TV Top Pick #7: The Queen’s Gambit

opening screen from trailer

By now you’ll know my top picks aren’t timely. My recommendations are along the lines of “this is something you really should watch and why,” versus trying to keep up with what is hot or trending. So this recommendation to watch The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, is probably a bit late.  But here is what I found noteworthy and compelling about it.

First, as a guy surrounded by smart, self-reliant, independent, strong-willed women (not the least being a wife, two daughters and two delightfully independent granddaughters), I cheered for this character from the start and blanched at the many ways in our not so distant past, society put women down and marginalized them at every opportunity.  Next, the time period of the series is the late 1960’s, so the cars, fashions, retail store layouts rang so true, it was just captivating to watch.  Anya Taylor-Joy playing Beth Harmon in the lead role puts on an acting master class in just about every scene.  Anyone studying acting to the point they learned how not to blink when the camera is on you, will admire her remarkable control and expressive eyes, most notably when she stares across a chessboard at her opponents.

Like many people, I learned the rules of chess when I was young, but was never able to get very good.  But one needs to know nothing of chess to enjoy this film.  Friends who’ve beat addiction issues have told me the film accurately captures how significant bad judgement can be viewed not only as normal, but as the only logical alternative in certain circumstances.  My good friend Chris Locke wrote: “Of course this movie is great. It’s based on a novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote three other books made into films: The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth. I’m heartened, nay positively CHUFFED, that Beth escaped that horror show – and so did Bowie and your current interlocutor.”

The writing and directing is top notch, plainly done by professionals at the very top of their game. The sets show a exceptional eye and sensitivity in choice followed by what had to be budget-busting dedication to perfection. I would not be surprised to find myself watching the series again, just to focus on the sets.  One most capturing me were the hotels, in Las Vegas and Russia, specifically.  The hotel fronts, common areas and rooms were just unerringly correct.  The 1960s home, the New York basement apartment of Benny, the orphanage, the small drug store where she shoplifts Chess magazines and the women’s department store – and many more – hit just the right note.

I learned the term cinematography and what it meant while attempting to figure out why Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 movie, Barry Lyndon, was so good. Steven Meizler is the cinematographer credited for bringing it all together here, the writing, directing, set design, costumes and landscapes, knowing when to show wide shots and then cutting to close-ups that pull you into this incredible story of Harmon’s world.

Highly recommended.

TV Top Pick #6: The Newsroom

profile, sitting at a desk

Let me be clear up front, I am not recommending you go back and watch this Aaron Sorkin created TV drama from 2012-2014.  However, there is one scene I’d like you to check out.  The scene features Jeff Daniels in his role of news anchor Will McAvoy, being interviewed with two politicians at a local college.  The part I’d like you to pay attention to comes 2 minutes and 10 seconds into this 5 minute clip, if you want to skip ahead. The current political divisions in the country inspired this idea.  Hear me out.

What bothers me is why acknowledging the lack of US supremacy on even the smallest item somehow is translated into “you hate our country.”  Coaches on a sports team look carefully at other teams to see where they’re deficient; always trying to find areas to improve so they can become the best.  That doesn’t blemish their team loyalty, does it? During my years building high-tech companies, we used radar charts to aid competitive analysis.  These charts highlighted our assets and liabilities, forcing us to focus on shoring up weaknesses while capitalizing and leveraging our strengths.  Acknowledging someone else performing better in a particular area was an opportunity to examine what they were doing and figure out how we, using our creativity and innovation, could get better at it than them.  As it says in this clip, it starts by understanding the problem.

What if we, as US citizens, came up with a scorecard to honestly rank ourselves against other countries?  A list might include some of the things below.  Then, every four years, before an election, we ask the administration who’s asking for another four years, how they did on the scorecard?  Of course we’d want to stick to metrics easily measured and difficult to fudge. A host of domestic and international agencies are well-equipped to make calls like this.  If a concern arose that scores may be less than honest and precise, do what they do at the Olympics: hire a dozen firms, six chosen from each political party and when the ratings come in, throw out the highest and lowest rankings and average the rest. Easy!

