High signal reference checks

We see, ask for, and contribute to formal and informal reference checks often (“Hey, do you know x person? How are they to work with?”). And, while most folks who worked closely with a person can provide useful feedback, I’ve observed the following for the highest signal-to-noise ratio:

1) How well they communicate and hold a room -> their manager’s manager, an executive they reported into, or their manager (in that order).

2) Their ability to both lead and be a good colleague/teammate -> folks on cross-functional teams with no reporting relationship.

3) How good they are at their job -> peers, followed by the manager.

There are exceptions to these observations – typically folks up the reporting chain who manage to stay abreast of the detail. But, that aside, hearing strong positive feedback from a peer with close working experience is among the strongest positive indicators of a person’s ability to contribute on the job.

Getting a refund on airline tickets

Tip: If you had booked airline tickets pre COVID-19 that you’d like to cancel, don’t rush into accepting a credit from the airline. You can accept the credit till a few minutes before your flight.

Instead, wait till a week or two before the flight, call the airline, and check in on your flight status. The agent will likely explain that your flight has been moved significantly – e.g. 8 hours before or after – and that you’ve “missed a notification” (which you never received).

You can now explain that such a big move doesn’t work for you and that you’d like a refund instead. Your refund request will then be approved.

(H/T: ThePointsGuy.com for explaining how to approach this)

PS: Airlines are in a tough spot and are doing whatever they can to avoid refunds. The agents on these calls are doing their best to do their job and hopefully keep their jobs. So, while you’re at it, do spare a thought for them too.

COVID-19 – June notes

5 notes on COVID-19 –

1) We’re still in the first leg of the pandemic. Unlike notes I shared in the early days, we now have plenty of data on how things are going. So, I thought we’d take a quick look.

I had two takeaways when I looked at this. First, I expect the US, Brazil, and India to be up in any list that shows total number of cases. They’re among the most populous countries on the planet. But, that then raises a question – how is it that Indonesia and Pakistan (similar populations to the US and Brazil) aren’t featuring on this chart?

Next, the trend in the US is plain scary – especially given we’re clearly in the first wave.

2) But, since the chart above has a population bias, the chart below is a better chart to look at. This one looks at new cases per million people.

This chart, in turn, tells two stories.

On the one hand, it shows how well the European countries have flattened the curve. In the early days, we were talking about how impressively the likes of South Korea were dealing COVID-19 in comparison with the likes of Italy. This shows that the European nations found their way eventually.

On the other hand, it shows just how badly the US has botched it.

I also took a look deaths per per million people to see if it’d show something new.

I didn’t realize the extent to which the UK botched their response in the early days till I saw this. I wonder if Boris Johnson’s own COVID-19 experience changed his administration’s approach.

I’m still not clear why the death rate is significantly different across nations. For now, I’m running with the assumption that # of new cases are the best leading indicator we have.

3) I was surprised to India’s trend line to be so low on the “per million people” chart vs. the other. It speaks to the population related biases that makes this chart so much better. Based on this, it does look like the government has done an admirable job – at least relatively. That said, I do worry that we’re still in the early days of the pandemic. So, time will tell.

4) I think there are 4 factors that determine a nation’s response to a pandemic like this one – 1) competence of the government, 2) population density, 3) culture (collectivist vs. individualist), and 4) extent of politicization of important issues.

Based on this hypothesis, I wasn’t hopeful about how things would play out in the US and said as much in the early days of the pandemic – “The most dangerous places with COVID-19 on the planet today – particularly if you are over 50 years – are places which are neither acting early nor ramping up on testing. Sadly for those of us here, the United States squarely falls in that bucket. There are many good pieces of coverage that outline just how poorly the administration and the CDC have handled this situation.”

I did, however, hold out hope that a combination of significantly lower population density outside of the urban centers would help counteract some of the downside from 1), 3), and 4). But, that hope was clearly misplaced.

If there is a silver lining at this moment, it is a graph that Indeed’s Chief Economist shared about COVID-19 cases in Republican/red and Democratic/blue counties.

My hope is that the effect on the red counties will spur positive movement from the administration as we’re in an election year. Positive movement would include some or all of – acceptance of where we are vs. denial, significantly more testing and contact tracing, masks, and a more gradual, fact based, reopening. Fingers crossed.

