What I Get from Checking References

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Over the years as I’ve checked prospective employees’ professional references, the responses I’ve gotten have included delight and surprise. Why? The approach I take and the way I pose questions to those providing references seems to be a bit different from the norm. My queries get to a valuable place and provide really good perspective on new potential hires.

NB: This does come from experience working primarily for technology companies in a competitive hiring environment, so other industries will offer other experiences or perspectives.

First off, you shouldn’t be using references to ascertain the skill level of a possible new hire. There are better ways to do that. Test your prospective employees with in-office assessments, pay for spec work on a project, and conduct the right kind of technical interview for the position (this applies to designers, marketers, analysts, engineers, or any job that requires a specific expertise). Likewise, If you’re using references to “find dirt” or confirm facts, you’re wasting an opportunity. Do a full blown background check using an outside firm. If you want to get additional insight beyond official references, do a search on LinkedIn or other social networks for mutual connections and talk to them.

What *should* you use references for?

This is the starting point for the fundamental difference in my approach.

Let’s start with an example and assume that you’ve done your technical interview and the candidate has passed with flying colors. You’ve established your leading candidate’s bona fides. The team has deemed it a good cultural fit. You’re close to making an offer. You want to ensure two things: that the employee signs this offer and that they are on board they will be both successful and happy. You want to hire someone who is going to stay for some time because searching, interviewing, and hiring takes a lot of time AND once folks come on board, they acquire valuable institutional knowledge that can be detrimental to lose.

So what do I ask?

There are four key lines of questioning.

  1. What makes this person happiest in the workplace? How I can I help them to be happy? What helps them to produce effectively and with joy?
  2. What things should I know about work style and process?
  3. What are some ways I can address specific issues that came up during the interview process? These issues are not stoppers, mind you.
  4. What can I and the company do to help the person grow overall, both in their chosen field and as a business person?

You may note the focus here is positive. Often times people are reticent to serve as a reference due to concerns they are going to be asked for negative feedback. When I begin the conversation and explain this will be the direction of the reference conversation, people audibly relax. If they are willing to serve as a reference, they obviously think highly of the candidate and want to help them. However, previous employers and co-workers also understand that none of us are perfect and that we’re all best served by managers, employers, and co-workers who understand how to help us achieve our best at work. By asking a reference these positive questions, you give them the freedom to open up and help both you and your potential hire.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

Workplace Happiness

This is a really provocative question. It forces the person answering the question to really think about an employee, their quality of work, the speed at which they do it, and the joy in which they accomplish it. I’ve gotten all manner of answers from “this person gets bored quickly, so find lots of challenges” to “they like to learn new things” to “they need a lot of in the moment feedback.” Those are all invaluable to setting up the tasks an employee has on their plate. I’ve also heard things like “this person likes a lot of routine, so set up structured tasks.” Soliciting specific examples helps me to understand ways to structure a work environment. A pair of headphones for the audibly sensitive is well worth the investment for an engineer who gets easily distracted. A shifted work day wherein someone leaves at 3pm, takes a break and resumes work later in the evening may pay dividends for a designer who needs to exercise mid-day to stay motivated.

Work Style and Process

When we get into process, it’s important to understand differing styles. Does someone need to work solo for a while and then have a check in, or might they want to have daily check-ins? You may find some people like thorough documentation while others will soak up a quick chat and move along from there. From your conversation, you’ll learn what adjustments you might need to make to your current process, or where you might have to encourage someone to work in a different manner. This means for some employees I have weekly check-ins that are formal sit down sessions and others grab me at times when they need help. While some managers believe employees should bend to them, it rarely produces awesome results — or any loyalty. It’s also good to understand how people prefer to communicate. Are they heavy into chat/messaging? Is email better? What about face to face? Knowing this before someone walks in the door means you can put the right tools into place.

Questions Based on the Interview

This is definitely the thorniest set of questions. I want to underscore that if you have reached the point where you are checking references, you should be really serious about hiring this employee. This set of questions is meant to clarify something you interpreted in an interview. In one case I interviewed an engineer who didn’t like to ship with too many known issues. Most engineers feel this way. So how much was this engineer going to push back in times when shipping may be a priority? What are the types of things he deemed unshippable? How about the analyst I wanted to hire who tended to spend more time on qualitative than quantitative research? Was this because of the demands of the previous job or a comfort level? Can they provide some context for the rationale of certain projects that the employee handled? While these aren’t make or break points in deciding to bring someone on (again, you’re well past that decision),it’s information that details where to spend coaching time with the new hire.

