Today matters

Today matters. It may seem like a simple, unglamorous day. And, yes, it likely doesn’t seem to matter the way we normally think of days that matter. It isn’t a “big day” – there’s no award ceremony or big launch or massive promotion.

But, today still presents an opportunity. An opportunity to build a better self, to improve how we operate, to be more conscious, to invest in others and to be a better citizen of this planet.  And, if we were busy fighting for essentials, we wouldn’t have that opportunity. It is a blessing.

It is hard to predict if these small daily opportunities will lead to big opportunities in time. And, if so, in exactly how much time.

However, there are two things we know for sure.  First, diamonds, like nearly all valuable things, are built thanks to consistent pressure over thousands of years. It takes time to build great people and things. And, yes, we build ourselves – one good act at a time.

Second, a good thing is worth doing for its own sake.

Today matters – just in a different way than we might think.

Outcome goals versus direction and process goals

Setting outcome based goals isn’t smart. “I will lose 10 pounds” or “I will achieve the highest performance ratings” are the sorts of goals that present more downside than upside in the long term. There’s a lot of great resources that talk about replacing goals with systems. While I think most of that thinking is good, it misses an important point. It isn’t enough, in my experience, to replace outcome goals with process goals. I find that it helps combining a process goal with a directional goal.

As an example, let’s take a weight loss related outcome goal – “I want to lose 10 pounds within 10 months.” The systems/process goal answer to this would be to replace this with some variant of – “I am going to eat healthy and exercise 3 times every week.”

This is a pretty drastic shift and is hard for most people. That’s because we’re replacing the idea of achievement in 10 months to no achievement. Ever. While it makes sense that we must trust in the process, it helps to have markers along the way.

And, as far as markers go, directional goals work great. There are 2 criteria for directional goals –
1. They need to be a range and shouldn’t be super specific. We always tend to over estimate how we’ll achieve in a year while greatly underestimating how much we achieve in a decade.
2. Their time period needs to be longer than the typical outcome goal you might set.

So, an example directional goal for our weight loss example would be – “I’d like to move toward a fitter body with toned muscles and 3-6 pounds lost within the next 12 months.

The idea is to ease the pressure while still giving you something to celebrate. The other benefit of laying down markers is that you can use them to check in on your process. If you’ve made absolutely no progress in 12 months, it is a sign that you need to fix your process.

The principle here is straightforward – any advice that asks you to ditch goals forever and replace them with process isn’t entirely right. It is helpful to over index on process as we all tend to swing too strong the other way. However, the best test of a process is if it is generating good results without you having to think about them. And, directional goals tend to be a great way to bridge that gap.

PS: Doing things well and right takes time.

3 phases of the job search process

There are few things that I find as grueling as a job search process. For most of us, I find that it brings out the worst insecurities within us as it continuously seems to tease that one question – “Am I good enough?”

The truth, of course, is that any job search process is a crap shoot. Interviews are rarely great indicators of a candidate’s performance on the job. And, it can all seem and be arbitrary. However, in a world where there are few things you can control, I’ve learnt to focus on the one thing we do control – our process. And, that’s what this post is about – the 3 phases of the job search process. This is a long post but I figured it’d be easier to put this all in one place rather than break it up into multiple posts. Also, while the overall framework applies to all kinds of interviews, this has a lot more information about the business side versus the technical side.

There are 3 phases to finding a job –
I. Figuring out where you want to apply
II. Getting an interview
III. Doing well in the interview.

I. Figuring out where you want to apply

Phase I has 3 broad steps –
1. Get information. First, get as much information as you possibly can about the possible options you’d like to pursue. Speak to people you respect, connect with friends who are knowledgeable and get out of your comfort zone and have a few conversations with friends of friends in companies/industries/roles that interest you.

2. Reflect and decide what your priorities are. Once you gather all the information, it falls on you to decide which paths make sense. If it helps, there are just five career priorities that you normally struggle with. It helps to sit with these, struggle with them and prioritize.

