I was coaching Sanjay,* a leader in a technology firm who felt stuck and frustrated. He wasn’t where he wanted to be at this point in his career.
He had come to our coaching session, as usual, prepared to discuss the challenges he was currently facing. This time, it was his plan for conducting compensation conversations with each of his employees. After a few minutes of listening to him talk through his plans, I interrupted him.
“Sanjay, you’ve had these kinds of conversations before, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And, for the most part, you know how to do them, right?”
“Yes,” he said again.
“Great. Let’s talk about something else.”
“But this is what’s on my mind right now,” he protested. “It’s helpful to think it through with you.”
“I’m glad it’s helpful, Sanjay,” I said. “But you don’t want me to be merely helpful. You want me to be transformational. And focusing on what’s top of mind for you right now is not going to get us there.”
You see, the reason Sanjay is stuck — and the reason many of us feel that way — is that we focus on what’s present for us at any particular moment.
On the other hand, what most of us want most is to move forward. And, by definition, paying attention to the present keeps us where we are. So, sure, I can help Sanjay be a better “present” Sanjay. But I will have a much greater impact if I help him become a successful “future” Sanjay.
It’s a familiar story: You’re busy all day, working non-stop, multitasking in a misguided attempt to knock a few extra things off your to-do list, and as the day comes to a close, you still haven’t gotten your most important work done.
Being busy is not the same as being productive. It’s the difference between running on a treadmill and running to a destination. They’re both running, but being busy is running in place.
If you want to be productive, the first question you need to ask yourself is: Who do I want to be? Another question is: Where do I want to go? Chances are that the answers to these questions represent growth in some direction. And while you can’t spend all your time pursuing those objectives, you definitely won’t get there if you don’t spend any of your time pursuing them.
If you want to be a writer, you have to spend time writing. If you want to be a sales manager, you can’t just sell — you have to develop your management skill. If you want to start a new company, or launch a new product, or lead a new group, you have to spend time planning and building your skills and experience.
Here’s the key: You need to spend time on the future even when there are more important things to do in the present and even when there is no immediately apparent return to your efforts. In other words — and this is the hard part — if you want to be productive, you need to spend time doing things that feel ridiculously unproductive.
I want to expand my writing abilities, so I have started waking up at 5:30 in the morning to write fiction. Unfortunately — and I am not being humble here — I am a terrible fiction writer. So my writing time feels painfully unproductive. I can’t sell it. I can’t use it. I can’t share it. Honestly, I can hardly bear to read it out loud. I have such a long list of things that actually need to get done, it is almost impossible to justify losing sleep in order to do something so unrelated to my present challenges. I know this is how my clients feel when I ask them to put aside their immediate concerns and focus on more distant challenges.
A question I hear a lot is: What about all the things I actually need to get done? Don’t I need to get through my cluttered email box, my pressing conversations, my project plans in order to create space to focus on my future self?
That’s a trick your busy self plays on you to keep you away from the scary stuff you’re not yet good at and that isn’t yet productive. Sometimes you need to be irresponsible with your current challenges in order to make real progress on your future self. You have to let the present just sit there, untended. It’s not going away and will never end. That’s the nature of the present.
You may not end up with an empty email inbox. You may not have the perfect compensation conversations. You may not please everyone. But, as your coach, I’m willing to bet that you will do those things well enough.
It’s the other stuff I worry about. The wildly important stuff that never gets done because there’s not time or it’s not urgent or it’s too hard or risky or terrifying. That’s the stuff I want to help you work on.
Even though Sanjay is delighted at the idea of focusing on his future self, he resists it because it doesn’t feel as good as solving his current challenges. He isn’t as skilled at it yet. That’s why it’s his future.
Back when our Facebook design team still fit around a conference table, a new designer joining our merry band was a momentous event. Everyone loved sitting down and showing her how we worked —where we kept our design files, what tools to download, which meetings to attend. We were grateful that someone else had come to help us accomplish more together. Two pizzas were still enough to feed everyone.
A few months later, another person would join. And another. And another. Each time, new faces were introduced to the current team and our existing processes.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, I realized that the old way of doing things was no longer working. The turning point was walking into a design critique and noticing that our regular room didn’t have enough seats for everyone. We found more chairs, but 10 people wanted to share their projects — and we only had time for five or six.
Meanwhile, my own days were getting squeezed. There were more unexpected issues, more announcements to communicate, more decisions to keep track of. This pattern kept repeating itself. As soon as I figured out a better process, a few more people would join and the gears would get clogged once more. The only way to stay effective was to constantly change and adapt.
At each of these points, I felt like I had an entirely different job. While the core principles of management stayed the same, the day-to-day changed significantly.
People often ask me what’s different about my job now than when I started. Looking back, these are the five most striking contrasts between managing small and large teams:
Direct to Indirect Management. If your team is five people, you can develop a personal relationship with each individual where you understand the details of their work, what they are good at, and maybe even the hobbies they enjoy outside the office.
If your team is 30 people, you can’t manage them all directly, at least not to the same degree. If you did weekly 30-minute one-on-ones with everyone, that alone would take 15 hours — nearly half of the workweek. Add in time to follow up on any action items, and you’d barely be able to do anything else. When I got to more than eight reports, I started to feel like I didn’t have enough hours in the day to support everyone well while also thinking about hiring, ensuring high-quality design work, and contributing to product strategy.
This is why managers of growing teams eventually start to hire or develop managers underneath them. But this means you’re further removed from the people and the work on the ground. You’re still responsible for your team’s outcomes, but you can’t be in all the details. Decisions will be made without your input, and things will be done differently than how you might personally do them.
At first, this can feel disorienting, like you’re losing control. But empowering your people is a necessity. One of the biggest challenges of managing at scale is finding the right balance between going deep on a topic and stepping back and trusting others to take care of it. As a team grows, learning to give this trust is essential.
People Treat You Differently. Some years ago, when my team had grown beyond the point where I knew everybody personally, I attended a review where three designers presented their latest work. I gave them my feedback. Before we ended, I asked if there were any thoughts or questions about what I had said. Everyone shook their heads No. I left thinking that it was a good and productive meeting.
Later in the day, I saw one of my direct reports who looked upset. “I caught up with the team and they’re not feeling good about the review this morning,” he told me. I thought he was joking. “What? Why?” “They didn’t agree with your feedback,” he said. “But why didn’t they tell me that?” I asked incredulously. My subordinate paused. “Well Julie, you’re kind of a big deal — they were intimidated.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone refer to me as “kind of a big deal.” It was hard to compute. When did I become the kind of person who intimidated others? I’d always prided myself on my approachability.
