The Right Way to Answer “What’s Your Greatest Weakness?” – by David Reese

Thomas Jefferson once said that “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom”. Though truth-telling abounds in grade school platitudes, it seems scarcer the older we get. But this decline in honesty — let’s call it dishonesty — isn’t necessarily innate. Dishonesty can be taught. In my experience, I’ve noticed that, of all culprits, college career centers are exceptional traffickers of such miseducation. In the process, they’re hurting their brightest students’ chances of making it in the world of startups by convincing them to give dishonest answers to tough interview questions.

Full disclosure: I work at a startup, and it’s my job to quickly build a team of the right people. Throughout my earlier career in larger companies, honesty and being self-critical have always been obvious qualities to look for in candidates, but it wasn’t until I joined Medallia that I realized their special significance for startups. Brandon Ballinger’s now famous blog post about his experience with Y Combinator’s Paul Graham shows why. To cut a long story short, Graham told Ballinger (to his face) that his startup idea sucked — a tough-love approach Ballinger now extols. Why? Well, in a startup, it’s much more comfortable to be a “team player” than “the bad guy,” as Ballinger describes it. The real hard work in a startup, however, is being able to openly admit that the current strategy is just not working — no matter how uncomfortable it is, or how much has been invested in getting to that point.

In other words: one of the biggest dangers for a young company is that a roomful of smart people who aren’t being honest could easily be steering their rocket ship into the ground.

And yet college career centers continue to operate in a 20th century world in which top talent was funneled into careers in mature, staid organizations and industries. These are cultures where people are much more likely to divulge their net worth than a weakness. While a mature organization might have once been able to get by with a “don’t stick your neck out” culture, that attitude is simply lethal to startups.

Nonetheless, the importance of this simple truth seems to still be elusive for the Office of Career Services at many of the nation’s top colleges and universities. Besides guidance on basic items like resumes, cover letters, how to dress, and how to eat, many of these schools are providing either noadvice or bad advice on how to adequately answer important questions. Take a very common question that I always like to ask, for example:

What is your greatest weakness?

Even if you’ve only had just one professional interview in your life, then you’ve probably still been asked some version of this question. Do you remember how you answered? Did you say that you work too hard? That you have perfectionist tendencies? Or that you’re too passionate? Be honest.

The truth of that matter is that a quick search of career center websites indicates that students are being encouraged to apply this type of spin to their answers. Even for those that advocating for honesty, there’s often still the contradiction that one’s answers must always be positive. The result of which? Answers that focus on lesser skills (but still skills) rather than actual problems or challenges. One school goes as far as to call it an “angelic weakness.” And if you’re pressed to give a real answer about a flaw, nearly every career center in the universe has apparently decided that “public speaking” is an appropriate response.

Others are more direct at giving the advice that everyone seems familiar with — to make weaknesses into strengths (and vice versa). Northwestern tells grad students, “Turn a negative into a positive.” Boston College advises students to “Turn your weakness into a positive (for example) ‘Because I tend to procrastinate, I have learned to work well under pressure in order to always get work done on time.’”

This is terrible advice. Responses like these tell me little about how a candidate faces challenges and immediately implies a lack of sincerity. It doesn’t demonstrate to me how they think — beyond their ability to creatively avoid being honest or self-critical. It indicates to me that they’re not willing to stand up and say what’s not working — the opposite of what a startup needs. That’s why my recent interviews with college graduates have all started to follow the same pattern. I start with two sentences: “Forget what your career center has taught you about interviews. I want to have a real conversation with real answers, and I promise to do the same.” The candidates take a minute to evaluate whether I’m somehow tricking them. If they lean into their discomfort and take me at my word, the level of conversation improves dramatically — we have a great time getting to know one another in an authentic way. I’m not really looking to find out whether their organizational skills could use improvement, or that they struggle with presenting to large groups or even leading large teams. I’m trying to find out whether they have self-awareness; whether they are able to be critical; and most importantly, whether they’re able to tell the truth — when it’s difficult.

