Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Asymmetry of Networking


Today's posting is more of a question.

I have discussed many times on this blog about the power, the benefits and the necessity of networking. There is a direct correlation between your success at your job, your job search and most any other endeavor and how networked you are with the world. Networking doesn't guarantee success of course - nothing guarantees success. But being connected certainly significantly increases the chances of it.

Most everyone would prefer to have a recommendation from someone they know (i.e. someone they are 'networked with') rather than choose something all by themselves. Social media is our modern day networking mechanism. 21st century businesses are being built around the power of recommendations (or the 'like'-ing) of something or someone.

Now we come to my assertion: in the job seeking, job hiring/recruiting world the power of networking is asymmetrical. I have recently been both a job seeker and a job "hirer"/"recruiter" seeking candidates for open positions and I'm finding that my network was far more able to recommend job opportunities for me than recommend people for me to hire. This is not intuitive for me. In fact I expected the opposite. As a job seeker I have a particular set of skills that will only match a small set of openings at any given time especially in today's economy where employers are (unfortunately and incorrectly in my opinion) waiting months to find literally the 'perfect' candidate.

On the other hand I find myself hiring for a myriad of positions with a variety of required skills and experience levels and I've received very few recommendations of anyone to hire. Even if someone is happily employed wouldn't they even entertain a conversation about a possibly better opportunity?

Note: Let me clarify at this point that I'm speaking about using one's own personal network for this purpose and not recruiters. Recruiters have a monetary incentive to make these types of connections and out of scope for this discussion.

So why the imbalance?

Here's my theory: while it's easy to pass on a link to a job description it's far harder to stake your reputation and recommend someone for a job to someone else. When you point a job seeker to a job posting  you are a hero with relatively minimal effort. If it's not a match you are still positively remembered as making an effort. But should you recommend someone for a position and they end up not being a match or worse, they get hired and don't work out, your reputation suffers tremendously. There is a greater downside to recommending people than recommending jobs I think.

I was speaking to my friends and colleagues about this topic and one friend, Ross, pointed out the imbalance in perceived "urgency" in these types of requests. When someone needs a job there is a higher sense of urgency shared with the job seeker than shared with someone who is looking for people to hire. Someone who is looking for a job has a lot more at stake than someone who is employed and is hiring. This "urgency imbalance" depending on the request makes sense as a cause for the asymmetry as well.

What are you thoughts? Does networking work the same in both directions or are there understandable differences in the job seeking/recruiting process? I'd really appreciate responses as I'd like to know if I simply haven't used my network effectively enough during the recruitment process. Leave your comments below or shoot me an email using the link on the right for "questions"!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Usefulness of Pink Elephants



Back in university my very first course in Computer Science was, as is common, a weed out course meant to discourage only the most fervent of students from pursuing that degree. To my unhappy surprise we did not touch a computer during the entire semester. Not even once. A computer science class that didn't involve computers?? What was that all about? Well, this course wasn't about computers specifically - it was about something else. And as it turns out it gave me skills I use every day to this day.

On the surface the course covered discrete math - concepts such as proof by induction and recursion among others. Early on in the semester one of the professor's lectures started with him posing a difficult math problem for all of us to solve. He described the problem and challenged the class to start offering approaches and solutions. The problem was far harder than anything our tender freshman minds had encountered before. He paced back and forth waiting for a worthy suggestion. He appeared to get frustrated as time ticked by in silence.

Finally he turned to us and asked us "what would you need in order to solve this problem?". After a few humorous suggestions were shouted out (like, "the ANSWER") someone in the back said that it would be easier to solve if we had more information. The professor's face lit up. "What information would you like to have?" he asked as he engaged the student. "Well we could solve it if we knew what 'X' was in the formula". "Exactly!", the Professor continued.  "Let's all pretend we knew what 'X' was. Let's finish solving the problem and go back to figure out what can we do to this equation that will allow us to figure out 'X'!" The dialog proceeded and together the class solved the problem. This problem-solving technique is called wishful thinking and it is a powerful tool.

From "The Power of Wishful Thinking and Other Problem-Solving Strategies":
What is wishful thinking? Besides being a fun pastime, it can be a useful tool in problem solving. The idea is simple: you have a problem that you don’t know how to solve. What can you do? Well, you may be able to change the problem to one you can solve. If you are clever (or lucky) about choosing what you wish for, you may get an idea about how to solve the harder problem you started with. 

Our professor enthusiastically summed up the approach this way: If you are trying to solve a problem, figure out what you wish you had and alter the problem as if you were granted your wish. If you are solving a math problem and need "X" then wish for "X". If you are solving a transportation problem and need a car then wish for a car. If you are solving whatever problem and need PINK ELEPHANTS then wish for PINK ELEPHANTS!

