I was watching the Dems’ debate last night. I’m pretty much a political junkie and this has been an interesting few months as the Democratic candidates sort themselves out en route to a nominee.
As I was watching, I was reminded that the next year is really a very long job interview for a very big job. Watching the debate in that context made me realize that the moderators weren’t approaching it that way at all. They were asking the wrong kind of questions, at least right up until the last one about “someone we’d be surprised you’re friends with.” Let me explain because if you manage a business, hiring is one of the most important tasks you have.
If you’re still asking lame questions such as “tell me about yourself” or “where will you be in five years,” you really should leave the interviewing to someone else. The purpose of an interview is to find out things that aren’t on a resume but which have a huge impact on a candidate’s ultimate success or failure. In my mind, “smart” is the main thing I’m looking for along with intellectual curiosity. I spend my time trying to get answers that demonstrate a candidate’s possession of those qualities or lack thereof. To you, some other things might be important. You need to hone your questions to shine a light on the areas that are critical to you.
Don’t ask “yes/no” questions. Do ask hypothetical questions that reflect the reality of what will be the candidate’s day to day job. I used to test the candidate’s knowledge of my company to see if they really wanted to work there or if they were just looking for a job. “What did you find in your research about us that surprised you?” “As you were finding out about us, what questions came up that I might be able to help answer for you?” If the answers are vague or focused on things like salary or benefits, this is a person who wants a job and not a career. That’s fine, but it’s not what I want.
Asking the right questions can make all the difference in assembling a team for the long-term or constantly having to replace people who either leave for a better gig or who aren’t really qualified in the first place. The right questions get you the right people. You with me?
I came up with today’s Foodie Friday topic this past week as I was dining out. Which of course leads to The Grateful Dead. If any of you are Deadheads, one thing you know is that when the band was on and in full flight they were magnificent. They could take you with them as they soared musically. Unfortunately, the odds of that happening on any given night were not close to 100%.
It’s the thing that frustrates most of us who listened to The Dead. You could go to a show never knowing if you were going to walk away uplifted or disappointed. The experience was inconsistent. They were the musical personification of the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme:
There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead;
When she was good, she was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.
OK, back to food. I took a little mini-vacation this week to an island just off the North Carolina coast. It was lovely but because it is a relatively small island, there are limited dining options. One of these options was a place that serves Mexican food. The first time I dined there I had a lovely skirt steak but what struck me was how good the accompanying rice and black beans were. The beans were perfectly textured with a little smokiness coming from a piece of smoked pork tossed in the pot. The rice was billowy. I made it a point to return on another night.
The second night I dined there, the beans were bland and tough, as was the rice. In fact, the rice had a crunch to it, not like the lovely socarrat that forms in paella but from being undercooked and raw. Everything from the drinks to the entrees seems to have been tossed together with a minimum of care and thought.
It reminded me that one thing we need in business is consistency. Whether we’re serving food or figures, customers need to know that they can count on our product meeting a high standard each and every time. Employees and our team need to know that everyone is treated fairly and using the same standards. Unlike The Dead or this restaurant, we can’t miss the mark as often as we hit it. The only times we miss the standards we set should be those occasions when we move those standards up a notch. Make sense?
What could be more fun on a Foodie Friday than cooking with kids? Mine are grown, of course, but I always loved the weekend because that was when we’d often find the time to get in the kitchen and cook together. As it turns out, there is something to be learned about business from this.
I think one benefit of getting children in the kitchen at a young age is that they begin to learn another language. While English was the language in our home, the language of food and cooking was another that the kids learned early on. Understanding what terms like simmer and boil meant and how they were different taught them precision. Learning the difference between dice, chop and even chiffonade helped them with knife skills, spatial relationships, and relative size.
Improving small motor skills is another benefit that kids get as they learn to use a knife or to crack an egg without shattering it or even to measure a cup of flour properly. Then there are the obvious benefits of learning what things taste like and being able to describe what they were tasting as well as what they liked and disliked. Finally, they were learning some science without thinking they were in class. Understanding, for example, that pancakes rise because of baking powder bubbles. Did I tell them it was because of an acid-base reaction that released carbon dioxide? Come on – they were kids! But they knew it made bubbles and the bubbles popped leaving the little holes they’d see in their pancakes.
This sort of process is exactly the one good managers need in business. New employees have to learn the language not just of business generally but of your specific company. Working alongside them, demonstrating and explaining as you go, is the only way they will get properly informed. Letting them do simple tasks, just as you might have kids stir and pour rather than dice and saute, lets them get a solid footing and the confidence to take on more complicated endeavors. It was always a mystery to me why some managers just sat new employees at a desk and then wondered why they weren’t being especially productive several months later. Unless you “cook” with them, they will probably never become all that they could be.
I think the main thing I got from cooking with my kids was a bond. Not only had we done something together but we’d made something together that we and others could enjoy. It’s the same in the office. Think back about the last time you were the new kid. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have someone take the time to build that bond with you as well as to help you produce your first great work?
It’s Foodie Friday and yesterday I took my old beast of a smoker out for a July 4th spin. Of all the things I transported from the wilds of Connecticut to sunny (read that as hotter than blazes) North Carolina, The Beast was probably the most difficult thing to move. It was the subject of a Foodie Friday post all on its own a couple of years back. As I described it at the time:
Photo by Jaden Hatch
The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move.
Yesterday I fired it up and did some racks of ribs, some chicken and some sausage. They came out quite well, thanks. What also came out was a reminder that something so simple – putting meat into a box and letting it cook slowly – is way harder and less simple than it looks.
First, prepping the meat. One might just salt and pepper the ribs and toss them in. Yes, one COULD do that, but it would be a disservice to the ribs and your palate. What’s less easy is removing the membrane and assembling a nice dry rub of several spices to bring out the flavor of the wood smoke and the pork. Similarly, you COULD just plop the whole chicken on a rack and let it smoke or you could halve it, brine it, season it properly and then proceed.