What I learned is that it didn’t matter how I saw myself. When people don’t know you well and see that you’re in a position of authority, they’re less likely to tell you the ugly truth and challenge you when they think you’re wrong, even if you’d like them to. They might think it’s your prerogative to call the shots. They might not want to disappoint you or have you think badly of them. Or they might be trying to make your life easier by not burdening you with new problems or imposing on your time.
Be aware of this dynamic. Are your suggestions being taken as orders? Are your questions coming off as judgements? Are you presuming that things are rosier than they really are because you’re not hearing the full story?
Happily, there are some countermeasures you can take to make it easier for people to tell you the truth. Emphasize that you welcome dissenting opinions and reward those who express them. Own your mistakes and remind your team that you are human, just like everyone else. Use language that invites discussion: “I may be totally wrong here, so tell me if you disagree. My opinion is….” You can also ask directly for advice: “If you were me, what would you do in this situation?”
Context Switching, All Day, Every Day. When I managed a small team, I spent many afternoons with a handful of designers at the whiteboard, exploring new ideas. We would get so deeply into the flow of our work that hours would pass unnoticed.
As my team grew, my capacity to spend long, focused blocks on a single topic began to shrink. More people meant that we could tackle more projects, which mean that my time fragmented. I’d receive 10 emails about 10 completely different topics. Back-to-back meetings required me to immediately shed the past discussion and get mentally prepared for the next one.
When I didn’t do this well, I’d be distracted and overwhelmed, my mind constantly jumping from one topic to another. I’d lose focus during presentations. I’d mutter that every day felt like a week.
Over time, I came to understand that this was the job. As the number of projects I was responsible for doubled, tripled, and quadrupled, my ability to context switch also needed to keep pace. I discovered a few techniques to make this easier: scanning through my calendar every morning and preparing for each meeting, developing a robust note-taking and task-management system, finding pockets for reflection at the end of every week. Some days I’m still distracted. But I’ve come to accept that there will always be a dozen different issues to work through at any given time — some big, some small, some unexpected — and as the manager of a large team, you learn to roll with it.
Pick and Choose Your Battles. When I managed a small team, there were days I’d walk out of the office with zero outstanding tasks left — my inbox was cleared, my to-dos were crossed off, and nothing else needed my attention. As my scope grew, those days became rarer and rarer until they ceased to exist completely.
The more you look after, the more likely it is that something under your purview isn’t going as well as it could be. It might be projects falling behind schedule, miscommunications that need to be cleared up, or people who aren’t getting what they need. At any given moment, I can list dozens of areas that I could be working to improve.
But at the end of the day, you are only one individual with a limited amount of time. You can’t do everything, so you must prioritize. What are the most important topics for you to pay attention to, and where are you going to draw the line? Perfectionism is not an option. It took me a long time to get comfortable operating in a world where I had to pick and choose what mattered the most, and not let the sheer number of possibilities overwhelm me.
People-Centric Skills Matter Most. I remember hearing about a CEO who made the executives on his team switch roles every few years, like a game of musical chairs. I was skeptical. How could a sales executive be expected to know how to run an engineering organization, or a chief financial officer become a strong chief marketing officer?
Nowadays, I don’t think an executive swap is as far-fetched as I once thought. As teams grow, managers spend less time on the specific craft of their discipline. What matters more is that they can get the best out of a group of people. For example, no CEO is an expert across sales and design, engineering and communications, finance and human resources. And yet, she is tasked with building and leading an organization that does all of those things.
At higher levels of management, the job starts to converge regardless of background. Success becomes more about mastering a few key skills: hiring exceptional leaders, building self-reliant teams, establishing a clear vision, and communicating well.
People who master those skills will be well-equipped to lead teams of any size.
We all know developing a personal brand is valuable, since a strong reputation can put you on the radar for exciting career opportunities. When your true talents are understood, it’s far more likely you’ll be tapped for relevant and interesting assignments — and it helps you stand out in a field of competitors. Research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett at the Center for Talent Innovation shows that cultivating your personal brandis one of the best ways to attract a sponsor — and professionals with sponsors are 23% more likely than their peers to be promoted. Your brand is also a powerful hedge against professional misfortune. If there are layoffs or cutbacks at your company, being recognized in your field makes it far more likely that you’ll be snapped up quickly by another firm.
But personal branding has some unique challenges for female professionals. Research has repeatedly shown that women are subject to a phenomenon known as the “likability conundrum.” Gender norms presume that women should be agreeable, warm, and nurturing, and when they violate these norms — such as when they step up to make a tough decision, share a strong opinion, or promote themselves — they’re often penalized for that behavior in a way that men wouldn’t be. We can all think of examples of women who have been publicly criticized for being “too aggressive” or labeled an “ice queen” or the “b-word.”
So how can you, as a woman, navigate this conundrum and develop a robust personal brand? Here are three strategies that can help ensure your talents are recognized.
Network both inside and outside your organization. Too many professionals over-index on “bonding capital,” to use a term popularized by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, and underinvest in “bridging capital.” In other words, they have too many connections who are like them (working in the same company or the same industry) and not nearly enough who are dissimilar.
When only a select group knows about your talents and abilities, you put yourself in jeopardy. You have fewer people who can speak to your contributions or provide support, whether that’s help in securing additional resources for an important project or moving up to a new role. And if your department is reorganized or your company has layoffs, the people who understand your talents won’t be in a position to help.
Instead, consciously cultivate a broad network, so if your situation changes or you need backup, you have options. For instance, you could make a point of building professional connections with people you meet through hobbies, relationships of proximity (for instance, neighbors or parents at your kids’ school), or friends of friends.
Control your narrative. We often assume that if we work hard, people will notice it over time, or that if we’ve made a transition, it will make intuitive sense to others. Because people are so overstretched these days, that’s unfortunately almost never true. They’re simply not paying close enough attention to us or our professional trajectory to formulate a coherent narrative of us. Worse, they may make inaccurate assumptions — say, that your skills must be wildly out of date since you took time off after having a child, or that you shifted to functional roles because you were bored or “couldn’t hack it” — which could cause you to miss out on growth opportunities.
Help others understand the truth about your journey by developing a clear and concise elevator pitch that explains how your previous skills connect with, and add value to, what you’re doing now. Make that connection explicit, rather than hoping others will figure it out on their own.
To start, chart it out on paper. On one side, write down your past position or experience. On the other side, write down the job you currently hold. Then find the connective tissue that links them.
For instance, your past might be “HR director” and your present might be “regional sales leader.” An outsider may have no idea what connects these two positions and assume your career path is somewhat random. But you know that your experience in HR taught you about how to listen empathetically, understand what motivates people, and develop win-win solutions — all of which are perfect ingredients for sales success. When you’re able to share this with others, they’ll almost always get it and recognize the unique skills you bring to your position and the organization.