For those candidates who don’t buy in, however, I spend the majority of the interview trying to pry off their layers of canned responses. I leave the interview wondering: Who are you? And what’s worse — I’ll never know. Because they’ll never get the job.

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David Reese leads people and culture at Medallia. He came to Medallia from Caesars Entertainment, where he was Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Prior to that, he was a Senior Manager in HR at Macy’s, a board member of the nonprofit ITN, and an Adjunct Professor at Nevada State College.

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Why leadership-development programs fail – by Pierre Gurdjian, Thomas Halbeisen, and Kevin Lane

For years, organizations have lavished time and money on improving the capabilities of managers and on nurturing new leaders. US companies alone spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development.1 Colleges and universities offer hundreds of degree courses on leadership, and the cost of customized leadership-development offerings from a top business school can reach $150,000 a person.

Moreover, when upward of 500 executives were asked to rank their top three human-capital priorities, leadership development was included as both a current and a future priority. Almost two-thirds of the respondents identified leadership development as their number-one concern.2 Only 7 percent of senior managers polled by a UK business school think that their companies develop global leaders effectively,3 and around 30 percent of US companies admit that they have failed to exploit their international business opportunities fully because they lack enough leaders with the right capabilities.4

We’ve talked with hundreds of chief executives about the struggle, observing both successful initiatives and ones that run into the sand. In the process, we’ve identified four of the most common mistakes. Here we explain some tips to overcome them. Together, they suggest ways for companies to get more from their leadership-development efforts—and ultimately their leaders—as these organizations face challenges ranging from the next demanding phase of globalization to disruptive technological change and continued macroeconomic uncertainty.

1. Overlooking context

Context is a critical component of successful leadership. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another. Academic studies have shown this, and our experience bears it out. The CEO of a large European services business we know had an outstanding record when markets were growing quickly, but he failed to provide clear direction or to impose financial discipline on the group’s business units during the most recent economic downturn. Instead, he continued to encourage innovation and new thinking—hallmarks of the culture that had previously brought success—until he was finally replaced for underperformance.

Too many training initiatives we come across rest on the assumption that one size fits all and that the same group of skills or style of leadership is appropriate regardless of strategy, organizational culture, or CEO mandate.

In the earliest stages of planning a leadership initiative, companies should ask themselves a simple question: what, precisely, is this program for? If the answer is to support an acquisition-led growth strategy, for example, the company will probably need leaders brimming with ideas and capable of devising winning strategies for new or newly expanded business units. If the answer is to grow by capturing organic opportunities, the company will probably want people at the top who are good at nurturing internal talent.

Focusing on context inevitably means equipping leaders with a small number of competencies (two to three) that will make a significant difference to performance. Instead, what we often find is a long list of leadership standards, a complex web of dozens of competencies, and corporate-values statements. Each is usually summarized in a seemingly easy-to-remember way (such as the three Rs), and each on its own terms makes sense. In practice, however, what managers and employees often see is an “alphabet soup” of recommendations. We have found that when a company cuts through the noise to identify a small number of leadership capabilities essential for success in its business—such as high-quality decision making or stronger coaching skills—it achieves far better outcomes.

In the case of a European retail bank that was anxious to improve its sales performance, the skill that mattered most (but was in shortest supply) was the ability to persuade and motivate peers without the formal authority of direct line management. This art of influencing others outside formal reporting lines runs counter to the rigid structures of many organizations. In this company, it was critical for the sales managers to persuade the IT department to change systems and working approaches that were burdening the sales organization’s managers, whose time was desperately needed to introduce important sales-acceleration measures. When managers were able to focus on changing the systems and working approaches, the bank’s productivity rose by 15 percent.

Context is as important for groups and individuals as it is for organizations as a whole: the best programs explicitly tailor a “from–to” path for each participant. An Asian engineering and construction company, for example, was anticipating the need for a new cadre of skilled managers to run complex multiyear projects of $1 billion or more. To meet this challenge, it established a leadership factory to train 1,000 new leaders within three years.

