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A Sense of Soul

June 14, 2009

Back home from mom’s, and back as of Friday to a work schedule closer to full-time than half-time, at least for the foreseeable future – definitely a load off my mind to be less worried about money for a while.  The book and the blog have lain fallow what with all the goings on lately, and I’m still not feeling it – also there hasn’t been much of urgent note in the news.  A couple of “important” books coming out but all of them astronomically priced, and therefore out of reach. (Artificial Beings and Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots; any kind patrons want to volunteer to buy them for me?)

I’ve been meaning to write more on what I think the elements of success are, how do you find those elements in people without using transcripts as blinkers.  I just read The Soul of a Chef, and its section on Thomas Keller and the French Laundry restaurant was illuminating.  The subtitle of the book is “The Journey Toward Perfection,” and it’s interesting how Keller works, how he selects his people.  Essentially, if you’re the kind of person who understands the importance of things as small as picking up a stray cigarette butt in the parking lot, or making sure that everything is cleaned as you go, or the principle behind putting a piece of tape on a box on straight instead of any which way, then you belong there.  Keller (at least as of this book, written nine years ago) brings in talented cooks and separates the wheat from the chaff by examining their craftsmanship – do they care enough about the whole process to chop the vegetables perfectly, even if no one will see that in the end product, do they care enough to wipe the olive oil bottles and be mortified when confronted with a stray piece of string on a meat dish.  These seemingly small “fit and finish” items, the care you take in the details of your work minute-to-minute, aren’t the kind of things a transcript can tell you about someone. 

Interesting interview with Will Wright of Sims and Spore fame in the Sunday Times biz section today.  Wright also uses the “personal touch” to manage people:

Q. How do you give feedback to the people you manage?

A. A lot of the people I’ve managed — artists, programmers, producers — they don’t want to know just if they are doing a good job or not. They want to be pushed and challenged in their career…So, if they feel like you are presenting things to them in such a way that, a year later, they are definitely going to be a better artist or a better programmer, then it really feels like a win-win. Even if you give them tough critical feedback, they see the benefit and value of it, as opposed to just a typical performance review…For a lot of people, their job and their position are not the relevant part of how they see themselves. They have an internal view of themselves, their career aspirations, the direction they want to go. The really important motivational stuff is more in their secret identity.

Q. And how do you get a sense of that?

A. A lot of that has to do with talking to them. You want to spend a fair amount of time exploring their interests, what they do outside of work. Usually people always have some passion that really drives them.  And this to me is one of the important points of working collaboratively with other people — trying to get a sense of what is the one thing that makes their eyes light up, they get excited about and they won’t stop talking about. And if you can get a sense of what that is from somebody, and you can harness that, that’s going to have more impact on how they perform their job, how they relate to you, how you can convey a vision to them in a way that they get excited about it…


Wright also focuses more on his interviews with prospective employees and on their personal references than on their paper records:

One of the questions I will usually ask somebody when I am interviewing them is, what was your biggest failure? And what did you learn from it and what would you have done differently? Within a team setting, a lot of times we’ll go down paths and we’ll prototype things. And at some point we’ll realize it was a bad branch and we have to back up and go take a different branch. Those forays — as a team, we can celebrate those.

Q. What about interviewing industry veterans?

A. For somebody like that, it’s more a matter of getting a sense of how clear are they on where they want to go relative to where they’ve been. And there is the matter of, how good is this person, times their teamwork factor. You can have a great person who doesn’t really work well on the team, and they’re a net loss. You can have somebody who is not that great, but they are really very good glue, so that could be a net gain.  A lot of team members I consider glue within the team in that they disseminate things effectively, they motivate and improve the morale of people around them. They basically bring the team tighter and tighter.

Other ones are solvents and, it’s just their kind of personal nature that they might be disagreeable. They rub people the wrong way. They’re always caught in conflicts. But, for the most part, that is as least as important as their competence in their role. Occasionally I will get somebody who is more of a prima donna, who is just incredibly good, but not great on the team and so, in some ways you can find a role where you can kind of isolate and quarantine them and allow them to go off and do their great work without having to interact with the rest of the team a lot. Those people are fairly few and far between.

Q. How do you glean that from an interview?

A. That part is very hard to get from an interview. A lot of times you can subtly kind of push back on things they are saying and find out if they are argumentative, or do they tend to take the conversation in a constructive direction. Their self-image relative to what other people have said about them is really interesting to me. When you call their references, if there is a very big discrepancy between their self-image and what other people are saying about them, that is usually indicative of some underlying kind of social issue you are going to be facing down the road.

On the other hand, you know, if they come and they are underselling themselves and you talk to everybody they worked with and they are telling you they’re a superstar, then unusually that indicates that they are going to an added benefit in the team setting.

Note the difference between Wright’s hiring style and the Marissa Mayer/Jim Collins style – how often he talks about “getting a sense of” someone, including interviews, calling their references, talking to people they’ve worked with, with nary a word about their paperwork.

And Wright on failure is especially good:

When I’m managing creative people, the way they relate to failure is very important. Because there are certain types of failure that you really want to celebrate. I personally learned a lot more from my failures than from my successes. And if you look at it that way, then all my failures, you know, in some sense brought me to my larger successes, because I recognized why I failed, and I learned from it. And so, at that point, you can even argue that it’s not a failure. It’s part of your learning process…

Q. What’s your two-minute commencement speech?

A. I would first of all talk about the value of failure, because I think everybody’s leaving school kind of with a mind-set that, “Oh, I’m going out and I have to succeed. You have to succeed.” And if they hit a failure it has the potential to, you know, de-motivate them, and push them in a bad direction. But, if they can embrace and celebrate their failure, it kind of gives them a totally different outlook on what they are doing.


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