Hiring for Passion, Leading by Trust

My wife forwarded me an awesome quote from Stephen R. Covey that went, “If you can hire people whose passion intersects with the job, they won’t require any supervision at all. They will manage themselves better than anyone could ever manage them. Their fire comes from within, not from without. Their motivation is internal, not external.”

This struck a chord with me because I have often made a similar statement during recruitment drives around hiring candidates.  My point was always, “Give me a candidate with the right attitude and the desire to learn, rather than a candidate who just has the skills.” Learning, after all, is a great motivator. From my experience, workers shouldn’t want a job just to clock some hours, pull in a paycheque, and go home.  Sure, there are plenty that might fall into that mindset, but they’re not the ones who will become engaged employees or thrive in an environment of collaboration such as the one I choose to foster.

In other words, I want to work with employees that are excited by the possibilities of what we can accomplish together. That drive, that passion, energizes me and by extension it energizes their colleagues.  A group of collaborators working together to resolve issues or deliver solutions is an amazing force. And when they have reached a level of cooperation that allows them to literally hum with “power” it becomes a force to be reckoned with.  The team is able to motivate each other not just to keep going, keep building, but also to lend support and encouragement when a wall suddenly pops up in front of them.

It takes a lot of trust on the behalf of a Leader to help a team become self-motivating and self-sustaining, and it’s not one that comes easily to most. The fear of losing control is the biggest hindrance most Managers have in nurturing the right ember to get it to a full-blown fire. And yet, that’s what we want.  A fire that burns from within to motivate employees into giving their best. No, not just giving their best, but WANTING to give their best.

I’ve heard the comments so many times over the years that you can almost feel a mantra being built up around it:

  • “If I don’t track their hours, how do I know they’re actually working the amount of hours they’re supposed to?”
  • “If I don’t see them at their desk or in the office, how do I know they’re actually working from home/remotely and not just goofing off?”
  • “If I don’t tell them what to do, they’ll just work on the wrong priorities!”

I could go on, but why bother? I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this.  Fear of losing control brings on this huge lack of trust. If you meet with your team regularly enough, or even just communicate with them often enough (through whatever means, physical or electronic), then they should definitely know what’s important for you, your department, your business unit, your company.  You hired them to do a job, and your job is to ensure they’re on the right path, but you have got to give them the leeway to actually DO their jobs.

Here are questions to ask yourself: What’s more important to you/ your Business Unit/ your Company? The number of hours employees are AT work, or the amount of work that gets delivered?  One does not equal the other.  If I force my employee to commute 3 hours a day because I can’t allow them to work remotely on “bad” days (traffic, weather, health), then how effective will they be in the office? How much of those hours sitting at their desk will they be able to deliver anything?  Instead, how much more could they do if those 3 hours were used in an environment where they’re not feeling stressed about what they have to go through to get to the office?  How much more could they accomplish?

In the end, what matters is the quality of your offering. If your employees are engaged and have the drive to work collaboratively, they can deliver some pretty amazing things. Your leadership and trust will keep them focused on their target. They will strive to deliver their best because they have a passion for it, not because they were micromanaged into accounting for their time and presence.  To put it another way, as Dominic Covvey, a Professor of Health Informatics said to me last year during a lecture, “It doesn’t matter if you’re on time or on budget if you’re producing garbage.”


(Disclaimer: Mike Aragona has a Passion for Trust and Collaboration and an absolute hatred of traffic. He skipped the classes on “Management by Walking Around” but jumped right into “Let’s Be Great Together!” His thoughts and opinions are his alone and do not reflect any person or company associated with him, alive or dead.)

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Non-Negotiables and Choosing Your Road during Job Searches

In the last few months, I found myself in a number of conversations with friends about what point is a non-negotiable must-have when it comes to their working for a company. A few of my friends have even called it their non-starter point on the topic of interviews. In other words, if the job is below a certain pay grade, or has expectations of a high percentage of travel (for example) then they weren’t going to waste their time going in for a formal interview because they would not (or could not) accept any offers.

This had me thinking about my own non-negotiables and wondering how (or if) that list has changed throughout the years.

When I finished college and started pounding the pavement looking for work in the “Computer Science” industry, it felt like trying to scale Mount Everest. The company I worked my Stage in were happy to keep me on, they just couldn’t pay me. Sadly, the prospects I came up against weren’t much better. One day, I received a call from IBM and immediately lined up an interview. They weren’t looking for a Programmer but I was open the idea of being an Operator for them. At least it was a position in IT!

I thought the interview went great and, in fact, the hiring manager and I hit it off so well that our conversation veered off when he learned about my interests in reading and writing. He told me of his favourite author (Spider Robinson) and shared what he liked so much about his work. I talked of the stuff I was creating and what I spent my time reading. Soon, the 30 minute interview went well into the hour range and upon realizing that, he stood up and gave me a tour of their server rooms and explained a bit more about the job.