3. Do a quick reality check on the final list. Finally, when you make your shortlist of companies and roles, it is helpful to do a quick aspirations vs. reality check. To take a somewhat outlandish example, NASA may be high on your list of employers. But, have they hired people with your background? The more you find people with your background and experiences, the more realistic it is (LinkedIn should be able to help you with this). Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have NASA on your list – you could definitely break ground. But, it is best to work with risk as a portfolio and mix some very aspirational places with places that you know would be interested in speaking to you.

II. Getting an interview

There tend to be 2 ways to do this –

1. Traditional or resume drop. This means following the standard process. This can work very well if your background is a perfect fit. But, I am not a fan of the odds in this process.

The only exception might be if you are part of a standard university recruiting process. Even then, you have plenty of competition from your classmates and from peers in other schools. In that case, it is worth asking yourself how you could visibly show interest (without being too eager). If available, company visits are generally a good way of doing this.

2. Get an internal referral. Most places have internal referral systems. There’s plenty of evidence to show that this is the best way to get your resume seen. If you can get one of these, you are almost certainly likely to be on the top of the pile. It is important to navigate this well – try to plant trees long before you need the fruit. For students, this means it is best to stay away from desperate calls to alumni when you need a job. It is okay every once a while (assuming you have enough positive karma going around) – just be thoughtful when you do it.. But, it works so much better if you ask people who’ve worked with you for help.

Important thing to remember – this is the phase when things are least in your control.

III. Doing well in the interview

Assuming you’ve got through phases I and II, this is the section where things get most in your control. So, this is a section where we’ll spend plenty of time.

Overall framework: Warmth vs. competence
Doing well in interviews comes down to this fundamental question – do you have the right mix of warmth and competence? I say the right mix because different company cultures prefer different levels of warmth. Hence, the term “fit.”

warmth-vs-competence

So, how do we break this down when it comes to preparation? I think it comes down to 4 key questions –

i. Why industry?

If you are switching within your industry, you can skip this and move on. This becomes more important depending on how radical a switch you are attempting to make. The goal of this section is to dig deeper than the usual “I am very passionate about X” to find if your passion has translated to any real action. For example, do you understand how things really work in your industry? Do you have a point of view on trends? Do you keep up with what is going on?

If I had just 3 days to prepare for an interview, I wouldn’t focus on this. This is typically what differentiates a very good candidate from a stand out candidate. But, assuming you have longer to prepare, I think there are a few tried-and-tested ways to get good. I am going to use technology as the example as I made that switch. And, here are the 4 steps I would suggest –

1. Configure your information diet. Subscribe to technology news, good blogs and analysis. In my case, I subscribe to Venture Beat for news, to Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery (paid) for analysis, and to a collection of venture capitalist blogs. All of this means I have a good sense of what is going on.

2. Do a think week and write down your thesis. My single best tactic for getting smart on an industry is to take a few days (i.e. “think week”) where you aim to read a ton of material and synthesize what you are learning. In my case, I queued up a year of posts from Ben Evans and Ben Thompson. I then read, took notes, and read some more. A couple of days in, I had a lot of notes and a point of view on multiple topics would emerge. Then, I put together massive essay. I did this during winter break during both my years in school (2015, 2014). I think I took about 3 days to put this together. It is among the best investments I have made in understanding my industry.

3. Read good books. For those interested in technology for example, 2 books that I’d strongly recommend are The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (a nicely compiled history of technology) and “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly (a preview into the future). They’ll give you a solid ground of what has happened so far and what might happen.

4. Share this learning. In both my years of graduate school, I gave an hour’s presentation about Tech trends that involved compiling all this learning. It was a very useful experience. You can choose to create a learning group with folks who share similar interests. Either way, take the time to synthesize and share.

This is an investment that matters less for the interview but is worth a ton once you get on the job. Also, it is my belief that good interviewers will test this to make sure you have a point of view. But, then again, not everyone does.

ii. Why company?

