An article with this title came up in my news feed from the Harvard Business Review; it was written by an HR manager working for a startup and dealt with pre-programmed / taught answers mostly from people fresh out of university. The point there was that these answers are not honest and not being honest translates to not admitting problems, which could be fatal in startups.
We will deal with this question from a completely different perspective.
I didn’t take the effort to research who came up with the “what is your greatest weakness” question in an interview setting – probably an empowered bureaucrat: the question is unfair and ill-willed and if asked “in general”, it is plain idiotic. If the interviewer has good intentions (whatever that means) and still asks this question, he lacks critical thinking or doesn’t think, period. This is why it has become an issue how to answer it.
An acceptable way to approach this for anyone with some degree of self-respect:
If you are a specialist: tell them technical areas: I am not that strong in Python yet, I am still learning new tricks with macros and similar. If you want to dig more, ask my wife, boyfriend, roommate, whatever, but I don’t see how it’s relevant.
If you are going for management or leadership roles and you hear this question, it’s probably time to walk: they either use this because they don’t want you or they are wasting your time with incompetent paper pushers.
If you decide that it’s worth your time to address the question:
Tell them the management principles that you operate by, like “I always try to set clear expectations”, “walk the talk”, ” I fire manipulators”, “I put integrity above profits”, “I hire the best and let them flourish”, “I treat people like adults”, whatever. Then ask: could this be a weakness in this organization?
Leadership is based on supra individual principles and principles are neither good nor bad: in this context the weakness is always the individual himself.
If the interviewer is more interested in discussing principles than weaknesses, you’re in the right place.
Admittedly this is somewhat provocative, but perhaps not that far – fetched.
Considering that over 90% of companies are mediocre, it doesn’t make much sense to even raise the question of strategy. Companies are mediocre because they have no leadership who could provide a concept that may serve as the foundation of any kind of strategy, so they are, without exception playing catch-up. Their „leaders” are staring in the rear-view mirror and at various indicators while stepping ever heavier on the gas pedal. All the while there is only one song coming from the speakers at maximum volume: faster!
Paradoxically they are terrified of taking their eyes off the rear-view mirror and focusing on the road.
People leading leading firms do precisely this. There is no noise, their attention is proportionately spread between the road, the mirrors and the indicators with most attention dedicated to the road, they feel the car and most of all: they know precisely why they are driving and they know it pretty well where they are heading.
There is no strategy without a concept!
It’s easy to find out if there really is a concept behind a written and „internalized” strategy; we just need to ask the question: what is your strategy based on? If the CEO’s answer is quantitative or is based on outside factors, like last year’s results, market data, competitive behaviour, etc., then there is no concept.
There is no focus without strategy
This is also easy to test. Just see what happens in the controlling department in budgeting or reporting times: so called bullshit strategies, that are not based on a defendable concept but are dreamed up by management in offsite sessions somewhere in the mountains or beach resorts, simply can’t be implemented. If they still appear to be implemented, it is mostly because the controlling team is diligently correcting the numbers in the reporting period.
The organization is weak without focus
A weak organization is slow and reactive. It is passive. There is simply nothing to organize around. Most of the people don’t do what they should be doing and almost everybody performs way below their abilities – 10-12 hours a day.
We can immediately recognize a weak organization: it’s enough to sit around at the main reception for 5-15 minutes during lunchtime and listen to the people. They are typically cynical, complaining or you can see fear in the eyes.
A weak organization is a sign of no leadership
Without a leader there is no concept, strategy is forgotten and resources are wasted on trying to keep together a disintegrating organization while the company is missing opportunities and falls behind.
Mediocrity can’t be kept secret!
People usually polarize between “what should be” and “what is“. Their position on this scale depicts very distinct types.
The “what’s possible” usually becomes a matter of opinion but -quite logically- the closer it is to “what is”, the more likely it is that the possibility may become an actuality… but: closer to whose reality…?
