Getting mission statements right – MBA Learnings

We looked at a few mission statements in our Values Based Leadership class –

Wal-Mart: We save people money so they can live better.
Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad: Our vision is to realize the tremendous potential of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway by providing transportation services that consistently meet our customers’ expectations.
Dow Chemical: To constantly improve what is essential to human progress by mastering science and technology

As we went through these statements, the comments that followed were around the following lines –
– The Wal-Mart mission is really concrete. It is the sort of statement that can be used whenever Wal-Mart faces a tough decision. Any product or personnel decision could be brought back to the fact that Wal-Mart exists to save people money.
– The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad mission felt like a non-mission statement. You could easily replace their name and industry with a different company and industry and it could still “work.” That’s a problem.
– Dow Chemical did very well on inspiration. But, how concrete is it? Can the mission statement actually be used in daily decision making?

Bringing it all together, we realized that great mission statements have 2 characteristics –
1. Inspiration. Some inspire with a transcendent purpose and others inspire with a bold goal. Regardless, the inspiration factor gives people a reason to come to work everyday.
2. Concreteness. Concreteness makes the vision easy to understand and apply to daily decisions.

Mission statements, as a result, are an important and, yet, often neglected resource for building culture, improving employee motivation and decision making. What is an example of a great mission statement? I love Amazon’s statement – “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online.” Really inspiring and, yet, very concrete. If there was ever a decision to be made, it is clear that the customer would be first priority.

(Note: I’ve used mission and vision statements interchangeably to convey the larger point)

Mission statements

This learning had immediate applicability for me. I thought of 3 teams I am working with and thought about the various levels of clarity in our purposes. And, voila, it turned out that the team where I felt most stuck was the one with the least clarity around the mission statement.

It is a relatively simple fix. And, it is one we ought to get right.

Staying with problems

Spend time with a problem long enough and you’ll find a way to solve it. You’ll learn to look at the problem differently, find every resource that can help you solve it or perhaps learn from people who’ve solved similar problems.

The sort of problems that experts aim to solve are not those that are weathered by raw intelligence. Every expert knows of at least a hundred others who are smarter than him/her. Those sorts of problems are weathered by persistence.

Great problem solvers possess majors in persistence with minors in patience and grit.

Living the good life requires us to be great problem solvers too. They questions asked of us are – “what is the good life in your definition? what will make you happy? how will you measure your life?” You don’t need a high IQ to solve these. You need high persistence (PQ?).

It is doable and within reach. We just have to be willing to stay with these questions.

What to be vs. what not to be

It is fairly easy to come up with a list of things you don’t want to be. It feels like you have done the hard work of attempting to define who you would like to be in the process. But, really, you haven’t.

“I don’t want to be a flake” is fundamentally different from “I will always keep my commitments.” The former has enough fudge built in for you to keep 7 out of every 10 promises and still be able to rationalize your behavior. The latter, on the other hand, is a commitment to integrity. It swears by the idea of 100% or none. There are no excuses and no easy way outs – you are forced to make real trade-offs.

As a result, there are only so many things you can be. The chances that you’ll pull off research that wins a Nobel prize while being a party animal who paints the city red 3 days every week are minimal. If you want to be a Nobel prize winner, you will need to make some very real sacrifices. Prioritization is essential.

That is precisely why very few choose to take a stand. It is just much easier not to.

But, of course, there is a real trade-off there too – character isn’t built that way.


3 things I’m thinking about as I complete my 26th year –

1. Self confidence and the unwillingness to compromise on what matters. The primary reason for starting this blog was to learn to get over my own insecurities and build self confidence. I’ve learnt a few things about confidence over these past few years and a key part of this learning has been the understanding that confidence doesn’t come from dots, it comes from lines. So, a consistent set of small wins does more good for your confidence than an out-of-the-blue big achievement. It is that realization that’s led to an intense, obsessive, sometimes pedantic, focus on process over the past few years. This focus on process has resulted in better results, more happiness and, over time, more confidence.

I’ve begun to observe that this increase in confidence has had an interesting side effect – an unwillingness to compromise on what matters to me.  I think that’s because confidence brings with it a sense of comfort in your skin. And, a mix of this comfort combined with a sense of purpose that’s been a result of all the thinking on the topic for the past 2 years has led to more clarity on why I do things. This, in turn, has helped with making all those little decisions that make up our days. And, as we live our days, so we live our lives.

It is a fascinating evolution though. And, I’m enjoying the change.