A crisp elevator pitch isn’t useful just for times when you’re job hunting. There are often opportunities to shape the way you’re perceived by others, but most people miss them. For instance, new acquaintances will often ask how long you’ve been at your job or how you came to your current field. Having a pithy answer ready means you can turn their question into an opportunity to subtly highlight your skills: “I started out in HR and worked my way up to director. But I became fascinated by the sales process, and realized the listening skills and ability to connect with people that I’d developed in HR would enable me to add real value to the company, so I transitioned last year and am now the head of northeast sales.” You haven’t just laid out your job titles; you’ve provided context that conveys a strong personal brand.
Similarly, during performance reviews, you can make a point of reminding your boss about how you’re leveraging key strengths you’ve developed over time. For instance, you could connect this year’s increase in client upsells to your work developing your team’s listening skills so that they’re more attuned to client needs.
Share your ideas publicly. If you keep a low profile and let your work speak for itself, you may indeed develop a good reputation among the people you work closely with. But that’s a relatively limited number of people. Individuals in other departments or leaders many levels above you may not be aware of your contributions. And any staffing changes might disrupt the hard-fought reputational capital you’ve built. Your new boss or colleagues, lacking personal experience with you, may have no idea whether you’re any good.
Many women may feel uncomfortable talking about their accomplishments and promoting themselves directly. But there are other ways to show your areas of expertise when building a brand. Content creation is a good way to share your ideas and build a positive reputation at scale. The precise mechanics will differ based on company policies (your ability to use social media may be limited in certain regulated industries, for instance), but in almost any organization, there are ways that you can you demonstrate your knowledge and help others.
For instance, you could volunteer to host a lunch-and-learn about a topic you’ve been researching, start writing for the company newsletter, or offer advice or respond to queries on the corporate intranet. Many professionals ignore these opportunities, assuming they’re distractions that take them away from their “real work” or scoffing that no one really pays attention to them. Even if these opportunities are not popular among your colleagues, higher-ups are almost always paying attention, since they view these channels as important vehicles for transferring knowledge and sharing best practices. One college friend of mine, for example, while working as a sales clerk at a large retailer, got into a private message exchange with the company CEO — eventually winning a trip to headquarters — as the result of one of her posts on the corporate intranet.
Content creation may also open up completely unexpected opportunities, including new jobs. Miranda Aisling Hynes, whom I profile in my book Stand Out, self-published a book about creativity that she gave to a friend who worked at an arts organization. He liked it and passed it along to his supervisor; when Hynes later applied for a job at the organization, she was a shoo-in because the book had already established her credibility in the field.
Personal branding is fraught for many professionals — no one wants to look like a craven self-promoter. And with the likability conundrum, building meaningful connections and a strong reputation at work is even more complicated for women.
But if we don’t control our own narrative and show the world what we can contribute, odds are very few people will actually notice. By following these strategies, you dramatically increase the odds that your true talents will get known, recognized, and appreciated.
Historically, leaders achieved their position by virtue of experience on the job and in-depth knowledge. They were expected to have answers and to readily provide them when employees were unsure about what to do or how to do it. The leader was the person who knew the most, and that was the basis of their authority.
Leaders today still have to understand their business thoroughly, but it’s unrealistic and ill-advised to expect them to have all the answers. Organizations are simply too complex for leaders to govern on that basis. One way for leaders to adjust to this shift is to adopt a new role: that of coach. By using coaching methods and techniques in the right situations, leaders can still be effective without knowing all the answers and without telling employees what to do.
Coaching is about connecting with people, inspiring them to do their best, and helping them to grow. It’s also about challenging people to come up with the answers they require on their own. Coaching is far from an exact science, and all leaders have to develop their own style, but we can break down the process into practices that any manager will need to explore and understand. Here are the three most important:
Coaching begins by creating space to be filled by the employee, and typically you start this process by asking an open-ended question. After some initial small talk with my clients and students, I usually signal the beginning of our coaching conversation by asking, “So, where would you like to start?” The key is to establish receptivity to whatever the other person needs to discuss, and to avoid presumptions that unnecessarily limit the conversation. As a manager you may well want to set some limits to the conversation (“I’m not prepared to talk about the budget today.”) or at least ensure that the agenda reflects your needs (“I’d like to discuss last week’s meeting, in addition to what’s on your list.”), but it’s important to do only as much of this as necessary and to leave room for your employee to raise concerns and issues that are important to them. It’s all too easy for leaders to inadvertantly send signals that prevent employees from raising issues, so make it clear that their agenda matters.
In his book Helping, former MIT professor Edgar Schein identifies different modes of inquiry that we employ when we’re offering help, and they map particularly well to coaching conversations. The initial process of information gathering I described above is what Schein calls “pure inquiry.” The next step is “diagnostic inquiry,” which consists of focusing the other person’s attention on specific aspects of their story, such as feelings and reactions, underlying causes or motives, or actions taken or contemplated. (“You seem frustrated with Chris. How’s that relationship going?” or “It sounds like there’s been some tension on your team. What do you think is happening?” or “That’s an ambitious goal for that project. How are you planning to get there?”)
The next step in the process is what Schein somewhat confusingly calls “confrontational inquiry”. He doesn’t mean that we literally confront the person, but, rather, that we challenge aspects of their story by introducing new ideas and hypotheses, substituting our understanding of the situation for the other person’s. (“You’ve been talking about Chris’s shortcomings. How might you be contributing to the problem?” or “I understand that your team’s been under a lot of stress. How has turnover affected their ability to collaborate?” or “That’s an exciting plan, but it has a lot of moving parts. What happens if you’re behind schedule?”)
In coaching conversations it’s crucial to spend as much time as needed in the initial stages and resist the urge to jump ahead, where the process shifts from asking open-ended questions to using your authority as a leader to spotlight certain issues. The more time you can spend in pure inquiry, the more likely the conversation will challenge your employee to come up with their own creative solutions, surfacing the unique knowledge that they’ve gained from their proximity to the problem.
It’s important to understand the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a cognitive process that happens internally — we absorb sound, interpret it, and understand it. But listening is a whole-body process that happens between two people that makes the other person truly feel heard.
Listening in a coaching context requires significant eye contact, not to the point of awkwardness, but more than you typically devote in a casual conversation. This ensures that you capture as much data about the other person as possible — facial expressions, gestures, tics — and conveys a strong sense of interest and engagement.
Effective listening also requires our focused attention. Coaching is fundamentally incompatible with multitasking, because while you may be able to hear what another person is saying while working on something else, it’s impossible to listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard. It’s critical to eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, close your laptop, and find a dedicated space where you won’t be interrupted.