We all sat bewildered. Pink elephants? Pink elephants? Is he kidding? But it dawned on me over the course of the semester that this technique was very effective because it forced our minds to do two things simultaneously:

  1. break the problem down into smaller, solvable chunks.
  2. invite our minds to think out of the box and not be constrained by the problem as it first appears. If we can alter or simplify the problem and solve that we may have found ourselves on the path to solving the original problem.
Just thinking about pink elephants fired up deep, creative parts of my brain that became useful as I figured things out.

Rarely a time goes by that I'm meeting with one of my mentees when they aren't dealing with some challenging problems whether it be in their work or career path or with interpersonal relationships. Our primary goal as mentors/coaches is not to solve the problem for them even if we are capable of that. It's to give them the tools to arrive at a solution for themselves. I've found the wishful thinking approach to be one of the best tools I've shared with my mentees and clients.

Here's a very simple example of this in practice: a mentee of mine complained that he was not getting promoted. Getting a promotion is generally a hard thing to do in any organization. I challenged him to start acting as if he'd already gotten the promotion. As he started to visualize himself already attaining this first wish we talked about the new challenges he would face in this new role. He found that he was nervous about certain aspects all which revolved around public speaking. I then asked him to wish he was already an accomplished public speaker.

What happened next? To make that wish a reality this mentee signed up for public speaking courses and volunteering for presenting at all hands meetings. The result? While he did not get promoted at his original company he found a higher position at another company about 1 year after our wishful conversation. In that year he obtained the final piece and the confidence to get a promotional opportunity. Wishing for the promotion led to wishing he had a critical skill which led to him obtaining that skill and ultimately satisfying his desire to get to the next level.

That weed out course I wrote about earlier became informally known as the 'pink elephant' course. That whole first semester was about problem solving - a key skill not just for computer programming but for life! I keep my useful pink elephants around all the time. :)

[Author's note: After completing this article I did a Google search on this topic and my professor's name and found that he wrote a white paper on why this approach to teaching [math] was successful. If you are in education you might find it a very informative read. The link is here.]



Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Managing Dissent - Like a Gardener with a Rare Flower

There you sit in a meeting, perhaps leading it, calm and content that the group is quickly and thankfully moving towards a resolution. What led to this meeting? A high profile client issue that could jeopardize the entire account at your firm - an account whose loss would deeply cut into the bottom line. Your initial lightening quick instincts led you to form a SWAT team and together address the issue. As the meeting enters its natural end stage with people taking action items and promising status updates you notice a key person off to the side sitting quietly, pensively. You realize this person has not contributed at all during the discussion and a slight chill of nervousness starts to creep up your spine.

You can choose to do one of two things:
Option 1: remain content that the majority seems to be honing in on a good solution and allow the meeting to conclude with people going to execute on the plan, or
Option 2: draw the quiet person (who may have a strong difference of opinion) into the discussion at the risk of discovering the resolution is not going to work effectively thus halting all progress just made.

What to do?

I've seen many mentees and many managers choose option 1. Many of us live in a society that puts great trust in the majority's beliefs and decisions. We choose Presidents, community leaders, contest winners and make a host of other selections by majority vote. That's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to deciding issues that impact a nation's citizenry. But enlightened leadership in the working world is not all about "majority rules" but rather about "doing the right thing". And you don't need to be a Manager to be faced with this kind of choice.

I was recently watching a TED talk about choosing when to use expert opinion during the problem-solving/crisis-solving process. The speaker, Noreena Hertz, put it best when she told the story of a famous CEO who always chose option 2:
"Google CEO Eric Schmidt is a practical practitioner of this philosophy. In meetings, he looks out for the person in the room—arms crossed, looking a bit bemused—and draws them into the discussion, trying to see if they indeed are the person with a different opinion, so that they have dissent within the room. Managing dissent is about recognizing the value of disagreement, discord and difference.
Noreena Hertz, from “How to Use Experts and When Not to,” TED Talks, Nov. 2010
Mind you encouraging dissent is not equivalent to instigating a rebellion although that is a possible outcome (however unlikely). Creating a space for dissent and constructive disagreement and debate has been proven time and again to produce more efficient, effective and creative solutions to real world business problems. In addition I've already discussed in other pages of this blog how ensuring participation and buy in from everyone (dissension or not) will yield to a more motivated team. And a more motivated team will yield a fervent desire to solve problems on behalf of the team and the company. It's a harder place to get to as there are few people who relish debate but the end result can literally save the company.

I propose that the way to manage dissent is to encourage it when we see it brewing in a setting where its manifestation can be most productive. It should be an appropriate setting where it can be discussed, dealt with and appreciated. If that setting doesn't exist then create it.

In many ways we as mentors/leaders are the gardeners of our mentees' careers and our organization's success. We cultivate goals, ideas and hopefully inspire growth. Dissent is like an unusual flower that we, the gardeners, come upon from time to time while tending his or her garden. Before deciding it's a weed and ripping it out by its roots we need to stop, take a breath and examine what possibly rare and special thing is unfolding before us. And while at first it may seem unwanted and misplaced (especially during times of crisis) if we encourage it to grow it may turn into the most beautiful and valued thing we possess.