Category Archives: Accountability

How to Interview for Soft Skills

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

How do you create interview questions about individual initiative?

Interview questions about individual initiative use the same model as any attitude, characteristic or soft skill.

  1. Identify the behavior connected to the attitude or characteristic.
  2. Identify a circumstance where we might see that behavior.
  3. Develop questions about the behavior.

Behaviors related to individual initiative –

  • Appropriately beginning a project without being told.
  • Continuing a project without being reminded.
  • Finishing a project (all the last steps) without being reminded.

Behavior – Appropriately beginning a project without being told.

  • Tell me about a project that needed to get started before your manager knew about it?
  • What was the project?
  • Who was on the project team?
  • What was your role on the project team?
  • How did you know what needed to be done without your manager telling you?
  • What were the first steps in the project?
  • How did you know those steps would be okay to complete without specific direction from your manager?
  • Did your manager ever review the initial work on the project?
  • What was the result of starting the project before your manager knew about it?

Behavior – Continuing a project without being reminded.

  • Tell me about a project you worked on, where the flow of the work was interrupted by other work, perhaps a long project that had stages to it?
  • How were the stages of the project planned?
  • How long was the project?
  • How did you know you were at a stopping point in the project and it was okay to complete other work?
  • How did you know it was time to pick the project up where you left off?
  • What flexibility did you have to decide where to stop and where to pick up with all of your other work?
  • How was your work scheduled?
  • Did you have your own schedule that you created?
  • How did you remind yourself that you still had uncompleted work on a project that you stopped?

Behavior – Finishing the work (all the steps) on a project, without being reminded.

  • Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that never seemed to end, that when you thought the work was done, there were still more steps to complete?
  • At the end of the project, what kind of items popped up, still undone?
  • At the end of the project, how did you find out about those undone items?
  • At the end of the project, how did you keep track of those undone items?
  • Did you personally have to complete those undone items, or were there other people working on those items with you?
  • How did you track what you got done and what others got done?
  • At the end of the project, when ALL the items were finally completed, how did you know there were NO uncompleted items left?

You can interview for any attitude, characteristic or soft skill, as long as you can connect it to behaviors.

The Feeling of Family

“So, you want your team to feel like a family, at least an extended family?” I asked.

Andre was thoughtful. “You have heard the expression, familiarity breeds contempt? That is the behavior I see. Petty grievances. Subtle discord. You would think that, as a family, they would get along better and, in turn, be more productive. I want them to work together, collaborate, support each other, you know, real teamwork.”

“All, noble ideas. But, could there be a paradox? Could it be, that effective group collaboration, teamwork, does not stem from a feeling of family, but rather a clear recognition of individual team members, each with individual accountability in clearly defined working relationships? Could it be structure that creates the feeling, not the feeling that creates the structure?”

What is Work?

“Max, I know how you feel about your team’s attitude toward work. You believe they only show up for the paycheck. You believe, as a manager, you have to incentivise them above their normal pay, with a bonus or spiff to get them to pay attention, or otherwise engage in discretionary effort. Your belief is in line with many employee studies that say most are NOT engaged with their work. So, let’s not talk about your team. Let’s talk about you.”

“Alright, I’m game. But, understand that I am here for the money, too,” Max clarified.

“Yes, you are right, we do have to pay competitive. More importantly, we have to get money off the table. As long as people focus on money, or, because of their circumstance, have to focus on money, employee engagement will be fleeting, at best.”

“Okay, but understand that I am still here for the money.”

“Are you really? I could show you a number of ways that you could make a great deal more money than you are making right, now,” I teased.

“I am all ears,” Max replied.

“If you were willing to sell marijuana, which is now legal in some states, you would make more money than you are currently making.” I stopped to gauge his reaction to this unusual suggestion.

“Yeah, but.”

“But, what?” I interrupted. “You see, it’s not all about the money. People, even you, want work where you can make a contribution to something larger than you. You want work where you can bring your full capability, spread your wings AND receive fair compensation for that work. You want work where your contribution is recognized as important, work that does NOT need a carrot-or-stick for you to get on with that work.”

Max was quiet. He was thinking.

“Max, you are the manager of your team. You get to design that team, select that team and create the environment that team works in. As the manager, you DECIDE the culture of that team. What will be your foundation? Will it be built around spiffs, or accomplishment? I have never known a person to be more competent in their role because they were paid a bonus.”