Coaching conversations can take place over the phone, of course, and in that medium it’s even more important to refrain from multitasking so that in the absence of visual data, you can pick up on subtle cues in someone’s speech.
In my experience taking brief, sporadic notes in a coaching conversation helps me to stay focused and lessens the burden of maintaining information in my working memory (which holds just five to seven items for most people.) But note-taking itself can become a distraction, causing you to worry more about accurately capturing the other person’s comments than about truly listening. Coaching conversations aren’t depositions, so don’t play stenographer. If you feel the need to take notes, try writing one word or phrase at a time, just enough to jog your memory later.
Empathy is the ability not only to comprehend another person’s point of view, but also to vicariously experience their emotions. Without empathy other people remain alien and opaque to us. When present it establishes the interpersonal connection that makes coaching possible.
A key to the importance of empathy can be found in the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston whose work focuses on the topics of vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Empathy, Brown notes, is “the antidote to shame.” When employees need your help they are likely experiencing some form of shame, even if it’s just mild embarrassment — and the more serious the problem, the deeper the shame. Feeling and expressing empathy is critical to helping the other person defuse their embarrassment and begin thinking creatively about solutions.
But note that our habitual expressions of empathy can sometimes be counterproductive. Michael Sahota, a coach in Toronto who works with groups of software developers and product managers, explains some of the traps we fall into when trying to express empathy: We compare our issues to theirs (“My problem’s bigger.”), try to be overly positive (“Look on the bright side.”), or leap to problem-solving while ignoring what they’re feeling in the moment.
Finally, be aware that expressing empathy need not prevent you from holding people to high standards. You may fear that empathizing is equivalent to excusing poor performance but this is a false dichotomy. Empathizing with the difficulties your employees face is an important step in the process of helping them build resilience and learn from setbacks. After you’ve acknowledged an employee’s struggles and feelings, they’re more likely to respond to your efforts to motivate improved performance.
When you coach as a leader you don’t need to be the expert. You don’t need to be the smartest or most experienced person in the room. And you don’t need to have all the solutions. But you do need to be able to connect with people, to inspire them to do their best, and to help them search inside and discover their own answers.
No one likes job hunting. Scouring through online job listings, spiffing up your résumé, prepping for grueling interviews — none of it is fun. For many, the most challenging part of the process is writing an effective cover letter. There’s so much conflicting advice out there, it’s hard to know where to start. Do you even need one, especially if you’re applying through an online system?
What the Experts Say
The answer is almost always yes. Sure, there will be times when you’re submitting an application online and you may not be able to include one but whenever possible, send one, says Jodi Glickman, a communications expert and author of Great on the Job. “It’s your best chance of getting the attention of the HR person or hiring manager and an important opportunity to distinguish yourself from everyone else.” And in a tight job market, setting yourself apart is critical, says John Lees, a UK-based career strategist and author of Knockout CV. Still, as anyone who’s ever written a cover letter knows, it’s not easy to do well. Here are some tips to help.
Do your research first
Before you start writing, find out more about the company and the specific job you want. Of course, you should carefully read the job description, but also peruse the company’s website, its executives’ Twitter feeds, and employee profiles on LinkedIn. This research will help you customize your cover letter, since you shouldn’t send a generic one. It’ll also help you decide on the right tone. “Think about the culture of the organization you’re applying to,” advises Glickman. “If it’s a creative agency, like a design shop, you might take more risks but if it’s a more conservative organization, like a bank, you may hold back.”
If at all possible, reach out to the hiring manager or someone else you know at the company before writing your cover letter, advises Lees. You can send an email or a LinkedIn message “asking a smart question about the job.” That way you can start your letter by referencing the interaction. You might say, “Thanks for the helpful conversation last week” or “I recently spoke to so-and-so at your company.” Of course, it’s not always possible to contact someone — or you may not get a response. That’s OK. It’s still worth a try.
Focus it on the future
While your résumé is meant to be a lookback at your experience and where you’ve been, the cover letter should focus on the future and what you want to do, says Glickman. “It can be helpful to think of it as the bridge between the past and the future that explains what you hope to do next and why.” Because of the pandemic there is less of an expectation that you’ll be applying for a job that you’ve done before. “There are millions of people who are making career changes — voluntarily or involuntarily — and need to pivot and rethink how their skillset relates to a different role or industry,” says Glickman. You can use your cover letter to explain the shift you’re making, perhaps from hospitality to marketing, for example. Think of it as an opportunity to sell your transferrable skills.
“People typically write themselves into the letter with ‘I’m applying for X job that I saw in Y place.’ That’s a waste,” says Lees. Instead, lead with a strong opening sentence. “Start with the punch line — why this job is exciting to you and what you bring to the table,” says Glickman. For example, you might write, “I’m an environmental fundraising professional with more than 15 years of experience looking for an opportunity to apply my skills in new ways, and I’d love to bring my expertise and enthusiasm to your growing development team.” Then you can include a sentence or two about your background and your relevant experience but don’t rehash your résumé.
Chances are the hiring manager or recruiter is reading a stack of these, so you want to catch their attention. But don’t try to be funny. “Humor can often fall flat or sound self-regarding,” says Lees. Stay away from common platitudes, too. “Say something direct and dynamic, such as ‘Let me draw your attention to two reasons why I’d be a great addition to your team.’”
If you have a personal connection with the company or someone who works there, also mention it in the first sentence or two. And always address your letter to someone directly. “With social media, it’s often possible to find the name of a hiring manager,” says Glickman.
Emphasize your personal value
Hiring managers are looking for people who can help them solve problems. Drawing on the research you did earlier, show that you know what the company does and some of the challenges it faces. These don’t need to be specific but you might mention how the industry has been affected by the pandemic. For example, you might write, “A lot of healthcare companies are overwhelmed with the need to provide high quality care while protecting the health and safety of their staff.” Then talk about how your experience has equipped you to meet those needs; perhaps explain how you solved a similar problem in the past or share a relevant accomplishment. You want to provide evidence of the things that set you apart.
Lees points out that there are two skills that are relevant to almost any job right now: adaptability and the ability to learn quickly. If you have brief examples that demonstrate these skills include those. For example, if you supported your team in the shift to remote work, describe how you did that and what capabilities you drew on.
“When you don’t get hired, it’s usually not because of a lack of skills,” says Glickman. “It’s because people didn’t believe your story, that you wanted the job, or that you knew what you were getting into.” Hiring managers are going to go with the candidate who has made it seem like this is their dream job. So make it clear why you want the position. “Enthusiasm conveys personality,” Lees adds. He suggests writing something like “I’d love to work for your company. Who wouldn’t? You’re the industry leader, setting standards that others only follow.” Don’t bother applying if you’re not excited about some aspect of the company or role.
