People Leadership

  • 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.  

  • Sending Signals

    A blessing and curse of holding a leadership position is the ability to both intentionally (blessing) and unintentionally (curse) send a strong signal or message via small actions. The more senior your role or perceived responsibility, the more significant this impact is likely to be, and it’s particularly pronounced for members of the senior leadership or executive leadership team.  

    As a leader, your words carry substantial weight. Once you’re aware of this, you can absolutely use it as a tool. It can help you enforce messaging and desired behaviors. Small actions like what topics you ask questions about and what agenda items you consistently discuss can help re-enforce your messaging on priorities. Your actions can be used to signal organizational priorities.

    To use an example (intentional). Let’s say a critical priority for your organization this year is Sales and you really want to enforce that. Simple acts like making it a perpetual agenda topic at team meetings, referencing it at big company events, talking about it in 1-2-1s with your team, with your colleagues, and with anyone you interact with in the organization, will re-enforce its importance.

    To use an example (unintentional). You meet with a client and they ask you when a particularly bespoke product feature is going to be available in the software. For the next six months, you routinely check in with your product team on the status of this feature. Without really meaning to, you elevate its importance and find it’s been pulled forward in the priority list, even though you probably wouldn’t have made that choice if it was laid out in front of you.

    Once you’re aware of signal sending, you’ll realize that sometimes you need to take action even when you don’t really feel like it or want to. Maybe you’ve told the team that this year, it’s critical to be present at the major conferences in your industry. But you also had a newborn 6 months ago, and you haven’t taken much vacation lately, and these conferences are spread all across the country. Regardless, you show up and attend because your actions speak louder than words. Your actions send the signal and re-enforce the message: these conferences are important.

    Sometimes you can use hyperbolic or exaggerated versions of actions to really send a strong signal. There is a famous story of a customer returning tires to Home Depot’s customer service desk… at a time when Home Depot didn’t even sell tires. The Chief Merchandising Officer at the time accepted the tires and gave the customer a refund in full. Then he chained those tires above the customer service desk to exaggerate the point “the customer is always right here”. The cost to Home Depot was small, but the value in sending that type of a signal, which became cultural lore, was extremely high.

    *I heard the Home Depot story several years ago and it may not be literally accurate but the spirit of it is intact.