Why Would They Skip a Step?

“What do you mean, I see things that my team cannot see? If they would just look, they would see it, too,” Max pushed back.

“Max, you are a manager. You are responsible for creating all the systems that people follow. You know more about how things work and how things go wrong. Give me a short list of things you see, that your team doesn’t see,” I asked.

“Short list?

  • Sometimes, we get parts in from our vendor that have a slight defect. If we use that part in our assembly, when we get to the end, the unit will fail a pressure test.
  • If we skip the pressure test, the units get boxed and sent to customers, who install defective units. Their first call is to the salesperson, who gets an earful from the customer.
  • If the salesperson gets three customer phone calls complaining about defective units, the salesperson loses confidence in our ability to make a quality product. He stops selling.

Should I go on?” Max quizzed.

“Why can’t your production people see that?” I prompted.

“I guess they can’t put the dots together. From the time we get that first defective part, to the time the customer complains could be three months time. And when the customer complains, we still have to track down the problem, then reference our production codes to find out when the units were actually produced. It might take another week just to track down the problem. There is too much disconnection for my production team to follow. They just know they get yelled at for skipping a parts-inspection and a pressure test.”

“And, why would they skip a parts-inspection?” I wanted to know.

“Funny, the team was actually proud of their assembled output that week. We were in a bind for a large order. It meant overtime and a team bonus for 50 extra production units that week,” Max lamented.

“So, let me understand. You design all the systems out here, including the bonus system for exceeding production quotas in a shorter period of time? And you wonder why the team skips steps, to get their bonus?”

If I Only Had People Who Were Smarter

“We have plenty of people to do the work,” Max explained. “I have written all the steps for them to follow, a nice flow chart as a visual on the cover of the binder. As the projects move through, I have Gant charts to help me understand the status, so I can explain to the customer.”

“It all sounds very organized. So what’s the problem?” I asked.

“The problem is, the production team doesn’t follow the work instructions. I walked by a work cell yesterday and the work was clearly being done out of sequence. I suddenly knew why we were having QC problems on some of the output.”

“And?” I pressed.

“I asked them why they were doing it that way, when we had just completed a training program on the correct sequence. Do you believe this? They told me the training program was wrong, that they had been doing it their way for a long time and they didn’t see the need to change. Besides, it was easier to do it their way.”

“And they had just been through training?” I wanted to know.

“Well, yes, it wasn’t like a class. I spent ten minutes with the four of them. It was really common sense. I don’t see why they didn’t get it. If I had smarter production people, they would have figured it out on their own,” Max was clearly frustrated.

“You see something they don’t see?”

“Yes. And how.”

“Did you ever think, you see something they cannot see?”

Why We Have Supervisors

“Yes,” Samuel appeared a bit agitated. “But, you are dealing with the rank and file. You are sitting in a pretty nice boardroom, Catherine. You have a nice salary. I know you and I may have bouts of frustration with our work, but at the end of the day, we have it pretty good. But, the rank and file, that is another question. In their jobs, they must all be frustrated. I mean, it is pretty lackluster work. That’s why we have to have supervisors, to keep them in line, to make sure they don’t sit around and play on their smartphones all day.”

Catherine’s blood pressure began to rise. Her face flushed. “Mr. Pierce, it is coming clear to me why Outbound Air, as a small upstart airline, got into so much trouble after your company bought it. It appears, I have as much work to do with the board of directors as I do with the team.”

“Catherine, I am all ears,” Samuel responded. “But I must tell you, we have a large investment in this airline, we have poured in a lot of capital to introduce jet service to the fleet. Your intentions with the company must be grounded in a solid return on that investment.”

“I appreciate your reminder of the value of the shareholders who bear the risk. And that risk is shared by our workforce. Each team member comes to work every day with the full intention of doing their best. They want work that gives them the opportunity to use their full potential. They want to spread their wings and receive fair compensation for that work. They want to use their brain, to exercise judgement in making decisions to reach a goal. They have goals, just like you have goals. They have a need, not only to bring value to their own lives, but to bring value to the lives of the people who work around them. As the chairman of the board, if you do not recognize that, my work as CEO is already doomed. All crumbs lead to the top.”