Here are some ideas on measurable things that could be on the scorecard:

  • Biggest economy, largest GDP. Rate of Growth.
  • Average household income.
  • Maturity and quality of infrastructure: roads, bridges, electrical and Internet coverage (measured by internet/electrical penetration), etc.
  • Safety of citizens. (Murder, violent crimes, property crimes per 100,000 residents).
  • Access to clean air and water.
  • Health care quality, perhaps measured by average life span of citizens, infant mortality rates, wait times for elective procedures, responsiveness if/when emergencies occur.
  • Amount of freedom citizens have. (Would be interesting to see how the measurements would be developed for this one, but it’s important to nearly all Americans, so needs to be included).
  • Incarcerated citizens per capita. Rates of recidivism. (We want to measure all things that matter, not only the things we know where we’ll do well.)
  • Literacy ranking. Percentage of population graduating high school, college, post college and advanced degree percentages. (While some may or may not think this important, investing in citizen’s education is a metric worth keeping track of.  Are there ways to determine where we stand internationally in math, science, languages, art, music, sports, etc.)
  • Amount of national debt. Owed to US Citizens vs. owed to other countries.

This is just a quick start to provide some ideas.  You might have some as well.  Maybe it eventually leads to the Top 50 (or Top 100) attributes making up a great country.

At the end of their four years in office the President and his administration, would be forced to stand up and say, well, in the area of X we moved from #16 in the world to #9, and in area Y we moved from #4 to #1.  Now, we ran into a problem on item M where we went from #17 in the world to #22, but let me explain what happened and why.

I’ve no idea if New Zealand has any sort of formal scorecard, but I found this video of New Zealand’s Prime Minister summarizing her accomplishments and making the case for another term rather interesting.  If I were a citizen of New Zealand, I think it would make it clear to me if I would want her in office for another two years.  Some will find this compelling and others, repugnant, I suspect. What did you think about her focus? On the right things? Unlike the above clip from a television series, this one is actually the real deal, no high-paid writers, no Aaron Sorkin, just reality.

My hope if this idea got legs and were to come to pass, we would see politicians start to work on the things that help our country with citizens holding them accountable for moving forward and getting things done.  It might very well cause a shift in focus to the things that really matter in government and less on the things that don’t. My two cents and deepest apologies if this is too political.

Epilogue: Everything that happened during Jacinda Ardern’s first two years in office, occurred during her pregnancy and delivery of her first child.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Getting a great job – Part 2 of 2 – Interviews

two women in conversation

Much of the process I’ve used for turning an interview into a job offer comes from Jeffrey Allen.  His book is absolutely brilliant and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I have purchased this book at least a dozen times over the years and always try to have a copy around.  I used it personally and it was a great handout to those in the “getting a great job” process.  Links to it are below.

If you’ve not read part #1 first, you should.  Here is the thing about job interviews. They follow a well-known, rather repetitive path. With some thought, preparation and practice, you can get very good at them.  While it’s fun to do the work and get really good, you don’t have to, because the vast majority of candidates you will be competing against, won’t do the work, won’t prepare, and won’t practice. The end result is you will do far better and be the person who receives the offer.

This next point is critical.  The first thing you must do is to shift your focus to obtaining a JOB OFFER vs. obtaining A JOB.  On the surface, this may seem like a nit.  IT IS NOT.  It is vitally important to the process.  Your goal in a job interview is to have them indicate they want to offer you a job.  Once you have a job offer in hand, then and only then should your focus shift to, “shall I take this job with this company on these terms?”  Interviewing for a job offer versus interviewing for a job are two fundamentally different mindsets.  The dynamics change for you and most importantly, the dynamics change for the person who is interviewing you.  I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to change your attitude in this area.  Most people get so desperate for a job, they decide going into an interview they just have to get the job they’re being interviewed for, resulting in the interviewer picking up on this desperation, you performing poorly and no job offers as a result.  As you will read later, your ultimate goal is to get 2-3 job offers, all coming in at about the same time.

