Ask advice better – replace the generic question with a hypothesis

The typical approach to asking for advice is to ask generic questions like – “how can I get a job in xx?” or “how can I do well in my x admissions interview?” 

Aside from being hit and miss if you are the person asking these sort of questions, they can be very frustrating if you are on the other end of these questions. They showcase no thoughtfulness and feel formulaic.

A better way is to replace this question with your hypothesis or approach. For example, you could lead with – “I realize it is challenging to make the switch to xx. But, my research points to other folks who’ve done it by doing yy. So, as a first step, I plan to do yy. Second, I am thinking about taking a course on the side or working on a side project to prove I can do it. I’m curious to hear your feedback on my plan?” 

This simple change in approach can have a magical effect because it showcases your preparation and thoughtfulness. In conversations where people don’t know each other well (and, let’s face it, we don’t have such conversations with people we know well), showcasing interest works much better than saying “I am interested.”

Show, don’t tell.

How to: Better brainstorming with private collection

Most brainstorming exercises are acts of “public collection” of data. We put a question on the board and ask everyone attending our meeting for ideas.

Brainstorming, when done well, can be a really fun and energizing exercise. But, it turns out that brainstorming is rarely done well. A small minority of people tend to dominate air time and the shy folks stay out of the discussion altogether.

A simple tweak that helps brainstorming is “private collection.” This involves giving everyone in the room post its or pieces of paper, a few minutes of time and encouragement to write down their ideas.

As a moderator, when you open up the floor for brainstorming, you know for sure that everyone has ideas. So, you can now facilitate the discussion to ensure everyone’s participation.

Brainstorming sessions succeed because of the diversity of ideas on show. Diversity, in turn, can be encouraged by good session design.

This meeting will be a success if

“This meeting will be a success if…”

“The purpose of this meeting is…”

“The 3 things we absolutely need to get done in the next 30 minutes are…”

“We’ve gathered here as a group to…”

There are many variants of the same idea – set up a meeting with the purpose upfront – and it doesn’t really matter which one we pick.

But, ensuring every meeting we participate in starts with quick alignment around the purpose is likely one of the best things we will do for our long term meeting effectiveness.

A short prep checklist for your next interview

I’ve been speaking to folks who are in the process of preparing for interviews lately. While I have a long post on the topic, I thought I’d put together a short prep checklist.

When you prepare, consider allocating time among 4 types of questions –

  1. Why industry (15% of your time): Industry questions target your perspectives on the industry you are applying for. Ideally, you are interviewing for an industry you are interested in and this part of your preparation just involves synthesizing what you think based on recent news, blog posts and events.
  2. Why company (15% of your time): Company related questions typically judge culture fit and understanding of the context the company operates in. For the former, clearly understanding cultural norms and values (in companies that say they care about this) helps a lot. Amazon, for example, expects you to know their 14 leadership principles. And, for the latter, reading an analyst report or two that gives you a sense of the competitors and prospects can help a lot. If the company is public, reading their recently quarterly or annual filings is a must-do.
  3. Why role (40% of your time): There are 2 important variants of role questions –
    • Do you understand what the executives in your function think about? (less common but interesting and important)
    • Do you know what you would do/what skills you would need in your first day? (this is the most common variant and is typically tested using a case which simulates a real problem to test how you approach problems)
  4. Why you (30% of your time): “Why you” questions also typically ask two questions –
    • Would I like to work with you? (file this under the ambiguous “culture fit”)
    • Do your skills overlap sufficiently with the skills required for the job? (Understand the top 3-4 skills required and ensure your behavioral stories call these out – this is particularly important if you are switching careers)

Interview panels focus on different aspects of these 4 questions for various interviews. The “why role” and “why you” specific questions tend to be asked across interviewers.

I hope this helps.

PS: There’s a lot of luck involved in admissions or hiring. I hope you choose to learn from your experience either way and keep going, growing.

How to: Make introductions and connect people

Every once a while, we find an opportunity to make an introduction and connect people. Someone we know (person 1) wants to talk to someone we’ve worked with or know personally (person 2). If done well, the offer to make a connection is an act of generosity and is a wonderful way to build a network.

But, this can also go wrong. The most common way this goes wrong is when person 2 isn’t interested in the connection or is far too busy to deal with a new, unexpected, introduction.

There is one simple principle that helps resolve this potential issue – always ask for permission. It doesn’t matter how well you know the people involved – it is always in your interest to ask for permission. Let’s play out the scenarios –

  • You know person 2 really well and they would be thrilled to help you. Asking for permission makes them feel even more respected and cared for.
  • You don’t know person 2 all that well, haven’t stayed in touch and don’t know what is going on in their lives at the current moment. Asking for permission ensures that you are taking their feelings into consideration and not thrusting an obligation on them.

This is important to keep in mind even if you are the person asking for an introduction. It is in your interest to request the person who has offered to introduce you to ask for permission first. Else, your conversation isn’t set up for success.

The best introductions are win-win-win introductions where each person walks out feeling positive. And, asking for permission to make an introduction helps ensure that happens more often than not.

How to: Network

 Networking is one of those words that inspires strong reactions. Most words that are perceived as business jargon get that reaction. 
It also doesn’t help that there are a lot of myths about how networking is best done. I’ve seen posts about people claiming to know networking “gurus” who work a long and information filled spreadsheet while also seeing notes from others who refuse to network (in the traditional sense at least) and are successful anyway
To understand how to do something, we must understand what it means, why it matters and what the basic principles that govern it are.
What it means: Networking is building and nurturing professional relationships.
Why it matters: As with our personal lives, building and nurturing meaningful professional relationships helps both our career advancement and our happiness. Our network helps advance our careers and businesses as we can call on favors or help at crucial times. And, they help our happiness because, well, we are human.
Principles: Your network is directly proportional to your net worth. And, your net worth is a combination of two things – your financial net worth and your character net worth. Let’s break these down. 
  • Financial net worth: This is a reflection of how wealthy you are. There are very few billionaires who have difficulty calling for professional favors. 
  • Character net worth: This is a reflection of your character. Think about people at work and in your community who are held in great respect by a lot of people. These folks can call on a network simply because of the value they’ve added to others’ lives by being good people. I think the sign of a good character is the presence of integrity. Integrity comes from the latin word “integer” which means whole. Stephen Covey defined it as the ability to make and keep commitments. The beauty about folks who make and keep commits is that they walk their talk and talk their walk. As a result, they are consistent and whole. And, that consistency over time builds the sort of trust that brings people together.
Breaking these down leads to a couple of interesting questions. For instance, are these correlated? Does character net worth typically bring financial net worth? If I had to hazard a guess based on what I have observed, I’d say the correlation is loose. 
Second, is one better than the other? Albert Einstein famously said – “Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.” But, I don’t think there’s a right answer here. It depends on what matters to you.
How toOnce you understand the principles that drive something, it is easy to figure out what you need to do. In this case, there are 2 ways you can go about building professional networks – 
  • Become wealthy. Assuming you’re focused on legal ways, either build skills that are valuable or build an organization that solves a problem for a large number of people.
  • Become a person of character. If you consistently give before you get and earn trust, a network is just a natural outcome.
My synthesis is that networking is not something you need to do because a network is a natural outcome of what you do and who you are. If you can simply be focused on becoming and being the best version of yourself, a network will follow. 
The best networks are not pursued, they ensue.