Not Knowing is Not Bad

“The best way you can find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”          – Ernest Hemingway

I had an interesting experience at work this week that I wanted to share. I had been out of the office with some personal matters and upon my return I was catching up on emails, issues, etc. During a few meetings I had that day an issue came up in which one of my direct colleagues who during the conversation expressed “but I am sure that you are aware of this issue” to which I replied “no, I actually am not”.

They looked puzzled with an expression of “your teams are not informing you of this issue”? I went on to explain to them that from my perspective that the teams were acting as I hoped they would. They were addressing the issue with the people that could help them solve the problem and given it was not an issue that had significant repercussions, they were handling it at their level of ownership.

Two core concepts for Agile Leaders to become comfortable with (and they can be hard)

There are two core components that I believe in when leading a team, a group of teams or an organization:

  1. People use concepts of “reasonable and responsible” in decision-making and knowing when to escalate an issue.
  2. Problems should get solved at the lowest level of responsibility.


Being Reasonable and Responsible

For me, this is a core litmus test that I use when making a decision and my goal has to been to instill in within the culture of the organization I lead. This sounds great and very positive thinking but how do I actually pull this off?

  1. Stop assuming that people’s actions are the result of them trying to do something bad or the wrong thing or some other evil motivation. For the most part, people want to succeed and do what they need to do. But given knowledge, motivation, lack of understanding or maybe difficulty of the obstacle, they’ll make a bad decision. Have a general faith in this and when evidence seems to the contrary stop and ask “why did they make that decision” or (and this is truly groundbreaking) maybe ask the person themselves. You may find that they had no idea of your perception in that decision.
  2. Explain it, repeat it, explain it, repeat it and then do it again. Don’t just tell people to be reasonable and responsible as that is absolute rubbish. It means absolutely nothing. If anything it gives carte blanche to make really stupid decisions. Explain what reasonable and responsible means to you to them and don’t make it a “one and done” scenario. Use this concept in things you talk about, weave it into cultural values and if possible give detailed examples. For example, when I explain to my leadership team and our product teams this idea, I use the following base concept

Reasonable and Responsible is the litmus test for every decision we make. And when I say these words I do not mean being reasonable and responsible to just yourself and your own opinions and thoughts, I mean stopping to consider if the decision or action you are undertaking is reasonable and responsible to your team, your company, your customers. As an example:

I want to take off this week as this product sprint has been difficult and we are struggling to complete the value we committed to for the sprint. I need a break!

Ask yourself:

  • Is it reasonable and responsible for me to take time off (I’m stressed)?
  • Is it reasonable and responsible for me to leave my team during a difficult sprint leaving them to finish with one less team member (therefore creating more stress)?
  • Is it reasonable or responsible to my company for me to take this time when their product may be put in jeopardy as a result?
  • Is it reasonable or responsible to our customers to continue to delay our product?

Asking these sorts of questions gets us outside of ourselves and makes us at least consider the impact that we have upon others. This is not a solution provider, just a way to expand your thoughts outside of just you.

Using the concept of the lowest level of responsibility

This is one that I have seen is one of the most difficult things for leaders to embrace for a multitude of reasons. The idea is that when work or an issue occurs, the actual ownership of that problem should be at the level closest to getting the work done or solving the issue (coupled with reasonable and responsible considerations right?)

How many times have you seen a C-level leader or even a line leader come into a meeting and “decide” an approach or solution for which they in absolutely no way will be involved in the work? Or a leader who has “all decisions” run through them so that they can give the nod of leadership before proceeding? This is not an uncommon top down leadership style, even if it is antiquated.

This can occur for many reasons; the leader has had a bad experience in the past in which a decision of which he was unaware resulted in a severe “posterior gnawing”(another future topic I’ll get into), a leader has risen to the ranks of their position from the line level and has not really let go of wanting to be more deeply involved in the daily work itself or a leader has made poor hiring decisions or has a fear of trust in staff making decisions perhaps based on a fear of repercussions from their leadership. Whatever the reason, be it control or mistrust, this can a very difficult thing for people to overcome. This often times works itself out as an organization grows as the mere ability to have that much involvement is difficult, although I have seen, and coached, many leaders who become so stressed by the level of micromanagement that place upon themselves.

When I started leading teams, the former manager was the first person to receive a call when there was a software outage and so they assumed that I would just take over that role.

When asked for my number to do this, I asked “why would you want to first call the person with the least amount of possibility to actually solve the problem”? I instead, told them to provide my teams with rotational phones so that the primary on-call contact could be notified first and worked out a plan of issue communication based on severity, length and resolution. I wanted the people that could actually “fix” the problem to be the people called, not their boss who would turn around and call them and say “hey, there is a problem, I need you to fix it”. I later learned that this was because the former manager had risen from the ranks as a developer so it gave him a chance to stay really technical.

Ensuring that people are empowered to solve problems at the lowest level possible is healthy for an organization.


So in the situation I started this post with, I responded my “lack of knowledge” about a situation based on the two concepts I have outlined. First, I had trust and confidence that my leadership team and my staff members would be reasonable and responsible in the things they requested and the decisions they make. Secondly, I support and believe in the ability to solve problems at the lowest possible level as it promotes responsibility, reinforces problem solving skills and shows trust in your team to remove their own impediments. I express to my teams and hopefully demonstrate through my actions a full support of them that if they need to escalate a situation beyond their capability or capacity to address a problem that I will handle anything they need. But they also know that they are empowered to own the work that they do as they are the people that get the work done.

I hope these small concepts can help any new leader or leader looking to change the way they address problems.


Missed Tasks

“It is more important that you know what stories you can complete in an iteration than to be perfect in your decomposition of tasks” – Mike Cohn

I heard this statement early this week and it really resonated with me. I have always been a fan of “tasking enough to get working without perfection” and have always coached teams towards this goal. My reasoning behind this is just as I cannot perform BDUF (“Big Design Up Front”) for a given software product with real accuracy typically,

I feel the same about BTUF(“Big Tasking Up Front”) when it comes to decomposition of stories. While I think tasking is important for a team to have insight into the work to be done, I do not think the world will stop spinning and tend to agree with Mike Cohn that insight into the commitment and its completion is far more important than 100% accurate tasks. And if you are reading this line and saying “how will we gain our metrics”, I would say perhaps you are focusing on the wrong measurements.

Does this mean that I am saying “wing it” or dump estimates. No, I am not. Not at all. I think that decomposition of work is beneficial, not only to the team members but in completing the work. What I am agreeing to is just as we have accepted on the base level that we cannot fully design a system being built, I do not think that we can 100% accurately task the item being worked on. The core idea for me is whether or not the end goal, feature, story or whatever may be more important than this level of accuracy. I have yet to hear in any conversation with a team all work that has been done has been tasked and estimated. Everyone has a threshold. For many teams it is a split second measurement of the overhead of creating and estimating the task versus the effort in “getting the work done”. If it takes 2 minutes to do something and 4 minutes to task and estimate it. A 50% savings in time may push them to not define that task. Could they do it post work? Sure they could but updating work completed after complete seems counterintuitive and likely counterproductive as well.