Winning the game:  What follows is how to go about preparing for a job interview and how to manage the process. BTW, since what happens in a job interview is roughly ten times as important as what is written on your resume, plan to spend at least ten times as much time and effort on this step as you did working on your resume.  Go ahead, total up how many hours you spent tweaking and fiddling with your resume, multiply that number by 10, and this is how much time you will want to put into this step.

Step one in this phase is to anticipate the questions you will be asked, prepare your answers and practice them until you are able to deliver them smoothly.  As Jeffrey Allen explains in his book, there aren’t that many different ways to ask essentially the same questions, so it’s easy to prepare.  For example: Nearly every job interview opens with something like, “Well tell me a little about yourself.” You should have a 20-30 second answer to this question nailed and memorized.  You want to be brief, to the point and summarize the high points of your career. Quickly and efficiently!  I once asked a candidate this question and it appeared to have caught him off guard, he thought for a moment, then slowly began: “Well, I was born in Truman, Minnesota and went to grade school and high school there.  When I was in high school my parents moved to Rochester, Minnesota and I ended up graduating from there in 19XX.” This story, with various side stories and tangents, went on for 20 more minutes, finally bringing me up to this person’s current position in life.  Needless to say, I decided in the first five minutes that I’d never hire anyone that clueless.

When my younger daughter Ginger was job hunting she replicated a technique I’d used and it worked wonders for her.  Here is what to do:  Take 30-50 index cards, either 3X5 or 4X6, and on one side, write the interview questions you expect to be asked.  On the other side of the card, write your answer.  Your answer must fit, legibly, on the back side of the card.  No 8-pt type allowed. Craft your answer and practice saying it aloud until you like the sound of it.  Don’t be surprised if you need to say it out loud 15-20 times per question before it feels right to you. It’s an iterative process.  Shuffle the cards, hold one up, read the question on the front.  Then, without looking at the reverse side, answer the question as close as possible to what you recall writing on the reverse side.  Then turn the card over.  Grade yourself.  Did you nail it?  Did you say precisely what was on the back of the card in the right order and no more? Maybe even jot down a grade for yourself, A – F.  The “no more” part I mentioned above is important.  When you’re nervous, you’ll tend to say too much. Practice helps with this!  Mentally put yourself into the interview room and across the desk from the one asking the questions as you practice.  You’re going to keep doing it until you can repeat this over and over, scoring highly each time.  Don’t quit until you can score yourself B’s or better on all the cards.  Occasionally, when practicing your answer, something will pop into your head and you will find yourself saying something out loud that is really good but wasn’t in your written. Not a problem; revise the answer. Think about where the new text should go in the answer, at the beginning, middle or end? As you edit, your answers will get tighter and more powerful.  Allen’s book lists a lot of the questions interviewers will ask. Also, do a Google search on “job interview questions for XXXX role” and find a lot more. At a minimum, be prepared for:

  • Why did you leave or why are you leaving your present job?
  • What are you looking for in a job?
  • What are your career objectives?
  • Why would we hire you here?
  • Tell me about your greatest strengths.
  • What are your biggest weaknesses?
  • What sort of salary are you looking for, or what were you making in your last job?
  • What were your top 3 accomplishments when working for X?
  • What were your biggest career accomplishments ever?
  • Can you work under pressure, hit deadlines?
  • What sort of people do you like? Dislike?
  • Tell me about your last boss.
  • Give me an example of a project you took from start to finish.

Again, the more questions you prepare answers for, the more confident and relaxed you will be in the actual interview.  You should have 30-40 cards at a minimum and having a full deck of 52 cards is not too many.  This preparation pays massive dividends and is so important and such a key part of getting a great job. I don’t understand why people spend ten hours finessing their resume to perfection and then only 20-30 minutes working on interview practice.  As I said before, you want to reverse the time spent on these efforts and if you do, you’ll be a rock star and receive frequent and better job offers.

