leadership dot #2924: Jane

In 1957, when researcher Dr. Louis Leakey received a grant to study chimpanzees in the wild, nothing was known about their habits or how they behaved in their natural habitat. He wanted to send an unbiased researcher into Africa to observe the chimps and ended up selecting his 29-year old secretary who had no training or scientific degree.

This secretary turned out to become the acclaimed Dr. Jane Goodall who studied the chimps for 60+ years, creating the longest continuous study of any animal in their natural habitat in history.

Leakey saw in Goodall three key characteristics: a love of animals, an open mind and “monumental patience.” The third quality was especially important since it was 5 months of sitting and observing before the chips accepted her and actually behaved normally in her presence.

Two lessons for you to consider from this hiring: 1) it is incumbent upon the hiring manager to deeply consider what traits would make someone successful in the open position. By compiling a list of attributes – vs. just a list of qualifications or responsibilities — the manager has a much higher likelihood of hiring the right someone. Leakey knew that temperament was more important than credentials for this job.

2) Oftentimes, the best candidate does not fit the standard mold. Just as Dr. Leakey was seeking someone unbiased by prevailing theories about the chimps, you are well-served to be open-minded about the background of your new hire. It is often those who come to the position with unique experiences that bring new insights and innovate.

Knowing what you are truly looking for takes reflection time, but ultimately pays great benefits for the hiring manager, the employee and the organization. The next time you have the opportunity to hire, look for your own Jane.

Source: “Jane” movie, 2017, Hulu

leadership dot #2922: cover

New graduates, COVID-impacted employees and the normal churn of job seekers cause a lot of people to be working on cover letters these days. A strong cover letter is a magic elixir that can help you stand out from others applying for the same job. It’s your opportunity to share the characteristics and traits that make you special – and that aren’t listed on your resume.

Too many letters are just a narrative version of the bullets already spelled out on the resume, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to provide a sales pitch. When writing a cover letter, do so from THEIR perspective – what can you offer THEM? How do you help them solve THEIR problem? Yes, it’s nice that you want to move to that city or you’d be excited to work there, but they are hiring you (in other words, giving you money) to meet THEIR needs, not because you think you’d be great.

Consider the difference between:

I read the listing for XYZ position and want to express my interest in taking this job. I have a degree in ABC and am excited about the opportunity to join the QRS team.


 It is with great enthusiasm that I submit this letter of application for XYZ job. I believe I possess the drive and integrity you seek which will allow me to serve your clients effectively and to help QRS become the provider of choice in X industry.

 By focusing on the company, you maintain your role as a SELLER (not a buyer) and can frame your letter in such a light. You can share information beyond what is on your resume, focus on the future rather than your past and make the critical connection between what you have done and what you can do.

 Too many people spend all their time on their resume and use the same cookie-cutter cover letter for all their jobs. Don’t make that mistake. Whether you’re applying for a job or the one reading the letters, ask yourself if the letter answers the question: “How will this person do the job differently than anyone else?”

If the letter isn’t clear about the answer, you should stop there and hire someone else.

For more on resume writing, see my handout here.

leadership dot #2904: year-round

The founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was also responsible for the establishment of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a novel idea in 1885 when it happened. Civic leader Henry Lee Higginson knew that the audience for classical symphony music was limited, so he envisioned a way to expand the orchestra’s reach through offering “light” classics and popular music in the off-season. But his real motivation was to extend the work of the musicians to be year-round, possibly attracting higher caliber performers who welcomed the full-time employment.

In addition to his innovative approach to talent management, Higginson also understood the importance of the environment in which music was played. He oversaw the design of Symphony Hall so that during the Symphony season, the theatre is fitted with straight back chairs in traditional aisles. A specially-crafted elevator is hidden within the floor so that when Pops season begins, the Symphony chairs are stored away underneath and the hall is transformed with cabaret tables and loose chairs around them, allowing for an informal ambiance akin to the lighter music.

Instead of making the Pops Orchestra a lesser version of the Symphony, Higginson had the foresight and vision to create it as an entirely new experience. From the repertoire, to the attire, to the appearance of the hall and other venues where they play, the Pops has achieved acclaim in its own right and doesn’t live in the shadow of the classical orchestra.