What I am saying is that if you put good faith effort into decomposition of the items that you know you need to accomplish the completion of the work committed, you might miss some small things based on the degree of knowledge you have in the moment. It’s ok. The seas will not begin to boil and the clouds will not crash to the ground. But try and keep these things to the exception, not the rule. Do your best to identify what needs to be done and maybe even make a team agreement of when injected tasks need identification. Failure to do so can put a team at risk in making over-commitments and not having the data to understand why in a retrospective or just hiding work by working unrealistic hours to make a commitment fit into the sprint and hiding the work by merely not making it visible.

I suspect the likelihood that you have all forgotten some “product altering major issue” task is much lower. What you may have forgotten is some lower end tasks or some tasks that you know you have to do but they are much smaller in scope. Maybe they were emergent in the moment as you inspected and adapted the solution as it was built. And if you complete those tasks but forgot them, are the scrum police going to come and snatch you away?

Certainly not.

Because the goal is the commitment is a whole, not the individual tasks. I would only be concerned about a team missing tasks when they begin failing commitments or I observe a team health impact to hidden work or defects. I suspect in this case, they just did not understand the work ahead of them and without good decomposition, they found a point in time where the work outweighed the team capacity.

So be mindful but also be aware that tasks are vehicles to complete ideas into working software. Be focused in creating them but also be realistic to know that there will be some that never get visualized. Observe for the onset of problems caused by this, not the applicability of a “rule” that demands compliance. Focus on the end value and mode the idea that breaking these larger ideas insto discrete parts reflect continuous progress on the journey to get there to the team.

Have a great day, a great weekend and keep getting more agile each and everyday!







My ideas for Hiring and Onboarding – Part 2

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act. It is a habit” – Aristotle

This is a continuation of my personal thoughts regarding the hiring and on-boarding process (I am applying this to the public sector specifically in this series of posts) and what I think can be beneficial or leaders should apply consideration towards when thinking of building a team of people and creating it in an effort to build a greater culture. After all, I believe that creation of a talent pipeline and good hiring and on-boarding is critical to any organization and should be at the forefront of a leader’s thoughts.

And based on losing some people recently who have moved on to “bigger and better” things as they grow within their career, I will discuss what I feel is the best outlook towards off-boarding of employees top new opportunities and why that matters as well.

In my prior post, I identified several things that were driving factors that helped me shape and guide my personal approach to this activity within the public sector.

  • Hiring the “right candidates” that provide  cultural value-add (as opposed to the ever used “cultural fit”, which just means everyone is the same and we have no diversity) to the current culture in helping it grow.
  • Providing an on-boarding experience that is timely, engaging at both the micro and macro levels of the organization and provides a positive experience that engages and supports them from day 1.
  • Create an opportunity to “prepare them for success” in their new role through proper tooling and focused education and direct experience before introducing them into their daily routine of their role.
  • Possibly hire them with other team members so that through the process an underlying sense of bonding can occur to create a secondary support system when they transition to their daily work.

In the first post, I centered most of the exploration around the first and second points of this direction. This post intends to explore more of the concepts, using the public sector as a area of context, of how we might on-board new employees and create a trajectory for success for them starting on their very first day through investment and engagement.

We just wait for them to show up, right?

Unfortunately, with all of the “pre-work” that occurs when we hire someone new, this is the general mental place we often come to when we prepare to on-board someone.

We perform the required things of requesting accounts, hardware, necessary paperwork, jumping through finance, HR and process but in terms of our preparation for being an active continued investment in the person we hire before they step a single foot into the door we often can fall short. And I mean a tangible investment. One that makes them feel connected to their new company and one that helps them feel comfort that they selected the right place to be as well.

You have just made a significant investment in time, people, effort and process to hire this person; the hard work to connect them to your culture has just started. Don’t allow that gap not to engage your employee immediately and begin to demonstrate the investment that they have made in you! Some people say “I merely don’t have the time” and they may be right as hiring can be one of those “other duties as assigned” which is why people often do not work to get good at it. A lot of private companies (and more public organizations) are investing in groups to better and more effectively talent acquisition and management as a tangible investment b y the company.

In the public sector, there are lots of hoops to jump through as often times a great deal of the “things” a new employee needs. It is that “web of bureaucracy” that you often hear about. It really does exist. It’s an actual and tangible thing. But overall, it’s just extra work. And we can do the work.  Establishing that experience of the person from the very first day can be valuable about how they tell others about your organization, grow with you and how they feel they can contribute. Believe or not, there are a lot of folks who really appreciate the ability to shape their working world. And let’s admit it, the first engagement to a new employer is often a very exciting and engaging time for a new employee. Let’s do it right.

I have compared our current hiring practices with some of the same size or larger enterprises and find us on par if not sometimes above.

Enterprises take time. Startups are often much easier, they like you, they want you and the guy “Larry” who owns the company may write your paycheck personally or even make you the offer as he is a founder who is now the CEO, CTO, etc.

As companies become larger with insurance plans and benefits to choose from, retirement or matching plans, etc. it often just takes more pieces of machinery within an organization to manage all of this. In this case, it is often a more deeply managed effort that has moving parts and has to be coordinated. Add in the public sector the overwhelming concern to ensure that fairness of the process limits the scope of liability and this can be a significant process of oversight.

I think that many in organizations do a poor job of communicating this time investment to our prospective employees and keeping them engaged during this process. One thing I find really important is to discuss this with the candidate upfront. They should understand how long it takes to secure approvals to hire someone so that they can reasonably set their expectations. Does this mean that you will lose some candidates who are unwilling to wait through the process? Sure you will. But ask yourself if you sold the position as one worth waiting to be ready for them.

My hiring process (with all the approvals and hoops I need to take) takes no less than 4-6 weeks on average for a one week posting, including the initial posting, interviewing, selection, hire processing, etc. It’s not optimal but we manage within this process.

We do not throw are arms up and talk about how “we can never hire under this process”. Is it more difficult, yes. But work is hard and it takes your commitment and focus if you want to build something great. Blaming the process or allowing yourself to just give up is not going to get a single employee hired.

Start engaging your candidates before they even show up. Do everything you can to ensure that they know what’s important to you, what values you hold and they can begin visualizing how they fit into that? If not, I encourage you to find a way to market better.

To give you some context, ask yourself this … why do people wait to be hired at Google? Is it the money? Is it the prestige? Maybe both? Ultimately if you are worth your salt in silicon valley, I speculate that Google is not the only place you can get a job. It is likely the place that you want to work and I also suspect that once they have sold you on the company and the job, you’ll wait to get that job. The money could be lower than you want, you could be a grunt on a team, etc.

The process in 2016 took on average 4-6 weeks to hire for a job at Google. It has been recently projected to be streamlined to 2-4 weeks. So in the context of this, did they “hook the candidate” better and make their job worth the wait? I have to say, I am operating under the time constraints so it seems that it is up to me to sell my environment as the place someone wants to wait to be a part.

If it’s a pure competition of money, I will certainly lose but I speculate that many of us learn in this industry, the pursuit of money can leave us to very bad environments that are perfectly willing to pay you outrageously to work in a bad environment.