Everything seemed good until he pointed out that his immediate need was for a Night Operator and that meant my shift would be something around supper time to early morning. Suddenly, I learned that I had a non-starter, non-negotiable item. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the idea of working a night shift that got to me, but the realization that if I took that job, I would no longer be able to have supper with my parents for the foreseeable future. This may seem strange for a young man in his early twenties to think about, but knowing that the day would come that “family time” would be over didn’t mean I was in a rush to make it happen. I also knew I didn’t have to sacrifice that “core” rule in order to get a good job.

In the end, I did not go further with the posting, but I did learn a very valuable lesson. One, I realized how much family really meant to me and that I was unwilling to do anything to impact it. Two, I found out how much I loved Spider Robinson’s work and became a big fan of his Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon series!

A few months later I did get a job which started my journey to the career I’m living today. Also, because of my other passion, I got to meet and hang out with Spider Robinson numerous times a few years later due to a mutual friend. Spider definitely got a huge kick from my story about how I got exposed to his work and his laughter at my re-telling is a memory I cherish.

For me, the old adage was definitely true. You never know what the future will bring, but if you stick with your beliefs and core values, you can help shape where it will take you. Understanding the emotional consequence of any decision is just as important as calculating financial and social impacts and each should be weighed accordingly. Only you know what’s truly important to what you want to do, and where you want to go. Your non-starters are not there to prevent you from getting a job. They are there to ensure that you will be able to give your best to the one you do get. There are enough challenges in the work day without your regret at your own compromises being one of them.

(Disclaimer: Mike Aragona found himself in Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon and learned that Shared Pain is Lessened, Shared Joy Increased. He also knows how easy it is to give fully to a company that matches your shared beliefs. His thoughts and opinions are his alone and do not reflect any person or company associated with him, alive or dead.)

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Know Your Audience, Don’t Argue With Them

As a Writer, one of the biggest points brought about by Publishers and Editors is to Know Your Market.  After all, if you’re going to be spending time crafting a book for adults but your market is children, you’re going to find yourself with a lot of unsold books. I have found that the same focus is true/ required in the business world.

One of the biggest chasms that I’ve seen in my career is the one that divided the IT and Business teams.  IT generally expected the Business to be as up to date in Technology as they were, and the Business generally expected IT to understand exactly what the Business did and needed! Meetings often became mini Towers-of-Babel filled with IT folks not getting why the Business couldn’t use the technology as developed and the Business not getting why IT couldn’t see how the Business really worked!

Needless to say, an IT-to-Business Rosetta Stone would have made all the difference. Alternatively, just exercising Empathic Listening and attempting to understand what the other person is saying (and needs) could have made the experience more enjoyable and mutually beneficial.

Basically, here is what I suggest:

1- Leave the Ego at the door.  Don’t go into this thinking you know more than anyone else.  Go into the meeting certain that you don’t know the whole story.

2- Know your audience. If you don’t think you need to know all the tax laws by heart, then don’t expect them to know the latest core build or even the difference between right-and-left mouse clicks! (Yes, seriously.)

Of course, the point is not to speak to each other like children, but rather to remember why you are supposed to work together/ what you’re trying to solve. Technology alone can’t solve everything without understanding the process flow that makes up your Business Partner’s day. Collaboration begins with first understanding what the current process is, and then trying to understand what the “perfect end state” should be.  This is not a question of “what are you trying to DO?” but more a perfecting of “what are you trying to achieve?”

I explain it this way:  The Business is very unhappy with their coffee.  The IT Team comes up with all these awesome solutions around automated delivery of coffee that is triggered when the Business Partner sits at their desk, or a point-click-order system right off their monitor screen. The Business doesn’t understand why they have to invest in the time and money to put this new system in place and argue against it. “What if I don’t want a coffee when I sit down? What if my Monitor is not a touch-screen?”

Back and forth it goes, both sides getting more frustrated as one side tries to “sell” their vision to the other.  In the meantime, no one has gotten to the point of the meeting: what does the Business really want/ need to do?  If they had, perhaps they would have realized that it wasn’t the coffee that was the problem, or even the delivery system, but that nine times out of ten the fridge was out of milk!

This seems like a simplistic “problem” that I made up for the purposes of this post.  However, change the coffee for an Inventory Management system and milk for Excel and you might get closer to truth of where this story came from.

In the end, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about coming together to build a better mousetrap. And unless you are tasked with building a mousetrap to capture a bear, remember what I said in a previous post: if you want successful collaboration, it begins with communication. Listen to what your partners need, and explain your vision to them in a language they understand.  Respect each other’s opinions and try to see from what position they’re coming to you for help. When blocking points happen, it’s okay to take a break and meet again later.  You’re all in the same boat rowing to your destination. You’ll get there a lot faster if you row together.



