You’re used to the loud ones. The sellers and others in your org who complain – about systems, sales goals, products – are the least of your worries as a manager. Because they are up in your grill about every little thing, you’ll have plenty of chances to engage: they won’t surprise you. Likewise, the seller who’s working hard but missing goals and suffering financially – you’ll step in and connect seeing her financial plight.

No, the ones who should keep you up at night are the ones who don’t keep you up at night. The quiet performers, the stalwarts. He’s the efficient performer who always seems to be quota-adjacent and doesn’t make much noise. He might be in a far-flung regional or home-office, or he might be right under your nose at headquarters.

And out of the blue, he’s just told you he’s leaving you.

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What to do now? Nothing. It’s too late, and countering the offer he’s gotten is bad strategy. But reflecting on the situation so it doesn’t happen again (and again!) is a very good idea. So here goes.

People join companies, but they quit managers. And not always because the manager was awful. Often its because the manager never fostered a culture that the employee could belong to. Even as she performed well, she continued to be a well-liked outsider. What was lacking was engagement.

Understand and manage engagement. Gallup has done years of research on employee engagement, and it’s not what you think. The majority of employees are actually not engaged with their companies or their teams – including the quiet performer who’s just handed you his laptop and company ID. Engaged employees talk about their team using the word we, and talk about their work at the company in future tense. Engagement is not something you hire; it’s something you – the manager – creates.

Back to college. That sales meeting or team training you considered only seems like a luxury. In terms of employee retention, it’s a bargain. Managers who regularly bring their teams together in learning and sharing environments enjoy better retention. The team gathering is when there becomes an us. But don’t use these occasions to just talk at your people and drown them in facts.

Give them a voice. Engaging managers don’t dispense facts; they manage with questions. “How should we approach this?” and “What do you think we should do?” forces your team members to think, share and engage.

Give them something to own. You foster engagement by surrendering control. Letting team members lead initiatives, develop category and technical specialties, run programs and teach others isn’t just about feel-good inclusiveness. It’s what binds your best people.

If your quiet performer was engaged, she wouldn’t have been open to the job she’s leaving you for. Sometimes the best hiring strategy is not needing to hire at all.

A customized, collaborative sales strategy workshop for your team is easier and more cost-effective than you might think. And it may be the key to not only performance, but retention of your best people. Visit www.upstreamgroup.com/workshops or reach out directly to learn more.

The Interview That Doesn’t Suck.

If human talent is the killer app in our industry, why do we suck so badly at attracting, evaluating and retaining the best people?  And how does a flawed candidate manage to slip through the interviewing gauntlet that you and the rest of your management and HR team have set up?  Clearly these are huge topics worthy of books, not blog posts.  But I’ve never met a topic that I couldn’t try to oversimplify, so here goes:

Your interviewing process is misguided, your execution is awful and you’re focusing on all the wrong things.  But please, let me elaborate…

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Interviews are Not about Fact-finding:  Make your minimum standards on skills and experience clear to your HR team or recruiter.  Then leave the candidate’s resume in your desk.  Too many interviews end up being about the facts on the page (“…so you worked at AOL?”)  You’re wasting a lot of time confirming data points, which could be better spent on higher order discussion.

Focus Instead on Understanding the Candidate’s Process:

  • Tell me about an important deal or achievement at your last company:  what would not have happened if you hadn’t been part of it?
  • Tell me about the last time you had to deliver really bad news to a customer:  how did you handle it and where did things end up?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage conflict with someone in your organization:  were you able to turn the situation around?

Seek Beliefs and Core Values:  The best hires and most-durable employee relationships are always built on the overlap between what a candidate believes and what the company stands for.  But we learn very little about what our candidates truly believe because we don’t ask.

  • Tell me something you believe in very strongly that’s not about religion or family.
  • Looking out at the next 10-15 years of our industry, what’s a trend or behavior that you’d bet your career on?

Stop Acting Like Lawyers:  (Please no hate mail from the Bar Association.) If you ask a dozen lawyers to review a document or agreement, each will find something to disagree with or object to.  Likewise, if you subject your candidate to a dozen different interviewers, each will only feel valid or whole if he or she finds a flaw.  First cut down on the number of interviewers; after a certain number, the evaluation doesn’t get bigger, it gets worse.  Second, make it OK for other interviewers to say “neutral” or “nothing to add.”