This is critical. There are 2 things that are typically tested –

1. The “hard stuff” – business model, numbers, competitors, etc:

Must dos to help get on top of this are 
1. Investor filings. Read the latest 10k and 10Q documents and understand the basics about the company – key strategic priorities, revenue and profit numbers. Make sure you understand how the company makes money, what the big revenue and cost drivers are. Investor presentations and analyst call transcripts help a ton too.
2. News. Do a quick Google News search to make sure you know what is going on with the company.
3. Analyst report or internal view. If you have access to an analyst report on the company, reading that is highly recommended as you get a great view on the future growth prospects of the company. If you are unable to do that, it is worth looking for someone on the inside to understand the internal view on growth prospects, key competitors, etc.

Optional – Industry reports. Reports from places like Forrester, Gartner, etc., can be useful. But, they aren’t a “must do” in my book.

2. The “soft stuff” – vision, mission, culture, values:
1. Website and HR presentations. Read the website and any presentations or videos from HR. Understand the vision, mission, values, cultural tenets, etc.
2. Speak to people who either work there or have worked there. There is nothing like the insider’s view on this. You realize that some values or cultural tenets are more important than the others. You learn what the culture is really like. All this is very important information.

So, how do you put all this together? I think there is the heavy version and the light version.
a) The heavy version. I liked putting together a snapshot for the companies I was very serious about. Here is an example snapshot created in preparation for my interviews at LinkedIn from 2 years ago. On the back, I used to have notes about my interviewers and other insights I’d gleaned from speaking with people at LinkedIn.
2. The light version. Just keep a document or One Note file where you are consistently synthesizing what you learn. The most important thing is to feel comfortable about your own preparation.

If there’s ever a principle with prep, it is to not just take notes. Synthesis is key.

iii. Why role?

This is probably the most important of the 4 questions and is typically the area where interviews are won or lost. This assumes you are switching into a new function. If you know exactly what you are getting into, great. You can skip this.

There are 2 kinds of questions you should be prepared for –
a) The executive question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of the big picture in your role or function. These are typically discussion questions that are around the theme of – “What is the Global Head of your team worrying about?”

b) The role question – This involves demonstrating an understanding of what it takes to do the job well. This varies from role-to-role but the typical format is to go through a “case” question or a simulation of sorts. For sales role, this might involve a role play. For engineering roles, this might involve writing some code for a typical problem. And, for most other roles, it would involve working through a business case. For example, a case for a marketing role might be – “What is your favorite product and how would you analyze its marketing?” This type of question is guaranteed – and likely will be asked by multiple interviewers. And, a key step to preparing for these is to really understand what a day in your role at x company really means.

To understand how to tackle these questions, we need to go back to first principles. The 3 requisites to answering any question in an interview is –
1. Content. You should know what you are talking about
2. Structure. You should be able to frame it in a way that is easy to understand
3. Delivery. You will hopefully enjoy the process of solving these problems

The biggest challenge here is structure. So, let’s tackle that. There are 2 steps to developing an ability to structure problems –
i) Understand simple frameworks that help solve problems in your role. For example, most Marketing problems are contained if you understand how marketing plans are built – understand business objective, then marketing objective, then segment-> target -> position and then execute by focusing on product, price, place and promotion. Then, evaluate.

Strategy problems typically fall into 3 categories – decisions (cost/benefit analysis of both quantitative and qualitative criteria), profitability (break down into revenues, costs and their components) and market sizing (typically by triangulating using a “top down” approach, a “bottom up” approach and a quick gut check).

Product problems, similarly, involve analyzing products within the product management process which is some version of – Problem -> User -> Performance -> Prioritization -> Execution.

Depending on your function, there are plenty of great books that will help with the process.

2. Develop your own frameworks. As you work through problems, you will be able to improvize, simplify and develop your own frameworks. That’s a key part of the process. Telling an interviewer – “I am going to use the 4Ps” – is rather lame. :)

IV. Why You?

And, now, the final piece. This is tested by asking you all sorts of behavioral questions that ask you about how you behaved in various situations.

I have a detailed post about preparing for behavioral interviews – so I won’t spend as much time on this. Instead, I’ll focus on the overall strategy.