Watch the tone
At the same time, don’t go overboard with the flattery or say anything you don’t mean. Authenticity is crucial. “Even if you’ve been out of work for months, and would take any job at this point, you want to avoid sounding desperate,” says Lees. You don’t want your tone to undermine your message so be professional and mature. A good rule of thumb is to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager and think about “the kind of language that the hiring manager would use with one of the company’s customers.” Of course, it can be hard to discern your own tone in writing so you may need to ask someone to review a draft (which is always a good idea anyway — see advice below). Lees says that he often cuts outs “anything that sounds like desperation” when he’s reviewing letters for clients.
Keep it short
Much of the advice out there says to keep it under a page. But both Glickman and Lees say even shorter is better. “Most cover letters I see are too long,” says Lees. “It should be brief enough that someone can read it at a glance.” You do have to cover a lot of ground — but you should do it succinctly. This is where asking a friend, former colleague, or mentor to review can be helpful. Ask them to read through it and point out places where you can cut.
In fact, it’s a great idea to share your cover letter with a few people, says Lees. Rather than sending it off and asking, “What do you think?” be specific about the kind of feedback you want. In particular, request two things. First, ask your friend if it’s clear what your main point is. What’s the story you’re telling? Are they able to summarize it? Second, ask them what’s wrong with the letter. “Other people are more attuned to desperation, overselling, over-modesty, and underselling,” says Lees and they should be able to point out places where the tone is off.
When you can’t submit a cover letter
Many companies now use online application systems that don’t allow for a cover letter. You may be able to figure out how to include one in the same document as your résumé but that’s not a guarantee, especially because some systems only allow for data to be entered into specific boxes. In these cases, use the format you’re given to demonstrate your ability to do the job and your enthusiasm for the role. If possible, you may try to find someone who you can send a brief follow-up email highlighting a few key points about your application.
Principles to Remember
Have a strong opening statement that makes clear why you want the job and what you bring to the table.
Be succinct — a hiring manager should be able to read your letter at a glance.
Share an accomplishment that shows you can address the challenges the employer is facing.
Try to be funny — too often it falls flat.
Send a generic cover letter — customize each one for the specific job.
Go overboard with flattery — be professional and mature.
Advice in Practice
Case Study #1: Demonstrate an understanding of what the company needs
Michele Sommers, the vice president of HR for the Boys & Girls Village, a nonprofit in Connecticut, recently posted a job for a recruiting and training specialist. “I was looking for someone with a strong recruiting background who could do everything from sourcing candidates to onboarding new hires,” she says. She also wanted the person to hit the ground running. “We’re a small team and I can’t afford to train someone,” she says.
More than 100 candidates applied for the job. The organization’s online application system doesn’t allow for cover letter attachments but one of the applicants, Heidi (not her real name), sent a follow-up email after submitting her résumé. “And it’s a good thing she did because she would’ve been weeded out otherwise,” Michele says.
Heidi’s résumé made her look like a “job hopper” — very short stints at each previous employer. Michele assumed she was a poor performer who kept getting fired. She was also the only candidate who didn’t have a four-year college degree.
But Heidi’s email caught Michele’s eye. First off, it was professional. Heidi stated clearly that she was writing to double-check that her application had been received. She went on to explain how she had gotten Michele’s name and information (through her husband’s boss who was on the board) and her personal connection to Boys & Girls Village (her father-in-law had done some work with the organization).
What really stood out to Michele, though, was Heidi’s understanding of the group and the challenges it was facing. She’d done her research and “listed some things she would do or already had done that would help us address those needs,” says Michele.
“The personality and passion she conveyed in the cover letter came through during her phone screening,” Michele says. Heidi ended up being more than qualified for the job. “I wanted this role to be bigger from the get-go but I didn’t think that was possible. When I met her, I knew we could expand it.” Three weeks later Michele offered Heidi the job and she accepted.
Case Study #2: Catch their attention
Over the past four years, Emily Sernaker applied for multiple positions at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). She never gave up. With each application, she sent a personalized cover letter. “I wanted my cover letter to highlight my qualifications, creative thinking, and genuine respect for the organization,” she says.
Sarah Vania, the organization’s regional HR director, says that Emily’s letters caught her attention, especially because they included several video links that showed the results of Emily’s advocacy and fundraising work at other organizations. Emily explains, “I had prior experience advocating for former child soldiers, human trafficking survivors, vulnerable women, and displaced persons. It’s one thing to make statements in a cover letter, like ‘I can make a pitch, I am a creative person, I am thoughtful,’ but showing these qualities seemed like a better way of convincing the recruiter that the statements were true.”
This is what Emily wrote to Sarah about the video:
Here is a short video about my story with activism. The nonprofit organization Invisible Children made it for a youth conference I spoke at this year. It is about four minutes.
As you’ll see from the video, I’ve had a lot of success as a student fundraiser, raising over $200,000 for Invisible Children. I’ve since gone on to work as a consultant for Wellspring International and have recently concluded my studies as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar.
In each of the cover letters, Emily also made clear how much she wanted to work for IRC. “To convey enthusiasm is a vulnerable thing to do and can come off as naiveté, but, when it came down to it, my enthusiasm for the organization was genuine and expressing it felt right,” she says.
This is how Emily conveyed her interest in working for IRC:
You should also know that I have a sincere appreciation of the IRC. I have enjoyed learning about your programs and have personally visited your New York headquarters, the San Diego New Roots farm, the We Can Be Heroes exhibit, and the Half the Sky exhibit in Los Angeles. The IRC is my top choice and I believe I would be a valuable addition to your fundraising team.
Emily learned throughout the process that the organization had hundreds of applicants for each position and it was extremely competitive. “I appreciated that I wouldn’t be the best for every opening but also remained firm that I did have a significant contribution to make,” she says. Eventually, Emily’s persistence paid off. She was hired as a temporary external relations coordinator and four months later she moved into a permanent role.
Editor’s note: The author updated this article, which was originally written in 2014, to reflect the latest advice from the experts and the reality of job-seeking during the pandemic.
How you interact as a team impacts how you think about your business. If your team’s interactions are becoming predictable or languishing in a flat line, it might be time to stir things up. These four strategies can break stale habits in your team and raise the temperature in your meetings: First, be grounded in purpose. Before jumping in to change team dynamics, explain why. Reminding yourself and others about purpose keeps the focus on what the group is trying to achieve and reduces hurt feelings and drama. Second, describe behavioral data. Observe what behaviors are flying under the radar in your meetings and mention them to the team, so they’re aware. Third, invite multiple interpretations of why these behaviors are happening. Finally, disrupt defaults. use that new knowledge of the dynamics at play and why they’re happening to break familiar patterns.