Personal Growth for the Employee

This is the most important set of questions, and it can feel nebulous to some people, so I provide examples of what I mean. I explain that growing an employee is about both technical expertise and general business acumen. What can they share with me in regards to this person? In some cases, people have suggested a potential employee be encouraged to attend meetups or go to classes to acquire additional valuable skills. Other times they’ve suggested specific types of projects.

The recommendations that arise most frequently center on soft skills.

I want this sentence to stand apart because it gets at the core of growing good business people. Especially in technology when people have good engineering, design, marketing, community, and analytical skills, the thing that makes candidates stand out from one another is the soft skills.

Specifically with regards to these, one of the most common recommendations is to teach people how to sell their ideas. They need to understand not only how to persuade, but how to research and provide the data and the story to get a team to see why one path is better than another. There are some recommendations that cut across certain categories of roles. Many designers, when providing a reference for another designer, will say something like “they get really wedded to a design so you may need to un-stick them.” For engineers I’ve heard “involve them more with product decisions so they can understand the big picture.” It can be as common as “they need to learn how to manage up better.” Obviously, these are generic, but you get the idea.

Then there are people who don’t want to move into a management track, so references have mentioned that these folks need to continue to feel valued in their role and to help identify room for satisfaction in that way. Some will suggest the prospective employee be cultivated as a people manager, others may suggest a path forward as a distinguished individual contributor. These are all very different ways to bring on an employee and to think about them in the long term.

These final questions tend to be received as more unusual than the others, but it also makes people happy. Recently,  in response to some inquiries for an engineering hire, someone commented “this is ambrosia to my ears.”

Final Steps

Once I’ve had about 3 conversations, I type up notes for the managerial team. This loops in not only me as the direct manager, but those to whom the individual in question will have dotted line responsibilities. In well run organizations, everyone is responsible for growing employees. Putting specific plans in place in advance and thoughtful hiring make it that much easier to onboard someone and to ensure their first weeks provide a smooth transition. It also provides an initial template for how to spend time coaching in those early weeks and sets the groundwork for the long term cultivation and retention of an employee.

In One Sentence

See the people you’re hiring as whole people.

Personal Food Identity

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Ever since starting at 6SensorLabs, I’ve been thinking a lot about food, specifically about how often people simply can’t eat certain foods. This thinking has also brought to the forefront how much food & identity are intertwined.

So, I wanted to expand a bit on the short food identity I wrote about in my bio.

I believe sharing a meal is a foundational experience. My parents come from two different backgrounds: my father is Italian, my mother is a Southerner. Both cultures are strongly centered on socializing and sharing when it comes to food. I don’t care if it’s just sandwiches on napkins, or a fine dining experience where we’ve broken out the “good stuff.” Meals are for ingesting conversation and food. I will admit to eating lunch quietly at my desk on many days, just to crank through it, but I wish this were less often the case.

I practice a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. I’ve not had red meat, game, or pork for 30+ years and haven’t touched fish or chicken in about 17. I rarely hesitate to ask about the ingredients of a dish in a restaurant, and I read labels carefully before putting something in the grocery cart.

I believe the healthiest foods are those that are made from scratch. Cooking is sharing love with your friends and family, and my love of cooking has spurred me to much experimentation.

To keep the work week simple (and to appeal to teenage palates), there’s a short list of go to dishes that appear on our family table week in and week out. These include beans and rice, pasta, salad, soup, roasted vegetables, sautéed vegetables, seitan, fresh veggies, and whatever looked good at the Farmers Market that week. In other words, the genius of vegetables in all their forms!

We live in a part of the country where it’s easy to hit the Farmer’s Market and grab what’s seasonal. We try to avoid canned or frozen vegetables. Yes, this is a *huge* luxury, and I’m incredibly grateful.

Leftovers are good. Especially for lunch. Leftovers after three days should be tossed. Five at most. I’ve even adopted using food that’s a touch stale but not necessarily spoiled into our dog’s diet. Our whole family eats food that comes from great ingredients!

Tea is my preferred stimulant. Dark teas, like a really good Assam, or just a nice English breakfast tea blend make me happy. On a day to day basis, it’s generally PG Tips in my cup.

I have a two donuts a year rule. Last year’s Blue Star Buttermilk Donut in Portland could almost make me want to change this.

I try to have only one soda a month. This is a little tricky if cocktails are involved, because sometimes a ginger beer and bourbon is good for what ails ya, but outside of that I generally avoid soda.