Think of whether there are lessons you can adapt to your organization from the symbiotic relationship between the Symphony and the Pops. Can you partner with an entity to design a space to meet both of your needs rather than building or renting two? Is there a way to increase your talent pool by sharing roles for part-time positions so that they become full-time contributors? Have you thought about the look and feel of space that you use for your programs and whether it is aligned with the content and outcomes you desire?

The Pops Orchestra may not have experienced its wild popularity if it was only seasonal and had to adapt itself to the formality of an unmodified Symphony Hall. Don’t force your music to be muffled because of the limitations you create yourself.


leadership dot #2903: inexperienced

When the Boston Pops Orchestra, a national treasure for over a century, needed to hire a new conductor when the legendary Arthur Fiedler retired after nearly 50 years, every director in the country must have jumped at the chance. The orchestra was innovative, popular, and highly regarded – a conductor’s dream.

So, even though the board could have likely hired any of the many brilliant conductors who applied, instead they chose someone who had never before conducted professionally, or even done so in front of a live audience!

They chose John Williams. Williams has been called the greatest film composer ever – he’s won 25 Grammys and received 52 Academy Award nominations – so he is a musical genius in his own right, but writing the orchestrations for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. and Harry Potter is quite different than conducting them…which is why he said yes to the job. His composing work kept him alone in his studio and it was “an irresistible temptation” to help the orchestra bring his music to life and feel the audience’s reaction to it.

Fortunately for music lovers, Williams was a perfect fit for the orchestra and his music aligned well with the pop style. Everyone won. It’s easy to see this synergy in retrospect, but it was still a risk for the board to offer him the job.

The next time you have a position to fill, remember the Pops and John Williams. Resumes only go so far in identifying candidates. Maybe your best person is the one who has no direct experience in the job but brings energy and attributes that will make them wildly successful anyway.

leadership dot #2902: plunger

What’s the number one item that you should have in your guest bathroom? According to Real Simple, the answer is a plunger. It’s certainly not what I would have put at the top of the list but it makes sense: it’s something that could become necessary and it’s the most embarrassing thing to ask for. The magazine recommends that you preempt any awkwardness and just have it there from the start.

I think about what is the equivalent to the plunger for new employees. Give them a list of key colleagues (preferably with a picture and an office layout map). Reintroduce them at meetings to preclude a lapse of memory of who’s who, especially in this time of remote meetings where every square looks the same. Share office norms such as typical attire, arrival/departure times and time off procedures so they don’t stand out or need to ask.

We’ve all been in a situation where having an accessible plunger was a blessing. Treat your new employees with the same care as you treat your guests and proactively provide them with the tools they may need before they sheepishly have to ask for them.

leadership dot #2812: assistant

One of the consequences of budget reductions and automation is the elimination of layers of middle management. Many places have tightened operations by squeezing out the “assistant” director roles, leaving a “director” with no one to direct.

A challenge for those whose organization still has junior-level positions is the willingness of younger people to take the roles. The stereotypes would suggest that Gen Z and Millennials want a title and autonomy from the start without working their way up the ladder.

Both scenarios converge to create negative implications down the road. Middle management serves as a hands-on training ground for people to become senior leaders. Assistant roles provide opportunities for “grasshoppers” (see dot 377) to become masters themselves. Deputy positions allow a buffer zone for people to make mistakes before they have wider ramifications and allow people to serve as professional apprentices, able to be groomed by mentors.

Organizations may be saving money in the short run by reducing “number twos” but I believe they will pay more for their choice in the long run. Whether you create the organizational chart or are the one looking for a position to take, embrace the learning that assistant roles provide. Direct experience is an amazing teacher.



leadership dot #2737: ingredients

During a delicious Greek meal, the owner came out to chat with the customers. After we lavished him with praise for the cuisine, he shared his secret: “It starts with the ingredients,” Angelo said. He imports feta with 70% sheep’s milk and Greek yogurt from Greece and uses virgin olive oil in making his pitas. It makes a difference!

The Naughty Greek certainly isn’t the only restaurant of its type in the Twin Cities but it does a thriving business because of Angelo’s attention to the inputs. I think the same thing is true in organizations: it starts with the ingredients – aka the hiring process.