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The Secret to Successful Collaboration? Communication!

If there was ever one truth about myself which pretty much drove all my career decisions, it was the need to know everything about what I was involved in. “Do this because I say so” has never been my style in either side (as a worker, or as a manager). I didn’t accept it, and I don’t deliver it. I find buy-in to be the biggest motivation. I want to do work because I believe in it, not because I was told to do it, and I want those who report to me to feel the same way.

If you invest in your work you become a much bigger part of the solution.

That bit of true-ism made all the difference to me when it came to delivering solutions.  Obviously I understood the need to “do my job” but I never considered myself a cog in a machine just playing my part.  I wanted to know how I fit into the big picture.  I wanted to understand how others could be helped by what I was doing. If I could “see” what we were trying to build/ deliver, it would help make decisions a lot easier.

It took over twenty years before I understood that this trait – which seemed to be one of the things that differentiated me from many others – was called Connectedness.  I need to feel connected to what I’m doing.  I need to understand the whole flow of what we’re building and this helps me easily see how each piece feeds the whole. That knowledge allows me to share a complete vision with everyone involved and brings about the best team discussions since we’re all “rowing together” towards the same destination.

If I apply this trait to my “natural” state of Agile, it would be akin to having a fully defined User Story.

For those who don’t know what a User Story is, there are plenty of definitions on the web.  Just Google “Define User Stories” and you’ll see what I mean. The way I summarize it is that a User Story defines what a “user” wants or needs, and why. The general statement I use follows this format:

As a PERSONA <client, user, etc.>, I want to <vision, idea> so that <business value>

In my experience, many teams tend to leave out the ‘business value’ of the statement because they want to focus on what they need to build. However, if you look at it logically, that ‘business value’ is the driving force and gives everyone a clear understanding of WHY something needs to be delivered. This value can then be compared against other deliverables in order to better prioritize what needs to be done first.

Going back to what I was saying at the beginning of this post, letting me in on why something is required allows me to understand and appreciate the importance and value of the solution. With this information, it is a lot easier to get buy-in from the team tasked to delivering it. Finally, sharing that information with the team allows them to feel connected to the whole process and makes them feel valued and valuable to the process.

The result? Constant communication around delivering the right solution the best way possible.  And if you have a strong trust level in the team, that communication and sharing / challenging of ideas will bring about true collaboration.

Remember, “because I say so” will never get you the kind of results a true collaborative effort will. Explain what needs to be done, share the information you have, don’t be afraid to be challenged, and learn to listen to the opinions of others (especially if they are experienced in the matters at hand!). Make your team feel like they are part of the whole solution, and not just another widget-maker. You’ll be amazed at the magic that will come out of your sessions.

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My 3 Simple Rules (for workplace engagement)

Recently, I came to the realization that I have less years left to work (before getting to the “official” retirement age), than I have already worked in my life! Although I plan to still be working (in one way or another) after age 65, this bit of news made me pause for a number of reasons. Most of these all took second place to a trip through my memories as I remembered all the jobs I held through the years and all the companies I worked for.

Basically, I was trying to understand how I got to be where I currently am.  Was there a specific point or path I was on that led me from being a programmer laying out ALGOL or Clipper code to a Manager of Development and Operations? Where did I go from wanting to create programs myself to wanting to lead a team of diverse individuals to create systems together?

Also, in an attempt to look towards the future, I was trying (or rather, am still trying) to understand where I want to go, or what I want to accomplish in the next few years. I don’t really see this as a “career mid-life crisis” since I never looked at the work I’ve done as being a career! I worked at a company because 1) I liked what I did, 2) who I worked with, and 3) believed in what the company was trying to do. When two of those three points would no longer be true, I packed my bags and went looking for a new company to hopefully set down roots.

Three simple points, but they served me well.  Any one alone could have a huge impact on my morale and attitude if it was negative, but mixed with a second negative one, it was a deal breaker.  Simply put:

  1. If I didn’t like what I was doing, I could drudge through it for a while (provided it was temporary)
  2. If I didn’t like the people I was working with OR working for, I could contain my exposure to them (to a certain degree)
  3. If I felt the company was no longer “helping” people or bringing value to everyday citizens, or focused purely on profits… well, that was the toughest one to ride through and usually caused me to start planning a move.

