Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Best and the Worst of the Interview Questons

Interviewing a candidate for a role at your company can be an exciting time, but it also can be a tough one. Everyone tries to figure out the best things to ask, the questions to avoid, the way to avoid the painful questions and the best way to pull out thought-provoking questions. So I've thought about it a lot and I wanted to go through some of the best and some of the worst of the interview questions I've received, heard, or read about:

"Why do you want to work here? (and, if applicable, why do you want to leave where you currently work?)" 

I love this one and the question too often gets overlooked or underasked. Too many candidates mass apply to jobs online and have no clue what the heck they're applying to most of the time. During the financial crisis, I interviewed a ton of candidates, who, when I asked them this question, answered for me why they want a job, but not why they wanted the job I was offering. Also, if the person is currently employed, finding out why they would take the leap to join you is really enlightening. Sometimes, if you give a candidate enough leash, they'll say too much during that second part and you'll realize that they're not a good fit.

"Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer?"

I hate this one. Unless you're applying to a job in agriculture, what the heck is the point in phrasing it that way? This was among Glassdoor's Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions from 2014 as a question asked by Dell and I really do wonder what hunting and gathering Dell employees are doing. I do understand the point of the question, but there really has to be a better way to ask it.

"On a scale of 1-10, how lucky are you?"

I was asked this in my last job interview and I just saw it appeared, in a similar form, in the Glassdoor rankings as asked by Airbnb. I sort of like this one, though, I go back and forth on it. On one hand, I like that it pries a person to answer a bit honestly and outside of their resume, but on the other hand, my luck in my job life is not the same as my luck in my personal life and this can be really uncomfortable for some people.

"What's your greatest weakness"/"Where do you see yourself in 5 years?"

I hate both of these with a passion so I figured I'd lump them together. My greatest weakness is my inability to hide my disdain for your question and I see myself in 5 years hopefully answering much more important questions. NEXT

"I have a brainteaser for you..."

Once Google decides they're total wastes of time, as their Senior Vice President of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, described to the New York Times in 2013, you should as well.

"This job requires you to multitask and balance a bunch of ASAP deadlines at once--can you tell me how you will go about prioritizing that if we hire you?"

One that I asked and asked and asked at a previous job. And I almost stopped asking it until the perfect candidate answered it correctly. Incorrect answers including saying that she would prioritize bigger (or higher revenue) clients over smaller ones, that they had no clue since they didn't work there, or that they would ask me every time (I gasped at that one). The best candidate told me that she would work with the team and the clients to make sure she understood exactly when everything actually needed to be returned--and that she would make sure to communicate with everyone involved as it was getting closer to the deadline. She got the job (and still works there).

"What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?"

I have to admit that I didn't love it when I first heard it in interviews but I warmed up to it and then I read in Inc. all the reasons why it's the best interview question and, while I don't think it's THE BEST, I have to agree, it's definitely one that you need to ask. The great part about this question, for me, is that I don't have an answer predetermined. I actually come up with a new one every time I interview, and try to adapt that answer to what would be most relateable to the job I'm applying for at the time.

"What would you like to tell me about you that is not on your resume?"

Since I told you which I thought wasn't THE BEST, I will now tell you my favorite. I got asked this in a job interview one time and I don't think I've left it out of any job interview that I've conducted since. I love it because the candidate can make what they want of it and can really get a chance to express themselves outside of a piece of paper.

It also shows a bit of how someone can think on think on their feet. One candidate told me that everything was on the resume that I needed to know (he didn't get an offer). One told me that there was a job missing because he really didn't like the boss and sued the company afterwards and didn't want me to call for a reference (he didn't get an offer). But one candidate told me that she was hesitant to put that she also volunteered to coach soccer on the side and would be a great addition if we had a company kickball team (she got an offer).

The key isn't to stump the candidate--it's to make them think, make them talk, and see how they answer questions. If you ask all generic questions, you can't be upset getting all generic answers. And if you ask stupid questions, you should not be surprised by stupid answers. The key to an interview is allowing a candidate to give you a view into their person--figure out the best question that you can ask to help them reveal that.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

When That Layoff Memo Backfires

One of the most unfortunate parts of the past 7 years or so is that most of us have either been laid off or had a close family member laid off. It's a really tough time for everyone, from the person who gets the axe to the person giving the pink slip to the people who are left behind after a big round of layoffs. And while laying off employees is never a good experience, there are certainly better ways to do it than others.

I've heard of one bank who let employees know that they had been laid off when their keycard didn't work in the morning.

I've heard of small businesses where the owner lets all the employees go without any severance and walks away with a big fat check.

We've all heard of the CEOs who take the nice Golden Parachute and leave their employees struggling to pay their bills.