Another benefit of having your answers thought through and rehearsed is it frees up attention to work on your delivery.  Having mental room to focus on your pacing, posture and composure, is helpful. The interviewer will see your quiet self-confidence and it will put them at ease, too.  The entire interview will go more smoothly.

The final benefit of this preparation is that part of your brain is free to focus on how your answer is being received by the interviewer.  Are they looking you in the eyes? Nodding their head? What else is in their office? Pictures of kids, awards, models of sail boats or statues of Shakespeare? Use the part of your brain not answering the question to observe and assimilate this information for the next phase, when you ask your own questions.

After 2-3 questions it is perfectly okay to begin turning the interview into a friendly conversation by asking questions of your own.  Initially, your questions should try to build camaraderie with the person you are meeting. For instance, if they have models of sailboats on their bookcase, you could point at the models and ask, “Do you sail? I was on my college sailing team” or, “my family rented a sailboat every summer, etc.”  Of course, never lie.  Find something in the person’s office with which you can genuinely connect and use it to build a bridge. If there are no personal effects around, such as in a bland conference room (or you’re in a Zoom call), arm yourself with other bridging questions such as: a) How are you dealing with Covid, has it had a big impact on you?  b) I saw a new restaurant named X, when I was parking, it looked new, is it? Have you tried it yet?  c) Last week I went to SFMOMA for the first time. I see it’s only a few blocks from here, have you ever seen it?

Not just winning, but hitting it out of the park:  After you feel on the same wave length, the step required to absolutely cinch an offer is to ask a few insightful questions of your own. These few questions you’ll have prepared, accomplish a couple of important goals.  First, in asking these questions, you demonstrate to the person doing the interview that you’re the candidate they really most want to hire.  Second, they give you some good clues on whether, once you get a job offer from them, if they are really the company to which you want to dedicate your time and energy. Here are several examples.  Use the ones that feel right at the time.  You would never ask all of these, most likely no more than 3 or 4, so pick and choose based upon your homework on what this company is all about and their values.  Here are some ideas:

  1. The person doing this job now, or most recently, what did they do exceptionally well? What about their work surprised and pleased you the most?
  2. Along the same lines, for the prior person, were there expectations that were not met? Did this person fail to deliver or under-perform, perhaps through no fault of their own, but some things just weren’t getting done?
  3. What are the top three customers that the company has won and is most proud of? How about three customers you’ve lost?
  4. Has working at this company changed you in any way?
  5. If the company is growing rapidly, ask “What is on the company’s immediate horizon and what are the biggest blockers to reaching those goals? If I were to get this position, what could I do in the first month that would have the greatest positive impact on the company? First 3 months?
  6. What factors, in your mind, are the most important for someone to have to be successful in growing with this company?
  7. Could you give me an example of something that the company tried to do recently and failed? (If you get an answer, see if you can determine why it failed and how the company responded. Does it sound like they’re being honest or attempting to paint a rosy picture? Does it appear that they learned from the failure and were able to quickly pivot and make things right again?)
  8. Would you go over the key financial metrics which drive the company? What are the most important priorities that must happen for the company to stay successful? How does this position impact or contribute to these metrics?
  9. Outside of this company, which companies or competitors in your space do you admire and you feel are doing well? Are there any companies you would wish to emulate, either from a growth or culture standpoint? Or, who are the competitors you most detest and why?
  10. If you had a magic wand, what is one thing you would change about the company? (This helps you learn where the company may be behind or in what areas it needs to improve).
  11. Can you think of anything that would only happen here, at this company, but wouldn’t happen at other organizations? (You will likely get one of two responses; either an “Oh no,” look on their face, or they light up at a memory that pops into their head. Whichever it is will help you better understand an organization’s values, norms and practices – which will have a huge impact on your happiness and success working there.).
  12. What have you learned while working here that you will take with you, no matter where you go next? (same rational as Q11.)
  13. If you are being interviewed by someone who would be a co-worker with you if you take the job, ask if it would be alright with them if they would walk you through their calendar for a week. It could be last week, if that is easier. (You’re asking to see what people are spending time on.  Time is a worker’s most valuable asset, so how someone spends their time tells you a lot about what they value and what the company values.)
  14. Have you found any common attributes among the people who join the company and become really successful, versus those who aren’t? When people leave the company on their own volition, what reasons do they give for leaving?