What I describe as intellectual cowardice is when people who know better (have the experience, have seen proof, have the intellectual capacity to recognize and embrace potentials) decide to take the comfortable position of the lowest common denominator, the “what is”, and against all they know, they don’t sway from it one inch. Their motivation is typically career related: it’s safe to be the guy who challenges potentials or the potential. Not only is this motivation not heroic, very often it is also ill-willed and cynical in that it makes it look like that the “what should be guy” doesn’t even know what’s going on; and of course nothing is farther from the truth.
This clip, depicting a hypothetical scenario of Nikola Tesla (what should be) pitching to VCs (what is), provides a great example for all this. While the clip is incredibly funny, it’s not an exaggeration and it’s a perfect snapshot of what I mean by cowardice and often even sabotage with or without arrogance as a style element. http://bit.ly/19OBSEn .
In highly bureaucratic organizations you can’t make a career by being the “what should be guy”; such guys typically get to play only when it’s already too late.
In highly entrepreneurial environments the “what should be” guys should lead. In an ideal world both the VCs and the founders are of this breed!; and the way they lead is very different from how the “what is guys” lead.
Otherwise do any of the following and watch the dynamics change:
- don’t invite “what is guys” to meetings about strategy
- make rules, like: you’re not allowed to make statements about things everybody in the group is aware of (like what is the budget (e.g. we don’t have a budget for that), what day it is (e.g. we are not there yet), basic math (e.g. that’s gonna cost us), etc.)
- put “what is guys” in problem solving or solution development positions
The lifesytle expat is a sign of times, their existence is a logical necessity; they are the byproducts of flawed views and the corresponding thinking that are prevalent in the corporate world, which promotes arrogance and infantile behavior and necessarily divides employees into cynics and idiots.
The lifestyle expat may be best described by one word: entitlement.
They are typically sent from mature markets to developing ones to “get things done”, to “teach and educate those people”, to “achieve” and what in light of all this seems to be paradoxical: to gain international experience. Not all expats are lifestyle expats but we won’t speak here about the others.
Six simple ways to recognize the lifestyle expat:
- She’s doing the company a favor. The ones that are not that bright are convinced of this, the cynical players are just good at playing this card smart.
- He has demands or non-negotiables: these are typically stuff he could not get at HQ in his “normal job”. A good example could be vacation days for North American expats (a scarcity in their home markets), job for the spouse, paid (elite) school for kids, the best house money (not budget!) can buy – and similar. For lifestyle expats non-negotiables are a vanity question (a “question of principle” as they put it) and they fight for them vehemently.
- She is not really participating, let alone rocking the boat. She typically lets her team working overtime while she’s leaving precisely at 5pm (work/life balance), takes her vacations when the going gets tough (on short notice if necessary), etc. She often counterbalances this with a great smile and a smooth personality.
- No ideas, no strategies. He’s much happier talking about his career plans. This typically boils down to becoming a general manager and a regional CEO. The career usually stops at the GM level, they rarely become regional CEOs and never become CEOs of multinationals….and this is of course a good thing.
- When it becomes clear that there is no “room for growth”, or when the lifestyle is not likely to be financed by the company anymore she moves on to another company. The plan is typically to become a GM by the time he’s 35…then by the time he’s 45, etc. Some of them are out of there way before the notice period is up… like they had never even been there.
- Never learns a local language, interacts mostly with expats and locals who share “his views”. I link here some more relevant stuff to this from my friend Eric Bilginoglu, who has a unique perspective on the issue.
…and you can probably list many more.
Someone dealing with these guys often summed up their performance like this: nice guys, great at building relationships, perfect presentations, structured input, absolutely no results.
Top 3 reasons why lifestyle expats exist:
1. There is no leadership in the organization: the boss of the lifestyle expat may very well be another lifestyle expat, a Like-minded Local or just a weak manager
2. The company’s “culture” actually favors the lifestyle expat; this means that it’s full of incompetent super stars. Since in this case the company is not performing well (most of the good guys have already left and the cynical and the stupid constitute the majority) a CEO change and a major organizational change should be expected – or the company’s demise.
3. The organization is going through massive change and they haven’t got around firing them yet (see also point 1)
If you have lifestyle expats reporting to you,
- you MUST start showing leadership NOW
- if you haven’t yet, you must realize that business is NOT as usual: you have a CRISIS on your hand and you must manage accordingly
- you MUST re-think how you approach and manage change
- you should start looking for another job
We learn stuff: in schools, courses, conferences, from reading and conversations. Then we repeat.