And then, as New York Magazine wrote in July, there was Microsoft who sent one of those memos that should have never been sent. It starts with "Hello there" and, amazingly, with that ridiculous intro, goes downhill from there.
We plan to right-size our manufacturing operations to align to the new strategy and take advantage of integration opportunities. We expect to focus phone production mainly in Hanoi, with some production to continue in Beijing and Dongguan. We plan to shift other Microsoft manufacturing and repair operations to Manaus and Reynosa respectively, and start a phased exit from Komaron, Hungary.
The emphasis in there is mine but five layoff buzzwords in one paragraph is impressive, especially considering that the rest of the ~14 paragraph e-mail has some other ones dropped in as well. The breakdown of the article itself is great, and, overall, the memo isn't that bad compared to some that have been sent over the past 7 years.

But the point is that memos like this NEVER need to be sent. Why put something like this in writing that can be ridiculed outside the company and provide no comfort for anyone within the company (either laid off or left behind)? I understand there's no efficient way to lay off 18,000 employees (or 12,500 within one business unit), but laying off people through a poorly constructed memo just adds to the pain these people are feeling--and it allows it to be put out there so future applicants think twice before working for you and your organization.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Organization Design for Business

Is your organization doing everything it can to succeed in this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) economy?  Are you sure?

Is your organization properly designed to meet your goals?  Are your marketing, financial, and manufacturing strategies fully aligned with your overall strategy? Are your structures and processes fully aligned with your business plans?  Are your accountabilities and authorities aligned with your processes? Do you have the right jobs and skill sets in your organization?  How do you know?  Because you completed a review last quarter?  What about tomorrow? These issues may be costing you money and negatively impacting your operational capability.

What is Organization Design?

Organizational design is the way your organization is structured to comply with the strategic plan.  It is the link between your business goals and how managers & staff achieve those goals.  It helps achieve full alignment between your overarching strategy, your structure, and the key functions & roles in your business.

Organization Design focuses on the proper assignment and division of labor; establishing the appropriate level of coordination, control, authority & responsibility; and designing jobs that match the needs of your organization and the skills of your employees.

Effective organization design drives productivity, communications, and innovation.  It creates an environment where people can work effectively. 

When Should I Review my Organization?

Today!  Symptoms of ineffective organization design to look for include the following:

§  Poor inter-office coordination
§  Excessive friction and conflict among internal groups
§  Unclear roles
§  Misused resources
§  Poor work flow
§  Multiple Boss Syndrome
§  Reduced responsiveness to change
§  Proliferation of extra-organizational units such as task forces, committees, and projects

What Does an OD Project Look Like?

Organizational analysis involves reviewing your vision, mission, & strategy; assessing your current structure relative to your mission & strategy; drilling down to departmental levels to understand how units function; and addressing challenges & opportunities.  The objective is to improve performance by evolving from your current state to a desired future state.

Tips and Best Practices for a Successful Re-organization

1.   Problem Statement: Define your business needs, internal & external challenges, and organizational objectives.  What exactly are you trying to fix?  What is your ‘desired state’?

2.   Conceptual Business Model: Look in the mirror.  Outline your organizational strategy, resources, inputs, major functions, and outputs (products & services) in a clear & concise model.

3.   Design Principles: Create a set of design principles at the start of the project.  These are attributes that your new organization must have.  Examples include service excellence, process efficiency, business process ownership, P&L accountability, and implementability.  These become your evaluation criteria.

4.   Workflow: Map out the major activities and steps in your key business, discipline-specific, & administrative processes.  Identify and link the key roles (jobs / positions) that perform each step.  These become the building blocks and architectural platform of your future organization.

5.   Organizational model options: Create several potential ‘to be’ states divided into three groups; A. minor change, B. practical and realistic change, and C. radical ‘outside the box’ change.  Quite often the ideas generated in Group C will prove to be effective in a Group B option.  Evaluate the relative advantages and disadvantages of the options using your design principles / criteria.  Select a winner.

6.   People: Assess the “people impact” of changes.  Prepare a People Plan and take steps to address potential retraining, re-assignment, replacement, and recruiting needs.  Be open to the need to design a function or a unit around the skills and attributes of the incumbents – as opposed to what looks best on paper.

7.   Systems and Processes: Focus as much on how the new structural model will work as on what it looks like.  Ensure that systems and processes are fully integrated with the re-design. 

8.   Culture: Be aware of your organizational culture (unwritten norms and behaviors). Ensure that the re-design is in sync with your culture.

9.   Change Management: Expect management pushback and employee resistance to change, and plan accordingly.  Appoint a senior executive as project champion.  Develop a clear communications plan and adhere to it.

10. Implementation: Pay attention to how the re-design will actually happen. Prepare a detailed implementation plan and hold people accountable.  Address risks and bottlenecks as early as possible.