Learn your hiring pipeline process. Know it. Stay aware of it and make partnerships with the people that help you get it done. After all, to be really successful means “getting the right people on the bus” according to Jim Collins.

My Organizational Cultural Beliefs

*As a precursor to this section, this is how “I” personally look at building and running an organization.

I have several basic things that I believe in when it comes to an organization:

  1. Hire well. Don’t allow yourself to hire for people who just “show up”, hire for the people you need for the job that needs to be done. If they do not show up during your process, do not hire people who you justify can meet that need or you think you can get there. Balance this with taking risks based on passion and drive but also be willing to separate if the ROI just is not there.
  2. Money and Perks do not mean retention. Not just financially or in terms of perks. Money and stuff will only keep people getting out of bed for a certain period of time. People want to be part of meaningful work that they have a direct hand in guiding. I can recall working for a company once that had a putting green in the office for employees. I can honestly promise you that my choice to get out of a warm bed and drive to an office to do my work never had a single decision made based on that putting green. Was it neat, was it fun? Sure. But in the end of the day, the thing that brought me there and kept me there (for a while) was doing meaningful work that was challenging. And money and perks are never infinite, I do not care what company you are. Eventually how do you “one up” yourself?
  3. Invest in the person you hire. This becomes especially important when they are more junior developers. Find ways to create learning opportunities on a recurring basis. Feed their minds for their careers. And guess what some will flourish with it and others will not. Be OK with this. People learn differently. Never stop providing the opportunities whenever possible. Allow them to experiment via hackathons or business challenges. Let them show you possibilities of which you cannot imagine.
  4. Build a culture first not just a software group. Jobs are easy to leave when you are a talented individual. You can just make up your mind, find the person hiring your skill set and win the job. But a culture is a social strategy. It’s a mission and the thing that permeates how you make decisions, guide the work and what you cling to when chaos surrounds you. Changing cultures is hard. It takes deeper soul searching to reach the determination to see if the grass is indeed greener on the other side. Everyone that has ever left my organization says it has been a really difficult decision. Good. It should be. That means we are building the right kind of organization. Build something that makes people reflect before they leave. Understand what the people in your organization find value in from their job on a regularly basis. The job of building and maintaining culture is not a “one and done
    ” sort of approach. For each employee you bring on you potentially impact your culture.
  5. Be realistic in your view of software careers. The average time frame before a person is likely to change jobs in the software industry is 15-24 months. 1.5-2 years. This means for your highest performing workers, the likelihood is that they will move on by at least 36-48 months on the average (if your retention is good). A lot of factors can contribute in their staying, continual hard challenges to tackle, regularly pay or promotions or maybe they are just comfortable in how they work today. But someone around them will leave. And once someone does, an immediate thought by others may be  “should I consider leaving”?  Here is the cold hard fact. People leave jobs. It’s OK. It does not mean you are not creating something wonderful, it sometimes just means that people need a new challenge, new faces, new teams, new growth. How can a you developer remain assured that this culture is amazing if they have never experienced another. How can a talented developer not want to continue to grow, maybe faster or in a different direction than you are going? I am probably one of the last generations of people who joined the work force with the hopes and promises of some longevity within a business. This is just not the way it is today. People will remain while they are inspired to be here. Many of us were more risk accepting when we had less tether to other responsibilities.
  6. Let people own the work they do. Create a culture that trusts the expertise of the people you are hiring to give you the honest and most accurate estimates of the work ahead. Let them use the power of openly and honestly telling you what effort is needed and let them commit to levels of work that they can successfully deliver. If you set projected dates, communicate this and allow them to know what compromises they may have to make to achieve your goal. Respect teams knowledge to refactor work and make it more robust and supportable. Giving a solid team a voice into their work will do amazing things. It’s a scary and fearful thing for teams to experience as it implies commitment and responsibility. Couple this with learning (such as using failure as an opportunity to learn and not a point of contention or reason to “take over”) and you will see teams grow, take commitments highly serious and deliver consistently. And if you have people not taking this power, you may have the wrong kind of people to build this type of culture.
  7. Know when it’s time to go. I dislike the word “fired” or “terminated”. It implies that someone has been physically harmed. I tend to believe that these terms grew from the contentious end situations that usually someone is being asked to leave a company experiences instead of addressing it and then parting ways if not resolved. I don’t think it has to be this way. I think this contention usually arises from the fact that we do not communicate in an ongoing fashion the expectations we have of people through whatever mechanism we have as to what is important in our culture and what we expect of them. We tend to say “we can teach them” and in many cases this works but in the ones that do not, I often see people reach frustration and say “we gotta fire person X” when no one has told person X what a terrible job they have been doing or how they are unequipped to do the job we need.  I’ll speak of this a bit more in the off-boarding section.

Bringing them into your Culture

This starts the moment they seek to know more about you from the marketing you do online to the engagement you provide when they accept your offer. Here are a few suggestions into my thoughts on this.

  1. Ensure you create a presence in which to connect them that outlines who you are, what you believe and why you do what you do. Let them learn about you before they ever even meet you. And I hope it goes without saying but be genuine. The worst thing you can do is to talk about how you work and not demonstrate that same culture during a phone or face to face interview. People can sniff out a scam typically.
  2. Let them know about what you care about as an organization but give them the opportunity to care at the level in which they feel comfortable. Having a company that believes in “Toys for Tots” and requires everyone to build bikes is great but some people would rather donate money rather than time than effort. This does not mean they do not care, it just means that they may value that time for something else and rather support folks in a different way. Give people some space and flexibility in the way they contribute or let them decline to contribute at all. Not everyone can care about everything the company cares about. It’s OK if someone chooses to work rather than be charitable.
  3. Give them a way to get to know their new co-workers if at all possible. Have a blog, newsletter or arrange coffee or drinks for them with some of the new workers after their hire. Some companies may assign a “big brother/big sister” concept to give them a point of contact. Use your imagination to see how they can begin to get to know you and have a pipeline to the people they will work with. Engage them early and support them when coming on-board with your company. This small thing will pay off in the long run.
  4. Do not hire out of panic. As a leader, we all get pressure from above to do more with less. Hiring should be a core skill that as a leader you have and do but be strategic and hire well. The cost of a bad hire, not only in the time and effort it may take to rid yourself of a mistake, can be detrimental to good hires you already have. The adage of  “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” can be true. Be decisive and protect your teams from this kind of experience.

Where do I go from here?

Hiring, on-boarding and occasionally off-boarding team members is an ever changing landscape. Pay attention to it as a leader. This is not a “one and done” activity. You have to research other companies, look at how you compete and determine how you need pivot when necessary. Sometimes, you have to push boundaries like perhaps paying a potential candidate for working on a project to see how they work or if hiring for a team, bringing all potential candidates in to work on a toy project to see how they can work together possibly. The options are endless and you have to know what the state of the industry hiring is and how you need to adapt. But never compromise. Don’t get a “butts in the seat” attitude and remember that utilitarian players and deep experience can be of value. Don’t lose site of the power of diversity of your people. That will enrich the depth of your teams and provide many new team members exposure to experience that they may never gain elsewhere.

