In most job interviews if you’re not first, you’re last. No matter how good you are, you’ve got to sound like you know what you’re talking about if you’re going to get the job. Once hired, you’ll need to deliver the goods predictably and repeatedly, of course. But some very capable people never get the chance because they shoot themselves in the foot by failing to clearly state their case.
If you intend to convince someone that you can get the job done, you’d better at least be familiar with the biggest obstacles to results that businesses face.
Here are four of the biggest barnacles on the butts of businesses:
- The top reasons that people and teams fail to achieve their goals are entirely preventable, and the responsibility of leadership and management: (1) goals are unclear or nonexistent and (2) communication is ineffective.
- Among the top causes of frustration and conflict in teams is lack of clarity about who’s doing what.
- The biggest mistake people make in dealing with risk is identifying the risk and doing absolutely nothing about it.
So it’s not enough that you know these things, or even that you do them; you also have to be able to explain your capabilities clearly. For that you’ll need a personal philosophy of management that doesn’t sound like you’re reading it off of the back of a cereal box.
You could go get an MBA or brush up on what you studied when you got your ticket punched, but if you’re short on time, I’ve got a quicker way: prepare at least one story about how you have demonstrated competence in each of these four areas and be ready to tell those stories in an interview. (No matter what is asked, you can always bridge to one of your stories by saying, “That reminds me of a time when I…”) And familiarize yourself with the 12 principles below that address the top four obstacles above as well as eight other nasty recurrent problems found in most work environments.
Last year I distilled what I’ve learned about getting things done into these essential guiding principles. I was disappointed to see that all my wisdom, knowledge, and experience only amounted to a measly 150 pages, but as one of my kookier friends pointed out, getting results isn’t “rocket surgery.”
The book is called Scrappy Project Management — The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces (available at Amazon.com). If you’re genetically gifted with the ability to get results that other people claim are highly unlikely or darn near impossible, you don’t need to read it. But if you are preparing for an interview for a management position of any kind, you can make a much better impression on your potential employer if you can frame your skills and abilities around these critical success factors:
- Be completely and unrepentantly obsessed with the “customer.” Henry Ford said that the company doesn’t pay employees a salary, the customer does. The employer is just the middleman. But many businesses operate as though the customer is an afterthought. One trip to a retail service establishment is all it takes to confirm this. If you want to be successful, be completely and unrepentantly obsessed with the customer, whoever that is, whether internal or external.
- Provide shared, measurable, challenging, and achievable goals as clear as sunlight. According to a blizzard of studies, and my own observations of businesses over the past 20 years, the number-one reason people don’t achieve their goals is that they don’t have goals. Fear of failure helps people avoid clear goal-setting or makes them settle for fuzzy, ambiguous goals. Double your chances of success just by making sure that you and your coworkers have shared, measurable, challenging, and achievable goals as clear as sunlight.
- Engage in effective, vociferous, and unrelenting communication with all stakeholders. Even with clear and compelling goals, inadequate communication undermines your chances of achieving those goals. Poor communication is the number-two cause of failure, and it’s no wonder. Most people don’t realize that communication involves both talking and listening. Many conversations are like two TVs facing one another. Highly successful people avoid this all-too-common pitfall by engaging in effective, vociferous, and unrelenting communication with all stakeholders.
- Ensure that roles and responsibilities are unmistakably understood and agreed upon by all. Fumbled handoffs and the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing are common causes of setbacks along the road to success. One of the biggest causes of conflicts in teams is lack of role clarity. Ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly understood and agreed upon by all to avoid this unnecessary pit stop on your journey.
- Create viable plans and schedules that enjoy the team’s hearty commitment. Every hour of planning saves about a day of wasted effort and rework. And yet, given a choice, most people will either under-plan or fail to plan at all. Even when you create detailed schedules, they often do little more than document the demise of the people carrying out the plan. Overlooking critical handoffs and interdependencies can add days, weeks, or months to the completion date of a mission-critical goal, and what’s worse, everyone seems to know from the start the dates will never be met. Savvy professionals create viable plans and schedules that enjoy the team’s hearty commitment.
- Mitigate big, hairy, abominable risks and implement innovative accelerators. Many people are so busy just working on the tasks at hand that they fail to look around the next bend for possible potholes that could have a major impact on their results. Even when risks are identified, the most common mistake is doing nothing to avoid them. And when you’re up to your butt in alligators, the last thing you want to do is stop to consider how to make the outcome better! Those in the know mitigate big, hairy, abominable risks before they occur and keep a keen lookout for opportunities that can accelerate and amplify their success.