Foods I avoid apart from dead animal flesh? Beets. Yeah, I know, they are supposed to be tasty. To me, they taste like dirt. Another thing I avoid: HFCS. Yuck. It’s in everything. Extraneous, unpronounceable ingredients that are nothing more than chemicals are also yuck.

I’m allergic to truffles and truffle oil. As a result, I eat less mushrooms than perhaps I should.

I also know it’s a delight to explore various cuisines. My favorites: Burmese, Caribbean, Cuban, Ethiopian, Italian, Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Pakistani, Persian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese. Anything that combines things. Again, these cuisines are best with ingredients that are fresh, and involve lots of vegetables.

My favorite meal is probably pizza and salad.

Cocktails and non-alcoholic special drinks are a great way to pass some time with friends. As much care goes into cocktail making as food making in our house. It’s a fun thing.

My family has practically adopted the chorus “We already know dinner is going to have salad, what *else* are we having?” Salad is delicious and allows for great variety.

Ice cream is wonderful. It’s probably my favorite dessert. Chocolate ice cream, on the other hand, is horrible.

As this comes from my fingers, the thing that springs to mind is how much I appreciate food and the abundance of it I get to enjoy. While it may seem restrictive to some, my food choice and allergies don’t limit me, they help define me.  For those with multiple allergies and sensitivities, it must feel freeing to know what they can and can’t eat to feel good. It’s one of the reasons the work we’re doing at 6SensorLabs is so compelling.

Life Changes, The 2014 Edition

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Goodbyes are always hard for me. I like to just sweetly ghost away and figure I’ll see you when I see you next. So last Monday, after giving all my team members some feedback, I swiftly packed my few remaining things, and walked out the door.

The past 19 months have been a complete and utter whirlwind. After a little over two years at AOL, it had always been my intention to take some time off, figure out what I wanted to do, and then go do it. In the mean time, I had been talking with Sam Hocking about what his plans were and the business he was starting. I kept putting in my two cents about what needed to be done to build his product and how some of the ideas his team of experts had could be turned into something even better.

You keep raising your hand, you may find an opportunity emerges.

Sam’s company, Imatchative, presented a great opportunity to merge the best things I’d learned about user experiences and brand building across consumer web products with financial products. A year and a half later, we went from proof of concept to a living, breathing product, inducted both technical and non-technical team on the intricacies of Agile development, and morphed the visual designs into something for the modern era.

I was building products for hedge fund managers and allocators, but my passion has never been in finance. Long ago, I took the Johnson O’Connor assessments, which told me I should work in consumer insights, product, or marketing for 3D or technology products and should NEVER work in finance. Not one to heed advice that rang true, this was my second foray in working on stuff related to any aspect of finance. It was time to find something that made sense for who and what I care about in the world.

Yet I wasn’t willing to just dive off a cliff. For one, I actually liked my job at Imatchative. I managed to build a stellar team of designers and product folks and loved working alongside a fantastic CMO and CTO. Plus, there were certain goals around product shipments that for my own personal satisfaction had to be completed. So, I took my time and was very intentional and thoughtful about the process. I hired a career coach. It’s been money well spent. Someone who is paid to think about you, to provide blunt feedback, and to help you process is well worth the investment.**  It was time to take stock of where to go next, what values in myself I wanted to reflect, and the types of roles that would best suit me. It is clear that I like working on the “new” thing, that it needed to have an meaningful impact in people’s lives, and that I wanted a small, diverse team of people where the role would have both strategic and tactical things in the day-to-day. There’s a whole laundry list of the other desirables, but these were the meaningful ones.

Once that clarity was established, I began talking to people. Lots of people.*** There’s no way to possibly publicly thank the many many people with whom I’ve had coffee, lunch, drinks, phone calls, IMs, texts, Twitter exchanges, etc. over the past several months. Just know that many of you will be getting private messages from me in the weeks to come reflecting our conversations and their impact as I did this soul searching. (It should be noted I spent as much time recruiting these same folks to Imatchative…the job day never ends.) Over a coffee, I told Jaime Chiang that I was looking for a more personal connection to daily work. She asked me to send over my resume and a quick summary and that she’d send it around as she met folks and this is where the alchemy happened.

All that work with the career coach meant the “official Carla Borsoi” pitch could be sent in an email. It basically had the four things I liked to do best + my resume.  Plus, it felt natural. It always feels like there is this connotation that networking is this slimy thing. Instead, I was having a lovely conversation with someone I really think is smart and terrific and she mentioned that she’d be happy to help. This was a scenario repeated again and again – fantastic conversations with really smart people who are also thoughtful about what they are building and doing.