We often consider ourselves lucky if we’re on a team with little conflict and minimal office politics. When a team works together for a long time, they find a rhythm of collaborating and fall into regular patterns of behavior, minimizing disagreements. But over time, this habitual way of working can limit the team’s performance. We don’t often step back to assess if the team dynamics that we consider “good” are getting in the way of generating breakthrough ideas and results.
For instance, think about your last team meeting. Did everyone get along? Could you predict who was going to speak up and what they were going to say? Was there any disagreement? Do you feel you heard from everyone, or just a select few?
How you interact as a team impacts how you think about your business. If your team’s interactions are becoming predictable or languishing in a flat line, it might be time to stir things up. Just as boiling water changes state from liquid to gas, innovating at work requires us to raise the temperature — to boil water at work.
Raising the temperature in your team meetings means creating enough productive tension through diversity and dissension to stimulate different ideas. Most of us want to (too) quickly drive to consensus and quash divergent points of view before they even surface. Holding out on converging in itself is uncomfortable. Bringing up ideas against the organization’s conventional thinking, is difficult. But inserting a pause to think differently provides necessary provocation to up our game.
To break stale habits in your team and raise the temperature in your meetings, use these four key strategies:
Be grounded in purpose.
Creating productive tension is dangerous and messy work. The only reason to risk being on the edge and inviting others to join you there is for the right purpose.
Be explicit about the reason you are raising the heat, so others don’t accuse you of taking potshots at the team or questioning their work. You could say, “If our purpose is to double our numbers this year, the thinking that leads us to our current figures is unlikely to transform our results. Let’s change the way we’re interacting and brainstorming ideas.” Reminding yourself and others about purpose keeps the focus on what the group is trying to achieve and reduces hurt feelings and drama.
Describe behavioral data.
Observe what behaviors are flying under the radar in your meetings. For example, I have mentioned during several executive retreats, “In all four breakout groups women took notes and men presented.” Or I might say, “After two hours in this session, 17 of 43 people have not yet spoken.” These are small interventions that increase awareness of the dynamics in the room.
The data often reveal patterns: who opens the conversation, reactions to specific individuals, who interrupts whom and when. Call out patterns with specific data points, such as, “In the last 30 minutes, whenever someone from the production group has spoken, they have been interrupted by an engineer,” or “I’ve noticed that each time someone brings up the schedule delay, someone else immediately offers an explanation, but no one offers a solution.” By illuminating the data and the patterns at play, you help the group check assumptions, break out of their ruts, and increase creativity.
Invite multiple interpretations.
The more surprising your data, the more important it is that you invite others to interpret its multiple possible meanings. Ask team members to share their own thoughts about why certain team dynamics are at play. Often our first interpretation — and the action we take based upon it — comes from the narrow angle of the view afforded to us by where we sit in the organization or our particular agenda. For instance, if the production team members are repeatedly interrupted by engineers, the group could interpret it in different ways, such as:
The engineers are feeling defensive since they were slower to provide a working product.
The engineers are higher up in the organization and feel they can interrupt others.
The engineering team is trying to share a recent breakthrough with the production team.
The last time there was a delay, the engineering group was blamed, even though fault belonged in multiple places.
The engineers are trying to support the production team by jumping in to provide supporting data.
Often groups are mired in misunderstandings and conflict lurking in a single interpretation. Such stories often involve an us-vs.-them narrative in which we are the wronged party. Listening to our colleagues’ interpretations may reveal a very different set of assumptions instead of ill intent — assumptions that might be just as valid as our own. Exposing different perceptions broadens everyone’s understanding of the underlying problem. With a more comprehensive diagnosis, we can design a more robust solution.
Once the team notices their default behaviors and shares various possible reasons for them, everyone will have a clearer view of how they are being perceived. Use that new knowledge to break familiar patterns.
For example, I was running a C-suite offsite where Raul, the head of product, was always the first to speak. Over time, this resulted in the CTO becoming quieter, and the CFO often engaging Raul in a debate detracting from the main topic. After I pointed out this pattern, Raul vowed to be silent on a subject until at least two others had spoken. Initially others started to participate more — until we had a controversial question. There was silence. The group defaulted to their familiar behavior, deferring to Raul. But given his resolution to hold off speaking first, he held back. Eventually, the COO offered a novel idea that excited the team. Using our interpretations of data and patterns, we can reset our defaults to reduce dysfunction and enhance contributions.
Whether you need to transform your team dynamics or disrupt conventional thinking to change business results, breaking out of your team’s patterns of behavior can be just what you need to create breakthrough ideas and new opportunities.
Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDx and has written for FastCompany.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, in addition to HBR.org. Follow her on Twitter.
No matter how many years you’ve worked, starting a new job is often nerve-racking. There are so many unknowns to figure out, and one of the biggest question marks is your new boss. How can you set your relationship up for success?
One of the biggest things I learned in my coaching career is that helping people manage their bosses is arguably as important as helping them to manage themselves. This often means relearning what it means to adapt to an organization, as everything that may have made you effective with your previous manager may not necessarily help you with your new one. For example, I once went from working for a very sociable, hedonistic, and assertive boss, to working for a very quiet, cautious, and serious boss — my personality stayed the same, but I was forced to learn new habits, adjust my behaviors, and relearn how to adapt.
While there’s no universal or simple formula for improving your ability to get along (and work effectively) with your new boss, the good news is that you will make a great deal of progress if you can ask the right questions. Here are seven to consider:
1. Who should I meet with outside of our team?
Although we have come a long way to make organizations more talent-centric and merit-based, the old premise is still true: what you know is often less important than who you know. This is why office politics are so important; your ability to figure out how to influence others will improve if you can get to a quick understanding of the unspoken or informal networks that govern the social dynamics of your new team or organization. Your boss is ideally placed to provide you with this intel.
3.What’s the best way to ask for your input and feedback?
Establishing a cadence where you can get regular feedback on how you are doing, even via 15-minutes weekly chats or regular email check-ins, will help you regulate and calibrate your efforts to improve your performance.
4. What can I do to support the team and add value to the organization?
This question will enable you to clarify your role, align with your boss on expectations, and strategically prioritize tasks and efforts. Managers often fail to clearly and explicitly articulate what their top priority is, how they see team members fitting in, and what they mostly need from them. Understanding this quickly will help you deliver where it matters most.