Just focus and hire the right people. Give them interesting work and get out of their way. You might be surprised what you see.



Are you a brick layer?

“A man comes across two men laying bricks. He asks the two what they are doing. One says “I am laying bricks”. The other says, “I am building a cathedral.” – Anon (story contained within “Disney U” book.)

Seems like an odd intro to a blog post, right. But hopefully I can shed some light on my theme. A lot of my thoughts recently have centered around employee engagement, not just in what they do, but with other people within the organization about what they do. This story demonstrates in a very small way how one worker perceives what he is doing in a very small scope to the overall work. The other sees his work as integral to the accomplishment of the end value goal at hand.

So this got me to thinking a lot about this as this story, as odd things sometimes do, resonated for me personally. When I look across the vast landscape of the organization of which I am a part using this context, I began to see things in a different way and wondered if individual people see what they do in the context of the sole functions they perform as just “what I do” or do they truly understand how what they do contributes to many other aspects of the end business value goals, even within groups in a departmental level.

How do I impact something else …?

I started thinking about terms I hear in my organization (hence the title of this post) and if they adequately convey the value role that these groups play and the broader impact they have. I’ll give a few examples (mostly in relation to software products development, which is where my direct leadership lies) and see if I can illustrate what I mean.

Service Desk – The group that provides support for both internal and external products as well as perhaps hardware trouble shooting. This feels very self contained like “brick layer”. What is we considered our service desk staff as “service partners”? After all, they are the frontline of engagement to our end stakeholders using a product. Are they not a direct partner to us and what we do?

Should we not educate and prepare them to provide the highest level of customer service for products to create the best experience possible? What is the shaped perception of the overall product itself if the end stakeholder (possibly in crisis at the time as they need to get something done) receives a poor customer service experience? They are partners and should understand this and we should treat them as such. To not prepare them adequately through to provide the best customer experience through product and support knowledge is ultimately doing a disservice to the difficult creative work that turns ideas, design and shuffling bits and bytes into a product.

Operations – The group that keeps our infrastructure up and running and maintains the overall structural health. Are they a partner? Of course they are! Without them, we would have a line of customers stretching in queue as far as the eye could see because the developer says “it works on my machine”.

From people that know me well, I am often apt to say “a software product that cannot be deployed is useless as it brings no end value”. Even if it works perfectly in a development environment, if it cannot be deployed with quality and stability into a production environment so that people can use it, what does it matter how it works locally?

I have been so excited to track the development of a more dev-opsy type approach that I see people experimenting with that begins to truly solidifying this partnership and as a result using the idea of runbooks and support tools we are beginning to see more service partners have the ability to better assess the state of a product (which in turn allows them to give better information to customers and often resolve issues at a lower support tier giving more immediate service and therefore a better customer experience).

Database – The group that may provide a wide array of data services from design to tuning to database support and upgrades. Again, a partner. Yep.

In my environment, which is a larger scale service enterprise, the backend of the a product is highly important as it contains the data for which the business needs to store to complete a given business function. It also ensures that we are making use of existing data sources as opposed to replicating silos of data whenever possible. They are often a partner to creating end repositories of data at rest that create an enterprise or external view into data for insight from visualization or analytics. Any product we build without this group in my environment, unless it is perhaps a small functional tool, would be devoid of a core component of what we do.

Do we engage them as partners when we consider data designs or do they partner directly with us in this effort? Do they understand what choices we may make in terms of thinking about data design and do they sufficiently understand how the data design supports the application so they can respond efficiently under failure or need for ETL or abstraction?

Product Management – This group is probably the most engaged partner (or easily identifiable) in what we do as they are the pipeline for us to the end business needs. So how are they a partner? Without them, we would be “guessing” (even if intelligently and perhaps based on metrics) what the end stakeholders want. It would require us to not only discover the “what” of need but also to derive the “how” of getting the end value.

So it is imperative that they understand and communicate the need of the business through whatever means possible to the team for shared and unified understanding. This may mean that they have to utilize partnerships that they have developed in gaining that understanding to help communicate this understanding as well as bring the end stakeholders in as partners to the overall team as a whole to understand roi, criticality of function and how the end business unit may be a partner to the overall organization in achieving their end mission value goals.

Leadership – The people who should be setting overarching goals and focus at an organizational level and ensuring the support of those team members of which they maintain organizational oversight and healthy, happy, growing and productive.

I often get very disheartened when I hear line level people say “leadership or management doesn’t understand what we do” and it is in the context of some random edict that is being passed down for the good of something or other.

As leaders, there are some fundamental truths that you should understand by now:

  1. You will not please everyone. Any overarching decision made will not please everyone it impacts. That is just the way it is. If you build you organization to be flexible, open to experimentation and accepting of failure then you will likely have people open to try something if they feel the culture will listen to feedback in a reasonable horizon.
  2. If you are trying to control isolated poor behavior issues through a universal edict, get out of leadership today. This role is not for you. Being aware and responsive to issues is a core component to leadership but if you are trying to handle bad behavior of one or two folks by a global “rule” you are likely harming your culture. Address the problem with the problematic. Create a culture that can have open conversations when people perceive a problem and allow them to discuss it and give them a clear course to escalate.
  3. Accept the fact that you do not know the job that all of your employees do (even if you did that job before). If you want to know how someone does what they do, go have a conversation and ask them to enlighten you. And if you did that very same job before, likely you know how you did it; not how they do or how things may have changed within that particular role. You are a leader now. You have to gain and cultivate a new set of skills, which means you have to release previous ones most likely. Hire well, train well and trust your people and ask them how the role works. You may find that even though they do it differently it works even better than when you did it.
  4. Being a leader can often be a lonely existence. Leading and making leadership decisions are sometimes difficult and often are rooted in a larger purpose to the organizational health as a whole. Being firmly placed into situations where you have to determine how to “prune the weeds to protect the garden” or have to stand your ground to protect a value, purpose or team and become unpopular outside of your group carries a lot of heat to shoulder sometimes. But just like I was in school and struggled with mathematics, I had an instructor tell me I had to lean in and put in the effort as “math is hard”, leadership is the same and often you have to bare the burden to make the call as you are focused on the wall and not every brick

I do not say these things to infer that I do not have the deepest care and concern for each and every member of my group, I truly do. They are my daily inspiration of a creative force that takes ideas and turns them into solutions, however, I have to be conscious to step out of their way to meet this challenge and do so with intention and purpose. I would do anything I can for each and every member of my teams within my ability, however, I also have to be broadly aware of the organization as a whole.

So take a moment and ask yourself and consider your teams … Do they focus on the brick or the catherdral? If they do not see themselves as a part of something larger than what they do, I challenge you to get busy and help them see this connection.

As always, go forth and do good … and stay agile while doing so!

Are you leading or managing?

“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” – Kenneth Blanchard

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I am well-read in the aspects of leadership and agile principles, consuming as much as I can to fill not only ways to do my job better but as a personal fulfillment of exploring ideas. One thing on my mind lately has been surrounding where leadership lies and what it should be focused on as opposed to those people in which you have doing the work or helping management the work.

