Before you hire

There’s something deeply gratifying about offering someone a job. Even posting a new position feels good, because it often means that your company is growing and/or that you have an opportunity to make your team stronger. But before you hire, be brutally honest when thinking about the questions below. 

Are you hiring for the right reasons? 

Clearly state the desired outcomes of adding a new team member, such as meeting an increased influx of projects, decreasing development time of new features, or breaking into new verticals. I would advise against hiring just for the sake of demonstrating growth, as it often is not fair to the new employees and it can make it challenging to ensure that all team members buy into the mission and vision and pull in the same direction with a sense of purpose. 

Is your current team optimized? 

If you’re not getting the best work out of your team now, throwing another resource at it won’t fix the problem. “If we only had an extra person to do X…” should result in a thorough analysis of how the existing team is spending their time, so that you can identify bottlenecks and opportunities for internal improvement. Here are some additional tips on how to assess staffing needs. 

Is the manager equipped to coach a new person? 

No matter how great your new hire might be, if their manager is not willing or able to not just provide a stellar onboarding experience, but to continue to coach them effectively and consistently, you’re neither doing your company nor the new employee a favor. If there’s a good case for making the hire, but you don’t trust that the manager will be able to handle it, you need to solve the latter challenge first. 

Is your interview process robust enough to ensure that you hire the right person?

In order to avoid some of the most common hiring mistakes, such as not being rigorous enough in your process, be sure that you’ve established a system to ensure that you will find the right person for the job. For us, the process typically consists of at least three rounds of interviews with multiple team members, including one round that is solely focused on determining culture fit. In addition, we always ask for deliverables that are pertinent to the role, such as a technical assessment or a research project. Finally, if you’re not willing to commit to only making an offer if you can’t picture yourself without the candidate, perhaps it’s time to reconsider if you are indeed ready to hire. 

Adding any employee requires a major investment, so be sure that you are prepared to get a maximum return for the company and for your new team member. 

What about you? What else should you think about prior to hiring?

Five behaviors of people who you want on your team

As a leader, you are the steward of your company culture, not just by setting a good example, but by fostering the desired behaviors, eliminating factors that challenge your culture, and by hiring people who are great fits. Of course, you want to make sure that a new hire brings the right skill set to the table, but even the most competent employee can negatively impact the company if they are not a cultural fit. In fact, a high performer who is not aligned can harm the company even more than a low performer. Generally, you can teach someone how to do things, but you can’t teach them how to be. Here are some behaviors that people who you want on your team, regardless of their position, display on a consistent basis.

They only make one assumption

Other than assuming good intent when communicating with a team member, you want to keep assumptions to a minimum, as they are rarely productive. People who you want on your team focus on what they know to be true instead of making assumptions. Compare those two statements: 

A: “Jackie really doesn’t like me, and she always tries to make me look bad.” 

B: “Jackie pointed out these three shortcomings of my presentation.”

Who would you rather work with?

They squash drama

No-drama people are a gem, especially when they not only refrain from causing drama themselves, but they actively help you curb it by redirecting other’s mindsets. Cy Wakeman’s approach of reality based leadership is an excellent guide on how to do that. If you have someone on your team who people generally gravitate to in order to air grievances or gossip, you need to step in. The “meeting after the meeting” is rarely a good thing. If you can count on someone to ask pointed questions, such as “What do you know for sure?”, “What are you going to do about it?”, you have someone you can work with.

They focus on what they can control

The locus of control is one of the most underrated characteristics in a great team member. They focus on what they can control, such as their work ethic and their attitude. They fully realize that there’s no use in worrying about other factors, such as the economy or the competition. They don’t see themselves as victims of circumstance, but firmly believe that what they can control will be enough, and they act accordingly. 

They seek alignment and accountability

Employee engagement can be defined as the degree to which the employee’s goals and the company’s goals are aligned. Therefore, it is crucial for you as a manager to have your finger on the pulse of both. The team members who are on board with your vision will actively seek alignment and suggest ways in which they can optimally contribute are most certainly worth supporting. A fully engaged employee thrives on accountability, so be sure to work with them on measurable, ambitious goals and milestones. 

They do what’s necessary

Remember when companies used to look for “rockstars”? I never liked the term, because it implied that you were only looking for people who were commanding the spotlight. What you really want is people who understand and support with your vision and your mission, and who are willing to do what’s necessary to get there. It doesn’t mean that you’re expecting everyone to work 60+ hours a week. But, provided that you hold up your end of the bargain by giving your employees freedom and flexibility as long as the goals are met, you should be able to expect that they do what it takes to achieve the agreed-upon outcomes. And yes, this may include things that are not in their job descriptions. 

What about you? What are the behaviors that you look for in a team member?

What questions do you ask in your check-ins and performance reviews?