The company identified three important leadership transitions. The first took experts at tendering (then reactive and focused on meeting budget targets) and sought to turn them into business builders who proactively hunted out customers and thought more strategically about markets. The second took project executors who spent the bulk of their time on site dealing with day-to-day problems and turned them into project directors who could manage relationships with governments, joint-venture partners, and important customers. The third targeted support-function managers who narrowly focused on operational details and costs, and set out to transform them into leaders with a broader range of skills to identify—and deliver—more significant contributions to the business.

2. Decoupling reflection from real work

When it comes to planning the program’s curriculum, companies face a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, there is value in off-site programs (many in university-like settings) that offer participants time to step back and escape the pressing demands of a day job. On the other hand, even after very basic training sessions, adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing. Furthermore, burgeoning leaders, no matter how talented, often struggle to transfer even their most powerful off-site experiences into changed behavior on the front line.

The answer sounds straightforward: tie leadership development to real on-the-job projects that have a business impact and improve learning. But it’s not easy to create opportunities that simultaneously address high-priority needs—say, accelerating a new-product launch, turning around a sales region, negotiating an external partnership, or developing a new digital-marketing strategy—and provide personal-development opportunities for the participants.

A medical-device company got this balance badly wrong when one of its employees, a participant in a leadership-development program, devoted long hours over several months to what he considered “real” work: creating a device to assist elderly people during a medical emergency. When he presented his assessment to the board, he was told that a full-time team had been working on exactly this challenge and that the directors would never consider a solution that was a by-product of a leadership-development program. Given the demotivating effect of this message, the employee soon left the company.

By contrast, one large international engineering and construction player built a multiyear leadership program that not only accelerated the personal-development paths of 300 midlevel leaders but also ensured that projects were delivered on time and on budget. Each participant chose a separate project: one business-unit leader, for instance, committed his team to developing new orders with a key client and to working on a new contract that would span more than one of the group’s business lines. These projects were linked to specified changes in individual behavior—for instance, overcoming inhibitions in dealing with senior clients or providing better coaching for subordinates. By the end of the program, the business-unit head was in advanced negotiations on three new opportunities involving two of the group’s business lines. Feedback demonstrated that he was now behaving like a group representative rather than someone defending the narrow interest of his own business unit.

The ability to push training participants to reflect, while also giving them real work experiences to apply new approaches and hone their skills, is a valuable combination in emerging markets. There, the gap between urgent “must do” projects and the availability of capable leaders presents an enormous challenge. In such environments, companies should strive to make every major business project a leadership-development opportunity as well, and to integrate leadership-development components into the projects themselves.

3. Underestimating mind-sets

Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. But although most companies recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mind-sets, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root causes of why leaders act the way they do. Doing so can be uncomfortable for participants, program trainers, mentors, and bosses—but if there isn’t a significant degree of discomfort, the chances are that the behavior won’t change. Just as a coach would view an athlete’s muscle pain as a proper response to training, leaders who are stretching themselves should also feel some discomfort as they struggle to reach new levels of leadership performance.

Identifying some of the deepest, “below the surface” thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs is usually a precondition of behavioral change—one too often shirked in development programs. Promoting the virtues of delegation and empowerment, for example, is fine in theory, but successful adoption is unlikely if the program participants have a clear “controlling” mind-set (I can’t lose my grip on the business; I’m personally accountable and only I should make the decisions). It’s true that some personality traits (such as extroversion or introversion) are difficult to shift, but people can change the way they see the world and their values.

Take the professional-services business that wanted senior leaders to initiate more provocative and meaningful discussions with the firm’s senior clients. Once the trainers looked below the surface, they discovered that these leaders, though highly successful in their fields, were instinctively uncomfortable and lacking in confidence when conversations moved beyond their narrow functional expertise. As soon as the leaders realized this, and went deeper to understand why, they were able to commit themselves to concrete steps that helped push them to change.

