Friday, July 29, 2016

What are you optimizing for?



I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the founder and CEO of a disruptive learning management startup in San Francisco. As part of a larger career discussion, he had two simple exercises that I thought were particularly insightful, both as a candidate and as a frequent hiring manager.

What does great look like?
First, he asked what I thought the key characteristics of an exceptional Customer Success leader would be. He gave me ten sticky notes and had me write a short word or phrase to describe each characteristic. I wrote down things like “passion for customer engagement”, “focus on team development”, and “negotiation skills”. At the time I wasn’t sure where he was going with this so I simply brainstormed the characteristics of the best Customer Success leaders I have known. Then he asked me to force rank my experience against these characteristics by arranging the sticky notes on the table, ordering them from my strongest to weakest characteristics. He correctly noted that it would be a difficult and awkward forced ranking but he wanted to understand how I viewed my expertise. It was a pressure filled few minutes as I considered both what I excel in and how to rank what I thought were important skill sets that found their way to the bottom of a list. 

After I completed the exercise he asked very thoughtful, yet pointed questions about the ordering. He didn’t ask about every item but pulled specific cards and asked questions such as, “Why did you rank team development so highly?” and, “Why is a passion for customer engagement important to success in this role?” It struck me at the time as a particularly thoughtful exercise that not only gave him insights into how I think about my experience, but how I work through a challenging thought process under pressure. Having interviewed thousands of people myself I can easily imagine otherwise very composed and prepared candidates sweating this sort of challenge, as I did.

What are you optimizing for?
Having completed the characteristics exercise, he then took ten sticky notes for himself and labeled them “compensation”, “title”, “leadership team” and “work/life balance”, among others. Handing me this stack of cards, he asked a particularly powerful question: “What are you optimizing for?” Again, I needed to stack rank these based on what I was focused on in the next step of my career. This too was very challenging and insightful. Do you rank work/life balance higher than compensation? Okay, that is an easy one. Do you rank career growth above title/role? Where does company culture sit relative to equity?

Although it is a deceptively simple concept, the exercise was incredibly insightful. I recently completed this same challenge for myself when considering a particularly compelling opportunity that did not check all the boxes in my career wish list. The sticky notes and the forced ranking really challenged how I thought about my next steps.

What are you optimizing for in your career?

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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