This is Not a Democracy:  Try to get everyone to agree on a candidate and you’ll end up with a very safe, very vanilla, compromise candidate.  No edge, nothing strong, nothing special.  Agree ahead of time who “owns” the hire and who he/she should truly consult with. (Hint:  who will be economically dependent or physically close to the new hire?)

Listen for Intent:  There’s one more thing we also fail to ask potential hires:  Do you want to work here?  Of course it’s probably not smart to signal your own intent to hire this person, but you can certainly find out whether they’re really into you – of if you’re just “one of their safety schools.”

  • We’re not there yet, but if it all came together tomorrow and the package and responsibility lined up, would you jump at the chance to work here?

Notice that this is the only “yes or no” question I’ve suggested.

I’ll be eager to hear how your next interview goes.  Happy hiring.

This post originally ran in 2014.  Unfortunately too many interviews still suck.

20 Years.

This particular New Year’s Day was a special one for me.  It marked the 20th anniversary of the incorporation and launch of our company – Upstream Group. Some of you reading this may know us only as publishers of The Drift, but we’ve also led sales and management workshops for several hundred digital companies over the past two decades, and continue to produce The Seller Forum, a peer-to-peer gathering of digital sales leaders.  We also played an early role in helping Rick Parkhill launch the first iMedia events, launched and ran the “Upstream Habitat” program for two years, and have been close to several great companies and leaders during their primes.  All in all, a pretty great run so far.

But you don’t spend time reading this or any other blog for nostalgia or self-congratulation.  So that will be enough of that.  I’d like to spend the rest of this post on a part of the past 20 years that many of you as readers and customers don’t see.  The part about running a small business.  Specifically, I want to give away some of the ideas – often stumbled upon – that have allowed us to flourish over such a sustained period.

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Know Who You Serve.  We’ve always been super clear on this point. Our customer is the head of sales at the publisher, ad technology or data company.  Period.  Many businesses try to hedge their bets and keep all their options open, only to lose focus and belief.  With so much else uncertain, getting this one right early really helps.

Find a Repeatable Unit of Value to Deliver.   Early on, when your company is small and new, you’ll feel the pressure to chase all kinds of projects and contort your business to meet the latest needs of each new client.  Having one repeatable service you can offer quickly – in our case it’s been the sales team workshop – anchors your business financially and gives you something you can continue to get better at over time.  It also helps…

Make it Easy for Customers to Work with You.  When someone says “We should find a way to work together,” your response shouldn’t require more than a few words.  Having straightforward products and services and consistent pricing helps you two ways:  you quickly qualify and start business relationships with customers, and then – with the commitment settled – you can immediately begin to individualize and personalize your service.

Sweat the Details.  Your weakest moment can define your company in the eyes of a customer.  So be relentless about your execution, not just in your core product or service but on unsexy stuff like billing and logistics.  They will always remember how they felt about working with you.

Hire Well and Trust Quickly.  I’ve had to work on both of these. Especially when you have a small team, ask prospective employees process questions – get them to talk about how they’d solve a problem or overcome an obstacle.  Hire grit.  Then once you’ve brought someone on, trust them with more than you’re really comfortable.  They’ll either delight or disappoint you:  either way, you’ll have your answer.

Don’t Be Incremental.  Embrace big ideas and take big swings.  Approach each project and customer like you’re in a position to really change the world for them.  Great business relationships aren’t built on “one percent better.”  You will be defined by your ambition for your customers, and lack of that ambition means you will be forgotten.

If our small business has made a difference in your business or your life during the past 20 years, feel free to share a comment. Just click on the little grey envelope at the top of the post.  Thanks for reading, and here’s to starting the next 20!

The first Seller Forum of 2018 is happening Wednesday March 7th in New York.  If you’re a qualified digital media sales leader, request your invitation today.  Or go to thesellerforum.com to learn more.  

The Interview That Wasn’t.

As I’m about to begin the search process for a new team member here at Upstream Group, I’m thinking a lot about the challenging, often-flawed, interview/reference-check/hiring experience that so many of my customers go through all the time.  In an industry as dynamic and talent-starved as ours, the “people challenge” seems even more exaggerated.  So best not to make it even more difficult by flubbing the interview process, right?

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So here are a few thoughts on what so often goes wrong and the easy fixes that we seldom adopt.