This is the beginning of the sequel to Outbound Air. Find out how Catherine got here.

Parlor Games at Best

Samuel Pierce felt it was his duty, as Chairman of the Board, to make sure the new CEO was grounded in reality. “Catherine, I just want to make sure that you are up to the challenges you face as the new CEO, and that you are not being too idealistic.”

Catherine Nibali was chosen as the successor CEO to a company in trouble.

“You will have the union to deal with,” Samuel warned. “I know it was here when you arrived, but it is here nonetheless.”

“That’s true,” Catherine agreed. “The existence of a union is only one indicator of the deeply ingrained misconceptions this company drifted into. The people systems were based on false assumptions of managerial leadership. It’s no wonder the union was able to take hold. But, Samuel, there is more. The union is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“With all due respect,” Samuel interrupted. “Your predecessor, Al Ripley, tried a number of things. He re-engineered many of the work processes, he allowed group dynamic exercises, ropes courses, results based incentives, group bonuses.”

It was Catherine’s turn to interrupt. “Exactly,” she stared directly at Samuel. “Parlor games. Parlor games that, at best, might create a small burst of productivity, but in the long run, laid the ground for the union and shaped a culture that provokes disruptive behavior. We stand for what we tolerate.”

This is the beginning of the next book, sequel to Outbound Air. Find out how Catherine got here.

But, We Have a Company to Run

“But, we have an airline to run,” Samuel continued to object. “As chairman of the board, it is my primary responsibility to make sure we have the right person at the helm. It is not my responsibility to micro-manage you, meddle in the way you run things. But, the way you run things makes me wonder if we have the right person at the helm.”

“Look, Sam,” Catherine replied, “we can squeeze the legroom, rearrange the seating on the planes. We can start charging for checked baggage. We can add a service fee if someone wants a soda. But that is not our problem.”

Catherine looked intently at Sam, sitting at the head of the boardroom. In the periphery, she could see the logos of the other companies in the portfolio. Outbound Air was the company in trouble and she had been selected to turn it profitable. She continued.

“Sam, we have close to a thousand employees now. They work 40 hours per week. Economically, they depend on us. Our compensation system and job opportunities directly impact how they live, now, next week and next year. Their self-esteem, what they achieve in life, in large part, depends on the role they play for us. How we set expectations, how we define their working relationships, how we evaluate their effectiveness, all, have direct impact on their contribution. They come home at night, frustrated or satisfied based on how things went that day. The way we design the environment of their work has way more impact on our bottom line than any fees we may charge for luggage.”

The saga of Outbound Air continues. Find out how Catherine got here.

How to Predict a Departure

“Who is responsible for the team?” I asked. “Who is responsible for the performance of the team, and all the things that affect performance?”

Melanie looked around her office, as if someone was going to appear.

I continued. “If it’s not you, as the department manager, if it’s not you, then who?”

Melanie’s eyes stopped skirting the room. No hero appeared. She floated her excuse, “But how am I responsible that one of my team members quit?”

“That’s a very good question. How are you, as the manager, responsible that one of your team members quit?”

“What, am I supposed to be clairvoyant?” Melanie snapped.

“That would be helpful,” I nodded. “But let’s say you don’t have supernatural powers. How could you, as the manager, know enough about your team, to have predicted this departure?”

Who Sets the Context of Work?

“But, you are still here. What’s in it for you? What keeps you here?” I asked.

Riley had to think. Turnover on his team was high. Morale was in the dumps. He described his team as lifeless. “I guess I just don’t feel the same way they do. I know the work is hard. I know we have to pay attention. I know the work doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock. But for some reason, for me, it’s important to be here.”

“Why do you think it’s important for you and not so important for your team? At the end of the day, you are all working on the same projects.”

“Well, my manager and I talk about the work,” he explained. “We talk about the results of the what we do, as a company. I feel that I make a contribution, as a manager. What I do is important. In spite of how hard it is, it’s important.”

“You feel that way, because you and your manager talk about the work, the importance of the work? Have you ever talked about the work with your team?” I asked.

“Yeah, but, it’s different with them. I mean, they don’t get the whole picture. They don’t seem to understand it the same way that I do. For them, it’s just a job.”

“So, the context of their work, is that it’s just a job? Who is accountable for creating that context?”