Get to know the job well - Huffington Post 10.28.2014

There's only one interview technique that matters... Do your homework so you can listen to the answers and react to them and ask follow-ups. Do your homework, prepare. Jim Lehrer

My first leadership experience was the most unusual, most unexpected and most fleeting management role that I ever held. When I was a high school senior, I was asked if I could provide supervision in a kosher restaurant in Manhattan on Saturday nights. I didn't live too far from the place and wanted to earn some extra cash, so I agreed. The position, I was told, included oversight in the kitchen, and, because I could be in and out, manning the cash register.

The first night was going pretty smoothly. It took me a short while to learn the inner workings of the establishment's kitchen and how to operate the register. Not bad, I thought, for $10 an hour. But then, the head waiter told me that I had a phone call.

"Is this the manager?" asked the woman on the line. "Manager?" I thought. I hesitated, thinking that he had called the wrong person to the phone. I asked her to hold and went back to the head waiter. He explained to me that every kosher supervisor who works in that restaurant is also the manager, so yes; I was the right one to answer. I picked the phone back up. The woman, by now confused and a bit annoyed, asked incredulously, "are you sure that you're the manager?" With the confidence of a censored child I meekly replied to the affirmative. Let's just say that I've had better leadership moments than that one.

* * * * *

Most leaders assume their positions with a superior understanding of their job responsibilities than I did. But I have found that quite a few only know the general parameters of what they need to do. This may be because they received little mentoring, a vague job description, competing sets of marching orders, or a combination thereof. Additionally, so many responsibilities seem to evolve over time or to appear mysteriously on the leader's lap, oftentimes because there is no one else to do these tasks or they don't know how to delegate them (more about that later).

It is really important for new leaders to understand their roles and expectations before they sign up. Minimally, they need to be aware of what is expected of them before they get started, so that they can work with clear vision and purpose from the outset. Not only will this help you once you get the job, but it can often assist you in securing it as well.

It is important to remember that employers take note of candidates that are well informed about the job responsibilities as well as the company itself. This demonstrates that you made the decision to apply for the job after considering the facts, rather than just out of desperation for a job. Assume that the interviewer will ask you what attracted you to her company. Study up on such information so that you can respond with an educated answer, such as how the company's mission really resonates with you.

What can leaders do to ensure that they operate will maximal clarity and that their job turns out to be the one that they signed up for rather than the occupation that it evolves into? The following strategies can help.

  • Review the job description thoroughly before applying - In most cases, detailed job descriptions are available to potential applicants. Review the core job expectations and ask yourself if you are comfortable with everything that is listed. If not, make a note to explore those areas in particular during the interview to see if the job is really for you.
  • Fill in the blanks - As you review the description, try to keep in mind the other leadership tasks that were not included. For example, a posting for a Chief Operations Officer listing may include a wide range of responsibilities, but make no mention of fundraising, public relations and the like. Do your homework to determine if these tasks are being handled by others or if this will also fall under your jurisdiction.
  • Seek to understand the company structure - Try to find out where you will sit in the chain of command. Is there a board of directors? What about a corporate headquarters? How does the corporate face differ from the regional face or from the retail face?
  • Study the bigger picture - Visit the company's website and learn as much as you can about it. Find out what they do and where they do it. Learn more about their corporate location and structure. Find out such details as how many people the company employs and if the company has gone public. Google them and see what is being reported in the media. Read their blog and see what they are writing about. Visit their social media pages and read the posts and comments.
  • Look at the mission statement - While on the website click on the "About Us" tab. See if there is a posted mission statement or some other statement of purpose or values. This will tell you about what the company prides itself in, places its emphasis, and sees itself as being unique amongst its competitors. These may include transparency, environmental sustainability or superior customer service. As you consider applying, use this knowledge to determine how your values and objectives line up with theirs.
  • Who do you know? - See if there is someone in the company that you know that may have some inside information about the position, the organizational culture, and the like. If nobody comes to mind, search your contact lists and professional connections to see who does or did work there. Perhaps you know someone who does business with them, or would have other reason to be intimately familiar with the company.
  • Gauge flexibility options - Will this position offer budgetary and staffing flexibility in the event of change, such as shifting market trends, new technologies or other unforeseen demands? This is important to ensure that the leader does not get saddled with unwanted and misplaced tasks.
  • Make it contractual - When the contract arrives, make sure that it clearly details what you are responsible to achieve. This will help you focus your energies from day one. Another benefit is that it will allow for clearer feedback as well as an easier, more accurate and useful evaluation process. Lastly, it will cover you in case others' expectations of you change over time without your input or consent.
  • Define success - Success in the role should be defined in advance. For example, branch leaders in a multinational corporation need to know whether their success will be measured by the effective execution of existing strategies established in corporate headquarters or if they are being asked to build the business in their respective market as they see fit. School leaders should be clear as to whether their success will be measured first by improving student academic performance or addressing some other area of school function.
  • Set a time-frame - It is important to come to some form of agreement on the pace of transition and / or implementation. The ideal situation for new leaders is to spend several months getting to know the organization, building relationships and learning the business. However, that is oftentimes not an option. Regardless, work to set a clear timetable that will help you plan effectively and deliver on schedule.