This is bad enough but it gets worse: whoever repeats stuff louder is considered to be better. If on top of this all somebody is also more aggressive, she’s often considered to be a “leader” – most careers have been built on this recipe.
Authentic knowledge is quiet. It is not acquired, it is created; and since it is more than the individual, it calls for humbleness!
Powerful people strive to break the bondage of their individuality. They don’t need anybody’s recognition! This kind of independence is the only vantage point for control: controlling impulses, control to stay in context and control to think about timing when the time pressure is big; control for listening.
No control, no power. “Me, me, me”, “I did this”, “My idea” and similar was invented by people with no inner power and the weak is almost always loud and they are always overcompensating.
To do big things we need to become quieter. Let’s leave loudmouthing for….others.
Stephen Bates is the managing director of Blackberry Europe.
He’s making a name for himself for acting at interviews like a…how to say it correctly politically…let’s just say like somebody without any authority at all.
If you haven’t haven’t seen any of these interviews yet, the bottom line is that the reporter asks him a semi-tough question, like why was the launch of the blackberry 10 delayed and he talks about completely different stuff – with a straight face. Here’s an example:
People are talking about this phenomena like this is his “PR strategy” ….NOT LISTENING.
Reminds me of the movie with Peter Sellers, Being there. It’s about a gardener with less than average intellect who follows the same strategy as Bates and people tend to hear in his answers (all garden talk) whatever they want to hear. This way he makes his way up to the top. Bates is already the managing director of Europe. Continuing acting like the Gardener may bring him down.
UNLESS: this is the blackberry way: don’t think just do what you’re told! Or worse yet: WE DON’T LISTEN TO THEM (to the market, to customers), WE ACT DEAF AND JUST DO OUR THING!
In this case Bates embodies the company culture and we (customers, employees and investors) must ask ourselves: is this approach sustainable in one of the most innovative fields in business?
I am definitely not buying what this guy is selling!
When BNP Paribas terminated withdrawals from three hedge funds citing “a complete evaporation of liquidity” on August 7th, 2007, it didn’t have the slightest effect on employees anywhere. Business was booming and companies were recording record performance.
Things were different in September, 2008: higher level employees like CEOs, general managers, managing directors and others in strategic roles were faced with questions they never had to answer before both from their subordinates and their boards. But interestingly in some industries business continued for a few months like nothing had happened. I remember one confident manager in the Czech Republic telling me in November: I was in Pandorf (a small village in Austria with a big outlet plaza) over the weekend; it was packed. There is no crisis here! His pipeline was also full. Within 2 weeks orders got cancelled, all of as sudden there was no pipeline and Pandorf lost its prestige as a reliable economic indicator.
Now we have the first 3rd of Q1 in 2013 behind us and a lot of those managers from 4 years ago have “consulting” in their linkedin profile which is another word for being unemployed (if they changed their linkedin profile at all) - some of them for as long as 2 years already! They have to touch their savings now. Most of them never faced this situation before: times have changed dramatically.
The common denominator between most CEOs and waiters for example is that they are both employees. The difference is that it’s much easier for a waiter to find another job and they feel less threatened if they must change their lifestyle.
I have conversations with ex managers on a daily basis. Their “strategy” for survival is surprisingly similar:
- find consulting gigs from previous employers AND
- continue “looking” for a job AND
- maybe start a company
None of them are working.
The first two don’t work because despite all evidence to the contrary, they still believe in a strange illusion: if you reach the top of a career (meaning that you become a C guy, a gm, an md, whatever) somehow you’re in control. Now that they are out of the system they still WANT to believe this: the title has become their identity. This is especially bad in Europe where failure is frowned upon and they consider THEMSELVES as failures, loosing confidence and eventually getting caught up in a vicious circle.
The 3rd one doesn’t work simply because you can’t start and run a company with the mentality of an employee.
They are paralyzed and feel that the only thing they can do is to go from interview to interview, waiting for something to happen; the whole thing reminds me of how a tiger that was born in captivity desperately wants to go back to the cage when he’s been released into his natural habitat.
