Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sorkin Screenwriting

Photo from: Dominick D

"Whether it's 'The West Wing' or anything else, my first thought is always, 'What's a good story?'"- Aaron Sorkin

A few months ago I stumbled on a set of online class offerings from a company called Masterclass. These courses cover a variety of subjects and are taught by recognized 'masters' in their respective fields. Steve Martin teaches comedy, Frank Gehry teaches architecture, Kevin Spacey teaches acting and so on.

Then I saw one on screenwriting by Aaron Sorkin - a supremely accomplished, award-winning writer and storyteller - and was instantly drawn to it.

Screenwriting is the act of writing a screenplay or script. A script includes dialog, actions and directions for telling a story in an entertainment medium such as film, tv or plays.

Human beings love to hear and tell stories. This is not a revelation. In fact there may even be scientific proof behind how and why humans are optimized for storytelling (and 'storylistening' I suppose) as this Harvard Business Review article discusses. It's just neurobiology...

There are many quotes on this subject too: "People don't remember statistics (data), they remember stories." Maya Angelou said “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”  Story is an impactful way to communicate meaning and feeling to our fellow humans.

Even successful blog posts, ones that have gone 'viral', are the ones that tell a story - usually a very personal one. On my OnMentoring blog I've written that when interviewing for your next role you need to be ready to tell your stories. Don't just list out your accomplishments. It's vital to have a narrative for your achievements. What did you struggle with and how did you overcome? What did you learn in those struggles on your way to achieving your successes? Those tales will most certainly increase the chances for a successful outcome.

So when I saw Aaron Sorkin's class on screenwriting pop up I immediately registered. Aaron Sorkin has written some of the most powerful and moving scripts the world has seen - from movies such as "A Few Good Men" to TV shows such as "The West Wing".

Sorkin teaches that the core of any story must have two things: Intention and Obstacle. Intention is simply about your protagonist wanting something. An Obstacle (or two or three) is the barrier he/she encounters along the way to obtaining that something. The more intense the Intention, the more pressure to get to the something and the more imposing the Obstacle the better the story you'll tell. Not a single one of us escapes each day without having something we desire and obstacles that attempt to prevent us from achieving those desires.

I cannot convey in a single posting all that I've been absorbing watching this master describe concepts and techniques. I can say without equivocation that this course is fantastic and recommended.

I have zero plans to write any movies, plays or TV scripts in the near future....but stories...I tell them every day. We all need stories as they help us to partner with customers, inspire our teams, teach our friends/relatives/loved ones and, frankly, to make life that much more interesting. Even the mundane can be made intriguing in the hands of an eloquent storyteller. So any way to increase one's skills in this area is worth the journey.


"Stories, more even than stars or spectacle, are still the currency of life." - Adam Gopnik

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.