2. History lauds the individual but it is teams that make history. Hat tip to Walter Isaacson and “The Innovators” for this one. I’ve really been struck by how every great innovation in the past 150 years was brought forth by teams. I always considered myself reasonably well acquainted with the history of technology and I associated many technology shifts with lone geek genius. I’ve been blown away by the recurrence of this very simple idea – history is made by great teams. That, in turn means, if you want to really make a positive difference, you want to hone your ability to build great teams. (Note: build doesn’t necessarily mean lead)

I have 3-4 interesting team projects in progress and, in the remaining year or so of being a student, I am really interested in digging deep and understanding how great teams are built. It is nice to be able to experiment with no serious consequences. :-)

3. Learning to “see” and learning to make the most of an inch by going a mile deep. A close friend recently said he thought I was very observant. I found this to be an interesting observation as I have always thought of myself as someone with really bad observation skills. And, in some senses, that is very true. I am lost in my own thoughts and world far too often. But, observation in his eyes was to be able to view a situation and take insight from it. And, I think what he described as observant is what the wonderful Seth Godin describes in his post about “learning to see.” 7 years of looking for interesting ideas to blog about has inadvertently taught me to scratch beneath the surface a lot more. Allow me to digress for a moment here – it never ceases to amaze me as to how often people around you can point out things you never knew. I’ve learnt nearly everything about myself, especially about my strengths, thanks to insightful notes from people around me. I do my best to do the same to others around me. These observations around strengths are very valuable – we focus on weaknesses far too much.

His comment, however, led me to think about the idea observation some more. And, the more I think of it, the more I realize that observation is as powerful an idea as it gets. Great learners don’t need too many experiences to learn powerful lessons. They make the most of experiences by extracting an unimaginable amount of insight. I’d like to be able to do that more. And, perhaps that’ll be a great theme to take forward into this 26th year – to be able to make the most of the experiences I choose to immerse myself into by learning to make the most an inch… by going a mile deep.

Thank you to you for reading these notes, liking, sharing, and sending in your thoughts and comments. It is always lovely hearing from you. You make this blog a blog. And, for that, I am very grateful. Thank you for all you do.

(Past birthday notes: 25, 2423)

Lessons learnt from internship recruiting – MBA Learnings

I hated looking for a job in my final year at university. It is one of those profoundly painful processes that I really wouldn’t wish on anyone. It seemed to bring to surface all my insecurities and really made me question if I had done anything of note in the past 20 odd years of my life.

So, when I decided to study again, one of my objectives was to understand how best to approach looking for a job. We’re in an age where we’re constant job seekers. Whether it is seeking an internal transfer within a company we work for or whether we’re looking for a role in a different company, it is clear that our age is one of many jobs, roles, careers and companies. In that sense, looking for an internship at school felt like a perfect laboratory to test how this process ought to be approached. I’ve decided to break the whole process down into three main steps, cataloged my process and then shared what I learnt. I’ve attempted to bring it all together in one post. So, it’ll be long. I hope it is worth it.

Stage 1- Figuring out what I want to do. This has to be the first step of any job or project search. There are always options you don’t want. And, it helps to really understand what you want to do rather than follow the crowd. A simple point to remember – for every job or role you don’t feel all that passionate about, there are a hundred who do.

My process.
i) Speak to as many smart people as possible. I liken this stage to market research. Take time to just get some perspective from people you like and respect. Just engage with them on general advice on careers, paths, and how you ought to approach them. It helps a GREAT deal if you already have a sense of the direction you’d like to take. For example, it is much easier to have conversations focused on careers in pharmaceuticals than just careers in general. Ideally, speak to people who’ve done what you’re about to do or something similar. These perspectives should give you data points and perspective to reflect. After every such conversation, take a few minutes to take short notes of what you took away.

ii) Take the time to reflect. Now, take the time and think about what you think you’d be interested in and what you’d like to explore. Write down what you learn. The ideal outcome of this process is a shortlist of roles and companies that you’d be interested in working at.

iii) Explore ways you can meet people in these target roles or companies. There are 2 ways to approach this. The intentional approach is very targeted and focused on getting a job. This involves looking into your LinkedIn connections and figuring out who you know in a certain industry. If you’re looking for connections in Pharma near New York, it makes your search straight forward. Once you find a few people who know people you’d like to meet, you reach out and set up some informational meetings.