1. Use the “Tell me about yourself / Walk me through your resume” question to set the tone. This is an important question and one that is typically asked at the start of most behavioral interviews. Once you’ve taken the time to write down all your key stories and answered the “why’ questions, a clear pattern on your main themes should emerge.

I am a big fan of thinking about the one thing you’d want the interviewer to remember about you. Then, think about three things. Structure your “Tell me about yourself” around these 3 things rather than a simple chronological order. This question is important because you can already lead in to the why company/role questions if done well. Really take the time to get this right – the final product needs to be succinct and it definitely needs to reflect YOU. Practice and feedback goes a long way with this question.

A successful tell me about yourself question would tell me –
a) 3 things I must know about you or your themes
b) Why you made the career transitions you made
c)  why you think you’d be a fit for this company and role
d) the stories i should probe you more for..

2. Match your themes with what the role requires. Read the role description, understand what it is really about and ensuring you are highlighting how you fit. A bonus would be to make sure your stories emphasize the key values and cultural tenets of the company in question. The goal is to not necessarily have a story for every value.. but to at least have a few strong matches or things that resonate.

The Day

We all have our preferred “match day” routines. I tried to do 3 things –
1. Have a pre-interview routine. This involved lots of rest, good food and a couple of peppy songs before the interview.
2. Thank the interviewer and recruiter after the interview. 
3. Debrief with yourself. Take notes on what you thought about your performance and what you learnt. This is likely not the last interview you will do.

Whew, this was a #long-read. And, it definitely sounds like (and is) a lot of work.

But, it is fitting. The job search process is hard. There’s a ton of luck involved in the process and you can’t control for that. The only thing you can do is to make sure your process was solid and that you did everything possible to be the best you could be. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

Regardless of how things turn out, the final step would be to say thank you to everyone who helped you along the way.

And, of course, as someone once wisely told me, all it takes is for one to work out.

I hope this helps. And, may the force be with you!

Goals vs. systems and its implications on management

In his book – How to Fail at Almost Everything And Still Win Big – Dilbert creator Scott Adams asserts that ‘goals are for losers while systems are for winners.‘ In his words –

Losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

The difference between the two, in his mind, is that goals are one-and-done things while systems are enduring and don’t focus on the short term.  So, stay away from goals and focus on systems is his advice.

I thought I’d deconstruct this today and analyze the goals and systems idea in further detail.

First, from a self management perspective, I think Scott is spot on. I think of goals vs. systems as a focus on results vs. a focus on process. Focusing on results means spending large portions of time outside our circle of influence as we don’t generally control outcomes. Additionally, it also means walking down the “judger” path. A focus on process is not just better because it is a happier path (it is that, too). It is better because our circle of influence grows in direct proportion to the amount of time we spend within it.

However, the difficulty with extreme points of view is that there are always exceptions (I think Scott took the extreme point of view just to make a point). And, there is an important exception to the systems/process path. Every once in a while, we need to check if our processes are leading to the outcomes/goals we have in mind. The inherent assumptions with systems is that we design systems that work. So, if we take – I will lose 10 pounds (goal) vs. I will lead an active life (system), it is vital that we check in every once a while to make sure our system is leading to the desired outcome of feeling healthier. In that sense, we need both goals and systems. And, consistent with Scott’s point of view, I think it is better we focus on systems.

When we apply the goals vs. systems idea to management, however, the implications are interesting. When it comes to dealing with others, I think that managing via systems is a bad idea. Managers who try to control their employees’ processes become annoying micro-managers. This is because the nature of systems is that they are personal. What works for the manager will likely not work for his colleague. And, that’s okay. As long as she’s getting her work done in a way that is consistent with the values and culture of the firm, the manager shouldn’t meddle.

So, in this case, it is vital that we, as managers and leaders, focus our energies on setting clear goals for those we manage/lead. And, just like in the self-management case, it is worth checking in with their systems/processes from time to time just to ensure they’re not doing something completely wrong. Trust, but verify.

