In Careers, Featured

There is nothing that is simultaneously more nerve-wracking and exhilarating than the hunt for a new job. For most of us, our search begins with identifying the companies that we hold in high regard. We hope that targeting the companies with the hottest tech will put us in a position to support a product that we are excited about. But while this is sometimes the right answer, this is actually usually the wrong approach to searching for a new job.

If you were to put together a list of all the things you look for in a new company, you might include some of the following:

  • Hot technology
  • Best-in-class product
  • Growth trajectory
  • Exciting market
  • Chances at a lucrative exit

If you followed that up with a list of the things that make a job fulfilling, your list might look something like this:

  • Ability to make an impact
  • Opportunity to learn something new
  • Chance to work with a great team
  • Potential to grow as an individual
  • Career path

Obviously, neither of these lists are meant to be exhaustive. But they do illustrate that the things we tend to look for when we select which companies we want to pursue are very different from the things we look for when we describe our ideal next job. Of course the perfect job would bring the two lists together, but if the perfect job does not avail itself, which list do you lean towards?

If we are being honest, the list that ends up influencing most of us disproportionately is the first list. I suppose that deep down we all want to be a part of a winning team. We associate the strength of the company and its products with whether a team is winning or not. So to some extent, it makes sense to lean a bit on that first list. But at the same time, the team you work on and the manager you work for have a ridiculous amount of influence over your overall experience at a company.

Put differently, we all know people who have been at a company we admire but who have struggled mightily under the reign of some know-nothing manager that doesn’t understand how to lead a team. Those experiences are horrific; they sap our life from us and leave us empty, frustrated shells of who we used to be. You would think that one of the most important things to determine in any job interview is whether you are stepping into one of these traps.

But how do we tend to use our interview time?

The first thing we all do is sell ourselves. And when I say “we all”, I really do mean “we all”. Whether you are the candidate or the company, as soon as the interview process starts, both sides are selling themselves. The candidate has to convince the hiring team that she is worthwhile. The hiring team is expected to sell the candidate on how strong the company is. Everyone says they are honest during this process, but it’s not that different from a first date. Sure, everything you say is true, but maybe you conveniently leave out the fact that you really clingy and jealous, allowing that to be one of those fun little facts that are discovered somewhere closer to the 15th date.

This means that it is incumbent on the interviewer to ask revealing questions and carefully listen to the answers. And remember, the candidate is interviewing the team just as much as they are interviewing her.

So when you are interviewing, what kinds of questions do you ask?

Having interviewed hundreds of candidates over the years, I can tell you how most focus the conversation. Intuitively, they understand that the makeup of the team is important. They know to ask about things like corporate and even organizational culture. The problem is that they ask those questions like this: What is the corporate culture like?

The person answering is rarely going to say “We are a really passive aggressive company. We will nod to your face and then cut your legs out from under you as soon as you leave the room.” Everyone knows that the right answer to this type of questions includes words like “meritocracy” and “open and honest”. So when you ask this type of superficial question, you aren’t getting very much useful information back.

You need to be a bit more clever with how you talk to your would-be teammates. If personal growth is important to you, you likely want to determine if the group has a mentoring culture. You might ask how often individuals have 1:1s. Are the 1:1s status meetings or actual 1:1s? When is the last time a team member took a training class? Are personal and career objectives part of the daily dialogue with employees or is that relegated for review time?

Maybe you are most interested in having an impact. If that is the case, you might be particularly interested in how the team handles strategic planning. What is the team’s purpose and mission? How is that purpose established? Is the team managed by outcomes or projects? If a team is project-driven, you can expect your life will be lived from deadline to deadline. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can be difficult to have major impact when everything you do is measured in days and weeks.

Perhaps you are keenly interested in career growth. You might consider asking people on the team how long they have been on the team. Promotions are sometimes handled within a team, but once you get past first-line manager, the most effective teams move people up and out. If the team has all been around for 5+ years, what are the chances that anyone is really advancing? Find out if this team is promoting people to other places in the company, or if employees have to leave the company to grow.

None of this is to say that the company, technology, and products don’t matter. But they are certainly not enough. You need to be honest with yourself about what you really want. And then you need to be gutsy enough to go after what you need, not just what you think everyone wants. It is entirely possible that the right environment at an average company is going to have way more impact on your happiness and growth than the wrong position at the best company.

