Archives For Talent

diversity

The tech community has demonstrated that it is at best confused about what type of diversity businesses should aim for, in order to advance well.  It is one thing to curb discrimination, but on the topic of diversity, I think we should be looking for “diversity in perspectives”.  

Diversity has hardly been an easy topic to understand.  For centuries, the human civilization has been trying to deal with just what diversity is and how best to handle it.  So, it is no surprise that it leads to exhaustion as Dick Costolo gets hammered on the lack of women on the Twitter board.  Those who followed the NYTimes article and the less than ideal exchange that happened on Twitter following a harsh comment by @dickc know that the situation is getting so much attention.

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On the topic of “women as minority”, I have very conflicted views.  I’ve written earlier on this topic, advocating that women need to be confident and trust in their abilities to be as good or better as their male counterparts.  So, this question of “should an organization be compelled to have a woman on their board” makes me very uncomfortable.  If you are a woman, would you like to be hired because you are a woman (of course you’d be subject to a minimum bar) or would you like to be hired because there isn’t a better candidate than you for the job?  I’d prefer the latter myself.

For what it’s worth, I think we are hung up on the wrong question!  We are implicitly making this be about discrimination rather than diversity in a meaningful sense.  Have you hired the best candidate you could find for the job?  Of course, there are all kinds of other factors – a reasonable timeline for one – but, in general, if you answered yes to that question, you are done!

Diversity In Perspectives

Now, diversity in perspectives, however, is a completely different thing.  A company like Twitter needs creativity in multiple dimensions.  Arguably, understanding female users is one area.  But, I have a hard time professing that you need a woman to understand female users.  Would you hire a teenager to the board so you can understand teenage users?  Not necessarily.  In a similar manner, the key is that you have a board that can bring in diverse perspectives that are important to your business.  The real problem lies in the fact that most leaders are not necessarily excellent judges of other people’s strengths.  So, it is generally hard for someone to understand who is bringing the right set of perspectives in which area.  How do you know that a male director you just hired understands female users?  It is much easier to believe that hiring a woman will bring that perspective.  All the noise about how Twitter has so many female users and hence desperately needs a woman on the board relate to exactly that!

It is true that it is often difficult for people to understand how their real users behave and what they need.  The solution to this is not that they go find themselves a representative from each segment of their user population.  First of all, there is no guarantee that a 40-year old woman can bring the perspective of a teenage girl.  So, unless you got your segments exactly right, that would not be an ideal fit.  Second, not only do you need the right perspectives from different user segments, you also need these people to be able to connect the dots together and create a cohesive strategy.  Not to mention be able to identify user segments of future relevance.

The bottomline is that diversity in perspectives is what is most important and you need creative people who can understand that they are not necessarily the representative user, can understand the actual users and project their future wants and needs and equally critically, can work together!

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Hiring is hard work. Finding the employee that is best skilled in the area of your needs, fits with the culture of the team, works like she owns the product, takes responsibility like it’s hers to win or lose, connects the dots and thinks ahead, is a good mentor and a listener, is a leader that can adapt to changes and cause changes when needed, has a vision and can articulate it, and is so much more, is really hard to find.  Many of us would be lucky if we found half of those qualities in our employees.  Yet, when we are lucky enough to find those gems of employees, many of us forget how to continue motivating them!

ImageThese are your A+ performers.  They may be more capable than you (possibly with less experience, however), who are potentially going to make a fundamental difference to the products and the company as a whole.  They are often self-motivated, need little attention and know exactly when to find you when they need input!  Your competitors want them, badly.  They are smart enough to see through your bullshit and read between the lines.  They are a rare breed!

So, how do you recognize when their motivation drops and how do you keep it up?  Ron Baker’s post on performance appraisals resonated with me quite a bit.  The current appraisal system is just broken – it works for the average employee who does defined tasks, but not for your best performers.  In a follow-up post, Ron makes some very good suggestions on alternative ways of evaluating performance.  Here are some things to realize about motivating the best:

  • It is often not about the money!
    Money can get them in the door, but money won’t keep them.  A seriously under competitive pay might be a problem, but a merely above average pay will not keep them.  Understand this – if it was for the money, they would have left for your competitor by now!
  • Recognize they may be smarter than you!
    Don’t give them management bullshit.  If they can think ahead in abstract terms, they can see through the bullshit even if they don’t tell you so.  Tell them the truth and be genuine when  you say you are trying.  It will go a long way.
  • Genuinely seek out their opinion and use it!
    It does not belittle you to seek input from your employees and act on it.  It tells them you value their input beyond their specific role.
  • When you use their input, give them the recognition!
    When you realize you are using their inputs with your own senior management, give them the recognition and visibility they deserve.  None of the A+ players want to work for a hierarchical organization that masks visibility.  You are going to be better off for it in the long run.
  • Watch for signs of frustration
    Watch for the indirect feedback, the body language, the interactions with the team to spot signs of frustration early.  The best ones know grass is not greener on the other side.  Addressing the frustrations early can help you keep them.

Many of the better companies recognize the pains in hiring and try to do a lot for their good employees.  But rarely do we have managers who can truly keep the motivation of the employees they cannot afford to lose!  As a result, we often see different effects – some leave, some stay with frustration and become A- or B players.  Either way, it is a loss!

It truly makes you a great leader when you recognize that you need to sometimes give up your pride to keep the good ones motivated.  But, that’s what makes exceptional leaders so exceptional – they are not afraid of recognizing and hiring talent that is better then them and finding innovative ways of keeping them!

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I am so disappointed with HBR today.  It is one of the sites that I always believed had high quality content – but, that changed a bit today, when a tweet in my feed took me to the blog post of Kyle Wiens on why he would never hire anyone with poor grammar.

As a disclaimer, about 10 years ago, I would have totally sided with Kyle on this. Sloppy grammar is simply sloppy.  But, various experiences in my career have allowed me to mature a bit more than that.  And I can now definitely differentiate among lack of attention to detail as a fundamental nature, lack of attention to detail in secondary tasks and just sloppy language.  And they are not the same thing!

In his post, Kyle writes about how good programming relates to good writing, as one example of how good language skills apply to all disciplines.  There is no doubt that good writing reflects clarity of thought and the ability to pay attention to detail – however, the converse is not true, as experience might tell us.  Certainly not in all disciplines.  Consider all those people whose native language is not English.  Are we supposed to penalize all those researchers for being incapable of expressing excruciating amounts of detail in the English language?

I have come across many people (some very senior folks at extremely successful organizations) with sloppy grammar in the course of my career in technology.  Capitalization errors.  Not knowing the correct number of spaces after a comma or a fullstop.  Not knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its”.  Incorrectly using “affects” when it should be “effects” or vice-versa.  And so on.  Sometimes I think it’s even fashionable to write bad grammar – I can’t seem to get by a few days without running into something on TechCrunch that is grammatically so incorrect that it makes me cringe!  I have actually analyzed this a fair bit – I’m cynical and critical myself and this has certainly not escaped my observations.  I’ve seen how, with certain people, this trait also reflects a muddled up state of the mind, where there does exist a correlation between sloppy language and lack of clarity in thinking overall.  Usually, these people turn out to be native English speakers.  In some cases, these people have overlapping thoughts that get in the way of each other – such people can confuse themselves and their audience and they are often fighting several thoughts that aren’t taken to completion.  This would lead to the hypothesis that Kyle is right in his post.

However, the important thing is to also look at several other people that are unable to write grammatically correct language, but exhibit an amazing degree of clarity in thought and cognitive ability that sets them apart.  More often than not, these people are non native speakers of English, but not as a rule.  As someone who has done extensive amount of hiring and can pride myself on arguably hiring some of the most amazing talent in the field of technology, I can now tell how to look for the people that can pay attention to detail.  In the end, I believe that is really what the HBR post is trying to get at – although I’m not sure that Kyle realizes that.

There are two classes of these people – ones that pay attention to detail always and ones that pay attention to detail where it matters.  The former category is safe – these are people who will make good employees.  The latter category is tricky – how do you know upfront if they will pay attention to detail where it matters to you and your organization rather than only where it matters to them?  Filtering this is a skill you acquire and can’t easily be taught.  The important reality is that these are the people that will take your organization to the next level.  Knowing where to pay attention to detail and what one should let go of is hard – but, that is what defines great leadership!  The ability to spot those people takes talent too – and great leadership starts there!

Pay attention to people’s language skills – but, connect it to their cognitive skills in the area of importance to you.  Remember that you are after attention to detail… for the right set of things.