Oftentimes, prospective leaders fail to go through all or part of this process, either because they are not aware of its benefits or they fear that too much insistence will jeopardize their candidacy. While this is understandable, it is the responsibility of a job seeker to do his due diligence and determine whether the new possibility really offer a good fit. If he fails to do so, he may get saddled with tasks that are onerous, unrealistic, and not what he signed up for.

Noah, Righteous Caregiver - 10.23.2014

It is difficult to imagine the scenario that confronted Noah at the onset of this week’s torah portion. He was born in an era of decadence and corruption, so much so that the world into which he entered was to be completely destroyed. Noah was selected to be the new Adam, a second progenitor of all humanity in the post-deluvian period that would represent a clean break from the sinful ways of his ancestors.

But it was not sufficient for the righteous Noah to sit back and watch Hashem carry out His decree of destruction. Instead, Noah was tasked to do something that no one else would ever be required to do in the annals of humanity. He was to build an ark of sizable proportions and use it to shelter thousands of creatures from the destructive waters of the flood. Moreover, he was to build this ark over a period of 120 years, a lengthy time period designed to allow him to influence others towards change and repentance. Lastly, he was to care for and subdue all of the animals in the ark, which included the collection and distribution of food for the countless species under his care. And he was to attend to their needs for many months, while practically ignoring his own essentials during that protracted time.

This last task was one that surely would have overwhelmed even the world’s most gifted and energetic zookeeper. Certainly, it was an overwhelming task for an aged, righteous man who likely never engaged in any meaningful animal rearing during his first six centuries of life. What was it about Noah that prepared him for this daunting task? What qualities did he possess that allowed him to step into the role of savior and help perpetuate not only mankind, but the entire animal kingdom as well?

While the Torah offers no direct answers to these questions, a few hints can be gleaned that may offer us some additional understanding. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (commentary to Bereishis 6:9) analyzes the descriptions of Noah offered in the introductory verse. The verse calls him an “ish tzadik, tamim,” a righteous man who was perfect.  Rabbi Hirsch explains that each term, ish, tzaddik and tamim, independently signify unique aspects of his greatness.

Ish does not simply mean “man.” Any time that the Torah uses this designation, it testifies to the person’s distinction from his peers. The term tzaddik attests to his righteousness, an innate desire to meet the needs of others and ensure that they are adequately cared for. Tamim means that Noah had achieved moral perfection. And while these three accolades would be impressive in any age, it was a particularly special designation to receive a time of historic moral turpitude. By introducing the episode of the flood with a detailed description of Noah’s special character, the Torah may be teaching us that these qualities were most helpful in allowing Noah to meet his many responsibilities during this most trying period, by instilling confidence in those that he served, including even the animals under his jurisdiction.

