Ten Things I Would Have Done Differently
I have some favorite questions I like to ask people I’m interviewing, whether we’re hiring, considering promotion, or coaching. “How would your friends describe you in college? When did you know what career you wanted to pursue? How did you get your first job? What did you learn in the first 90 days of your last job? Was there a teacher, friend, manager or mentor who taught you something that’s proven invaluable so far in your life?
Certainly, you can’t do this with all people, but in most cases, you can get to know the person, not just the candidate. Is she self-made, or simply well-connected? Is he a more mature version of the person he’s always been, or has he reinvented himself along the way? Does he like change, or is he set in his ways? Has he learned from the people around him, or has he always been the one who knew more than everyone around him? Is he a team player or a lone ranger?
Traveling home from a coaching session recently, I asked myself a question I almost always ask my candidates, “If you were given the chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?” When I ask my candidates this question, I’m looking for specific information. Did he learn from his mistakes, and does he have the courage to make more? Is she still open to new ideas and change? Is she content in what she’s accomplished? Could he have done a better job with things, or does he believe he was perfect in every way?
Many readers know that in the past, I’ve been a bank president, chief operating officer, chief treasury officer and a chief talent officer. My answer to my own question surprised me a little. In short, I’d change plenty. I’m offering this list to readers still on the management/hiring/mentoring side of the desk; the ones still dealing with these things every day.
Set aside more think time. Thinking on the run is a great skill, but dedicating time to unplug and simply think is masterful. It may take a day each month, or an hour each week. If I had it to do over again, I’d find time to separate myself from the day-to-day; pen and pad (not a Mac or PC that can ding with a new email) in hand, and look at what we’re doing (and what we should be doing) from a different perspective. I would get out from under the details to ensure the plan is still relevant, that we’re doing the right things — and doing them right.
Be proud of the arrows in my back. I was reminded recently of something I was told when we were blazing trails in Internet banking: “You can always tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs.” Courage is king. I’d take more chances, try even more new things, and I’d wear the arrows proudly. Perhaps the best advice I was offered early in my career was from my CEO who said, “Don’t be afraid to fail, but fail forward.” I made more mistakes in my career than many. In some ways, success is bred from chances taken, and from the knowledge gained in trying. I don’t believe we ever made the same mistake twice, but I’m certain we didn’t make enough of them. Wayne Gretzky once said, “I missed 100% of the shots I never took.” I’d take more shots, early in the game.
Celebrate the good more often. No matter how hard we try, each of us hits a low point every so often. We’re presented with challenges we didn’t anticipate, or things don’t go exactly as planned. It seems that focusing on what’s gone wrong, who is to blame and how to fix it is the American standard. As important as that may be, do we do enough to celebrate what’s gone right? Since the beginning of my career I’ve kept a “Feels Good” file in my desk. It consists of letters from satisfied customers, magazine articles extolling our accomplishments, and handwritten notes from associates who were proud and happy to be part of the team. Rereading these can pick you up quickly, providing balance and recognizing the that which is positive and noteworthy. But maybe the file spent too much time in my desk. If I had it to do over, I’d share the “Feels Good” stuff with associates more often to help make the bad more bearable — and to instill a greater sense that the good is a lot more fun!
Eat in my office less often.We go to lunch with the same people every day. Or worse, we grab a sandwich or a salad and stay immersed in the challenge-at-hand through one of the most important times of the day. The greatest harm is not to your diet or your physical well-being. It’s to your loss of the daily socialization with anywhere from twenty to a hundred of your greatest champions eating lunch, talking, smiling, sharing insight into their lives and sharing stories and ideas. Can you accomplish more by spending time with the same people every day (or eating at your desk) or by listening to the people on your front line? I’d spend more time with my troops.
Take myself less seriously.Let’s face it, most of us get a bit more impressed with ourselves when we climb the food chain or take on additional responsibility. We become the job and the job becomes us. We carry it with us wherever we go. But we should never lose sight of the reality that the job (at least for most of us) is not to find a cure for cancer. We’re delivering financial services, or widgets or information…not oxygen. Stay grounded. Find a balance between doing the best you can do, and being the best person you can be. Intensity, passion, focus, drive, energy and a strong work ethic are all good things. But given a chance to do it over again, I’d balance these things more consistently with being a better friend, father, husband and citizen.