You probably have quarterly check-ins and annual performance reviews with the people who report to you, in addition to your own cadence of one on ones. All of those interactions are intended to help your team members in their professional development and to ensure that their goals and the company’s goals are aligned. Typically, the questions asked include accomplishments since the last meeting, goals for the upcoming review period, and areas of improvement. We also always ask for examples of how the employee exemplified the company values, as it is crucial for us to put our company culture top of mind at all times. This format has worked pretty well in the past, but since it’s advisable to revisit your practices from time to time in order to identify opportunities for improvement, I’ve been thinking about additional, more granular questions to add. Here are a few ideas.  

For the reviewee: 

Why did you/didn’t you reach your goals? 

This question refers to the tangible, measurable goals that were set. What you want to look for in the employee’s answer is their locus of control, which is absolutely vital to their success. If they haven’t achieved their goals, do they exclusively blame external factors (which, admittedly, can play a role) or do they take ownership of the things that they could have done differently? 

What lessons did you learn last week/last quarter?

An engaged employee always strives to become better. Even when things didn’t pan out as planned, they still ensure that they learn from the experience. 

What did you do last week/quarter to hone your craft?

Similarly, since you expect your team members to invest in their own professional development, you’ll want to include this question in your check-ins and reviews. Every person in your company has room to grow, and those who believe that they no longer have things to learn and improve on are probably not the ones who help your company grow and become the best place to work. 

What are you willing to be held accountable for? 

When setting goals for the next review period, you want to set a clear frame of accountability and responsibility. Goals have to be realistic but also ambitious. Similar to the “why did you/didn’t you reach your goals” question, the answer reveals how much of their achievements the team member perceives to be in their control. It’s also important to not just discuss top level goals, such as revenue generated, but also things like activity levels and pipeline, or development velocity and maximum number of fixes needed, depending on the role. 

What are you willing to do to reach your goals? 

You may augment the previous question with this one in order to understand what type of effort the employee is willing to make. For instance, if they’re not on track, are they open to coming in an hour earlier or stay an hour later to see if different times for sales calls render better results? Would they commit to taking a class in order to improve their skill set in a particular area? 

How are your professional goals and the company’s goals aligned? 

Employee engagement is a reflection of how the team member’s goals are in line with the company goals. Asking the question above helps you realize if the employee understands your organization’s goals and vision and if they perceive any misalignments with their own ambitions. 

For the manager:

A one on one, quarterly check-in, or annual performance review should result in an agreement between the team member and their manager. It should never solely focus on the employee’s goals and responsibilities, but include the manager’s role in the success of the employee as well. 

What am I willing to do to help my employee excel?

Since you’re asking the employee what they’re willing to do in order to be successful in their role, the manager should also be thinking about their level of commitment to the employee. Sharing with the team members what you’re willing to do to help them makes them feel supported and can reinforce their level of accountability. Can you commit to spending a certain amount of time every week helping them with their demos? Would you be willing to provide them a list of resources in order to improve a particular skill and then give feedback on their progress? Are you able to share some of the secrets of your own success or some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way? Contemplating the levels of your own commitment should be part of the conversation.

How are the employee’s professional goals and the company’s goals aligned? Where do you perceive a misalignment?

An honest discussion between the team member and the manager must include the topic of alignment. The manager should have a solid understanding of the direction of the company, goals, challenges, and opportunities. Should there be a perceived misalignment with regard to career trajectory or values, it’s best to have an open discussion in order to avoid assumptions, which are the killer of productive and positive relationships.

Check-ins in particular should always be a productive dialog between the manager and their team member, resulting in mutually agreed upon goals and action items and a commitment to hold up their respective ends of the bargain. 

What about you? What questions would you recommend including?

How to obtain useful feedback from your customers

As you are building your product roadmap, you want to ensure that you have as much insight as possible into your customers’ needs. And not just their current needs – you also need to anticipate what types of challenges will be on the horizon for them. After all, customer success is the be all and end all, and that’s why we place so much value on our customers’ input, of which there is no shortage, luckily. The key is to extract the most useful feedback and to act on it. Here are some thoughts on how to do that. 

Provide multiple feedback channels

In order to get useful feedback, you start by getting feedback in the first place. Make it easy for your customers to voice their opinion and to solicit their ideas, and accommodate each individual’s preferences with regard to communication. Some people prefer written communication, others may provide input in passing as they’re interacting with your team, while others might be more than happy to have dedicated feedback sessions with you. For instance, we have an Idea Portal, where customers can submit their feature requests and vote on ideas. In addition, all customer-facing team members, such as Support, Services, Training, and Customer Success, write down feedback that they’ve received and submit it to Productboard, which is where we house and process all input and plan out our roadmap. Furthermore, our Head of Customer Success and I have many, many feedback sessions with our customers throughout the year. Finally, we’ve hosted focus groups during our user conferences. Be sure to identify those customers who are willing to answer follow-up questions, and respect their time and their communication preferences for follow-ups as well. 

