Monthly Archives: November 2014

Book Review: The Start-up of You

I read a lot of books about career advancement and leadership, and in an ongoing series I want to bring you reviews of my favorite books.  There are so many options for professional books out there, and I hope this can help you sort through the options and decide where to invest your time.

Today I’m reviewing The Start-up of You, by  Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha.

The Premise: This book is based on the concept that everyone should manage their career the way that they would manage a start-up. While we aren’t all going to be entrepreneurs, we can still benefit from the approaches of an entrepreneurial mindset.

Ideal Audience: This book is truly relevant for anyone who wants practical strategies and approaches for managing their career. It would be particularly useful for younger professionals at the beginning or middle of their careers since it includes many insights on successfully building and using your network as you establish yourself.

Main Lessons: There are many lessons that I will take away from this book, but the top three that will stay with me are:

1) Permanent beta- This is the idea that you are always evolving and improving. I have worked with (and interviewed) many people who think that they have achieved their goals or reached their professional peak.  That’s a dangerous way to think in a competitive job market where the top performers are constantly learning and improving. Permanent beta is a great way  to think about yourself as a product that is always improving.

2) A, B, Z paths-  The A path is the path that you are currently on; for example, your current job.  Plan B is a slight iteration on your Plan A, it might be a bigger role at your current company or a more desirable job in the same field.  You want to create a plan B that allows you to learn new skills, try something different, or build a broader range of experience.  When you pivot to your plan B, that becomes your new plan A and you restart the cycle of developing a plan B.  Your plan Z  is the worst-case scenario fall back plan.  For example, if you are applying to business school, your Plan A is your current job, your Plan B is going to graduate school, and your Plan Z might be taking some time off and living off your savings. Because there is risk involved in making career changes, the plan Z is there to be your fallback in case the risks you take do not pan out. One of the most valuable things about this ABZ strategy is that it forces you to evaluate where you are and categorize possible future options. Having the Plan Z means that you can take risks without worrying that you will leave yourself in an unmanageable situation.

3) I^We- Not surprisingly, since the co-author of this book founded LinkedIn, there is a lot of focus on the power of networking.  The concept of I^We demonstrates how many people you are connected to through your network. Interestingly, it is often the “weak ties” in our networks that provide the most value in terms of career advancement. Weak ties are acquaintances or people you know through a closer connection.  They expose you to new ideas and opportunities more than your close connections, since by virtue of their distance from you, they are exposed to different information.  I struggle with networking, because I always worry that networking imposes on others or that I am coming across as inauthentic.  This section offers useful practical advice about how to get over the fear of networking.  The biggest takeaway for me was to think about how to give something, they call them “gifts” of information or knowledge, to the people in your network so that when you engage with them it is a back and forth rather than a request.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. If you are interested but do not have the time to read it, there is an incredibly helpful executive summary on their website, thestartupofyou.com.

Tough Question: What is your management style?

Today I’m addressing another one of the most-dreaded interview questions: How would you describe your management style? In my view, open-ended questions are often the hardest to answer.  It’s hard to know what information to include and what to leave out, as well as whether you should be detailed or high level.  Even if you have significant management experience, this can be a tough question to answer well.  If you are applying for your first real management role, it is even more important to ace this question so you give your interviewer confidence that you will make a good leader. So, let’s go over some strategies to make this potentially difficult question easier to tackle.

1) Think about what qualities defined the most effective leaders you have seen in action. 

It’s so much easier to think about what makes a good leader when you take yourself out of the equation. That’s why I think it helps to start by thinking about past leaders you have worked for or at least seen in action. What qualities helped to make them stand out? Were they particularly good at coaching, setting a vision, or staying in touch with their employees? Write down the top 3-5 attributes that made them effective, and think about how you could apply these to your own experience. This is particularly valuable if you have not officially managed someone else before. Whether you think about it consciously or not, you are likely going to start by emulating leaders you have worked with before. Over time, your style will become more your own, but modeling is a great place to start as you gain more leadership experience.