The other way to approach this is to do this with less intention (my preferred approach). Reach out to people you know within the industry you’d like to work with and just ask to meet with interesting people. As long as your interest is genuine, this can lead to some really cool serendipitous connections. Take the time to visit these people in person (if at all possible) and just meet. No big agenda aside from a willingness to get to know them and list. In the long run, this approach makes a huge difference and is how good “networking” is done.

Lessons I took away.
i) Get started as early as possible. I was told to get started on this process well before I got to school. It is one of the better pieces of advice I have received. The principle here is straightforward – some things just take time. And, it is best to do so when you don’t have a burning deadline in sight.

ii) Approach this part of the process with the intention to learn as much as you can. Relationships are not built when by seeking specific favors. Relationships are built when you have a genuine interest in getting to know the person at the other end of the table. At this stage, it is critical to really get to know people as the perspective you’ll receive from an expert / someone who has gone through the same process as you is one that you’ll be hard pressed to find in a book.

iii) Think long term. This isn’t about getting what you think you want now. If it is, then you’re approaching it all wrong.

Stage 2 – Attempting to get your foot-in-the-door via an interview.

My process.
i) Finalize that target company and roles list to the extent possible. It helps having a pre-final list. Of course, it’ll change but it helps having an idea of the direction you’re heading.

ii) Work hard on that resume. I think my resume went through at least 20 iterations. It is really important you get as many external points of view as possible, filter out the feedback that suits your style and trust a few people to help finalize on a document that you are happy with. It isn’t over till you are happy with it.

iii) Find ways to signal strong interest. In school, this means showing up to company events and speaking to recruiters. Outside of schools, this means speaking to people within the company/within teams of your interest and making sure people within the company know of your interest.

iv) Work hard on that cover letter. There are a few companies out there who just expressly forbid cover letters. Aside from those, take the time to work on that cover letter. This is a wonderful way to signal interest and explain why you are a fit for the role you’re applying to. This is especially important if you are switching roles or careers. Make sure you run your company-specific cover letter with at least one person from each company you are applying to. The goal isn’t to use every piece of feedback you get. The goal is to filter it for what works for you, trusting a few people whose style suits yours and getting to a version that you are happy with.

v) Send your applications in early. Seriously. Don’t wait for the last minute.

i) Narrow or broad? Find an approach that suits you. There are many many ways to go about this process. But, the biggest difference tends to be whether you prefer casting a broad net of target roles and companies or whether you prefer a much targeted and narrow approach. I honestly don’t think there is a right or wrong here as I’ve seen both work exceptionally well. The important thing is to pick an approach that works for you. I’ve come to prefer a narrow approach that is very focused. But, that’s just preference. It has its downsides as you put your eggs in fewer baskets. But, the upside is that you only work on roles that really interest you.

ii) Don’t do things to check-the-box – do it because you care. This is a general life lesson but really applies here. Don’t reach out to recruiters to check the box. Do it because you have a question. This is not everyone’s approach. But, I’d find it hugely frustrating if I found myself on a call that was motivated by a desire to check the “I spoke to someone within the company” box rather than out of genuine desire to learn.

iii) Seek and get comfortable with hard feedback. Better to have hard feedback early on your resume and cover letter than just receive rejections when you apply. Seek hard feedback and celebrate when you do receive it.

iv) Personal contacts matter. If you’ve taken the time to build relationships at the places you want to work, interview calls come much easier. They know you, they like you, they’d like to give you a shot, and your resume submission is just a formality. Makes it easy for them and yourself. I know it is cliche – but, who you know does actually matter a lot.

Stage 3 – Be the best you can be in those interviews. It is easy to imagine the process of attempting to get an interview as a game where you notch up points. Once you have received that interview call, however, your score gets reset to zero. Now, you walk into territory where your previous contacts and relationships matter a lot less (if at all) and where your competence gets a shot at shining through.

Process –
i) Master the basic pieces – behavioral, the 4 why questions and strengths and weaknesses. There is a tried-and-tested approach to doing well at behavioral interviews. I’ve written about that and added my enhancements to the approach in my previous post on the topic. They key here is to just put in the time, write down all your key stories, take time to understand your own thought process as you approach different kinds of problems and work on communicating it.

With the 4 why questions – why industry?, why company?, why role?, and why you?, it matters that it feels passionate and genuine. Boring prepared answers fail this test almost immediately. If you’re not able to find enough passion to explain these in your practice, I’d really question if you’re interviewing for the right role.