5. What would you do if you were in my shoes?
This question will not just invite your manager to empathize with you — allowing them to see things from your perspective — it will also show them that you respect them and appreciate their expertise. No matter how logical or insightful their advice may be, it can create a good connection between the two of you and further deepen your understanding of how your manager thinks, feels, and acts.
6. How can I further develop my potential?
As the brilliant Hermina Ibarra noted, great leaders excel at coaching and mentoring their people. You can nudge your boss to play this role by asking them to assess and develop your potential. This means going beyond your performance to focus also on what you could do. In a world that is increasingly pushing us to reskill and upskill, it is hard to underestimate the importance of expanding our horizons and being open to reimagining or reinventing our talents to future-proof our career. Incidentally, this question will also clarify the existing criteria for promotion and advancement, which will help you be objective and pragmatic about your plans (and will keep your boss honest).
7. What could I be doing better?
After a few weeks on the job, asking this question may encourage your boss to provide you with much-needed guidancefor closing the gap between how you are performing and what your boss expects from you. In their attempt to avoid conflict and maintain positive morale, many managers find it hard to provide employees with negative evaluations, so wording your feedback request in this way can help them focus on your improvement areas. It also signals that you are eager to understand how you can get better, even if you are doing well.
A final point to consider: every person is unique, including you and your new boss. Invariably, this means that some of these questions might not be be applicable given the situation and your growing relationship. But the general rule still stands: you will accelerate your career success if you can manage your boss better. This requires you to understand them better, and a deliberate strategy that starts with smart questions can help.
Doing work that is fulfilling has become ubiquitous career advice, but no one should depend on a single social institution to define their sense of self.By Erin A. Cech
Since the start of the pandemic, Americans have been talking seriously with friends, family, and themselves about the shortcomings of their modern-day work lives. Millions of people have joined the “Great Resignation,” and many, especially the college-educated, have vowed to follow their passion and embark on a different career.
But this yearning for more meaningful work isn’t new: Over the past three decades, college students and college-educated workers have turned to what I call the “passion principle”—the prioritization of fulfilling work even at the expense of job security or a decent salary—as a road map for how to make decisions about their career. According to my research, which draws on surveys and interviews with college students, graduates, and career coaches, more than 75 percent of college-educated workers believe that passion is an important factor in career decision making. And 67 percent of them say they would prioritize meaningful work over job stability, high wages, and work-life balance. Believers in this idea trust that passion will inoculate them against the drudgery of working long hours on tasks that they have little personal connection to. For many, following their passion is not only a path to a good job; it is the key to a good life.
Yet, as I discuss in my new book, The Trouble With Passion, prioritizing meaningful work in career decisions has many drawbacks, and they’re not limited to the ones you might think. Sure, pivoting from a stable but unfulfilling career to a more meaningful one could be financially risky. But the passion principle also poses existential hazards. Put frankly, the white-collar labor force was not designed to help workers nurture self-realization projects. It was designed to advance the interests of an organization’s stockholders. When people place paid employment at the center of their meaning-making journey, they hand over control of an essential part of their sense of self to profit-seeking employers and the ebbs and flows of the global economy.
The passion-principle doctrine has become ubiquitous career advice; even most of the college career counselors and coaches I interviewed espoused it. But advising career aspirants and burned-out workers to “follow their dreams” presumes financial safety nets and social-network springboards that only upper-middle-class and wealthy individuals typically have reliable access to. I found that when working-class college graduates pursue their passion, they are about twice as likely as wealthier passion seekers to later end up in unstable, low-paid work far outside that passion.
Recommending that career aspirants do what they love and figure out the “employment stuff” later (something I was guilty of before beginning this research) ignores the structural obstacles to economic success that many face, and blames career aspirants if they cannot overcome those obstacles. The passion principle is ultimately an individual-level solution. It guides workers to avoid the grind of paid work by transforming it into a space of fulfillment. But it does nothing to address the factors that make paid work feel like drudgery in the first place. Many companies, for their part, also tend to exploit workers’ passion. My research finds that employers prefer workers who find their jobs fulfilling, precisely because passionate employees often provide additional uncompensated labor.
Expanding social safety nets and protections for workers would go a long way to make passion seeking less financially risky. And advocating for collective solutions—better working conditions, more predictable hours, better benefits, more bargaining power, less overwork—in our workplaces and through national policies would not only make paid work more manageable, but also make work better for people in jobs that have little potential for the expression of passion.
In order to circumvent the existential problems of passion, individuals can shift their personal philosophies about work. One solution is to trim paid work to fit into a more confined space in our lives: Work that can be contained in predictable hours, that provides freedom to engage in meaningful outside activities, and that allows ample time for friends, family, and hobbies may be a more desirable and self-preserving goal. The more pertinent question, then, isn’t “How can I change my career path to do work that I love?” but rather “How can I wrangle my work to leave me with more time and energy for the things and people that bring me joy?” Another solution is to diversify our meaning-making portfolios—actively seek out new places to root a sense of identity and fulfillment. No one should entrust the bulk of their sense of self to a single social intuition, especially one within something as tempestuous as the labor market.
To be sure, I am not advocating for the elimination of joy from work. Working for pay can be tedious, disappointing, even crushing, and having meaningful work is one way to make the hours pass more pleasurably. But the solution to those challenges should not necessarily be to position work as a centerpiece of our identity. By understanding the traps of passion, we can be better equipped to envision alternatives to it. Follow your passion if you must, but also find places outside of work to anchor your sense of self.
If you’ve ever received feedback that you “need to be more strategic,” you know how frustrating it can feel. To add insult to injury, the feedback rarely comes with any concrete guidance on what to do about it. One of my coaching clients, Lisa, a vice president of HR, was in this situation and explains, “I was just told to think bigger picture and to be more strategic. It felt like I had been given the definition of a word by using the same word. It just wasn’t helpful.”
So what specific steps can you take to be more strategic in your current role?
Start by changing your mindset. If you believe that strategic thinking is only for senior executives, think again. It can, and must, happen at every level of the organization; it’s one of those unwritten parts of all job descriptions. Ignore this fact and you risk getting passed over for a promotion, or having your budget cut because your department’s strategic contribution is unclear.
Once you’ve accepted that it’s part of your job, focus on developing four key abilities that demonstrate your strategic prowess.
Know: Observe and Seek Trends
Lisa wasn’t seeing the big picture. Because of the amount of work she had and the pace at which she needed to get it done, she often took a “heads down” approach to her job and failed to “lift up” and observe both internal and external trends. She was missing key information that could help her focus, prioritize, and be proactive in addressing talent issues for her fast-growing company. Because Lisa approached her job in a transactional manner, simply getting the next hire, she didn’t recognize that she needed a completely new approach to recruitment and retention.