- Prioritize ruthlessly, choosing between heart, lungs, and kidneys if necessary. If everything is number one, nothing is! Of course, we’d love to have it all, avoiding tough tradeoffs between things we hold dear. But choices must inevitably be made. Sometimes costs need to increase in order to obtain a satisfactory level of quality. Sometimes features must be sacrificed in the name of reliability or to hit a hard deadline in a launch window. No one wants to lose one of their vital organs, but the reality is that sometimes you must prioritize ruthlessly, choosing between heart, lungs, and kidneys if necessary. After all, your heart’s number one because you die in about a minute. Your lungs are number two because you can live for three minutes without them. And your kidneys are number three because you can stay alive on dialysis.
- Anticipate and accommodate necessary and inevitable change. Most tasks of any complexity can’t be accomplished without some kind of change that impacts the work. And yet people continue to let change throw them off balance. Change is inevitable, except from vending machines. Only amnesiacs should be surprised by it. The world is changing rapidly, and your work is too, so anticipate and accommodate necessary and inevitable change.
- Challenge assumptions and beliefs, especially insidious self-imposed limitations. Of all the obstacles we face in life, none are bigger than those of our own making. We fail to consider possibilities outside of our experience or possibilities that in the past have been off limits to us for some reason because we have self-limiting beliefs about what is possible. And like fish blind to water, we miss opportunities right in front of our noses because of the filters of our experience. There are plenty of examples where people saying something was impossible were shoved aside by those doing it. Avoid this trap by routinely challenging assumptions and beliefs, especially insidious self-imposed limitations.
- Manage the expectations of all stakeholders; under-promise and over-deliver. What is a stakeholder? Anyone who cares about what you’re doing and anyone who can either help you or hurt you in your quest to achieve your goals. Most people fail to identify key stakeholders who could dramatically accelerate or undermine their success. A powerful stakeholder analysis tool that clarifies goals is a stakeholder map. After visualizing all stakeholders and their interrelationships, ask, “What will this stakeholder be saying when we’re finished and successful beyond our wildest dreams?” Frequently expectations will conflict, forcing to the surface the tough decisions and tradeoffs between things that initially seemed equally important. Managing the expectations of all stakeholders up front increases the likelihood that your delight in accomplishing your goals will be shared by others who are critical to your process.
- Learn from experience. Make new and more exciting mistakes each time! A common practice among professionals is doing what’s called a “retrospective,” where things that went well, and those that went sideways, are reviewed with the intention of avoiding similar problems in the future. However, like a B-grade horror flick, the mistakes look pretty much the same each time through. That’s why I call these reviews “lessons not learned.” There’s a difference between 10 years of experience and one year of experience 10 times. Learn from experience. Make new and more exciting mistakes each time!
- Practice an attitude of gratitude: celebrate success — and some failures too! We seem to be conditioned from an early age to notice what’s not working and focus on criticism instead of appreciation for what’s right with the world and other people. And that bias toward critique is reinforced by a society where negative people appear smarter. We learn the BMW approach to life — I forget what the B stands for, but the MW is for “moaning and whining.” Recognizing what’s working well is equally important. Appreciating our contributions and those of others provides much-needed motivation to continue onward. Even mistakes can open doors to new possibilities, especially in the world of creativity and innovation. Post-it notes were an accident — a failure of stickiness. Practice an attitude of gratitude. If you want to truly achieve your greatest potential, celebrate successes along the way — and some failures too!
And once you have the job, follow these practical and sensible guidelines for getting things done to deliver on the promise of your interview. Being aware of and heeding these land mines on the path to success doesn’t guarantee success, but at least you’ll fail for new, surprising, and more exciting reasons.
About the Author
Kimberly Wiefling is the author of one of the top project management books in the United States, Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces. She’s the founder of Wiefling Consulting, LLC, a scrappy global consulting enterprise committed to enabling clients to achieve highly unlikely or darn near impossible results predictably and repeatedly.
Kimberly has worked with companies of all sizes, including one-person ventures and those in the Fortune 50, and she has helped launch and grow more than a half dozen startups, a few of which are reaping excellent profits. She spends about half her time working all over the world with Japan-based companies that are committed to developing global leadership. She is the lead blogger for www.svprojectmanagement.net and a regular contributor to www.projectconnections.com.