Changing our own mentality is unbelievably tough; as tough as changing our lives. What’s been happening since 2008 is not a shakeout, it’s a cleansing fire that burns up our illusions about employment, careers and entrepreneurship. I thought it maybe worth making a short list of the most common illusions that hold managers back from moving forward:
- Nobody is born as a corporate function! This is tough to believe, but it’s true. Nobody is born as a payroll administrator, a marketing manager, a controller, an IT guy, etc. You won’t ever be fulfilled even if you get a certificate that proves that officially you are the world’s BEST controller!
- There is no such thing as corporate Darwinism: the natural unfolding of life does NOT happen according to corporate hierarchies! The VP is not a superior life form to a manager in an evolutionary ladder: if you’re a VP and believe this, Darwinism may catch up with you in the end after all, and you may go extinct. Also: an employee doesn’t have more prestige than an entrepreneur and vice versa.
- Prestige doesn’t come from a position or anything quantitative like the money you make, the car you drive, the home you live in and similar. There is only one thing that determines your prestige: the impact you make on others. Naturally the more authentic you are, the bigger the impact you can make.
- Authenticity doesn’t mean read/look/listen and repeat. The least authentic guys are probably those strangely upbeat and annoyingly loud evangelists who are spreading the “good news” to anybody who listens and also to those who don’t. Authenticity is knowing who you are and looking at everything through this lens, doing things that correspond with your identity and simply not doing things that don’t. It’s always quiet, intelligent and considerate and it is not concerned with rewards or risks.
Not being employed is a great chance to start living and working authentically. Wake up and don’t waste this unique chance by holding on to destructive illusions for years. You used to have a nice cushy job, great! It’s like your first love that will never come back. You gotta move on!
One last note: if you are employed and miserable, here’s a list of reasons from James Altucher on why to quit your job right now. YOU MUST READ THIS not for getting motivation but to get real:
1. It sets an illusion as a purpose to pursue: MORE (higher, faster, stronger, etc.).
2. Modern sports fit the tendency of progressivism which assumes that with time things improve unavoidably. False principles (illusions) always birth corruption. To maintain the illusion of “more” on the physical plane, the agents of sports introduced progressive moves: doping is normal, genetic engineering is up next.
3. This illusion is seemingly less dangerous for the “fans” or viewers and definitely more dangerous for the athletes, who dedicate the first quarter of their life to it – if they are lucky and retire in the age of 20-25 and move on; most of them can’t.
4. The “don’t think, just do” mentality characterizes everybody involved in sports which leads us to the next point:
5. It is promoted, developed (coaches) and administered by bureaucrats. Only bureaucrats do everything without questioning the fundamentals. If there was the smallest spark of leadership present in sports, it would not be what it is.
6. It has become mindless entertainment and (because of that) it has become big business. It is hard to miss the common denominator between business, entertainment and sports.
7. It’s easy to see that the remaining qualitative factors used to give meaning to sports are grotesque parodies of what they really should be: determination, dedication, sacrifice and achievement. These qualities are only positive if the context is based on true principles! Somebody without the intellectual capacity to grasp principle(s) is also fully capable of determination, dedication, sacrifice and quantitative (!) achievement. From this point of view knitting the world’s longest scarf deserves about as much respect as winning the Olympic title in ping-pong or weight lifting. To reach Olympic heights in the classical sense, you need the intellect.
8. If you were still wondering about the negative aspects of sports and entertainment (business is a separate topic altogether), just look at the fans!
9. Lack of control! This means there is no class. The overwhelming majority can’t even exhibit sportsmanship on the level of a five year old.
They can’t win gracefully and they certainly can’t lose without fear (remember the bureaucrats?)
To what degree control (an obvious pre-requisite for dedication and sacrifice) is a burden should be obvious by the party atmosphere in the Olympic village (see condom consumption) when the Olympians release steam.
10. Confusion: false achievement is coupled with false Pride. Fans’ pride for athletes is perhaps the most comical example of confusion, outdone only by the “national pride” triggered by sports events.