Focus on the outcome, not the specific feature 

Henry Ford once famously stated “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Don’t get me wrong – our customers have approached us with many amazing ideas for new features. However, in order to make sure that we get the most useful feedback, we always try to focus on the desired outcome rather than a feature. We want to have a clear understanding of what our customers are looking to accomplish so that we can find the best possible solution for them, and we certainly don’t just want to copy something that a competitor is doing. In order to innovate, always focus on the desired result, not the functionality. 

Ensure diversity of feedback providers

Some customers are easier to get ahold of than others, which is why I’ve seen companies only receive feedback from the same core group of champions – a dangerous mindset! Instead, make every effort possible to solicit input from a broad variety of clients, including those who tend to be quiet. Another pitfall is to only reach out to your main contact at an organization. It’s simply not sufficient, for example, to only talk to a technical user(s) and not the non-technical end users, or to focus on the needs of the IT department when Marketing and Communication departments are the primary users of your product. Connecting with multiple people at each organization takes a lot of effort, but it’s absolutely mandatory if you want to get the most useful feedback in order to deliver the best products.

Crank out those prototypes

Once you’ve decided to move forward with new functionality, continue communicating with your customers (and your internal stakeholders). Since most of them are visual, you can increase your chances of getting actionable and quality feedback if you can show them prototypes. One word of caution: don’t try to perfect the prototype. It doesn’t have to look pretty, and it doesn’t have to include everything that a feature could possibly do. With prototypes, speed is most important. When sharing them with stakeholders, explain what you’re looking to get out of the feedback. In most cases, it likely boils down to “would you use this?”, “what would be the impact of this feature on you and/or your users?”, and perhaps “would you pay for this?”, rather than “Should this button be on the upper left?”. 

Give thanks and credit

In order to obtain a continuous stream of inspired feedback, make sure that your customers know that you not just value their opinion, but that you are putting your money where your mouth is by actually acting on the feedback that you receive. Share with them the impact that they’re having. For instance, when you present your roadmap, mention the number of votes that a certain piece of functionality had received on the Idea Exchange. Give shout-outs to customers who initiated the exploration of a specific feature. Most importantly, thank your customers for their thoughtfulness, their time, and their willingness to collaborate with you in order to help you create the optimal solutions for them. 

While not every idea will should make it into your roadmap, it is vital to collect as much feedback as you can, to ask lots of questions, and to focus on desired outcomes. The better a partner you are to your customers, the easier this process will be.

What about you? How do you get the most useful feedback from your customers?

Reconsidering the “no” (follow-up post)

It’s been over three years since I published a post about “saying no for the greater good”. The overall idea of the article is that you shouldn’t be afraid to say no – whether it’s to a specific feature, a project, or a prospect. Always keep the end goal in mind: delivering the best possible product and services to the right customers. I am, of course, not the only one who supports this view. In fact, a Google search for “saying no to a feature request” renders over a billion results (try it!). I thought it might be a good time to elaborate on the topic and point out why simply saying no might not be enough. 

Identify the reason for the no

Be honest with yourself and your team members. Is the reason for the “no” completely based on what’s best for the product and/or the customer, or could there be another underlying factor that influenced you, such as reluctance to push your team, personal preference, or risk averseness? I highly recommend keeping track of every no and capturing the reasons, so that you commit to an analysis of individual items and any patterns that might crystalize in the process. 

No, but…

There certainly doesn’t have to be a yes for every no. However, consider where you can say “no, but…” instead. We may not be in a position to agree to these contract terms, but we can compromise on a particular item that is important to the customer and let them have the last win. We don’t have the bandwidth to take on this particular project, but if you’re open, we can collaborate with a contractor. This particular feature is not feasible for us to implement, but we are considering this connector in order for our customers to use best of breed tools to achieve a particular objective. Your default should not be a “no” full stop. 

Consider the consequences of a no

As you weigh the pros and cons of a specific request, don’t forget to evaluate the potential consequences of saying no. Sure, you should ask yourself what the return on investment will be (“How many new opportunities will this bring?”), but also think about how a “no” might negatively impact you (“What will happen if we don’t do this?”). 

Adjust to the times

As a leader, you need to widen your scope of evaluating factors that inform your strategy. It’s not just things in your immediate periphery, such as your industry or technology trends, but you also have to look at broader factors such as the state of the economy, current and upcoming legislation, and yes, even a pandemic. In a climate where stress is high and budgets are tight, you may have to rethink some of the views you’ve had before, and adjust as needed. Where you would have said “no” before, a “yes”, “maybe”, or “no, but” might be more appropriate now. Always be agile. 

There is nothing wrong with saying “no” to a feature, a project, a contract term, a price, or even a customer. You have to be able to do it – and do it frequently. But do it for the right reasons. Always strive to find an alignment of what’s best for your customers and what’s best for your company. They are not opposing objectives. 

What about you? How have your thoughts on saying “no” evolved?