Next is cooking. Good BBQ is NOT a passive activity. Don’t let the guy sitting next to his cooker sucking down a beer mislead you. He’s there to keep a watchful eye on the on temperature, adjusting the air intake to raise or lower the temperature in the box and to add fuel when needed. I find that checking every 30 minutes or so at a minimum is critical.
Wood chips are a must. You can’t toss them on the fire – they won’t smoke, they’ll burn. You need to soak them after you think about what kind of wood chips to use. Hickory? Mesquite? Fruitwood like apple or peach?
The point I’m trying to make here is that something as simple as smoking a piece of meat is much harder than it looks if you’re going to do it right. So are many things in business. Assembling a team and keeping it functioning at a high level. Handling customer service issues. Managing capital and cash flow. Every one of those things as well as many others as much harder than they might appear. What each of us needs to do is never underestimate the difficulty of anything until we’ve mastered it. That mindset makes us read, learn, and stay humble.
I was watching the College World Series the other night. My Wolverines are in the final with a chance to win a very surprising national championship (they weren’t supposed to get this far). Go Blue!
Many of the articles attributed their success to great pitching and that’s something whose importance you can never overstate in my opinion. However, there is one other factor I noticed in watching this team that’s applicable to any business. This team has been well-coached in the fundamentals. Let me explain.
Bunting is a lost art in baseball. It’s attempted in many of the major league games I watch and is rarely executed perfectly. Maybe I’m yearning for the age when Phil Rizzuto would school the Yankee teams on bunting (he was among the best ever at it) but I’ve now seen Michigan lay down several perfect bunts on the correct side of the plate based on the situation and the defense. That’s knowing and practicing the fundamentals.
They run the bases well and don’t make bad decisions. Sure, a coach is involved in the decision, but if you don’t hit the bases in stride and run with your head up you’ll miss the “stop/go” signal. They are not too anxious at the plate, often running the pitcher deep into the count. Over time, that has an impact and the more pitches you see, the greater the likelihood that you’ll get one you like. Again, these are fundamentals.
The same holds true in your business. How well schooled is your staff – or are you – in the fundamentals of your operation? Does everyone understand how you are creating value for your customers and your enterprise? Since, as Eisenhower said, the plan may be useless but planning is essential, is everyone involved in that fundamental process? You probably use a lot of industry-specific terms in your office. Does everyone fully understand them and speak your language fluently?
As managers, our job is to make sure that the team has the skills to perform and that skill almost always relies on some fundamentals. Teach them, practice them, and make sure that they’re executed perfectly every time. Like this Michigan team, you’re probably going to overperform and get unexpectedly great results. Make sense?
We’re starting down that road to another presidential election here in the US. There are a lot of people who want the job, apparently although having watched my way through “The West Wing” multiple times I’m not sure why. The plane maybe?
No, we’re not heading into the world of politics but one thing that struck me as I have been watching the various candidates making their cases is that there are an awful lot of good ideas being tossed around. Every candidate has a grand solution to one or more of the many things that can be improved here in the US of A. Of course, so did nearly every other person who has run for the office over the years. What they found is something that’s useful to any of us in business: good ideas aren’t enough.
I’m sure you’ve had many groundbreaking ideas in your business life. Maybe you even got the chance to try and bring them to life. The reality is that a good number of those ideas withered away because the strength of an idea isn’t really enough to make it happen. You need buy-in from all the stakeholders which means you also need some good persuasion skills. You might need money which means you need to be able to justify your brainstorm in dollars and cents for the money mavens. And of course, you need the leadership skills to make others understand your vision and work hard to implement it even if the value of that idea isn’t necessarily apparent to them until the very end.
Being great means Getting Stuff Done or as Elvis used to have on his belt buckle, TCB – Taking Care of Business. I had a boss who used to tell me I had 100 ideas a day and 99 were pure crap. I had to learn how to get that one great idea done. He was right (well, maybe more than 1 a day was pretty good). I became a much better manager when I learned not to fixate on the idea but to pay attention to the process so the idea could bloom. Yes, it’s like a garden – the great idea is just the seed and without a proper environment and lots of care it will wither and die.
So now you know that. I wonder how many of the candidates do?
It’s Foodie Friday! Today I’d like us to contemplate the foods that make us hungry. No, I don’t mean the ones for which we have cravings. I mean food that can actually increase your hunger when you eat them.
Have you ever wondered why bars put out salty snacks like popcorn or peanuts or pretzels? As it turns out, salt makes you thirsty and what better place to be when you’re thirsty than your favorite watering hole? Salt, according to some studies, is addictive, as is sugar and fat. The food industry has become very good at layering those things together to create products (I’m deliberately not saying “foods”) that play to our addictions, light up our dopamine centers, and cause us to engage in self-destructive behaviors. When you hear the old Lay’s slogan about “bet you can’t just eat just one,” you might try to think about what the drug pusher says as they give away their free samples to people: “don’t worry – you’ll be back.”
The screed today isn’t meant to be a lecture on improving our eating habits. Instead, there is a business point here. We don’t eat salty snacks or sugary foods or processed foods or even foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners (they made you hungry too) to get fat. We eat them to solve an immediate need – hunger. But there is any number of other options that can fill that need without triggering the problems that come from really unhealthy foods.
It’s the same in business. We often take the easiest or most available or cheapest solution to solve an immediate need. Unfortunately, those “fast food” solutions only solve the problem in the near term and can often cause long-term damage. Just as with food, we need to be aware of our cravings and think before we eat. We need to consider all of the options, not just the “fast food” ways out. We need to choose more wisely, not just more expeditiously.