When your goal is getting a job offer, what I’ve written above is the playbook for getting the very best job offer from a company.  The most successful job seekers nearly always set a goal of having 2-3 job offers in hand before making a decision.  This takes simple but careful time management.*  You want to compress your job search and schedule interviews to happen fairly close together.  Ideally, if you’re going out on 6 interviews over a two week period, you would want to interview first at the companies you feel you would least want to work and save your later interviews for the companies you most want to work. The last interview will be your best. So, you want to be at your very best when interviewing at the company you most want to work.

Hopefully this top-line summary is helpful.  It is not the way most people go about it.  However, these are many of the techniques I used in my career and while I wasn’t uniformly good at every job I had, I know I was really very good at getting every job I ever got.

*Life rarely delivers ideal situations but that doesn’t mean you have zero control.  You gain control by making a plan—and following it.  Some job-search guidelines tell you to plan to mail out five resumes a week, or something.  If the above makes sense to you, and I hope it does, you might create a plan that looks something like this:

Phase 1 – 2 weeks: Research companies that: a) deliver a product or service you admire, b) are in an industry that interests you, c) have an obvious need for your skill set.

Phase 2 – 2 weeks:  1) Make contacts, set up informational interviews and go on some.  2) Try to connect with those who could submit your resume for you, which will have a much greater chance of being read. 3) Create Q&A cards and start rehearsing, and 4) Research how to discuss salary questions.

Phase 3 – 2 weeks:  1) Schedule interviews (in the right order), 2) Follow-up with any interviews with thanks and next steps, 3) When you receive an offer, seriously think about it – it is the first rung of a ladder.  What will be your chances of moving up or switching to a different ladder?  A “foot in the door” mentality can backfire when it’s time to advance.

If you didn’t see Part 1 of this job advice newsletter, you can find it here.

Getting a great job – Part 1 of 2

Over the past 25 years, good friends, nieces and nephews and one of my daughters, have come to me asking for advice on their job searches.  For some of them, who’ve taken what I’ve told them to heart, it has worked very well for them.  It’s worked so well for one of my daughters, she’s become the “go-to job search advisor” for her friends and colleagues. One of my favorite nieces recently sought my advice and I updated two key aspects of my advice spiel for vastly improving one’s chances of getting a great job.  The first one is about searching and the second about interviewing. Here is the first of the two:

Most people find a job search highly frustrating.  You work for weeks to get your resume just right, send it out more times than you can count and see little results for your efforts. Finding a job is almost a full-time job in itself.  I’ve had a good deal of experience hiring, getting hired and helping others in the process of getting killer jobs – ones they absolutely love. Let’s get right to the heart of the matter.

The commonly accepted job search process doesn’t work and the odds are slim of finding a job this way. Most of the process for landing a job is flawed and fails those looking for a job as well as those employers who need a skilled new worker.  Sending out resumes and introduction letters is mostly a massive waste of time.  While resumes have some use, it’s later in the process.  The first step in finding a job is deciding where you want to work.  What companies most appeal to you? What company is employing people doing the sorts of things you want most to do? Are there companies that espouse a set of values you believe in? Have you researched the “best places to work in – (your city?)” Spend time researching sites which rate the best places to work.  Ask your employed friends, if they could switch companies, where would they most want to work? Does this take a lot of effort? Yes! Will it force you to ask yourself a lot of very hard questions? Of course!