Be a better student. In the 1980’s, when we created new products following bank deregulation, we used robust database marketing programs to steal customers from our old and new competitors. People wanted to learn how we did it. In 1994, when my bank created one of the first online banking sites in the world, an industry wanted to learn from us. And later, when we scaled one of the leading brands in online financial services, even more people wanted to know how we did it. Being the teacher is dangerous only when you stop being the student, as well. Given the chance to do it over again, I’d listen more — to our current customers, to the people who aren’t our customers, to our front-line troops, and to the people who walked our halls long before us.
Laugh more and stress less.It sounds simple, really. Any leader or manager who says he doesn’t worry isn’t being entirely truthful. We all worry. But the most skilled leaders are the ones who can channel their worry into constructive action. Another boss in my life (my wife, of course) once embroidered a small plaque for my office that wasn’t appropriate for public display. To paraphrase, it said, “Certain Things Happen.” Worrying doesn’t fix anything. It simply infects the spirit of the team and blurs your focus on the solution. I’d get over it more quickly and move on. I’d laugh more with my team. I’d recognize that they worry, as well, but they will worry a lot less when they see me confidently and optimistically moving forward.
Build fewer fences. Ambition is a funny, and often dangerous thing. It can be good and bad for you and your company — at the same time. Undoubtedly, a few former associates still wish they’d thrown me under the bus when they had the chance. It has taken time, but I regret the same feelings I had about them, and some of the barriers I built around me. In every career, some people may stand as an obstacle to your success, or, in your opinion, to the success of the company. I recognize now that it’s natural, and not always personal. Tolerance and forgiveness are difficult, but often necessary for the good of the company. It’s easy to look back and wish you’d done it differently. It’s much harder to recognize that you are being obstinate when it’s happening, and manage the conflict differently. Time, experience and maturity change things. If I had a chance to do it over again, I’d be more open to the idea that (gasp!) perhaps I was wrong. Maybe I made a mistake. And I’d be less eager to build a wall against the source of the conflict.
Run it like you own it. Entrepreneurship is a terribly overused word in the corporate hiring process. Everyone says that’s what they want in their managers and future leaders, what do we really mean? Do we know how to support that culture and environment? I’ve never been more satisfied in my career than I am now, and for the first time, I truly understand that you don’t have to own your own business to be an effective entrepreneur. You can be entrepreneurial in any company, if your leadership supports you. Throughout my career I thought I was breeding entrepreneurs on my team, but now I recognize that I could have done more to nurture the environment in which business leaders could flourish. Too often, I meddled too much. I second-guessed people. I tried to help them get things done. I infringed on their ownership space. Given a chance to do it over, I’d try harder to let people run it like they own it. I would take more responsibility for the big picture, and less for how the picture is created.
Have more fun. That sounds easy. Looking back, I can honestly say that I had fun almost every day in my career. But did I recognize I was having fun while it was unfolding around me? Not often enough. And since I didn’t recognize it at the time, that means I didn’t do enough to make sure the people around me were having fun, too. Hard work and success breed fun. Fun breeds success and hard work. And all of these things result in pride — in you, in your company, and in what you do for your customers. I’d be a better champion of fun. And my associates and customers would be better for it.
So ask yourself, “If you were given the chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?” Reading back over my answers, I asked myself another question, “Who cares what I’d do differently?” The truth is, this article isn’t about me as much as it is about you.
Consider making this question part of your interviews. I believe that few people can (or should) answer, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” For better interviews, lighten up a little. Don’t just dive into the routine. Don’t just replay the mental script of how an interview should run. Get people talking. See how they communicate. Witness their passion, their emotions, their open-mindedness, and their life lessons. Let them offer the things they’re most proud of; the things that might be more about their life than their career. Get a better glimpse of who they are before you determine what they are.
And consider asking yourself the question in a different way. “What can I do differently before it’s too late?” I wish you great success and much happiness.