In my opinion, the cornerstones of leadership, agile or otherwise, is to create that compelling end goal and vision for the unit/group/organization, make it transparent, effectively communicate the needs from others that you have within your role, hold them accountable to the work being done, coach and guide as needed and get out of their way to accomplish what needs to be done. I believe this. It is core to who I am.

But as leaders, we often cannot get out of our own way. Many of us have come to our role through amazingly successful careers within the technical industry and are still deeply attached to that. The idea of solving people’s problems through smart solutions probably lit a spark for each and every one of us. However, even as much as we shed this past, I observe so much of it being held onto for various reasons. Organizational pressure, people issues, want to “be involved” or a perception of ultimate responsibility.

Lyft or Uber?

In the area in which I work, these crowd sourced car services are very popular and people use them for short trips for errands to leaving work and returning from an appointment or for safe rides after the bar crawl they undertook with their friends.

But when you secure one of these services, do you feel the need to take the wheel? Guide the trip? Watch out for every pothole, distraction or provide constant directional guidance to get to your destination? I doubt it. I imagine (as I will admit I have never used these services) that you provide a destination and you trust in the exchange of service for money that the driver will get you to that destination. If you are doing all of things I mentioned above, I have to ask; why didn’t you just drive yourself?

But as leaders, we can often find ourselves being that “jerk” of a passenger that distrusts the person we have hired and we have to lay hands to the wheel ourselves.

Do you trust the people you hired?

Have you hired well? Do you have the skills you need today with the capacity to think about where you are going tomorrow? Maybe you have people in place to manage daily operations, are these people that understand what you needs are and coach and hold accountable the people doing the work meet the clarified end goals and needs? If not, are you directly involved as a result? Do you distrust the people you hired to actually do the work? Then, my agile friends, you have a people problem. If you hired the right people, provide them coaching, guidance and freedom to meet the goals with accountability; they just might amaze you.

And on a side note, stop carrying dead weight if they are not the right people. If you have people that are not meeting the expectations (that are being clearly communicated) you have two options, coach them up or coach them out. Putting your head in the sand or allowing higher performing to make up for the lack of effort or skill in others breeds nothing more than resentment to your leadership and a unhealthy culture.

If as a leader, you communicate the things you need to support your role clearly, are available for any refinement or feedback and hold accountable those people you hire to achieve these goals, haven’t you done what you need to do? Are you supporting them when they hit unknowns by coaching them through ways to solve s problem when they hit an impediment and empowering them to try and find solutions? You’re off to a good start here in my humble opinion.

But if you cannot trust the people you hire to design the mechanisms to do the work or managers of daily operations context to ensure that the work is being addressed, why did you hire them? If you have to be personally involved in the deep woods of solving the how of every need, perhaps you need a role in doing, not leading.

Assuming this posture is hard

Being a leader who steps back and empowers the lowest reasonable level to design how the work gets accomplished and holding accountability to this being done is difficult. The pang of fear of “ultimate responsibility” creeps into your head. But guess what? If you are clear on expectations and accountability for that work, the team will design the system in which to meet that need without you and you can hold them accountable to do so and also accountable to provide the information in a transparent manner so that you can provide it upwardly or maybe just get out of the way and make it transparent to everyone and gain deeper insight into areas that you see as problematic based on the things you feel are important to keep a pulse on.

It’s easy to say “yeah I trust my people” or “they’re smart and they can figure this out” and then your actions demonstrate the contrary. Things like “I need to be in that meeting” or “I will do this small thing that actually another role should be doing” are examples of you saying the words but not demonstrating your stance to let people use the power they have in the role you hired them to do (as empowering people is a myth; they already have power) sends a poor overall message.

But what if they screw it all up?

Let me answer that question with a question to consider … “do you want a sustainable organization that knows how to take in problem, organize the work and act to deliver end solutions”? If you do, how will they ever learn to do that if they never start doing that? Yep, they may screw up. And it could be bad and you could get your ass handed to you by leadership above you as a result. But you can take that beating, pull them together, make them aware of the issue and ask them to solve the problem then hold them accountable for that solution. Because, if you have not learned this in business yet, you can believe 3 truths:

  1. Things will sometimes screw-up. You try and mitigate that or have a plan of restoration for those things you know about.
  2. People will screw-up. People are fallible. Utilize these situations to recover and learn. Keep things transparent and visible and hopefully you’ll see them coming more easily.
  3. You will get you backside chewed for something you are not responsible for sometime in your business career. If it’s a routine thing, you might think about a new organization But when you are responsible, you are responsible. You take the hit and do not pass the beating forward. Communicate effectively the issue and work to get people to solve the problem and set accountability. Do not take it personally or become embarrassed and mettle as a result. Shoulder the burden of being a leader.

I have worked places where there have been more than one screw-up within the company doing the work (see coach up or out statement above) . I have never seen these people so invisible nor so powerful to bankrupt a company or close it’s doors alone.

If people screw-up, allow the operations level folks to address the problem once you communicate the problem effectively. Don’t just solve it for them.

Demonstrate and hand over ownership

If as a leader you have a young or growing organization that need something more than being provided a direction and vision at first, this is ok as well.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with you creating an initial guidance or starting a process and modeling it. But you have to turn it over ultimately to the people who need to own that process. Once you get the ball rolling, let them begin pushing and if necessary change direction or change the game altogether.

What you should spend the time doing is clearly articulating the need being met, the end goal being accomplished and the expectations you have of the effort. Don’t let the pride of being the initial creator get into the way of how the work is done. Once they get the understanding of the process you champion, the underlying goals and the expectations, they will either continue as you modeled or may even take it to an even greater level you never though of. Your continued method of involvement is expectation and accountability at that point, not direct involvement.

Let you managers manage how things get done

The last advice I will explore starts with a reiteration of what a leader needs to do in their role:

  1. Set vision and direction
  2. Set expectations for the things from the organization to meet your goals
  3. Trust your people to do what you hired them to do and get out of the way

In closing, if you have an operational manager level, please allow them to do the job for which you hired them to do, manage the work. Part of managing the work (and the people as there is administration that occurs with people management) is organizing the work and often designing the workflow of effort. Let them learn to to do that with the people in which they need to get the work done. Hold them accountable that a consistent, visible, clear method that can be communicated exists and hold them accountable to how they say the work will get done through actual value deliverable and continuous improvement (as any organization should focus on both).

Let them solve problem with the people that they have to work with to ensure that the work is getting done so that the work and the pipeline of work is more sustaining at that level than the leadership defining it. Those things tend to have a destructive effect when leadership leaves as a) people are often unclear “why” the work was done this way and b) the ownership of the how of work is completed is lessened by the lack of direct ownership.

Hire managers that can shape this work with team members and peers, getting the right people in the room and that focus on the growth or the organization to meet the pipeline of work, Give them the space to execute on the large ideas that you feel are important for guidance and work to refine them into tangible things. Trust, support, mentor and coach them. These may be the future leaders in the very organization that you lead today. Prepare them for that should they take on that responsibility.