11. Beware of Entropy.  Entropy is the silent killer of organizational performance.  It is the measure of the disorder of a system, a natural process of degeneration, an automatic and unavoidable trend toward chaos.   The alignment of functions, positions, skills, processes, human talent, and performance to business priorities deteriorates over time and we don’t see it.  The cure is maintaining full alignment between your organizational strategy and your structure & processes – in other words – organization design.

Tim McConnell is the Managing Partner of McConnell Consulting (Organizational Architects) Inc. in New York.  More information can be found at

Sunday, January 18, 2015

When "Unlimited" Vacation Time Doesn't Work

Vacation time is one of the top perks of some organizations. 3 weeks? 4 weeks? 6 weeks? What about "unlimited" or "flex" vacation times? Well a big trend recently is that move to unlimited vacation time, especially for start-ups. I mean what's better for a relaxed office environment than being able to take off whenever you need.

Well, as writes that unlimited isn't actually "unlimited". In fact, when given the opportunity to take off an "unlimited" amount of time, most employees take off very little. Instead of having everyone take off the same amount of time, no one wants to come out looking like a "moocher".
Banking away your vacation time can be annoying, but it does make you feel as if you've "earned" those days off; they're yours to spend as you wish. Compare that to a proposed (and quickly reversed) policy at the Los Angeles Times, which would have done away with all paid vacation, sick, and personal days in favor of an "unlimited" paid time off system — but one in which each day off would be at the discretion of the employee's supervisor, which would undoubtedly have led to employees taking less time off since each attempt to do so would entail a potentially awkward conversation.
Bingo. If you "earn" your vacation time, you can easily ask for it off. If it's unlimited, it makes it a lot harder. I currently work at a place with unlimited vacation time but few will take off more than a week or two. And since everyone is doing that, you don't want to be the guy taking 4 weeks.

Of course, that's not the culture everyplace--I spoke to one person who work at an unlimited vacation company and she said that everyone ends up taking between four and six weeks. But that was something that everyone knew was okay and everyone, more or less, held up their end of the bargain.

Two ways to ensure that, the article writes, is to have employees forfeit a bonus if they don't take off a certain amount of time or writing a minimum vacation time policy in the employee manual. Any way you go, if you're going to institute "unlimited" vacation, make sure your employees understand what that means.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Employee Engagement in 2015

According to a study conducted by SilkRoad, 49% of 150 surveyed HR professionals noted that engaging and retaining employees was a concern.  52% of those surveyed mentioned that creating an attractive and engaging organizational culture was also a concern.

Even the government is having concerns with employee engagement. A December 2014 Gallup poll reported that 27% of federal workers are engaged, 53% are not engaged…and an additional 19% are actively disengaged.  Lack of engagement from these workers can cost taxpayers an estimated $18 billion per year!  So what can be done to improve employee engagement and retain talent?

Set Challenges / Achievable Goals

What is the purpose of the organization? How does the employee see where his / her actions affect the purpose and goals of the organization? A good way to keep your employees engaged is to help them see where they fit within the organization and grow professionally.  Do you have a talent management system to record not only performance reviews but also goals? Are those goals progressive? Are they feasible?  Did you include the employee in making those goals? All of these factors matter when setting goals that help an employee to feel involved and motivated.


Communication is closely tied to setting challenges and goals. How does your organization communicate? Is it strictly e-mail? Do you combine communication methods depending on the message? Do employees have a means to have their voices heard? How do you ensure that their input has been / will be considered? Employees should feel open to voice their concerns about their positions, the state of the organization, and their growth within the organization. The employee should be aware of the organization’s expectation of him / her…and the organization should be aware of the employee’s expectations.  Such open communication allows for a cohesive environment.

Promote Work / Life Balance

Besides feeling part of an organization and feeling fulfilled in their position, employees also need proper work / life balance. Although a big part of this involves the employee’s being aware of his / her own limitations and home responsibilities, organizations can do their part in promoting proper home / life balance. Forbes magazine online highlighted a report on the top 25 employers for work-life balance. Samantha Zupan, a spokesperson for Glassdoor, pointed out that everyone’s key factors in work-life balance are different. “For example, what work-life balance is to a young single person compared to a parent with two young children can be very different.” Appealing features of employers that made the top 25 were the following:
  • Option to telecommute
  • Paid Time Off
  • Compressed Work Weeks
  • Family Friendly Work Environment

Zupan also mentioned that top ranking employers also offered fitness amenities. A big stand out option for many of these organizations was the senior leadership’s support of proper work / life balance.  Obviously not every organization can offer these options. But can some of these options be offered, even if only temporarily? For instance, during the holiday season can employees be offered a certain amount of time to telecommute? Are there options for flexibility in work schedule during the summer months?

As always, Astronology enjoys hearing from you! Does your organization have different strategies or features to keep your employees engaged? What features are you looking forward to implementing in 2015? Contact us to share!

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