Sunday, March 19, 2017

Stretch Opportunities - Promise and Peril

Image by Mike Baird under the Creative Commons license

Two years ago I wrote a post entitled "Interviewing for a higher position" where I shared some background and tips for anyone about to undertake that endeavor. An excerpt:

Given this perilous recruiting jungle a hiring manager will want to look for the best path to safety. That means hiring someone who they perceive has done the job already. Why take the risk of bringing on someone who from day one has to catch up in terms of understanding their role? [An aside: those stretch opportunities do exist typically when a company can't afford someone with experience for the role they have to fill. That has its own dangers for everyone involved but that's another posting.]
And with that I'd like to elaborate on the promises and perils of those stretch opportunities as I have experience with them on both sides of the hiring process.  I define a stretch opportunity as a position given to someone which is significantly beyond their current knowledge or skill level.

It's important to recognize that stretch opportunities almost always occur when something negative has happened - a hiring manager has been unable to find a suitable candidate for an open position. Occasionally a hiring manager will create a stretch role for a specific employee that they want to grow. While that's a very positive reason, in those cases you won't be interviewing for those spots because the person has been pre-selected.

There are a myriad of reasons why a company can't find "the right person" including but not limited to, in no particular order:

  • inability to pay market salary
  • lack of talent in the target geography
  • unreasonable expectations (for example, candidate must be awesomely strategic and yet be able to jump in at a moment's notice to be extremely detail oriented, etc. etc.)
  • internal company disagreement on what type of candidate they need or if they even really need the role filled
  • it's a startup and everyone takes on multiple roles

When this situation arises a company decides to compromise on one or more of the attributes they were initially designating as a requirement. The good news for the candidate applying to the job is that this gives them a foot in the door. And this is the first promise of a stretch role - the chance to prove oneself during the interview process.

Of course the greatest promise of such a position is if the candidate wins the role and gets exposed to a new set of responsibilities, challenges and duties. It'll be uncomfortable at first but that's proof that there is space to grow.

So what of the perils?

There are many. For starters when a hiring manager compromises there will be a nagging feeling that the right person is still out there somewhere. The temptation to continue the search could cause the company not to invest in their new hire (you) nearly as much as they should.

Another peril lies in the possibility of lower compensation. Why is the company unable to pay market salary? It could be because they are in financial distress or not optimistic about their future. Or perhaps they don't understand what the market requires to successfully recruit the best individual. All this is bad news. The danger here is that a successful candidate, once proven in the role, will forever be at a salary disadvantage because they started off so low.

If it's unreasonable expectations that caused them to settle it's unlikely the situation will improve. The candidate will be stepping into a role where their leadership will never be happy no matter how much they've hit it out of the park. This is survivable but will it be fun long term?

The bottom line is that it's admirable to go for and accept stretch opportunities. Sometimes it's the only way to grow one's career. Just do so with eyes wide open by asking plenty of questions during and after the interview process. Make sure you understand what they compromised on so you can be alert for it and attempt to mitigate it as you grow into your new role.

Good luck!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Focus on Strengths

I recently participated in a team reflection/personal development activity at work called StrengthsFinder which made me think about taking that idea into the mentoring realm. (Note: this is not an endorsement of that particular product or methodology - just part of the story).

The gist of StrengthsFinder is that instead of focusing on areas where one is weak, find and focus on areas where one is strong and make those stronger. You want to stand out in an area you are already good at and are passionate about.

The belief is that you can become much more valuable to your organization if you are known as an expert in a particular domain or skill. If you just work on your weaker areas and bring that up to average then you'll be exactly that - average. It takes so much energy to improve areas that are not interesting to you. Why do it only to become one of the crowd?

Typically mentoring conversations are focused on areas the mentee would like to improve or change. That's natural - one wants to find a safe place in which to discuss challenges and vulnerabilities because the world of work rarely presents that kind of environment. As a mentor it's important from time to time to reflect on the areas that are going well for the mentee to see if those can be improved even further. Success most certainly breeds success.

For example, I had a mentee who was mortally afraid of public speaking but was actually very skilled at teaching technical concepts one on one. I suggested worrying less about the lack of public speaking ability for the time being and concentrate on coaching individuals that sought him out for help completing their projects. Sure enough by the following year he was well positioned for a promotion from lead to manager precisely because he was viewed as an expert in his field. He became the "go to" person which is often what one looks for in a good leader. I'm not saying that public speaking is not a critical skill  - it is! I venture that by focusing on his strength it led to a greater outcome than if he just developed into an adequate public speaker.

Most people work in teams. In an ideal situation the team would contain a set of individuals with a diverse set of strengths. This skill diversity equips the team to successfully handle a wide variety of challenges it will inevitably face. Everyone on the team does not have to be great at everything. That's not possible in any case.

It's a lot more fun to work on something you feel you are already good at and enjoy rather than toil away in an area of fear or disinterest. And it could lead to the type of recognition amongst peers and leaders that allow you to shine.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Matchmakers? To Match or Not To Match

This posting is primarily targeted to those who seek to create or improve on an existing mentoring program.

When companies start to create formal mentoring programs they typically struggle with these questions:

  • Should a formal mentoring program be expected to match mentors and mentees or simply give guidance? 
  • What type of information should be collected in order to make the best match suggestions? 
  • If a formal matching process is undertaken should those matches be forced for some period of time? 

There are strong opinions on all sides. After many years as a mentor, a mentee and as someone that's helped launch and run these programs I too have ideas which I'd like to share.

A core part of my philosophy around mentoring is that the onus is always on the mentee/protégé. It is ultimately best if the mentee develops a candidate mentor list, approaches those candidates and, once selected, drive the ongoing agenda of the mentoring conversations.

Matching can take a lot of time and resources on a company's part. There is data to collect, time constraints, tracking of communication, sensitivities to be aware of, etc. etc. So when Organizational Development professionals from various companies or universities approach me about how to lower the cost of the matching process in their mentoring programs my answer is simple: Don't match! Your cost will be zero!

I would much rather have programs spend their precious resources coaching prospective mentees in developing the skills of finding a mentor rather than doing the matching. I'm also supportive of company mentoring programs helping to reach out to candidate mentors, such as executives, on behalf of mentees as executives are typically individuals who are difficult to contact.

Another huge benefit of handing the process back to prospective mentees is the ownership they'll need to take and ultimately feel during the process. It weeds out folks who aren't serious about mentoring and wouldn't benefit very much in any case.

If a formal mentoring program is going to match mentors with mentees the most important information to collect is:

  • From the mentee: What are they looking to get out of the mentoring relationship? Is there a particular skill they are looking for or is it about more general career or life guidance? 
  • From the mentor: What types of skills are they strong in (for example: public speaking, networking, communication, leadership, etc.) and can offer guidance on to prospective mentees? What qualities in a mentee would they like to see to increase the chances of a successful relationship?
Answers to these questions will provide critical clues in any matching endeavor. 

Finally, on the question of forcing matches - I'm completely against forcing matches even if a formal mentoring program has taken all the time and care in the world to figure out the best opportunity. I've known mentors and mentees in these situations where they were simply told to "figure it out" for 6 months or longer by their companies. If two people sense that it's not going to work they should be honest as early as possible and respectfully move on to other possible mentors/mentees. 

I hope these ideas were useful. I'm happy to answer questions or discuss any aspects of mentoring programs. Just contact me via email or the "Ask a Question" link on my site