So, if I had to abstract from all this analysis and arrive at the principle, it would be this – don’t think goals OR systems. Think goals AND systems and tailor based on context. When it comes to managing ourselves, it is best to focus on processes/systems instead of goals/results. And, when it comes to managing others, hold them to outcomes instead of processes. In both cases, don’t abandon the other. Check in with your goals from time-to-time to make sure your processes are taking you where you want to go and vice versa.

As a wise friend once told me when I was grappling with a “this or that” question -“Whenever I am faced with such a dilemma, I ask myself [very deeply] what it would take to replace OR with AND.”

Process, spot and Rory McIlroy – The 200 words project

I hope you’re having a nice weekend. Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to Steven Pressfield’s blog post about Rory Mcillroy..

When golfer Rory McIlroy was having the tournament of his life at the British Open championship, reporters asked him, “Do you have ‘secret thoughts’ that are helping you play so well?” Rory confessed that indeed he had two specific words that he was repeating to himself. But, he said, he wasn’t going to say anything until the championship was over. He won – at age 25!

When reporters asked him again, he said – “I just thought ‘Process’ and ‘Spot.” He explained that “process” meant to him the consistent, repeated sequence of thoughts and actions that he performed before every swing. Then he would pick a “spot” on the green he wanted to roll over. So, he focused not on the hole but on rolling the ball over the spot.

There is great wisdom to what he did – by thinking “process” and “spot,” Rory detached himself from the outcome of each individual shot and just focused on making good decisions and good swings. Of course Rory wanted to win the British Open. But, he knew that to over-obsess about this ultimate object would be focusing on the wrong target.

Great results follow great processes.

Process spot Rory McIlroyRory at the press conference after the tournament
Source and thanks to: News.yahoo.com

“Nobody can control the outcome. All you and I can do is stick to our process and roll our ball over the spot. That’s enough. It worked for Rory.” | Steven Pressfield

The process wisdom frontier

As you all know, I’ve been going on and on about the idea about the idea of focusing on ‘process’/systems vs. goals for many months now. I’m sure a search for process will provide an inordinate number of hits in the past year. It has definitely been top of mind in my approach to life.

As I reflect on the progress I’ve made in the past 3 years, I realize that, overall, a lot of things have worked well. For example, I’ve learnt to enjoy the journey a lot more instead of simply driving with an eye on the destination. This, in my opinion, has translated to a better quality of work and deeper learning. It has also resulted in more repeatable processes wherein I’ve focused more on the “how” of learning instead of just attempting to get through it. And, finally, I find myself judging my preparation and performance a lot more than the outcome. That’s a big change and means it has definitely been a happier journey as we spend 99% of our time on the process.

But, there is one frontier I still haven’t overcome and this promises to be the toughest of them all. For important results, I find myself having to work very hard to truly let go of the outcome and just focus on the next process instead. I have to keep repeating the ‘you’ve done all you can and thinking about it now is useless’ idea. It still hasn’t worked nearly as well I’d like.

I realize it calls for a certain amount of detachment from outcomes and a fair amount of wisdom to channel energies only on things we control – both of which have, for the most part, eluded me so far. I guess I’m still experiencing very basic human instincts when I experience these feelings of anticipation. However, I also realize that wisdom is often about letting go of some of these instincts and learning to be above them. Perhaps a part of getting there is not doubting that great processes lead to great results. I don’t doubt the idea especially considering I’ve seen plenty of evidence of the truth in it. But, as far as my own experiences go, this has been a relatively new part of my life and I think I do have a pretty high internal burden of proof. So, perhaps, the full unquestioning belief will come in over time as I experience more good results following good processes.

Either way, letting go of results after a good process is likely to be the final frontier in my process quest. Looking forward to making progress. I will keep you posted on (you guessed it) the process – of course. :-)

When to be disappointed and when not to be

When to be disappointed
When you ‘mail it in’ instead of giving the process your best shot
When you don’t prepare as well as you should have
When you don’t perform to the best of your ability
When you don’t relax and enjoy the occasion

When not to be disappointed / when disappointment is wasted emotion
When you aren’t picked
When the result isn’t what you’d have liked
When there was someone more suited for what you were going for than you
When you didn’t click with the people you were in conversations with

When I was a secondary/high school student, I cared about my exam performance a great deal. And, the fact that my parents’ questions revolved around whether I had prepared well and given it my best shot used to infuriate me. I didn’t understand it and couldn’t get why they didn’t see my point – I didn’t care how well I prepared. I only cared that the results turned out good.