Finally, with strengths and weakness questions (especially weaknesses), speak to people who know you well and practice your responses. This needs to feel genuine.

ii) Use the “Tell me about yourself / Walk me through your resume” question to set the tone. This is an important question. Once you’ve taken the time to write down all your key stories and answered the “why’ questions, a clear pattern on your main themes should emerge. I am a big fan of thinking about the one thing you’d want the interviewer to remember about you. Then, think about three things. Structure your “Tell me about yourself” around these 3 things rather than a chronological order. This question is important because you can already lead in to the why company/role questions if done well. Really take the time to get this right – the final product needs to be succinct and it definitely needs to reflect YOU. Practice and feedback goes a long way with this question.

iii) Work hard on technical/case interviews. My interviews required me to get really good on case-style interviews very quickly. For the roles I was looking at, these were either technology product cases (easier) or broad strategy cases (harder). In some ways, I was a bit late into this realization for broad strategy cases and had to work really hard over a 3 week period to catch up. I ended up looking back at 3 weeks where I read 2 books, worked out around 30 cases by myself, 20 with my wife, and 15 mock cases with friends and ex-colleagues. Work with people who’ve mastered the process and aim to find your own path.

4 books helped me greatly in the process.
Product cases: Cracking the PM interview (Gayle Laakmann, Jackie Bavaro) and Decode and Conquer (Lewis Lin)
Strategy cases: Case in Point (Marc Cosentino), Case Interview Secrets (Victor Cheng)

All thus reading and interviewing led to 2 synthesized approaches that I could apply across these 2 kinds of cases –
– For product cases, I had 5 step process – what is the problem the product exists to solve?, who are the users/buyers?, how does it perform?, what changes would I recommend?, and how would I prioritize these changes?
– For strategy cases, I think the crux is identifying whether the case is an estimation (estimate top down, bottom up and do a gut check), a profitability case (break it down into its drivers – revenue, costs, etc.) or a decision case (go/no go with qualitative and quantitative costs and benefits).

I’m staying away from any more specific advice on technical/case interviews as it is important you do all the reading required and develop a style that works for you.

iv) Customize your preparation for each company. Consider developing “snapshots” of your research of the company you’re interviewing for. Here’s an example of a page full of publicly available information on LinkedIn. This stuff takes time but my belief is that this sort of preparation just comes through in the interview.

iv) Develop a pre-interview routine. Confidence matters a lot in the interview game. Develop a routine that helps you feel good. I used to generally wake up early, scribble a few notes of my approach to case interviews, read through my snapshot + behavioral interview notes. Just before the interview, I’d listen to the same collection of songs. I’ve heard of others who did a few “power poses” before their interviews. This is very personal – so experiment with a few different routines and then settle on what works for you.

i) There is no substitute for practice and preparation. The only way is through.

ii) Try and do 3 interviews over 2 weeks with 1 person whose opinion you trust. While it is important to get as many mock interviews under your belt, I’d highly recommend doing 2-3 interviews over a 2 week period with 1 person whose opinion you trust. This way, you’ll be able to monitor your progress better than just doing 5 mock interviews with 5 different people.

iii) Pace your preparation. It is hard to sustain intensity over a long period of time. So, pace your interview preparation as far as possible. You will have peaks and troughs. If you pace yourself well, your peaks will come on your most important interview days.

Bringing it all together. If I had to look back at the past few months and give myself advice for the next time I did this, I would tell myself three things.

First, it is a team effort. So, take the time to build and nurture this team. Any successful process has a team of people who worked on it, e.g., your applications to school  were successful because of recommenders, parents and mentors. Similarly, it helps to have a support system of folk who want you to succeed. Ask for help when you need it (and you will). And, remember those who help, say thank you often, keep them informed of your progress (or lack of it in case of people who’re very close to you), be nice and commit to helping them in any way possible and/or paying it forward.

Second, allow luck to find you. In all of these processes, there is always a certain amount of dumb luck involved. Just remember – chance favors the prepared mind. So, be prepared.

Finally, aim to be the best version of yourself. We often attach ourselves to outcomes we don’t control. I’ve written about how admissions and hiring is largely a crap shoot after a certain point. Neither of these are easy processes. That said, they can be very educational. Just aim to learn and celebrate the fact that you’ve given it your best shot. In the long run, the habit of being prepared, showing up and giving it your best tend to matter more than most other things. And, besides, it is my belief that good processes lead to good results.

All the best. I hope it helps.