I hope this helps you really think about the difference between leading and managing in a broad sense. I have to remind myself of this a lot and constantly remind myself to stand where I need to be in terms of being an effective leader. It’s a hard thing not to get pulled into those conversations in which I get to be in the weeds or abandon these ideals. I just have to remind myself of all of this and why it is so important,

Until next time, stay agile!

Tips for Facilitating Meetings Effectively

“Never Perfect. Always Genuine”. – Lalah Delia

Some people have an innate ability to just assume the helm and guide others within a meeting. They are born with it. They possess the skill, the wit, the charisma , etc naturally and help people get where they need to be. I, however, was likely not innately born with this gift but consciously have worked over the years to cultivate this craft.

If you find that your role necessitates this skill or you have just been the lucky one to do this (or were “volu-told” you were the facilitator as no one else would do it or seems to be able to do so), these are just a few quick steps to help you do the best job possible.

Step 1 – Be prepared to facilitate.

Being prepared means a lot of different things to people as their are “planners” and “wingman”. “Planners” tend to want to have a strong map of how the meeting will go, have the materials they need in place and know how the meeting will unfold. All good stuff right?

“Wingman” go in cold, have a general idea of what they need to do and because perhaps of their ability to speak and interact use this as the basis that will carry them through. They are more often interested in the conversation that occurs than the regimen of a plan.

Well, from my experience, it is always somewhere in-between. No plan comes off without a hitch and endless conversation with no guidance is not something that leads to a productive end. This is why I use the term “prepare”. You can prepare for what you want to accomplish but leave room for things to just happen. I look at this like having some basic car emergency supplies. I have the basic items I feel I might need, jumper cables,  road flare, small medical kit, however, I could need more. I personally would never say “I’m covered” and not take my phone to call a tow truck or say, “I am experienced in life and the experience of the open road” and just say, I don’t need anything as I can handle it as it comes. This provides me with options and a choice of how to proceed, or deviate, in the face of some emergency.

So what do I mean when I say “be prepared to facilitate”?

  • Do your best to know your audience. Do you understand their business or can you relate the goal of the meeting closer to them so everyone can share a vision. Do you have dominant talkers or people you have to draw things out from. You may not get this insight and have to read the room but understanding the players of the meeting can be helpful even if you do not know the entire room.
  • Prepare in a reasonable manner. – Are you going to lead the group? If so, know how this will unfold and be prepared to deviate as needed. Have post-its, whiteboards, markers, etc. Possibly even provide Kinesthetic items for people to occupy themselves as some people think while their physical is engaged differently without creating distraction. For some people this helps them focus and process information.
  • Establish some boundaries of the meeting up front. – Try and meet with the key sponsors of the meeting and negotiate with them boundaries for the meeting forr success. What I mean is establish general interaction policies such as “will you allow cell phones and laptops/tablets in the meeting” or will you provide as part of the agenda (based on the group) a recurring break to check these devices. Will you use the “you are an adult policy” and allow them to step out and take calls or leave to use the restroom at any time? Can you clearly state that the meeting will proceed and that if they not present, the work will move ahead with or without them? When is lunch (is it provided)? What are the schedules of the people can they commit to an all-day meeting or is it better to hold small targeted “mini summits”?
  • Do the pre-work for the meeting whenever possible. –  Establish an agenda and understand the goals and actionable items that the meeting is trying to reach. This will allow you to have a defined boundary to redirect conversation or to keep people moving towards an end goal. Make it visible at the start of the meeting and cover it upfront like making a contract with the meeting. Ensure that you clearly state the goals and actionable items that the meeting is seeking to achieve. Repeat deliverable expectations at least 3 times if necessary to solidify the importance of those needs if possible.
  • Use the concept of a parking lot to table off-course ideas. – Gino Wickman, author of the Enterprise Operating System (EOS) indicates that in a discussion that in his system, that a general rule is the “rule of 3 times”. If a person states a point, reiterates the point, once they state it again, they are merely politicking to sway others to their side of opinion. Be keenly aware of this. We have all been in a meeting where Bob states the same thing over and over and everyone silently thinks “here goes Bob again, blah, blah, blah, blah …”. Help keep the flow of the meeting going by acknowledging Bob’s point but suggest if off tract or bogging down the meeting that to ensure that the goals of the meeting are met that we note his valued point or concern but that to stay on track, we may need to move along and circle back around to it once we achieved our goals. This can be tricky, Bob needs to understand that you hear and value his comment but that for the good of the meeting, we have to keep moving forward. This can be especially tricky if Bob is a “C” level executive but in doing this you are courteously acknowledging his point, keeping it visible but steering the meeting to the end objective and demonstrating your commitment to the meeting satisfying its goals. Indicate items that may need their own potential meeting if the topic goes deeply enough.
  • Move big items out of the way in lieu of progress. – As you go through items, occasionally you will encounter an item that in the scale of “solve world peace” which someone thinks is  reasonable discussion topic. Whereas on face value the topic is truly valid (who wouldn’t want to solve world peace) the overall scope may be far too large to make any real tangible progress on the topic. Unless you are going to take this epic level idea and indicate small actionable steps to move in this direction, you will unlikely (even in an all day meeting) solve world peace. Accept this and move it to an area for later decomposition or create a breakout session to breakdown more tangible goals.
  • Let healthy debate happen –  One of the most difficult things to do (and I always have to be aware of myself in this behavior) is “being silent” and listening as debate happens so you can distill the end point. As human beings, we often very social in nature and interaction is something that is hard for us to suppress. It is often difficult (especially when trying to help people reach a goal) to remain silent and allow them to discuss their positions and even openly disagree. It’s hard not to “find the peace” when people are openly disagreeing. Listen to the flow of the disagreement and see where you may need to interject to parking lot the disagreement or possibly summarize the key point of disagreement, gain acknowledgement of the point, make it visible and move on. Read the room, what is everyone else doing during this? Have they disengaged. Actively work to not lose the momentum of the whole room because of this disagreement.
  • Be the introvert’s advocate! – If you observe dominant talkers in the room, try and find ways to engage others and for those that you may feel are providing little input, seek ways to get confirmation or dissent from them by asking “do you think might work” or “I would be interested to say what (person) has to say”. Work to create ways to give the entire room a voice. Explain to the group up front how you may redirect someone if you see that a person is being silenced or having their thoughts completed for them. Be courteous but be vigilant to get the right ideas to the table.
  • Respect the time box. – Start the meeting when it is slated to start (giving human error leeway), take breaks early or when scheduled and ensure you are consciously focused on getting actionable items identified wrapped up and recapped by the close of the meeting. Do not disrespect people’s time by keeping them longer nor allow others to disrespect time waiting for people to come straggling in. State your appreciation and contract to respect people’s time and honor that commitment.
  • Recap the event. – Ensure that you recap the accomplishments of the event by closing action items (or doing so recurring to show progress), state any action items and owners to shepherd the items outside of the meeting, state outstanding  items with a plan of intent to address them. Thank everyone for their time, attention and participation and wrap up the meeting.

These are just a few helpful tips to think about when placed in a situation of facilitating a meeting that can help you be more successful and work to achieve a stronger outcome.