I was obviously wrong.

As you can tell, the message here isn’t ‘don’t be disappointed’ or ‘avoid disappointment.’ It is – learn when to be disappointed and when not to be. Be very disappointed if you didn’t do the process justice. And, use that disappointment to inform the next process. There is no excuse to make the same mistake twice.

If you did do the process justice, let go. This is hard to stomach. But, that’s about all you can do.

In the long run, doing the process justice is all that is going to matter. The cream always rises to the top..

Wish and want

We often spend parts of our days and lives wishing for things. “I wish.. this happened/that happened/I got this/I got that.”

As the quote goes from “Into the Woods” – ‘are you certain what you wish is what you want?’ Because what we wish isn’t necessarily what we want. And, what we want isn’t necessarily what we need.

Maybe the other approach is not to spend any time wishing. Just keep making decisions on the process, keep plugging away, and ignore wishes altogether. We all wish for good days (largely). But, who knows if a good day now will really be a good day in retrospect?

The enlightened approach is to not bother with wishes and wants and other proxies for results. I can see why it is the enlightened approach – it keeps us focused on the present, mindful about what is happening, and helps us get a tremendous amount done. We can’t all flip the switch to pursue the enlightened approach of course. But, perhaps, we could aim for a little more of it.

And, maybe, just maybe, when we catch ourselves wishing, we could ask ourselves  – “Are you certain what you wish is what you want?”

Training wheel systems

I started blogging here because I felt I was reacting very badly to failure. I wanted to build my confidence brick by brick and thought I’d do so by disciplining myself to write a learning every day.

That was easier said than done, of course. I simply lacked the discipline to do it consistently. Here’s how the process really unfolded –

Phase 1 – The struggle. In the first few months, the biggest challenge was just remembering to write a learning. Some days, all I would manage would be a quote.

Phase 2 – Training wheels. A year or so later, I came upon an idea – why not post a quote every day at the minimum and add something else if I could? So, I started posting a quote every morning on weekdays and also sent the “Good Morning Quote” to  a few friends, family and subscribers. Then, on Sundays, I began posting a “book learning” – simply a learning from a book I was reading. These structures were my blogger training wheels.

Phase 3 – Ready to bike. 3 years in, I moved the quotes out of the blog as I knew I was finally disciplined enough to write a long form post every day. Over time, I consolidated all the additional ideas (quotes, book learnings) to the 200 words project. The 200 words project is no longer a training wheel. I am well into biking solo now.

Call it training wheels, systems, process, or structure – it doesn’t really matter. The principle is, as we think of new year resolutions, we’re best served if we take the time to structure habits and systems that will help us get there.

Success, failure, laziness, learning

I’m sure you’ve heard about or asked that famous question – do we learn more from success or failure?

Let’s put that question on hold for a moment for a quick question – I had submitted two assignments recently. I scored well on one and didn’t score well on the other. Guess which one I wanted to review?

This isn’t uncommon – the issue with debriefing after success is that there is almost no patience to make them meaningful. A debrief after a failure feels like a necessary post-mortem. A debrief after success feels like attempts to delay the party. Success, in short, makes us lazy and complacent. It makes us want to celebrate and then come back and get the next success (sometimes without putting in the work). Reflections after success can be as rich as those from failure. Just because failure makes learning seem more important doesn’t mean that it is. Perhaps that is why discipline is often cited as a key success ingredient – it takes discipline to overcome the resistance and get on with the reflection and learning.

And, of course, we can avoid the whole discussion by learning to ignore the result and focus hard on the process. Good decisions and a good process => good results in the long run. Reflecting on the process is an easier habit to instill and your process can almost always get a bit better. That’s when it stops being about winning and losing. A process focus is all about the playing.

Welcome to the infinite game.