Within a few days I was meeting with Shireen Yates, the CEO of 6Sensor Labs. Before we even met, I knew I’d like her. An email exchange right before the interview that proved we were both into loud colors made me instantly at ease. As soon as Shireen began talking about what 6Sensor is building, there was no way not to convince her to hire me. As a long time vegetarian (30+ years no red meat/game, 17+ years no fish/chicken), the need to trust my food is something that enters my thoughts every day and it was instantly easy to relate to helping people with allergies trust theirs. I then talked to Scott Sundvor, Shireen’s co-founder, and how he saw the business helping people in many ways beyond the initial product. I interviewed with the whole team and was struck not only by their intelligence, but their cohesive vision and understanding of the nuances of building a product eco-system covering hardware, software, and community. The team was forthcoming and cared about how marketing could impact all aspects of the business.

So it’s thrilling to announce that I’ve joined 6Sensor Labs to head up marketing. It’s going to be a long road, and we’re working through all sorts of fun branding and product work now. I look forward to sharing our path in the days to come.

I’m saying hello to this grand new adventure, no ghosting!

 

 

 

*Except, as the article notes, if I’m in small groups, but this definitely applies to big parties and last days at the office.

** I say this completely self-aware it’s a huge privilege to be able to afford not only the money but the time to be able to do this. Not everyone has this luxury, so I make many efforts to pay this forward, particularly with women.

*** I don’t have many hobbies, but getting to know people and keeping in touch with them are pretty much my favorite things.

SXSW 2014 Music Wrap Up

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I realized I haven’t even done a wrap up for 2013, but that’s because an error in judgment led me to thinking that leaving early (Thursday) was a good idea. Wrong! So in 2014, back to music at SXSW, but minus Saturday night. Sorry, but by Saturday all the bands are ragged out from playing 2 – 3 shows a day, I’ve been there over a week, and it’s just not as much fun.

This year I also wanted to spend more time with film goings-on, so I got a chance to see Tilda Swinton speak. Not only she is swoon-worthy, but her vocabulary is so rich and imaginative. Should we all be so erudite every day.

Of the 33 bands I managed to see this year, a few performances stood out, detailed here:

  1. Fat White Family at the Mohawk indoors – This was a most entertaining train wreck. Was the lead singer going to whip his dick out on stage or take a dump? Was that only beer he spit on to the crowd? This was pure punk, but deliberately so. I couldn’t tell if I were watching a master of music marketing at play or actual greatness. In the end it didn’t matter. Energetic and entertaining, it was the most rock’n’roll show of the week. Recommended band reading.
  2. Ex Hex at The Parish – This remains one of my favorite music venues in Austin (on par with the Mohawk) and the evening’s Matador showcase was terrific, but I have to say Ex Hex was phenomenal. After seeing several good but not great shows, watching this band showed a mastery of stage presence and showmanship, not to mention the music. I was truly sad to leave.
  3. The Deslondes at the Flatstock Stage at ACC – Delightful in every sense. A song about a boy who gave up his Matchbox car for a frog and one called Louise. Truly excellent connection with listeners in a sterile environment.
  4. Jetta at Clive Bar – I’m really waiting for her to become the next major talent. Besides the incredible voice, she’s got a great look, incredibly accessible pop songs, and stage presence. A major shout out to two very tall people who nicely asked if I wanted to stand in front of them so I could see.
  5. The Fresh and Onlys at Swan Dive Indoors – While I haven’t managed to see them yet in San Francisco, this show ensures that I’m going to be dragging everyone to see them. It was a great venue for their sound of sharply refined recorded nuggets turned into rough, live gold.
  6. Those Darlins at Shotgun – This was a last minute addition to my plan and was well worth it. Vibrant and tight, this band knew how to put on a live show and keep folks entertained.
  7. Marshall Ford Swing Band at the Victorian Room at the Driskill – Honestly, we were looking for a quick, easy-going show before seeing a movie, and this perfectly fit the bill. Unpretentious. My notes say “like an eminently drinkable alcoholic beverage – not original per se, but likable.”
  8. Parquet Courts at Bar 96 – This was the band I was most looking forward to seeing. The performance was fun but the crowd and venue left much to be desired. I will admit to laughing when someone flew by crowdsurfing while wearing Birkenstocks. Not a combo I’ve often seen.

In my prep this year, I listened to about 500 bands and used SongDrop to curate a list of some thing. It’s not complete, but you can take a listen.