[Fun facts: You’re more likely to get stung by a bee on a windy day than in any other weather. Tell me why anyone lives in Chicago. Snow and bees. I just don’t get it.]
Showing 6 comments
  • Santhosh Divakar
    Reply

    Mike,
    I am a fan of your writing and your writing in general management does inspire me a lot.

    A topic that is kind of pretty new to me is whether tech companies really have teams measured in terms of “outcomes”. I have had my career span over 3 tech companies and all of them followed a “deadline” based model, each of the deadline producing an outcome. Hence I could not really imagine a scenario where a tech-company would want teams to pursue a purely “outcome” driven ( except for sales, perhaps ). Would you please throw some light on how can product organizations base their tech-teams on outcome-driven basis rather than deadlines?.

    -Thanks!
    Santhosh

    • mike.bushong
      Reply

      Thanks for the thoughtful question. I am a little torn on whether to answer in full here or just do another blog. I fear the answer is long.

      First, I don’t mean to suggest that outcomes live in the absence of deadlines. Even when you are outcome-driven, there are deadlines. That is just the nature of being in a business that have milestones.

      But most managers are task delegators and not what I would consider gifted leaders. They view their job as one primarily of farming out tasks and tracking projects. Their reports rarely have any real control over the work they do. They are assigned a project and a deadline. They report on their progress weekly. They wrap it up, and they are handed a new one.

      Part of the reason teams operate like this is that it is difficult to assign outcomes when you don’t know what outcomes you are responsible for. This is why things like team charter, purpose, and mission are valuable, though they tend to get dismissed as soft and fluffy when done poorly. But if your team has a hand in crafting their role, two things happen. First, they feel connected to what they do; they have a purpose. Second, they better understand the metrics that they need to contribute to.

      Once you have the metrics, you can assign outcomes. For example, I am in a marketing role now. Part of marketing is generating leads. When I delegate, I don’t tell my reports “Go engage with TechTarget and get me 450 new leads this quarter.” I tell them: Go get me new leads this quarter. The outcome is more leads. How that outcome is achieved is secondary to me. I don’t actually care (or I shouldn’t) whether the outcome is achieved by Techtarget or some other means.

      The challenge managers have is that they are promoted into the position having done the work of the team previously. They have been successful doing things a certain way, so they expect that is the best way to do it. They aren’t interested in the outcome; they want to make sure the task is done the exact same way they would do it.

      Another example – when I was running a product management and strategy team, one outcome I was responsible for was SDN. When I delegated the outcome, I did not tell my team: create this presentation, call this meeting, and then socialize the work. The outcome was: evaluate SDN and make a go/no-go decision (this was 2009, for reference). The tasks might be the same, but completion of the tasks does not constitute success.

      Again in product management, we had a large scaling project. The outcome was to get the scaling project agreed to by all the constituent product teams. In this case, I delegated the tasks. We completed the tasks, called the meetings, forced people to say yes. The project still failed. How can that be? Because when you focus disproportionately on the tasks, you forget the objective. It is possible to complete the tasks and not hit the objective. Had we been talking about outcomes the whole time, we would have seen that there was resistance in the system despite the milestones being met.

      To find an outcome-driven organization, you have to look at the leader more than the company or the team. How does the leader talk? What does she value? How does she manage tasks? And if you are on the team, you need to constantly fight back against task-based conversation and always use words like outcome or objective. It’s a training process.

  • Santhosh Divakar
    Reply

    Thanks for the reply Mike, loved these two points
    “The challenge managers have is that they are promoted into the position having done the work of the team previously. They have been successful doing things a certain way, so they expect that is the best way to do it.”
    “To find an outcome-driven organization, you have to look at the leader more than the company or the team.”

    -Regards
    Santhosh

    • mike.bushong
      Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Santhosh. I feel like I have been lucky in some of my career decisions. Looking back, it would be nice to make some of the good outcomes more predictable and repeatable, so I have been trying to help folks with things I have learned. Hopefully some of this continues to land with people.

      -Mike

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  • […] the team is probably more important than the company. Mike Bushong writes well on this topic at the Plexxi blog. If you’re consulting or contracting, the culture is probably less important […]

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