Book Report: The Rare Find

The Rare Find.thumbThis book is probably primarily useful to those who are either (a) in charge of a large-scale search, or (b) in charge of a very high-end search for a specific role such as a C-suite executive. However, there are plenty of small nuggets that I found thought provoking for designing interview processes as a hiring manager.
The book is short and fairly enjoyable for a book about hiring – I found many of his specific stories, especially the description of the selection process for Army Special Forces, surprisingly entertaining.
Anders’ attempts to make things personal can occasionally feel a bit like a politician’s campaign speech. Like this bit:

TFA [Teach For America] wanted people like Emily Lewis-Lamonica. I met her in the summer of 2009, after she had finished two years of TFA service as an eighth-grade history teacher…

This book is strongly focused on identifying rare talent, while almost entirely ignoring enticing them or retaining them. This is somewhat forgivable, given the title of the book. This next segment is one of the rare exceptions where Anders digs in a bit further:

For bosses like John Cameron, it’s not enough to discover talent that shouts. That much is easy. The great challenges come later, once such people are on the payroll. That is when everything hinges on an ability to make the most of such people’s wide-ranging ambitions and restless spirits. If top performers don’t feel tied into the organization that hires them, all their marvelous potential may be useless. Their careers may be marked by quarrels, betrayals, squandered opportunities, and repeated job-hopping in moments of anger.
In extreme cases, organizations decide it isn’t worth accommodating such high-intensity turmoil. No matter how brightly a star might shine before a hiring decision is made, everything can blow up once a contract is signed. If events don’t play out as planned, talent that shouts can turn impatient, selfish, or frustrated. After too many such failures, some leaders retreat. They would rather surround themselves with amiable plodders than tangle again with the unruly side of talent.
Fortunately, there’s a way around this agony. Top teaching hospitals like Hopkins are a fine place to look for clues. So are elite military units. These organizations don’t flinch at filling their ranks with ambitious personalities. That’s because they know how to get everyone pulling together toward shared goals, rather than ending up with a quarrelsome bunch of prima donnas. Step into the corporate world, and similar triumphs exist as well. None of these organizations equates talent and treachery. Instead, they are the world’s best snake charmers, if you will, figuring out how to get the most out of high achievers without being led astray.

My biggest complaint about the book is how little it focused on diversity in hiring. Aside from a few mentions, such as a Lehman Brother’s strategy to hire women as analysts rather than salespeople, diversity as a hiring goal is quite absent. When it does appear, it feels like it’s exploitative, when he could just as easily focus on the value that a diverse team offers.
On balance, the book is worth reading, although I think it falls a bit short of its promise.

Book Report: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.thumbI had the privilege of working with a very talented coder who swore that he learned everything he needed to know about coding from reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that he re-read it regularly, making new discoveries each time. So after more than 20 years since I last read this, I decided to give it another go.
There is certainly quite a bit in this book that resonates with much more recent research on work and motivation. While I don’t think I can capture it all, I’ll try to cover a bit of what stood out to me.
Pirsig does a great job of capturing the essence of what has recently been called “Flow” in this bit:

So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. That was what it was about that wall in Korea. It was a material reflection of a spiritual reality.

And his section on what he calls “gumption” resonates strongly with the recent research on “grit” as a determinant of success. Interestingly, Pirsig goes on for quite a bit about how to acquire and hang on to gumption, which is a focus for many modern educators. Here’s his description of gumption:

Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption.

Here’s a fascinating bit about the pleasure of doing a job well, even if it’s not a perfect job:

Or if he takes whatever dull job he’s stuck with — and they are all, sooner or later, dull — and, just to keep himself amused, starts to look for options of Quality, and secretly pursues these options, just for their own sake, thus making an art out of what he is doing, he’s likely to discover that he becomes a much more interesting person and much less of an object to the people around him because his Quality decisions change him too. And not only the job and him, but others too because the Quality tends to fan out like waves. The Quality job he didn’t think anyone was going to see is seen, and the person who sees it feels a little better because of it, and is likely to pass that feeling on to others, and in that way the Quality tends to keep on going.

Finally, a bit about how doing work well ultimately impacts yourself:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.

It seems clear to me that in many ways, Pirsig was ahead of his times. Or maybe he’s influenced the current generation of research in lots of interesting ways. Any way you slice it, this book is worth a careful read, maybe even regularly.

Book Report: The Best Place to Work

The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, by Ron Friedman, PhD is probably one of the best management guides I’ve read. Why? Because it offers research-backed(!), carefully end-noted, practical advice for how to improve the workplace. All of this while being a fairly enjoyable read – the chapters start with an illustrative example, then move on to recent research, ending with a list of practical suggestions for both managers and “emerging leaders”. While the advice of the book would be best executed by a company owner or high-level executive, there’s still plenty of useful insight for those of us down in the trenches.
one warning: One of those illustrative examples includes a very vivid (although non-“graphic”) and unexpectedly intense description of a school shooting. This leads to a discussion about what we can learn about communication from hostage negotiators, if you’re wondering (and I’m sure you were).
Here’s a short excerpt from the first chapter of the book, which talks about Sara Blakely, founder of spanx, and the importance of encouraging failure:

Asked where she found the courage to surmount such staggering odds, Blakely says a big part of the credit belongs to her father. Or, more specifically, to the one question he would ask his children every night at dinner.
Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?”
When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.”
Blakely was taught to interpret failure not as a sign of personal weakness but as an integral part of the learning process. It’s this mind-set that prepared her to endure the risk involved in starting her own business. When coming up short is viewed as the path to learning, when we accept that failure is simply feedback on what we need to work on next, risk-taking becomes a lot easier.
Her father’s question taught her an important lesson: If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
What’s odd is that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view espoused in most classrooms. From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers. That struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it,” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education, students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors.
After twelve years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. We’re implicitly taught that struggling means others will view us poorly, when in reality it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills.
Some educators have begun recognizing the way this fear of failure is impeding their students’ long-term growth. Edward Burger, for one, is doing something about it. For more than a decade the Williams College mathematics professor has literally been rewarding students for failing in his class.
“Instead of just touting the importance of failing,” Burger wrote in a 2012 Inside Higher Ed essay, “I now tell my students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester — because 5 percent of their grade is based on their ‘quality of failure.’”
Burger believes this approach encourages students to take risks. His goal is to reverse the unintended consequences of a school system consumed by testing. What was originally introduced as a feedback tool to foster better learning has had the opposite effect. When we reduce performance to As or Bs, pass or fail, good or bad, we make the learning opportunities that failure provides hard to appreciate.
At the end of each semester, students in Burger’s class are asked to write an essay examining a mistake they made. In it, they describe why they initially thought their approach might work and how their mistake helped them uncover a new way of understanding the problem.
Failure, per se, is not enough. The important thing is to mine the failure for insight that can improve your next attempt.
To be fair, at just 5 percent of a student’s grade, Burger’s unusual grading scheme hardly constitutes an academic revolution. But research suggests that his approach of rewarding intelligent failure may have more of an impact on his students than we might initially suspect, especially when it comes to promoting a thinking style that’s conducive to innovation. The reason, as we’ll soon discover, is that when the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things.

Book Report: You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

I’ve read quite a few books that build on the content of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and I often have found myself rejecting them as too derivative.  A few days into You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney, I was starting complain about the book for fitting into that mold, but a friend “politely” convinced me that I was being an ass.*

With an adjusted attitude I got right into the rest of this book and enjoyed the hell out of it, and almost certainly learned more than a few useful things.

At times the book can be a bit frustrating in it’s failure to address how to overcome the tendencies it describes (which probably explains the sequel: You Are Now Less Dumb)

This book isn’t marketed as a business book, but it could easily be. Tell me you haven’t sat in a meeting like the one described in this excerpt:

When a group of people come together to make a decision, every demon in the psychological bestiary will be summoned.
Conformity, rationalization, stereotyping, delusions of grandeur — they all come out to play, and no one is willing to fight them back into hell because it might lead to abandoning the plan or a nasty argument. Groups survive by maintaining harmony. When everyone is happy and all egos are free from harm it tends to increase productivity. This is true whether you are hunting buffalo or selling televisions. Team spirit, morale, group cohesion — these are golden principles long held high by managers, commanders, chieftains, and kings. You know instinctively that dissent leads to chaos, so you avoid it.
This is all well and good until you find yourself in a group your brain isn’t equipped to deal with — like at work. The same mind that was formed to deal with group survival around predators and prey doesn’t fare so well when dealing with bosses and fiscal projections. No matter what sort of job you have, from time to time everyone has to get together and come up with a plan. Sometimes you do this in small groups, sometimes as an entire company. If your group includes a person who can hire or fire, groupthink comes into play.
With a boss hanging around, you get nervous. You start observing the other members of the group in an attempt to figure out what the consensus opinion is. Meanwhile, you are simultaneously weighing the consequences of disagreeing. The problem is, every other person in the group is doing the same thing, and if everyone decides it would be a bad idea to risk losing friends or a job, a false consensus will be reached and no one will do anything about it.
Often, after these sorts of meetings, two people will talk in private and agree they think a mistake is being made. Why didn’t they just say so in the meeting?
Psychologist Irving Janis mapped out this behavior through research after reading about the U.S. decision to invade southern Cuba — the Bay of Pigs. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy tried to overthrow Fidel Castro with a force of 1,400 exiles. They weren’t professional soldiers. There weren’t many of them. Cuba knew they were coming. They were slaughtered. This led to Cuba getting friendly with the USSR and almost led to nuclear apocalypse. John F. Kennedy and his advisers were brilliant people with all the data in front of them who had gotten together and planned something incredibly stupid. After it was over, they couldn’t explain why they did it. Janis wanted to get to the bottom of it, and his research led to the scientific categorization of groupthink, a term coined earlier by William H. White in Fortune magazine.
It turns out, for any plan to work, every team needs at least one asshole who doesn’t give a shit if he or she gets fired or exiled or excommunicated. For a group to make good decisions, they must allow dissent and convince everyone they are free to speak their mind without risk of punishment.
It seems like common sense, but you will rationalize consensus unless you know how to avoid it. How many times have you settled on a bar or restaurant no one really wanted to go to? How many times have you given advice to someone that you knew wasn’t really your honest opinion?

*I’m better for the conversation- it’s not as if I remember Predictably Irrational cover-to-cover.  I’ll be less likely to reject by default the next book that reminds me of it. I may not be so smart, but I’m a little bit less dumb. Thanks, Adam!