2) Know the major styles of leadership

This takes a bit more research, but a little effort will go a long way towards being prepared for your interview. It helps to have a basic framework for types of leaders to apply some structure to an otherwise ambiguous question. While by no means the only definition of management types, these are widely accepted and a good place to start*:

  • Commanding/coercive- dictatorship, “do what I say.” Often used in hierarchical organization (e.g. the military) or in times of crisis where there is no time for discussion or dissension.
  • Visionary- explains a vision and paints a picture of what is possible in the future to motivate people.
  • Affiliative- Focuses on diffusing conflict and creating harmony.
  • Democratic- Engages heavily with the entire team to get their input, makes decisions collectively
  • Pacesetting- Builds challenging, exciting goals for employees.
  • Coaching- Invests heavily in getting to know employees and developing their strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, certain leadership styles are more appropriate for different cultures and for different circumstances. One person is not one style all the time, and these are not hard and fast definitions. However, knowing this framework is a helpful way to categorize your style and organize your response to a tough question.

*More information on the leadership types can be found here: http://www.educational-business-articles.com/six-leadership-styles.html

Can I get a little Respect?

Almost everyone I know has had this problem at some point in their career: someone who reports to you or a more junior team member is not giving you the proper respect. This can take many forms. Maybe it is your direct report and they challenge you or ignore you rather than following directions. Perhaps it is not your direct report but still someone more junior to you on a team; they may go around you when they should consult you or intentionally leave you out of conversations to go directly to the top of the pyramid. However this behavior manifests, it’s frustrating and it gets in the way of teams performing at their best. Here are some strategies to use when faced with this situation.

1) Ask, Don’t Assume

Ask, don’t assume, is one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in my career. In this context, it’s especially important to step back from the frustration and consider where the other person is coming from. If they are your direct report, one of the best ways to diffuse the tension is to make sure you understand their goals. Often their reluctance to be managed comes from feelings that their career isn’t progressing quickly enough.  The tendency is for them to take this out on you. To counteract that, try to have an open dialogue where you explore what their goals are and make sure they are on a plan to achieve them. It may see counterintuitive, but spending more time to focus on their development is likely to make them a better team player in the long run.

2) Set Boundaries

Many times, the tension arises because the more junior person has one of two things: more experience at the firm (institutional knowledge), or subject matter expertise.  Diffuse this tension and unite your team by setting very clear boundaries around who is responsible for which things, and what each person’s strengths are. In many situations, I would walk into a team that had complex and business-critical responsibilities, and I knew they were thinking something along the lines of, “This girl doesn’t understand my job. What makes her at all qualified to lead me?” And that is a very good question. After much trial and error (seriously, a lot of error) I realized I needed a better approach. Start your first interactions by outlining your strengths and relevant track record in your areas of expertise. Take the time to acknowledge each person’s strengths and track records. It is important to make it abundantly clear that you know you could not do their job, and that you respect and appreciate their expertise. This is a fine line, though- do not sell yourself short- give yourself credibility by talking about past results and explaining the areas where you are the expert. This approach shifts the mentality away from you vs. them, and creates a conversation where each person realizes how their strengths fit into the overall organization of the team.

3) Be Direct

In conjunction with the other two strategies, being direct and clear about your concerns is a necessary step. Some people find this very uncomfortable, and some work cultures are more encouraging of direct feedback than others. So adapt this to suit the environment you work in, but know that expressing your concerns in a constructive way is necessary for creating change in behavior. As with point #1, it may seem obvious to you that they are acting inappropriately, so you may think they are already aware too. This is a dangerous assumption. It’s best to have the conversation, frame it as your observation and your concern about what the behavior will result in. For example,  “I’m concerned that if you don’t keep me informed we will not be able to explore all sides of this problem and we may not present complete information to the people who need to know.”  Above all, know that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to others, so the only way to know for sure that they understand they are acting out of turn is for you to tell them.