A major European industrial company, meanwhile, initially met strong resistance after launching an initiative to delegate and decentralize responsibility for capital expenditures and resource allocation to the plant level. Once the issues were put on the table, it became clear that the business-unit leaders were genuinely concerned that the new policy would add to the already severe pressures they faced, that they did not trust their subordinates, and that they resented the idea of relinquishing control. Only when they were convinced that the new approach would actually save time and serve as a great learning opportunity for more junior managers—and when more open-minded colleagues and mentors helped challenge the “heroic” leadership model—did the original barriers start to come down and decentralization start to be implemented.

Another company decided that difficult market conditions required its senior sales managers to get smarter about how they identified, valued, and negotiated potential deals. However, sending them on a routine finance course failed to prompt the necessary changes. The sales managers continued to enter into suboptimal and even uneconomic transactions because they had a deeply held mind-set that the only thing that mattered in their industry was market share, that revenue targets had to be met, and that failing to meet those targets would result in their losing face. This mind-set shifted only when the company set up a “control tower” for reflecting on the most critical deals, when peers who got the new message became involved in the coaching, and when the CEO offered direct feedback to participants (including personal calls to sales managers) applauding the new behavior.

4. Failing to measure results

We frequently find that companies pay lip service to the importance of developing leadership skills but have no evidence to quantify the value of their investment. When businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that improvement initiatives won’t be taken seriously.

Too often, any evaluation of leadership development begins and ends with participant feedback; the danger here is that trainers learn to game the system and deliver a syllabus that is more pleasing than challenging to participants. Yet targets can be set and their achievement monitored. Just as in any business-performance program, once that assessment is complete, leaders can learn from successes and failures over time and make the necessary adjustments.

One approach is to assess the extent of behavioral change, perhaps through a 360 degree–feedback exercise at the beginning of a program and followed by another one after 6 to 12 months. Leaders can also use such tools to demonstrate their own commitment to real change for themselves and the organization. One CEO we know commissioned his own 360 degree–feedback exercise and published the results (good and bad) for all to see on the company intranet, along with a personal commitment to improve.

Another approach is to monitor participants’ career development after the training. How many were appointed to more senior roles one to two years after the program? How many senior people in the organization went through leadership training? How many left the company? By analyzing recent promotions at a global bank, for example, senior managers showed that candidates who had been through a leadership-development program were more successful than those who had not.

Finally, try to monitor the business impact, especially when training is tied to breakthrough projects. Metrics might include cost savings and the number of new-store openings for a retail business, for example, or sales of new products if the program focused on the skills to build a new-product strategy. American Express quantifies the success of some of its leadership programs by comparing the average productivity of participants’ teams prior to and after a training program, yielding a simple measure of increased productivity. Similarly, a nonprofit we know recently sought to identify the revenue increase attributable to its leadership program by comparing one group that had received training with another that hadn’t.

Companies can avoid the most common mistakes in leadership development and increase the odds of success by matching specific leadership skills and traits to the context at hand; embedding leadership development in real work; fearlessly investigating the mind-sets that underpin behavior; and monitoring the impact so as to make improvements over time.

About the authors

Pierre Gurdjian is a director in McKinsey’s Brussels office; Thomas Halbeisen is an associate principal in the Zurich office, where Kevin Lane is a principal.

The authors wish to thank Nate Boaz, Claudio Feser, and Florian Pollner for their contributions to this article.

Next frontiers for lean – byEwan Duncan and Ron Ritter

When the first issue of McKinsey Quarterly rolled off the printing presses, 50 years ago, nearly everyone in senior management thought that manufacturing operations had been perfected. Henry Ford’s great innovation, the moving assembly line, had been refined over the previous five decades, had served as the arsenal of democracy during World War II, and by the mid-1960s was operating efficiently, at great scale, in a wide range of industries around the world.