Bad is far worse than none

This is a simple truth that is particularly hard to internalize. But, the fact remains that –
– bad food is worse than none
– a bad hire is far worse than no hire at all.
– or, for the most easily understood example, a bad relationship is far far worse than none at all.

Yes, you can scale your team really quickly by bringing bodies on board. But, bring in the wrong people and you’ll kill the motivation of all those who made your team successful, destroy the culture you worked so hard to build and spend all your time dealing with the kind of crap that comes with bad hires. Your team would much rather shoulder more effort than deal with the wrong person. So would you.

As humans, we’re wired towards feeling good about choosing quantity over quality. It is hard wired into our brains after centuries spent foraging for food in tough conditions all by ourselves. But, in our age of endless choice, it is vital we learn this lesson.

Great things are easily destroyed by a few bad choices made in a hurry. So, choose wisely, and remember – bad is far worse than none.

Ask others – The 200 words project

I hope you’re having a nice weekend. Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert.

Researchers conducted a study where the first group of volunteers would flip a coin. Heads meant a gift certificate to a local pizza parlor while tails meant nothing. The volunteers then recorded how they felt.

Group 2 were asked to predict how they’d feel if they didn’t get the gift certificate. Some of the group 2 were shown results from group 1 (“surrogators”) while others did so independently (“simulators”). They then performed the experiment.

The results showed that simulators felt much better than they predicted they would feel. They didn’t realize how quickly they’d rationalize it (“pizza is too fattening”, “I didn’t like that restaurant anyway”). But, those who followed the surrogators guessed this accurately.

The learning? We are terrible at predicting how we’ll feel about an experience. So, researcher Dan Gilbert suggests – “the best way to predict your feeling about an experience tomorrow is to figure out how others who are going through the experience are feeling today. However, you are probably very resistant to this because if you are like most people, then, like most people, you don’t like to admit you are like most people!’

Ask othersSource and thanks to:

‘Despite the third word of the title (Stumbling on Happiness), this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why.’ | Dan Gilbert :-)

No, you don’t really know

Yes, you can empathize. You can almost feel what it must have been like to be in that situation. But, no, you don’t really know. Even if you went through something similar, you can never substitute experiences because contexts are not identical.

To shake it off and believe you “get it” and that the person at the other end of the table doesn’t is just presumptuous.

The only way to avoid this trap is to approach tough discussions by acknowledging that you’ll never really understand and then following that up by sharing what you understand and what you have learnt through your experiences.

The first requirement to any great conversation is humility.

(As I write this, I realize how often I fall short of this idea and just assume that I do understand.)

The like-respect conundrum

I find that, if you aim to be liked, you’ll often end up making one too many compromises on your core values to be respected.

The other option is to choose to accept the fact that you might be respected and not liked. This is a hard choice to make because the prospect of universal popularity is very seductive. But, in doing so, you’ll make sure you never compromise on the things that matter and, in doing so, do work that matters to you.

Funnily enough, that generally means you will actually be liked by the people who choose to spend time with you. Sure, it is not universal popularity. But, I’d argue that it is the sort of popularity that actually matters. Our happiness is a by-product of the ten people we spend most of our time with.

What changes and what doesn’t

It was a Sunday evening. I had a yellow table lamp on and put on a beautiful series of songs on my speakers and sat on the couch.

I realized that there are many things that have changed in the last few years. But, at the same time, so many things just haven’t.

15 or so years ago, 100 of us went on a weekend school trip to an amusement park that specializes in water rides. I’d still rank the day spent in that park as among the best in my life. We just had an incredible amount of fun through the day. Just imagine 50 pre-teen boys darting around a water park. At the end of the day, I remember feeling really tired, sitting with a few close friends on the train back home and listening to a a couple of songs on our walkman (remember them?). That moment felt special.

I thought of the little things that have stayed special over these years.

Relaxing in the evening listening to great music. That’s special.
Add a great conversation with a few friends to the mix. That’s even better.
A trip with close friends. Just awesome.

Would this change if I had a few extra 0s on my bank account? Would this change if I achieved incredible professional success?

Absolutely not. Sure, money matters – I’m not debating that. But, beyond a point, there are all these things that either don’t require much money or just can’t be bought.

It helps to make sure we remind ourselves of what they are. And, to collect moments like these. It is easy to be caught up in our plans to do this and that in our lifetimes and to make sure we have no dearth of financial success.

But, in the end, it is these moments that are going to matter.. because, when we’re at an age when we have more money than we know what to do with, all that will really remain are those memories.