February 2024

  • An Ambitious(?) Candidate

    A friend recently described a hiring situation where he was evaluating an extremely ambitious candidate. Let’s call the candidate Mark. Mark exuded high energy, had a positive attitude, and was curious to learn about his potential career trajectory at the company. Mark met with several senior leaders and the reviews were mixed. Who doesn’t love an ambitious candidate? But was Mark TOO ambitious? He seemed obsessed with what it would take to secure a promotion, and he hadn’t even received the job! Is self-improvement and professional growth his motivation or is it only receiving the next title? Will he be an eager, high-performer or will he be focused on the wrong goals for the wrong reasons?

    My perspective is nuanced. I strongly believe ambition is a positive employee trait and often correlates with strong work ethic, a desire to learn, and a commitment to producing quality work. But when that ambition causes an obsession with securing a promotion, raise, or some type of transactional reward, it often results in an employee who is high-maintenance and misaligned with the team’s objectives. Employees who are ambitious for all the right reasons will also want and need transactional rewards like promotions and raises over time too and that’s healthy; it just won’t be the sole motivation.

    So how do you determine if an employee or candidate’s ambition level is beneficial or not? It’s difficult. Generally, what has worked well for me is understanding the motivation. If Mark believes a promotion is a key proxy and milestone in his own growth and development, that’s positive. If Mark is seeking a promotion for external validation, that’s cause for concern or at least further discovery.

    One of my favourite interview questions is “what does personal success look like to you, one year from today? Describe to me some of the ‘truths’ you need, to feel you’ve had a successful first year.” Once they respond, I ask a follow-up “respond to the same question but now the time period is three years”. Responses are usually telling as it relates to motivations. I’m concerned when the candidate says, “success is being a Manager in one year and a Director in three”. I’m more positively inclined when a candidate says, “success is learning and mastering my role, building strong relationships with my peers and colleagues, and delivering quality work to clients”.

  • Situational Leadership and task competency

    I recently completed a course called Situational Leadership Essentials. Situational leadership refers to a framework by which a leader can assess someone’s competency at performing a specific task and attempt to tailor their leadership approach to match that individual’s task competency. Let’s say someone on your team is extremely competent at a given task, has completed it many times before, and has exhibited a high degree of mastery, then the leadership style you take is going to be a lot more hands-off. You should be encouraging, observing, and supporting, but not getting too deep in the weeds.

    There is one critical nuance, which I keep reflecting upon. And while it seems fairly obvious in hindsight, it really struck me during the course. That is, you need to flex your leadership style based on the specific task, not the specific individual. You can work with someone who is extremely competent, has deep expertise in their role, is an all-around high performer… AND, if that person is performing a task for the very first time, you still need to adopt a much more directive leadership style.

    On self reflection, I believe I’ve often defaulted to taking a more hands-off approach with individuals who are high-performing and have deep expertise in their role, providing a lot of autonomy, without necessarily differentiating my style based on the specific task or objective they might be working on. While this approach has generally worked well, there are certainly opportunities where a more hands-on approach for a new task likely would have resulted in a better experience for the individual, and ultimately a more efficient path to the desired outcome.  

  • Paper & Pen

    Since I started working, I’ve always taken notes in a hardcopy notebook. Real paper! It’s generally inefficient. My writing is hard to read. Once a notebook is full, I throw it in the recycling and so the content is gone forever. I’m usually jotting down short form notes or simple reminders, so interpreting what I wrote even a few months ago can be challenging or impossible. A notebook is one more thing to carry when I travel.

    And despite all of this, I love it. I have tried digital notetaking at various times, most recently on the Microsoft Surface, and I find the experience is a poor substitute. The pleasure of physically writing is real.

    While most of my note taking revolves around to-do lists, the single most powerful thing about physically writing is distilling my thoughts. Often, that feeling of “I have a million things I need to get done” will translate into only a few important to-do’s once it’s down in writing, making it much more approachable. If I’m trying to think my way through a complicated topic, writing all the thoughts going through my mind down on paper will have a hugely calming and clarifying effect.

    A few years ago, I started keeping a notebook on my nightstand. If there are times I can’t sleep and it feels like there’s too much on my mind while in bed, jotting down a few quick notes is an easy way to download those thoughts and leave them on the page. It’s been a great aid and tool for me.