Quietly, though, in Nagoya, Japan, Taiichi Ohno and his engineering colleagues at Toyota were perfecting what they came to call the Toyota production system, which we now know as lean production. Initially, lean was best known in the West by its tools: for example, kaizen workshops, where frontline workers solve knotty problems; kanban, the scheduling system for just-in-time production; and theandon cord, which, when pulled by any worker, causes a production line to stop. In more recent years, this early (and often superficial) understanding of lean has evolved into a richer appreciation of the power of its underlying management disciplines: putting customers first by truly understanding what they need and then delivering it efficiently; enabling workers to contribute to their fullest potential; constantly searching for better ways of working; and giving meaning to work by connecting a company’s strategy and goals in a clear, coherent way across the organization.

Lean is one of the biggest management ideas of the past 50 years. No less than Ford’s original assembly line, it has transformed how leading companies think about operations—starting in assembly plants and other factory settings and moving more recently into services ranging from retailing and health care to financial services, IT, and even the public sector. Yet despite lean’s trajectory, broad influence, and level of general familiarity among senior executives, it would be a mistake to think that it has reached its full potential.

Indeed, we believe that as senior executives gain more exposure to lean and deepen their understanding of its principles and disciplines, they will seek to drive even more value from it. The opportunities available to them are considerable. For example, powerful new data sources are becoming available, along with analytical tools that make ever more sophisticated frontline problem solving possible. Similarly, leading-edge companies are discovering that lean can supply strong insights about the next frontiers of energy efficiency. Toyota itself is pushing the boundaries of lean, rethinking the art of the possible in production-line changeovers, for example, and bringing customer input more directly into factories. And leading service-based companies such as Amazon.com are extending the value of lean further still, into areas beyond manufacturing (see “When Toyota met e-commerce: Lean at Amazon,” available next week on mckinsey.com).

What’s more, new technologies, new analytical tools, and new ways of looking at customers are making it possible, with greater precision than ever before, to learn what they truly value. The implications are profound because one of the primary constraints on the ability to design a perfect lean system in any operating environment has always been the challenge of understanding customer value, lean’s ultimate “north star.” In this article, we’ll highlight the advances that could make it possible to translate what customers value into additional improvements and help to bridge the age-old gaps among operations, marketing, and product development—groups that have historically occupied separate silos.

When lean met services

The present round of improvements won’t be the first time lean has catalyzed management innovation by bringing together what seemed to be strange bedfellows. The first time around, lean operating principles were applied to service industries that had not previously thought of themselves as having factory-like characteristics. Consider these examples from the Quarterly during lean’s early forays into services:

Retail banking

“Since it involves a physical process not unlike an assembly line, the handling of paper checks and credit-card slips lends itself readily to lean-manufacturing techniques. And their impact can be dramatic: the faster a bank moves checks through its system, the sooner it can collect its funds and the better its returns on invested capital.”

Devereaux A. Clifford, Anthony R. Goland, and John Hall, “First National Toyota,”McKinsey Quarterly, November 1998, mckinsey.com.

Hospitals

“Obviously, a hospital isn’t an automobile factory, and people—especially sick ones—are less predictable than car parts. Nevertheless, hospitals, which usually have far fewer discrete stages to worry about than do major manufacturers, can often reduce their variability a good deal.”

Paul D. Mango and Louis A. Shapiro, “Hospitals get serious about operations,”McKinsey Quarterly, May 2001, mckinsey.com.

Airlines

“Aircraft worth $100 million or more routinely sit idle at gates. Turnaround times between flights typically vary by upward of 30 percent. Lean techniques cut hours to minutes with a [new] changeover system. . . . ”

Stephen J. Doig, Adam Howard, and Ronald C. Ritter, “The hidden value in airline operations,” McKinsey Quarterly, November 2003, mckinsey.com.

Exhibit 1

Eliminating delays

Restaurants

“Lean techniques seek to improve product and service quality while simultaneously reducing waste and labor costs. For food-service operators, the additional trick is to link such improvements to customer loyalty.”

John R. McPherson and Adrian V. Mitchell, “Lean cuisine,” McKinsey Quarterly, February 2005, mckinsey.com.

Exhibit 2

Standardizing procedures saves time.