Everybody Plays it Safe.   The interviewer asks predictable questions about career progression, reasons for leaving past jobs, and what the candidate knows about the company.  The applicant dutifully answers just the questions that are asked and doesn’t seek to introduce any new information or insights.  Instead, be prepared with a wildcard question (“Tell me about an experience or quality that’s not on your resume that somehow defines you?”) and see if the candidate introduces something provocative and meaningful.  Better yet, ask them to run half of the interview.  (“I’ve got a few questions, but I want you to be prepared to run the last 15 minutes of the interview.”)  This will tell you a lot.

The Hiring Team Isn’t Organized.   Many companies conflate “thorough interviewing” with “a lot of people meeting the candidate.”  The vast majority of those seeing the candidate will have had the resume and cover letter in their possession for somewhere between 30 minutes and half a day.  Instead, the interviewing team members should each have a specific role or area of concern to explore with the candidate.  So Josh then weighs in on collaboration skills, Rachel focuses on the strength of the candidate’s customer relationships, and so on.

The Talk/Listen Ratio is All Wrong.  Perhaps it’s because we come from sales backgrounds, or maybe we just feel strongly about where we work, but most interviewers end up “selling the company” to the candidate (even candidates they don’t feel strongly about) and eating up most of the airtime. Instead, aim to create an environment where the candidate does 75% of the talking.  This will allow you, the interviewer, to really evaluate the quality of the answers and ask important short follow up questions.  The second question you ask on a topic yields by far the best information.

We Ask the Wrong Reference Questions.  The one question you must ask previous employers is a simple one:  Would you hire her again?  Any pause, hedging or qualification to the answer is a really important clue.  Many past employers are loathe to give someone a bad reference due to liability or the desire to simply not make an enemy.

We Don’t Close.  And They Don’t Either.  Like flawed sales calls, flawed interviews end with a whimper.  As interviewer, you can conditionally close the candidate.  “Knowing what you know so far, if offered a fair package would you want to join our company?”  Again, listen for the pause.  You want to know whether you’re first choice or the safety school.  Even better, ask the candidate “What final question do you want to ask me?” and see if they ask you for the job.

Want to hire better?  Then run better interviews.

All of Us.

All of UsI know nothing about diversity or gender equity.

How could I?  As a 50-something white male with an Anglo-Saxon last name, how could I ever truly understand what’s going on inside the head of an African American job candidate as he completes a round of meetings with interviewers who look nothing like him?  How could someone with my life experience really get what it means to be the only woman in a leadership meeting, with all the consciousness and calibration that goes with it?

The truth is, I can’t possibly get it.  Not completely, anyway.  So I’m an imperfect messenger on the subject of diversity in our industry.  I may be the wrong person to talk about the role of women in the digital advertising and marketing world.  But I’m here and I’m paying attention and I’m going to talk about it.

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Possibly the only thing that makes my point of view relevant is the field of vision I have access to.  Over the past two decades I’ve worked with a few hundred companies and a few thousand sales people.  I meet them in large groups and also speak with them individually by phone or in person.  Here is what I see and hear.

  • As I look across the population of digital sellers, account managers and operations people, I see so few African Americans that I end up remembering most of them by name.
  • The same women executives who are willing to challenge and share strong points of view in one-on-one conversation still subtly recede in large group settings. The first and loudest voices are always male, and I often need to actively pursue women for comment and participation.
  • Latino and Hispanic executives tend not to emphasize cultural identity within their largely non-Hispanic teams.
  • Digital publishing/media/marketing has an “NFL Head Coach” problem. Women make up a big share of the outstanding “players” in the league, and are reasonably well represented in the ranks of assistant coaches (regional managers).  But when it comes to the head coaching spots – the CRO jobs – there are just not enough female faces.  And the portion of minority candidates who end up in those top spots is negligible.

So I don’t get it.  But I want to.  It seems to me that with the constant talent shortage in our industry, we cannot afford for a huge portion of our workforce to feel less than empowered and included.  It also becomes apparent that the older white dudes like me need to open the lens much wider.  I know my own peer group, and I honestly believe there’s very little overt bias or bad intention.  We just need to see all this with a fresh set of eyes and a new urgency.

Diversity is one of the leadership issues we’ll be discussing at the Seller Forum on September 14th in New York.  We’ve invited Karen Watai, and expert facilitator on the subject, to come in and challenge our beliefs and practices.  Certainly that won’t be the end of the discussion.  But it might be a new beginning.