My Ideas for Hiring and Onboarding – Part 1

“Mistakes are the best lessons while experience is the best teacher” – Anon

One key piece of agile leadership is the deeper understanding that the people that are doing the work are a core component to your success.

As a leader who personally cares about the organization that I work for (as I do with any employer that has a mission that is aligned to being a more progressive and agile group) I spend a lot of time thinking about people. Not only the people who are here today as staff members, but the people who will join us from the trails we set today.

I often ask myself a continual set of questions:

  1. Is our hiring process (as much as what is under our direct influence or control) optimized and are we keeping it fluid to change to the changing landscape of hiring and the changes in the market?
  2. Are we using hiring practices using a balance of demonstrated skills but remaining open to closely listening to how people think through problems to discover potential undiscovered gems of employees with lesser demonstrable skill?
  3. What is the end user experience of our employee on-boarding after the hire? Is it consistent, cumbersome or does it provide them with something that begins positive employee engagement? Are we gaining feedback?
  4. How do we setup our hires for success in terms of tooling preparation for their job, understanding our technical, diverse social, political and cultural environment and celebration of them joining us?
  5. Are we learning from our experience and examining the ways others perform this process on a routine basis?

I ask these questions and I will be open and admit, the answer is not always a resounding “YES” in my mind. And this … always troubles me. My desire is to create an experience of joining my teams that makes you excited that you are here and ignites that initial spark to not only do the job that you were hired to do but to find a way to be a part of improving the culture as we move forward.

I freely admit, that as a leader I often suffer from the inner struggle of having ideas bouncing around like bumble bees but not always having all of the support I need to align my vision to the end real outcome. I have learned to understand this about myself as it creates a constant inner tension of “there is more I can do” which is both a positive drive but can be draining (which means I have to allow myself to level set and recharge when I since this).

But I began to really think about what this overall process looks like to me and how I might advocate to try an implementation focused on:

  • Hiring the “right candidates” that provide value-add to the current culture in helping it grow.
  • Providing an onboarding experience that is timely, engaging at both the micro and macro levels of the organization and provides a positive experience that engages and supports them from day 1 and that learns from doing.
  • Create an opportunity to “prepare them for success” in their new role through proper tooling and focused education and direct experience before introducing them into their daily routine of their role.
  • Possibly hire them with other team members so that through the process an underlying sense of bonding can occur to create a secondary support system when they transition to their daily work.

Many of you are reading this right this moment and thinking, “big deal; my company does that” … But my company is part of the public sector serving citizens and concepts like this are not the mainstream of thought and definitely not the concepts of the people in leadership. But I have always been one who asked “but why couldn’t we be this”?

It may be often more easy as it may be when the company is owned by a group of share holders or private investors but just as they have concerns over profit margin, the public sector always has to consider the responsibility of fiscal trust granted through being financed by the public (even though some betray that trust I know).

How hiring often is done today in the public sector

When I started in my current role, hiring was very suspect to me in the sense that it did not typically contain any form of demonstration of possessed skill for securing the position for which a person was applying.

It was usually 100% conversationally based or had a minimal “test” for skill that was often used to determine “right or wrong” as the answer subjectively (which code implementation can often be) without any real understanding of the person doing the work. I have often said many public sectors went like:

Employer: “So I see on your resume that you have N years of experience in technology X”?

Me: “That is correct. My most recent experience being (blah blah blah)” – This is where I regurgitate my resume and add some detail.

Employer: “How would you rate your skill from 1-10 with technology Y”?

Me: “I would say I am a 9 as no one is perfect. Fill in details” – This rating means nothing as no one actually knows what the scale is for each increment. Years? Lines of Code?

The review of my resume and asking questions derived on the spot from it would continue …

The conversation continues (for at least one hour) and often if there is a click and the resume seems fine, the conversation degenerates into basic technical chit-chat. Boom. You are hired.

But what is the glaring issue here? You have absolutely no idea, except from my exceptional resume, if I know what I am actually talking about other than perception. We did not discuss anything tangible to the skills you needed for the position. It was primarily based on what I told you I had done and provided on my resume.

This is of course a very simple viewpoint and not taking into account many people who interview, like myself, that may have worked with solid team members who knew my caliber of work and could vouch for such effort and skill to the hiring manager.

And worse, many public sector hiring managers operate under the assumption that if you do not work out during a “probationary period” that you will be dismissed. This rarely happens as they do not have the uncomfortable conversations with the employee during this period informing them that they are not doing the job as to be able to justify that release (a requirement of public and many private HR policies).

How did we change our approach to hiring?

When I assumed my current role one of the first things I sought to do was 2 things in reference to the hiring process:

  1. I wanted it to be more in line with general private industry hiring practices that invested more deeply into hiring practices so that it required not only an employee to invest deeper into the process but also combine it with some base skill exercises guided with the hiring team to see skill level and how they thought through problems.
  2. If the right candidate did not show up for the interview (meaning that they were someone who “might fit” but we did not feel confident in them) that we would not hire out of desperation of losing the position, frustration of starting over or to fill a quota. I had experienced too many times that hiring managers would hire “the best person who showed up” and compromise the position as to not have to jump through bureaucratic hoops again.
  3. I wanted to utilize grass roots recruiting and look for ways to personally connect with potential candidates when possible to demonstrate to them that work in the public sector for a technical person can be fulfilling and have many opportunities for serving others as well as provide an opportunity for some benefits not seen when joining a startup or boutique development company.
  4. I wanted every single candidate that left our interviews to have felt challenged to earn the job and the experience we created through the process to make them want to join us, even if they were not our selected candidate.
  5. I wanted the hiring process to be focused on “what we needed” in a broad sense and just not distill to a checklist of technologies or experience.

The first thing I focused on was making the hiring process more meaningful to hire the right people through a deeper and richer hiring experience that focused on learning more about the candidate from a behavioral and technical viewpoint.

Together with my leadership team, we implemented a two fold approach in which a hiring panel would first have conversations around concepts of behavioral based questions (for about an hour) to begin to gauge their thinking process around typical issues or team situations common to the role followed by 2 hours of more in-depth technical exploration and hands on work ending with a pair programming exercise in which they were the driver in the scenario for developers and other scenarios based on the role. This worked out really well for a couple of reasons:

  1. It allowed us to give them the opportunity to relate previous experiences of situations and shape the questions around what they learned from the experience or why they took a specific course of action. This allowed us more insight into how they reasoned through a situation from the most routine to the most challenging within their role.
  2. It allowed us to examine the candidate from a technical point of view apart from trying to get to know them in terms of personality and really focus on what they already knew from a technical perspective but also how they reasoned through areas they did not know or how they approached something to which they had little or no familiarity. Did they try to BS their way through? Did they openly admit they did not know and not try or did they tell us about their lack of knowledge in the area and reason how one might approach something or use a certain technology even without that knowledge. The first 2 gave us insight into the ability to be humble in the face of the unknown and how they handled this but the latter opened us up to see the potential of a person’s growth with us and often led us to finding people who we could see wanted to know and had that drive to learn. Learning how people think through a situation can be as invaluable as just the right answer.

