What Do You Want on Your Tombstone?

18 07 2012

No.  It’s not the pizza commercial but a question I ask candidates when I interview them for a job.  I want to understand what they want to be known for in their business life- what they want to have as their business legacy.   My goal is twofold. First I want to understand what drives them to be successful: teamwork, innovation, creativity, competition, etc.  Second, I want to make sure that my style of leadership of mentoring and “one page management” will be a good match.   I have found that over the years, when I explore this question with a candidate, I will normally find the right one that will fit into the culture I am trying to build.

As many of my readers and colleagues know, I a huge fan of Investor Business Daily and one of the main sections I enjoy reading is the “Managing for Success.”  I was particularly interested in the July 16, 2012 column which highlighted Procera’s CEO, James Brear, and the way he communicates with his people.  He, too, is a results oriented leader and he “prefers that people focus on the three executable things they need to do in the next 6 months.”    This way he can prioritize the objectives and at the same time provide a basis to provide feedback regularly.

To me, the key to good management and leadership is to blend the goals of the organization or company with the unique skills of the individual.  When I am able to understand the drivers of the behavior – what a person wants as his/her business legacy – I can link that with the one page goals to monitor and measure performance and results.  These one page goals are based on the person asking their peers, subordinates, managers and colleagues what is important to achieve success and what things, if not achieved, will create a negative impression.   When a person is able to highlight 3 to 5 areas and then, for each, specify 2 to 3 milestones, I have the basis for quarterly reviews.

In those reviews, I do two things (and I require my managers to do this with their people too).  First we review the results of the quarter and set the priorities for the next.  This may include modifying the goals.   I don’t just wait until the end of the quarter to provide feedback, yet a quarterly review provides a good perspective on what went well and what needs improvement.  The second part of the quarterly review is a focus on personal development. I want to make sure I understand what my people want to do (makes sure it is consistent with what they want on their tombstone) and develop a plan to help them achieve their goals.  This is good for the individual and the company as well and creates loyalty.

Sometimes that works perfectly for the individual. Many years ago a young woman who was in charge of market research wanted to get out from under the research blanket and try her hand at project management.  To make a long story short, she took a chance on a project and did just ok.  But she realized that her real forte was research and decided to stay in that discipline.  Yet she was always grateful that she was given a chance to do something different.  Great employee by the way for many years until another organization hired her.

So back to the story told by Jim Brear.  He learned from his bosses and found a positive influence in the negative behavior of many.   He learned what not to do and determined a way to provide positive leadership.   I feel fortunate that I have had several good leadership models in my career.  But I also learned what not to do from some of the very bad managers for whom I worked and others whom I have had the misfortune to see in action.  That is why I developed the question of what do you want on your tombstone?   I want to find the right people and want to ensure I can have a positive influence on them.