5) On an individual level, it is hard to keep up the resolve to keep up the commitment to physical distance after three months of it. I’ve heard from plenty of folks about the frustration they feel. It is understandable. Video calls are tiring and we’ve definitely felt frustrated ourselves.

Given we’re likely going to be in it for at least another year, I don’t think living in isolation is the answer. But, that said, going back to the old normal isn’t either.

There’s plenty of middle ground in between and it involves avoiding crowds, meeting folks in smaller groups, and staying as safe as possible while not driving ourselves crazy.

Wishing all of us plenty of luck in the coming months.

We’re going to need it.

Be kind to yourself

A wise friend used to repeat one piece of advice for me in the early years of our relationship – be kind to yourself.

I was recently in a situation where I ended a day with a series of things having gone right. However, right before the end, I realized one thing that hadn’t gone as per plan.

So, obviously, I did what you might expect. I ignored all the things that went well and obsessed about the one thing that went wrong.

Soon, we were past an hour since I’d both realized it and taken constructive action.

That’s about when I remembered this friend’s message – “be kind to yourself.”

We all make mistakes. We also tend to over-index on obsessing about the things that went wrong over the things that went well. Both of these combined can mean a self-reinforcing and perpetual loop of kicking ourselves for mistakes.

The only way out is self compassion.

Be kind to yourself.

Doing and presenting

When doing the work, focus on the process.

When presenting the work, focus on outcomes and lessons learnt.

The former ensures we emerge from the experience with learning and peace of mind. And, the latter does the same for those being presented to.

Meeting size

Small meetings, if well run, are a great tool for efficiency – especially in the short term. They trade-off speed of decision making for inclusiveness.

Large meetings, if well run, are a great tool for effectiveness. While these may slow decision making, they often speed up execution in projects with lots of dependencies. Learning to run large meetings well is a valuable skill in larger organizations.

A lesson I repeatedly learn when thinking about meeting size is that the choice is binary. Either –
a) choose a small meeting, carefully control the size of the audience, don’t allow the meeting to be forwarded, and be comfortable about annoying a few people or
b) set the topic + agenda and don’t worry about the size of the meeting

A half-hearted attempt at control the size of the meeting nearly always backfires.

That’s because “medium” size meetings that involve some subset of a large group stakeholders and not others tend to be useless. They don’t end up achieving speed, inclusiveness, efficiency, or effectiveness sufficiently enough to make it worth anyone’s while.

Go small or go large. Either way, go all in.

Graduating during a downturn

There is a lot of good research on the impact of graduating during an economic downturn. The long and short of it is that your graduation year is a key input in your lifetime earnings and that the effects of graduating in a recession tend to persist.

By all accounts, COVID-19 is a ridiculously bad time to graduate. It isn’t just a bizarre year from the perspective of the job market. Graduates who have a job will face an unusual first year as part of the workforce. With organizations and the people generally unprepared and dealing with multiple stressors, they’re unlikely to get the training that they need on the job.

And, for those who don’t have a job, it is looking like it might be a long road back.

This is especially the case for the hundreds of thousands of students who made their way to other nations – predominantly the United States – to study. As one of those who made my way here a few years ago, I can only imagine the amount of stress today’s executive order would have caused.

This is not say that I am are above this stress. There are ripple effects of these orders that have immediate impact on the uncertainty we face. But, I have it a lot better by simple virtue of when I graduated..

These are moments when you realize how big a role dumb luck plays in any professional success we enjoy. It is so easy to attribute things that are going well to our smarts and hard work. But, there’s so much more to any success than that.

And, finally, every time I find myself in situations like this, I remind myself to stay focused on what I control and do my best to make the most of the opportunities that I have on my hands. And that this too shall pass.

It does.

In time.

The danger of single stories

James Clear’s website has a section where he’s shared transcripts from great speeches that we’ve likely never heard. I’ve been reading one speech every weekend over the past five and I’m grateful to him for the curation. Today, however, I found myself remembering the first one – The danger of single stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Here are 5 excerpts that resonated deeply –

Excerpt 1: I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.

Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.

Excerpt 2: Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia.

But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”

Excerpt 3: It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

Excerpt 4: I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Excerpt 5: Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind. “They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.”

I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

Her insight applies just as beautifully to places as to people and groups.

There is never just a single story.