We always de-briefed after a hiring process not only to decide on a potential hire but also to talk about how the process went overall. We used the concept of a retrospective within our hiring process so that we could seek improvement the next time or adjust things that were not working. This was tremendously helpful and a far cry from the ending of standard hiring cycles I had experienced before. It incorporated the potential of improvement through reflection.

It allowed us to not only to apply agility into our people operations through inspection of the process but to allow us to gain better insight into the candidates coming in a bi-modal manner within a more reasonable timeframe for a technical interview.

What were our initial constraints that we had to work around?

  1. Public sector hiring is a highly regulated, rules driven system that has fixed timeframes and candidate constraints and posting for positions is often outside the hands of the hiring organization but rather handled in a centralized manner using template position descriptions.
  2. There are minimum educational qualifications that preclude candidates without a formal college education (and matriculation) or significant enough experience within the given field from qualification that can exclude many candidates. This meant that often people without formal education or experience fell beyond our reach. We could not just hire a technical savant that had never done anything or had any IT degree based on the hiring system.
  3. Protected class groups are given some preference in consideration (not preference in hiring) and justification must be made when not hiring a candidate from a HR protected class. So we had to ensure that if we rejected a candidate it was for sound rationale, not a gut feeling.
  4. Large scale private sector hiring processes are not unlike large public sector hiring processes. They are often slow and there is delay from groups external to the hiring group to confirm the hire, mandatory processes for which the information must pass, established formats for hiring submission for consideration by hiring managers, etc.
  5. Salaries, especially public sector technical salaries, are often non-competitive with private sector positions and often specific job classes simply do not exist meaning you have to employ grass roots marketing to use a position in a different manner and have people apply through personal recruitment. We had to consider a “hire and grow” strategy to remain competitive with the market and for more seasoned people we needed to find those that wanted a better balance in terms of their career and life needs.

Some, or all of these challenges are not uncommon to any person who hires within the public sector. So how did we address them?

We actually were fortunate to have a local human resources leader and team that wanted to ensure that we understood the process but remained open to conversations about what these obstacles were and work to address them with the centralized hiring authority. Forming a relationship with the HR team and understanding their world and the constraints under which they are responsible helped us work together to find the best way to work. There were some things we could not eliminate but what was possible was examined. Creating and maintaining this partnership helped us understand and better traverse the system of hiring in the private sector.

In my opinion, these partnerships are critical. The overall process is fraught with its own rules, domain language and understanding. Having people that can assist and become a partner that understood this world better than I became tantamount to driving towards a new approach. I would highly recommend that people desiring change in this space of the process build these partnerships. Without them, you are trying to traverse a system for which you may be woefully unprepared to understand all the nuances and aspects to this approach. These partnerships have been invaluable to me in understanding the roles and responsibilities of the HR system in the public sector and the things that I do to assist them in helping me get things accomplished when it comes to hiring staff.

Grass Roots Marketing

One of the things that was very important to us, and still remains a primary focus, is to share the story of our environment and culture with others that may seek to join us. We have spent time connecting with the local community and seeding the work we do to others as well as creating a significant “word of mouth” through our past hires and ongoing meeting with local groups such as software schools and developer meetups.

Often times, many large scale private enterprises have much more capital that they can put behind their hiring and recruitment processes. So, as a public entity; you often must become creative and put forth more personal effort without that budget to assist you.

We are very fortunate that our HR team understand the benefit of recruitment and is very progressive in the way they think about attracting candidates often hiring domain specific staff to help them understand and connect to the areas in which they are recruiting. This deeper understanding of “why” people want to come to work somewhere and the personal investment in the candidate is in alignment with our thoughts as well.

Staying connected as often as possible to groups to share the view of your environment and culture helps potential candidates get a better idea of who you are and why they would want to be a part. We are always thinking about this message and how it can help us attract the right people into our culture that can continue to be a value add and help us grow today and shape what we become in the future.

The Follow-up

The public sector, hiring often fails as the transition to potential candidate to “new hire” breaks down in the lull of the process. This is not unlike larger scale private enterprises but what they seem to manage much better than public sector is the process of pre-onboarding engagement.

We found a lot of our potential hires did not have the understanding of the lumbering beast that can be large enterprise hiring processes. It often involves multiple groups, departments, sign-offs and approvals. In a larger environment, the processes are often streamlined more for oversight than for speed to on-board. So it becomes critical that you become good at retaining that engagement during this process. Most people, even though excited, have some nervousness about starting a new position. I think a great deal of that stems from the unknown of the new job and role as they only get a small glimpse into the organization during the hiring process. We made visits to local bootcamps to educate potential candidates about the difference that applying to a larger scale enterprise company can be in terms of times so they understood this better.

This is a great opportunity for you to use that tie to help them gain a better picture of what their first day, their first week, etc will be like when they join a company. I have seen many companies that are master at this seeding periodic information to a candidate during this process so that they feel a part of something larger. This is something, as a public sector organization, we can become better at and do effectively without a large scale investment. Here are some examples:

  1. When hiring someone in the public sector, know what the average process length might be and set the expectations up front when hiring someone. The worst thing you can do is have a candidate wait in a black hole and wonder if something is wrong. Connect with them regularly to let them know about stages in the process and pass along helpful information to allow them to prepare for their new job.
  2. Send a personal email welcoming them with information about benefits (or pointers to benefits) that lets them know more about their group. Consider creating a marketing document or website that lets them get to know people before they arrive in some manner and gives them a glimpse into reinforcing why they chose to come work for you. If you have materials that introduce your culture and how you work, get it to them during the interim.
  3. Encourage questions and connection. Be accessible to them if they think of a question, find the answer for them or connect them to the right people.
  4. Organize something after work so they can interact with their new coworkers. Invite them to connect over coffee or drinks so that they makes those pre-connections before they start.
  5. Send them a final confirmation of employment when all is approved restating the salary, start date and pointing to benefits. Send an employee handbook and other materials that might be useful as well as anything else they need to experience the least amount of friction on day 1.
  6. Prepare for their arrival and have a consistent on-boarding process to help them be setup for success. Confusion and red tape starting day one is a great way to leave a sour taste in someone’s mouth when starting with a company. Having there location, tools and access in place demonstrates that you were focused on their start, not that it was an afterthought.
  7. Give them a voice in providing you feedback about their experience. This not only demonstrates that they do have an active role in the organization and use their insights to critically evaluate what you do. Keep the process as lean as possible so that you can change as needed.
  8. Realize that starting a new position is change and with change is often fear of the unknown. Meet with the team that they will work with prior and express your expectations of growth so that neither the team nor the new team member are confused about the organization’s expectation of their progress.

In this blog post, I have discussed the prior hiring process, how we approached it in a different manner to hire today and why these things are important and how we can set them up for the best outcome in the public sector.

In part two, I plan to diverge more into how we might consider on-boarding new candidates and explore some of my personal thoughts on ways outside of what we do at my organization that might further enhance the approach or different ideas that someone might try.

I end this post with a quote that I think embodies the importance of this activity:

“The most important thing you do as a leader is to hire the right people” – David Cottrell