking performance-based questions look for changes in the size, scope, scale and complexity of the person's accomplishments over the past 5-10 years. Alone, this trend of growth is revealing, but also evaluate how the person grew in his or her core BEST style. For example, has a Technical become more proficient handling more difficult technical challenges or has a Supporter dealt with more complex business issues dealing with more senior level executives?
  6. Map the candidate's BEST style to actual job needs. To be considered a serious candidate the person's accomplishments need to compare on a scope, scale, complexity and style standpoint. This Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard will help you determine a good fit.

BEST-like assessments are useful as a confirming measure of performance but should be used carefully or not at all for pre-screening purposes. The either/or nature of the questions is a fundamental weakness associated with all of these types of tests. For example, a person may prefer to make quick decisions but when the situation calls for in-depth analysis the person might be fully competent. Using the performance-based interviewing approach described here and focusing on changes in BEST styles over time addresses this either/or problem. That's why this BEST test is simply, the best.

The 40/40/20 Sourcing Plan

I was holding a confab last week (circa 2012 - but it's still valid today, whatever day it is) with a few recruiting directors from some global companies discussing the future of sourcing and recruiting. The emphasis was how to get better results from LinkedIn Recruiter. Their contention was that more could be done, but their recruiters were balking. The discussion started with a few questions. Imagine you were there at the meeting. How would you respond to these points?

  1. Do you want to increase your emphasis on hiring passive candidates?
  2. Are you in a talent scarcity situation where the demand for talent is greater than the supply?
  3. Do you want to raise the talent level of your total current workforce, sustain it, or lower it?

All said they want to accelerate their passive recruiting efforts; they all thought they were in a talent scarcity situation for most critical positions; and, of course, they all said they wanted to raise their talent level. I suggested that to begin achieving these three results they needed to implement a 40/40/20 sourcing plan. This means that no more than 20% of their sourcing resources and efforts should be spent on job postings, about 40% on name generation and targeted emails, and 40% on networking.  This 40/40/20 sourcing plan maps closely to the job-hunting status of LinkedIn members. This is shown in the pie chart summarizing the results of a survey we conducted with LinkedIn in 2011.

Based on more than 4,500 fully-employed members, 17% categorized themselves as active (Searchers, Networkers, and Hunters), 15% Tiptoers (only telling very close former associates), and 68% passive (Explorers were open to receiving calls from a recruiter to discuss a possible career move). To source and recruit the best of these people you can’t just post traditional job descriptions, send boring emails, or make dozens of phones call a day, and expect to attract and hire many good people. Implementing a well-designed talent scarcity approach to hiring top talent requires that each part of the 40/40/20 plan be optimized to attract the best people in each job-hunting category. This then needs to be combined with rigorous performance-based selection standards and exceptional recruiting skills, to raise a company’s overall talent bar. I contended that without this type of overt and proactive approach it was very difficult to even sustain the current talent levels, since short-term needs dominated long-term decision-making.

The Essence of a 40/40/20 Sourcing Plan

  • 20% of your efforts need to be posting compelling, career-oriented recruitment advertising so that the best active candidates will find it easily when searching on Google or a job board aggregator. Not only does the posting need to be easily found, but it also needs to highlight the “ideal” candidate’s intrinsic motivator. This is what motivates the person to excel and what they’re not getting in their current job. Here’s an example of how we captured this for a posting we prepared for a client earlier this year for a business unit controller.
  • 40% of your sourcing needs to be focused on preparing short, personalized career stories that are emailed to prospective prospects. These prospects are identified using “Clever Boolean” techniques plus the advanced search filters built into LinkedIn Recruiter. Using LinkedIn’s InMail or a tool like eGrabber for extracting email addresses, it’s simple to send emails in reasonable volumes within a hour after taking a search. This needs to be followed-up with timely and persistent phone messages from the recruiter. What’s left as a voice mail is as important as the email message.
  • 40% of a company’s sourcing efforts needs to networking-based with the objective of spending more time getting pre-qualified warm referrals, rather than making endless cold calls. Most of the initial names will be generated by using LinkedIn Recruiter to search on your co-workers’ connections, and before calling, getting the co-worker to vouch for the person. This is much more proactive than waiting for a co-worker to recommend someone. But this is just the first step. Once on the phone, there’s a heck of lot of recruiting that needs to be done. Much of this involves getting the person to consider the career opportunities involved in the open position, rather than attempting to browbeat the person into hearing about your “great” job, which is no different than every other “great” job the person has heard about.

We ended the meeting by creating the agenda for next month’s call. The ideas focused on what came next once a company implemented a 20/40/40 sourcing plan. I suggested that there were some prerequisites that should come first, specifically:

  1. How to obtain the full support and engagement of the hiring manager. If hiring managers aren’t willing to invest extra time upfront and spend more time recruiting candidates, it was unlikely any sourcing plan would help in attracting and hiring stronger people.
  2. Convert jobs into careers. Top people, whether active, passive, military vets, or diverse candidates, aren’t the least bit interested in taking lateral transfers unless the upside is clear and obvious. Recruiters need to convincingly make this case on each and every call, from first contact to the final close.

Implementing a 40/40/20 sourcing plan is a necessary step for any company facing a talent scarcity situation, but it’s not sufficient. To pull it off, you also need great jobs, fully-engaged hiring managers, and outstanding recruiters. However, this is just the beginning. It’s how you execute that will separate the winners from the runners-up.