If you have great people and a strong onboarding process, you can distinguish yourself from other organizations producing the same product. Taking the time, and often the expense, to thoroughly interview and train staff pays untold dividends in the long run. These employees can contribute value in ways that you did not initially imagine and seize new opportunities to enhance the organization.

Shortcuts are always available, but in cooking and in hiring it’s best not to take them.

Angelo of The Naughty Greek

leadership dot #2716: the driver

If I was teaching a human resources class, I would use the movie Ford v. Ferrari as a case study. It’s a fantastic film, about so much more than cars or racing, as it tells the story of the Ford Motor Company’s quest to win the Le Mans car race in the 1960s.

One of the central tension points is deciding who will be the driver of Ford’s car. The project leader, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) wants Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who is known as both incredibly skilled and equally unorthodox. The Ford executive in charge wants “a Ford Man”, someone else who can portray a more mainstream image for the brand.

I think the movie brings to light the frequent tension in organizations as to what is valued more: innovation or conformity; tradition or experimentation; mavericks or team players. So much of work today involves teamwork and playing nice with others is a necessary trait, so organizations must decide where they draw the line for those who do not fit the standard mold. Do you go with the perceived best driver to win or do you opt for someone more conventional who aligns closely with others? How much independence can you grant without sacrificing the effectiveness of the whole team or project? What is driving your decision: short-term winning or the long-term culture you are creating?

In the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni argues that it only takes one person to negatively impact an entire group. I myself recently wrote that being a member of a team is part of everyone’s job description these days. And yet, the movie highlights the dilemma of defining exactly what that team is – is it the team of driver and leader only, the race team or the entire Ford organization – and weighing how much latitude you give individual brilliance when deciding that answer.

Take a few hours this weekend and just enjoy a great film – then come Monday you can ponder the implications it may have for what drives hiring decisions in your organization.

leadership dot #2680: debatable

Thank goodness that they don’t interview executives the way they do presidential candidates! Can you imagine applying for your job – standing next to 11 others vying for the same position – and being given 75 seconds to answer questions or 45 seconds to respond to others – all while on national television.

Primary debates are the ultimate balancing act. You need to stand out from your opponents, yet not too much because you’ll need those supporters in the general election. You need to distinguish yourself from the others who are members of the same party, presumably meaning they share the same essential core values even if you differ on how to enact them. You need more of a message than “beat the other guy” but aren’t really given any time to deliver it.

And all of this leads to soundbites and pithy statements about what you’ll do if elected – conveniently ignoring the fact that you’ll need Congressional support (or at least budget allocation) to get much of it done and glossing over that how those elections go could seriously impact your plans.

Eight million people (including me) thought it worthy enough to watch last Tuesday but I can’t say that it swayed my vote. What it did do was cause me to wonder what the point of the spectacle really is.

If you find yourself producing a program – any program, let alone one the magnitude of the primary debates – take more than a moment to pause and consider what you’re hoping to achieve. Then produce a format that allows for those objectives to be met. It’s debatable whether the debates accomplish the goal of sharing the values and differences of primary presidential candidates; in fact, I’d vote for a better way.


leadership dot #2674: help wanted

I went to return bottles at the redemption center and it was closed – due to lack of workers. The same thing happened at Sam’s snack bar and at Popeye’s Chicken – the employee didn’t show up so they shuttered the operation for the day.

Liz Ryan (@humanworkplace) offers this perspective: “The ‘talent shortage’ myth is a simple case of employers refusing to acknowledge that the cost of talent has gone up.”

I don’t think she is referring just to minimum wage. The cost of talent, in my opinion, refers to the intangible contributions that employers need to make to create a desirable culture – to provide meaningful work for employees, to treat them with respect and dignity, and to create a sense of belonging and purpose that makes showing up for work worthwhile.

How many times have you volunteered to do hard work for free? Of course, you can’t pay the rent with altruism, but volunteering serves as evidence that you can have experiences that transcend what you are paid to do them. As older generations retire and younger generations are looking for incentives to trade leisure for work, an organization’s culture is going to be as valuable as its salary pool. The time to pay attention to it is now.