You’ll know you’ve completed this step when you have a list of companies with 4-5 prospects, maybe  2-3 at the top of the list, that sound to you like places where you would really want to be.  On those top prospects, take your research to the next level and find out everything you can about them.  Go to work on them, as if you were writing a 2-3,000 word research paper on each of them. Focus on what makes them different from other companies and how they fit with your values and what you want to do with your life.  After this research, reprioritize your list from one through five, with the company you want the most at the top, although you’re going to work all five companies.  Your next step in your research effort is to find connections between you and these companies.  Remember the old Kevin Bacon 6 degrees of separation thing?  Send feelers out to all of your past contacts, former professors, advisors, friends, former colleagues, those in your industry, asking “Do you know anyone who works at or deals with X company? If not, do you know anyone who might know someone at X company, or Y company?”  While some people prefer to do this by email or text, I find it often works better to call people on the phone and talk with them about this.  The results are typically much better when you do.   The goal in this Phase 1 of your search is to have a list of five or so companies, prioritized, with potential contacts at each.  You might not have contacts at all of them. That is okay.

Your next step, working in reverse order of your list, is to find a way to schedule as many informational interviews as you can with someone from these companies or failing that, with somebody who knows more about them – a former employee, someone who’s done business with them, a competitor of theirs, etc.  Of course, checking to see if they have job openings and going in for an interview – even if the job does not sound well-suited for you is perfectly okay and a good idea.  If that happens, it meets two objectives; you’ll now have someone at the company you can actually sit across the table from and learn more about the company from them, and they very well might become a key contact for you, even if the job is not even close to what you’re looking for.  This phase has a number of benefits and opportunities for key learnings, including getting comfortable talking about yourself and answering questions in succinct ways that make people either wish to hire you or failing that, want to help you in the next step of your search, by providing you with another introduction.  At every interview/meeting at this stage you will want to conclude the meeting by asking, “Now that you know a bit more of what I’m looking for, is there anyone else you can think of that I should talk to?” Typically, they will think of someone and give you a name.  When they do, ask, “Would you be willing to call XXX, and let them know we’ve spoken and that I’ll be calling them?” Again, 90% of the time, they will say yes.  Make sure you get the full contact info for the person to whom they’re referring you.  If/when you first ask the question, they can’t think of anyone, then change the question slightly and ask “…. is there anyone outside the company you think might be able to assist me with ideas in this area?”  And follow-up in the same way.

You are also going to learn and practice a set of techniques on how to turn an interview into a job, but that is something I will cover in Part 2.

One thing that is going to happen while working on priorities 3-5, (not your top #1 and #2 choices), is you are going to start getting strong hints someone wishes to hire you, and perhaps even make you a job offer.  But your goal is not about getting one job offer; it is about getting multiple good offers and then thinking through which one is best for you.  By the time you’ve practiced on the lower priority companies, you will be in top form when you get to the prospects you want the most.  Your meeting and interview skills will be the sharpest as you will have recently practiced.

Let me anticipate an objection you might have.  You may be thinking, “Okay, suppose I have no contacts at all at my top priority company, how do I waltz in there saying, ‘You should hire me’?  They will think I am nuts.”  Au contraire!  You can’t begin to believe how much you will stand apart from other candidates when you upend the applecart in this way.  When you walk in and say, “While I’m not sure how my skills apply to XX’s goals of “blah, blah and blah,” (remember, you’ve done your research so you know what this company is most committed to making happen), “… but I love your company, believe in what you are doing and want to see if there might be some fit between my skills and your mission before I go and get a job with someone else.”   By this time, your meeting and interview skills will be so good, you’ll easily guide the ensuing conversation to be largely about them, while working in the most compelling and salient parts of your past work experience into what they are looking for.  As you will learn in the next section on interviews, the best ones are when you are in control and ask the questions.  The interviewer will love you and come away wanting to do everything they can to get you to come and work for their company.  I am not making this up!

I’ve shared these ideas with a host of people. Cousins, nieces, nephews, colleagues and friends. About half of them decided I might be on to something and put some effort into this and tried my suggestions out.  Without a shade of exaggeration, every single person who put an effort into using these techniques and the ones outlined in Part 2 (How to turn an interview into a job), were successful.  It has a 100% success rate.  So, give it a try.  What have you got to lose?

Stay tuned for Part 2 – From Interview to Job Offer