Asset management

“Power companies use ‘peaker’ plants to manage spikes in electricity demand flexibly and cost-effectively. Likewise, managers in many back-office processing environments can make them more flexible and remove waste to boot by organizing transactions or activities according to their variability and then assigning different ones to baseload or swing teams.”

Dan Devroye and Andy Eichfeld, “Taming demand variability in back-office services,” McKinsey Quarterly, September 2009, mckinsey.com.

New horizons

As these examples suggest, lean is hardly stationary. Indeed, as senior managers’ understanding of lean continues to develop, we expect it to further permeate service environments around the world. In the past few years alone, we’ve observed lean’s successful application to mortgage processing in India, customer-experience improvements in a Colombian pension fund, better and faster processing of political-asylum requests in Sweden, and the streamlining of business services in the United Arab Emirates.1

In the years ahead, service and product companies alike will increasingly be able to reach their long-term goal of eliminating waste as defined directly by customers across their entire life cycle—or journey—with a company.2 For example, an unprecedented amount of product-performance data is now available through machine telematics. These small data sensors monitor installed equipment in the field and give companies insights into how and where products are used, how they perform, the conditions they experience, and how and why they break down. A number of aerospace and industrial-equipment companies are starting to tap into this information. They are learning—directly from customer experience with their products—about issues such as the reliability of giant marine engines and mining equipment or the fuel efficiency of highway trucks in different types of weather.

The next step is to link this information back to product design and marketing—for example, by tailoring variations in products to the precise environmental conditions in which customers use them. Savvy companies will use the data to show customers evidence of unmet needs they may not even be aware of and to eliminate product or service capabilities that aren’t useful to them.3 Applying lean techniques to all these new insights arising at the interface of marketing, product development, and operations should enable companies to make new strides in delighting their customers and boosting productivity.

Information about customers won’t be coming only from sensors and databases. The understanding of what makes people tick has been improving dramatically, and companies are starting, more and more, to apply psychology to their operations.4 Disney, for example, recognized that visitors in its theme parks respond to different emotional cues at different times of the day and embedded this realization into its operations in precise ways. In the morning, for example, Disney employees are encouraged to communicate in a more inspirational style, which resonates with eager families just starting out their day at the park. In the late afternoon (when children are tired and nerves become frayed), employees aim for a more calming and supportive style of communication. The integration of these psychological insights with Disney’s operating philosophy allows the company to eliminate waste of a different sort: employee behavior that would not be desired by customers and might inadvertently alienate them at certain times of the day.

Finally, market- and consumer-insight tools (for instance, statistically based regression analysis, as well as advanced pricing- and financial-modeling tools) are creating a far more sophisticated (and much closer to real-time) view of what customers value. The changes may just be getting started. Better-integrated datasets across channels and touch points are rapidly enabling companies to get much more complete views of all interactions with customers during the journeys they take as they evaluate, buy, consume, and seek support for products and services. Usage patterns of mobile devices and services are painting a richer picture than companies previously enjoyed.

The end result should be more scientific insight into how product and service attributes contribute to customer value; new ways to look at what matters most for classic lean variables, such as lead time, cost, quality, responsiveness, flexibility, and reliability; and new opportunities for cross-functional problem solving to eliminate anything that strays from customer-defined value.

The future of lean is exciting. Its tools for eliminating waste and for increasing value as customers define it are being enhanced by huge gains in the volume and quality of the information companies can gather about customer behavior, the value of the marketing insights that can be integrated with operations, and the sophistication of the psychological insights brought to bear on the customer’s needs and desires. These advances bring new meaning to the classic lean maxim “learning to see.” The contrast between where companies are now and where they’ll be 20 years on will seem as stark as the difference between a static color photograph and a high-definition, three-dimensional video.

About the authors

Ewan Duncan is a principal in McKinsey’s Seattle office, and Ron Ritter is a principal in the Miami office.

The authors wish to thank Jeff James, vice president of the Disney Institute, for his contribution to this article.