In order to be strategic, you need a solid understanding of the industry context, trends, and business drivers. An intellectual appreciation of the importance of bringing in current data and seeking trends isn’t enough. You also have to:
Make it a routine exercise to explore and synthesize the internal trends in your day-to-day work. For example, pay attention to the issues that get raised over and over in your organization and synthesize the common obstacles your colleagues face.
Be proactive about connecting with peers both in your organization and in your industry to understand their observations of the marketplace. Then, share your findings across your network.
Understand the unique information and perspective that your function provides and define its impact on the corporate level strategy.
Think: Ask the Tough Questions
With a fresh understanding of trends and issues, you can practice using strategic thinking by asking yourself, “How do I broaden what I consider?” Questions are the language of strategy. Lisa came to appreciate that her life and prior experience gave her a unique, yet myopic, strategic lens. So she pushed herself to ramp up her perspective-taking and inquiry skills. By becoming more curious, and looking at information from different points of view, she was able to reduce her myopia and see different possibilities, different approaches, and different potential outcomes.
For example, when working on an employee retention project she asked herself, “What does success look like in Year 1?” “What does it look like in Year 3?” “What could impact the outcome in a negative way?” “What are the early signs of success/failure?” “What do business partners need to understand to ensure its success?” and “Do the outcomes support the broader goals of the organization?” By asking these tough questions first, she recognized that she could better engage with colleagues and senior executives early on in ways that would benefit the project — and would help shape the perception that she was thoughtful and strategic.
Speak: Sound Strategic
Strategic thinkers also know how to speak the language. They prioritize and sequence their thoughts. They structure their verbal and written communication in a way that helps their audience focus on their core message. They challenge the status quo and get people talking about underlying assumptions. Those that are really skilled walk people through the process of identifying issues, shaping common understanding, and framing strategic choices.
If this sounds complex, that’s because it is. But there are ways you can start honing these skills:
Add more structure to your written and verbal communication. Group and logically order your main points, and keep things as succinct as possible.
Prime your audience by giving them a heads up on the overarching topics you want to address so they are prepared to engage in a higher level conversation, not just the tactical details.
Practice giving the answer first, instead of building up to your main point.
Lisa didn’t realize that the way she spoke created the perception that she was not strategic. She set about changing that. First by focusing her one-on-ones with her CHRO on higher level discussions and leaving tactical issues to email. She chose one or two strategic areas to focus on. and made sure to frame issues in the context of the CHRO’s and the CEO’s top priorities.
Act: Make Time for Thinking and Embrace Conflict
In the early phase of our work together, Lisa kept a jam-packed schedule, running from meeting to meeting. She found it difficult to contribute strategically without the time to reflect on the issues and to ponder options. Recognizing that she was not bringing her full value to the table, she started to evaluate her tasks based on urgency and importance as outlined in Stephen Covey’s 2 x 2 matrix. She stopped going to meetings she didn’t need to be at. She blocked out thinking time on her calendar and honored it, just as she would for other meetings. And she fought back the initial guilt of “Am I doing real work when I’m just sitting at my desk thinking?”
Lisa also practiced other key skills. She learned to embrace debate and to invite challenge, without letting it get personal so that she could ask tough questions. To do this, she focused on issues, not people, and used neutral peers to challenge her thinking. To manage the inevitable ambiguity that arises when you ask more questions, Lisa also learned to clarify her decision-making criteria, allowing her to better act in the face of imperfect information.
The quest to build your strategic skills can be uncomfortable. At first, you might feel like you’re kicking up sand in the ocean. Your vision will be blurred as you manage through the unsettling feelings that come with challenging your own assumptions and gaining comfort with conflict and curiosity. Once the dust settles, however, and you’re able to contribute at a higher level, you’ll be glad you took the risk.
Nina A. Bowman is a Managing Partner at Paravis Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development ﬁrm. Previously, she held various advisory and leadership roles in strategy. She is an executive coach and speaker on issues of strategic leadership, leadership presence, and interpersonal effectiveness. She is also a contributing author to the HBR Guide to Coaching Employees and HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically.
Anyone who hopes to hit the ground running in a new organization must first cultivate allies — a network of people who can provide the information, resources and support needed to succeed. But few onboarding programs offer concrete advice on how to build those all-important connections.
Our research over the past decade shows that replicating the network of an established employee in a strong culture typically takes three to five years. But recently we began to wonder if there was a way to accelerate that process. Could we develop a better blueprint for newcomer networking?
We started by tracking people joining companies with employee bases ranging from a few hundred to more than 40,000 people and pairing their progress in making social connections with monthly attrition data. The goal was to find newcomers who got connected (and productive) much more quickly than peers starting at the same time and who stayed in the organization through milestones, such as the first nine months and the two- to four-year tenure band, at which flight risk is greatest.
We found a few surprises. First, contrary to popular opinion, “brand-building” across a very broad network was not necessarily better; in fact, it was correlated with departures in years two to four.
Successful newcomers were instead more selective and less superficial in their outreach. They still set up a lot of exploratory meetings, but they used them to ask plenty of questions, offer expertise and assistance where they were able, create mutual wins, and generate energy. Greg Pryor, head of talent at Workday, which partnered with us on this research, describes the difference as working to pull people into your network rather than pushing your way into theirs. “We teach our people how to draw people to their ideas and create energy in interactions from day one,” he explains. “When you embrace the approach, you’re much more likely to connect well.”
We also found — again contrary to conventional wisdom — that newcomers do not need a strong tie to a formal mentor or leader in their first nine months. More important for their long-term success was early contact with key opinion leaders — those well connected in the organization’s networks, who were able to confer know-how and legitimacy — as well as to fellow newcomers, with whom they could form affinity groups.
Crucially, effective networkers also shift their strategy as they approach the two- to four-year timeframe. They begin to streamline their interactions with close colleagues, resulting in collaborative demands that are 18-24% lower than their peers, while at the same time reaching across boundaries to connect with new people in different functions or divisions and to those with similar values and passions, even when there is no clear short-term incentive to do so. The result is more opportunities for enterprise-wide innovation and feeling purposeful in their work, which boosts their performance and engagement.
Booz Allen, which brings on more than 100 highly skilled people a week, is another research partner that has used network analysis to re-vamp its onboarding activities to help recent hires build the right connections at the right time. Aside from offering training in pull (versus push) techniques, they are encouraging cohort networks and initiating meetings between new employees and network influencers, rather than the usual-suspect mentors and managers. “You are not asking people to connect with a lot of other people,” says David Sylvester, head of learning and development at the firm. “Very targeted investments make a big, big difference on people becoming productive more quickly and enjoying their time in the firm.”