No analysis required, just commitment, communications and GUTS (CC&G)! I won’t get into technicalities, you know how to do what you need to do!
Just one more thing: you must lead by example in all areas!
1. Fire the liars! Big, gross lies: right away. Subtle lies: 3 strikes & out… or whatever your style and temperament. Afraid you’re going to get fired for leading by example? I guarantee it’ll be good for you!
2. Eradicate gossip! The way to do it is to make it transparent, bring it to light! Once it’s out in the open, gossip dies! Here’s 3 random examples:
a. if someone complains to you about somebody, ask them: have you addressed this with him? If not, ask him to do it and report back to you with the results the next day. If it’s not done you bring the two into a room and address it: Joe: Jim tells me this about you. I think you should talk this through. You MUST get involved!
b. Don’t tolerate negative talk about those not present at meetings. If somebody does it, follow 2.a.!
c. If you hear two guys gossiping, step up and adjust 2.a. to 3 people.
3. Confront! If you don’t like something about somebody, address it! This will force you to think through the issue, think about the other guy’s situation and possible motives, to consider circumstances that you may have not thought about right away, etc. In other words: it will force you to be considerate and understanding before you do the confrontation, because it’s tough and you don’t want to walk in ignorant or arrogant. I’ve done both, it doesn’t feel good! If done well, confrontations are the BEST communications tool: they are proactive, keeps everybody sharp, it puts things in the open and facilitate communications. If you are on the receiving end of the confrontation, it teaches you to control your emotions, teaches you to listen thoroughly and to think and understand. If confrontation becomes a natural part of communications, most of the stress factor disappears over time, people become sharper, more considerate and tolerant and much less emotional! I’d say much happier!
Bonus: Do not tolerate assholes! After McKinsey published an article on this topic about 4 years ago, there are now consulting companies specializing on this very issue; it has become a field! Well: just don’t tolerate them!
My definition is that assholes are people who poison the environment: manipulative, self-centered, inconsiderate, using others’ kindness, generosity and intelligence to advance their own mundane agendas (typically career and money): they go against the common good.
Dig in: maybe they are just confused. If not: Fire them! Do NOT reward them! Sure: some of them are bringing the numbers. So what?
Contact us if you’re unsure or have some stories or just leave a comment!
1. Eliminate it! If there is one way to avoid it, do! This especially applies to email communications between people in the same building.
2. Treat it as just a faster alternative to snail mail. Try to use it only to send information and documents.
3. Do not use email if it makes things more inefficient or depressive than they already are! Make this a rule!
4. If it’s too late and you’re already caught in email communications, do not use it for discussions! It’s not suitable for it. If discussions ensue, schedule a conference call or a quick meeting.
5. If you write, keep in very short: this is what I think (we should do, etc.), this is why and this is what I expect from you in your response….or some similar structure. I love the idea of keeping it less than 5 sentences: http://five.sentenc.es/
6. Make these first 5 points a rule in your organization especially if you work across multiple countries; this way nobody from Eastern Europe for example will get offended if they don’t receive emails like they were written by lawyers. If you are at it, why not to create a specific, well defined room for email within the arsenal of other tools, like meetings, phone calls, SMSs, collaboration tools, social stuff (fb, etc.), walks, etc. If there is a policy worth having, how to use these tools is one. Works for Evernote for example.
7. Always update the subject line to reflect the most recent developments!
8. Answer all the questions and think one step ahead: accommodate! Example for how to do it wrong: “how’s Wednesday for lunch? I am free anytime” “Wednesday sounds good!” Example of how to do it right: “how’s Wednesday for lunch at 12 in Gino’s?” OR “how’s Wednesday for lunch? I am free anytime.” “Wednesday sounds great. See you at 12 @ Gino’s!” We know that the Wrong scenario is more common! STOP being lazy or playing games!
9. When it’s important or you feel emotional, don’t send it out right away: sleep on it and see how it looks the next morning!
10. Create an organizational culture where you don’t need to use bcc!
+ 1, the Bonus: if you haven’t read Ogilvy’s advice on writing in general, read it! Most of it applies: http://bit.ly/w5EfoQ