Noah’s caring character was on clear display after the waters had begun to abate (see Bereishis 8:6ff).  He sought to determine whether the ground had dried sufficiently for him to disembark and first sent a raven from the ark’s window. (According to Rabbi Hirsch, the raven represented a bird of the wild. If it were to return, which it did, then the earth was still far from inhabitable.) He then sent a dove, which was unable to find any resting place during its first journey. At the end of its second attempt seven days later, it brought back an olive branch, which symbolized its deep quest for freedom. (Our sages say that the bitter olive branch demonstrated that bitterness tasted in the context of freedom is far sweeter than sweetness tasted in a state of dependence.) Noah mercifully extended his arms to bring the tired bird back to him, and would release him for good one week later, despite having already received the information that he had sought. It was simply unjust for him to keep the dove in the ark after it had tasted the sweetness of freedom.

His humility was displayed a short time afterwards. When the earth had finally dried (Ibid, 15ff), Noah awaited formal permission to disembark, despite having endured extreme hardship for an extensive period. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that it would have been unconscionable for Noah to leave the ark sooner. He had entered through divine command and would leave in the same manner.

People seek many qualities in their leaders. Of course, they look to leaders for guidance, direction and support. They want to be assured that the individual who is leading them possesses the wherewithal to achieve the task at hand and direct them along a path of success. But people also want to know that their leader is a person of great character. They seek leaders who care deeply for their charges and remain properly rooted, focused, committed and balanced throughout even the most intense challenges. Knowing that the leader is fully invested in others’ successes and prioritizes their needs gives his followers a great degree of confidence and encourages their compliance through thick and thin.

Don't let e-mail become e-fail - SmartBlog on Leadership 10.13.2014

“I was discussing the use of email and how impersonal it can be; how people will now email someone across the room rather than go and talk to them.” ~ Margaret J. Wheatley, writer and management consultant

If there was one area where I got hit hard at the beginning of my tenure as school leader, it was communication. The first complaint related to my style, which was seen as being too impersonal. I was heavily involved with my BlackBerry, texting and e-mailing regularly (even in meetings and while sitting in on classroom observations) to reach out or respond to various constituents. Though my objectives were lofty (I wanted to as readily accessible and responsive as possible), I was seen by some as being too digitized and distracted. This was, in part, because my predecessor rarely e-mailed. Nor did he text much or own a smartphone.

We all know the reasons that we type so many of our correspondences instead of write them down on a piece of paper. It’s often faster, it’s neater, and it can easily be saved and categorized for future reference without paper-sifting and clutter. Electronic communications can be shared far and wide and allow us to reach out and reply when it works for us, not having to be concerned as much with the other’s schedule and readiness to communicate.

Despite the many benefits of e-communication, it can also presents some meaningful downsides. These include:

  1. Misinterpretation. So much of the way that we normally share information and ideas is based on nonverbal communication. Inflections, hand gestures, facial tone, body positioning and the like say so much about how each party is receiving and responding to each other, as well as their passion for the information and ideas being shared. Without hearing a voice or seeing nonverbal cues, people struggle to properly discern the intended meaning, tone, value and emphasis.

A study by Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago sought to determine how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. The results of their study was that not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but recipients also overrate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

  1. Impersonal touch. No matter how thoughtfully an email is crafted, its digital nature makes it feel distant and impersonal. You simply cannot compare the feel of an e-mail with that of a face-to-face chat or a phone call.

  2. Raising the temperature. For most of us, distance makes it feel safer to “yell” or to be critical. We can more easily muster up the gumption to criticize when we are typing words on our personal keyboards than when we have to look someone in the eye and share our feelings. Furthermore, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.

  3. You can’t get it back. The quick nature of e-mail makes it easy to forget that our words actually matter and can really come back to bite us. (I suggest that you never send any e-mail with potentially negative implications without first showing it to one or two trusted colleagues). Not only must we worry about how our message will be processed “in the moment,” but there is a chance that it will be forwarded or printed for others to see as well

  4. Keeping your distance. Perhaps worst of all, e-mail, IM and other e-communiqués maintain distance between colleagues, sometimes even when only a wall or cubicle separate them physically. It’s often easier to fire off a response than to get up and share a few words. You may also want to not disturb your busy co-workers, especially if they are in another conversation or on the phone. While all of that is laudable, it’s important to not fall into the habit of remaining distant. Personal rapport keeps relationships strong, even in the face of conflict.

As our jobs involve working with and getting things done with people, we have to be able to build healthy relationships. This requires a healthy dose of ongoing, in person interactions, to get to know each other in real terms and how we each tick.