Yes, there have been times when I have been unemployed because I stuck to my personal rules. Those times were tough but making myself miserable and continuing to work in a toxic environment was worse.  How do these three points stack up to engagement?  Easily:

  1. Liking my work = feeling valued and appreciated.  Getting to work each day should not be a chore.  If I’m happy, I’m providing value and will constantly bring my “A” game.
  2. Working with strong and intelligent co-workers drives us individually and as a team which ultimately leads us to create great things together. Successful Collaboration = high output.
  3. Companies need to make money to stay in business, that’s a fact.  But that can still be done while holding onto moral values of bettering the lives of those we serve. Keeping a sense of community allows us to thrive because of the trust and respect of our customers, not in spite of them! Proud of your company = proud of the work you do/ feeling like you’re making a true difference.

The beauty of these points is that, on a specific level, I treat my employees the same way.  I want them to like what they do, learn to collaborate effectively, and be proud of their contributions! In other words, we work together to be engaged. There’s my truth for a high-performing team!

As I continue to reflect upon my past, I’ll use the opportunity to jot some of the bigger “aha!” moments down.  Considering I find myself regularly sharing tidbits of knowledge and management styles with newer managers, this might make it easier for me to have a list of pieces I can direct them to.

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Agile is…

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about Agile and what it means in my world of Development. Now, I have to state “in my world” because I realize, after years of living Agile and talking about it with so many others in the industry, that what passes for Agile in my world isn’t necessarily reflective of what others say Agile is (or should be) for them.

So, in the fairness of my personal motto that Agile is not a process or checklist of things that MUST be followed, but rather a template of skills and scenarios that SHOULD be followed, I accept the reality of what-works-for-me-might-not-work-for-you (and vice-versa). Now, with that out of the way, let me share some thoughts:

Agile is the Ability to Move Quickly and Easily:

  • Every day we’re challenged in some way. There are roadblocks that literally pop up from the ground in the form of failed tests, persistent bugs, missing team members (due to illness or vacation), etc. With time-boxed iterations, every day represents a virtual geiger counter on what your team’s burn chart looks like. Every day is precious to keeping the momentum going so when something unexpected happens, the team should be able to move around it (or mitigate or solve it) without a great deal of effort. In other words, it should not be a momentous task (like fighting red tape) to navigate stormy waters and keep the cadence going. A well-oiled, independent, and empowered team would not trip themselves up so easily.

Agile is to have the Power to move with the Changing Currents of Priorities:

  • Yes, I was going for a Boating analogy here. In fact, I had also thought of the phrase “Agile is the Ability to Match the Shifting Tide of Reality”. The reason is that I definitely do see Priorities ebb and flow like the tide on a regular basis. This could be due to the nature of the industry you’re in, or external factors that a strategic team is focused on, or even Customer Requests that may seem critical one minute and less urgent the next (once information is passed along to them). The point is, whatever flavor of Agile you’re working in, are you “stuck” or do you have the power to stop a sprint or reprioritize without wasting time (with red tape or a mindset that says “no, we have to finish this first!”)? Again, empowered teams with a strong relationship with the business or customers goes a long way in the trust that we’re all working together for similar goals.

Agile is the Ability to Challenge, Adapt, and Re-Focus:

  • Change for change’s sake is never good. It’s wasteful in both time and resources. Just because you’re agile and can be nimble in changing priorities, it doesn’t mean that you automatically accept every change thrown your way! In a relationship built on trust, the Team should be able to challenge the PM, or SM, or BU if they feel the request being made doesn’t make sense (and vice-versa of course). I usually see a challenge as a request for more information (as opposed to an argument) because it’s in the discussion that the true need comes out and which a brainstorming session will help guide the next steps. Afterwards, if the change does get accepted, then it becomes a matter of adapting what needs to be done and to re-focus on the priorities.

Is that all there is to Agile? No, of course not. There’s definitely a lot more to it, but as I was in the process of preparing some presentation material, I had this tangential thought about what “The Agile” is and thought I’d use this forum to write out some of the thoughts currently in my head. It seems there are actually quite a lot of these “thoughts” bouncing around in there (as anyone who’s spoken with me at conferences can attest to) so it may indeed be possible that I will share a few more of them here. I’ll have to see where the tide takes me 🙂


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One Mad Night

It’s kind of hard to avoid thinking of Halloween when it becomes so prevalent this time of year 🙂  Plus, I keep remembering to oh-so-many-years-ago when I decided to run a slew of Fast Fictions during Halloween week (way before it became vogue to do so 🙂 ).  Anyhow, I was kicking around the idea that I should put up a Flash Fiction (at 568 words, it doesn’t fall under my category of Fast Fiction which is 200 words or less) piece this year simply because it’s been so long. I initially wanted to run a new “My Eyes Burn” pieces… but decided I couldn’t just put one of those up as they tend to run in series.

I decided, instead, that for this year, I would just write a short/ cute little story. Nothing horrific, nothing bloody, just something that could make my wife smile 🙂  Of course, as she sat across from me doing her own work and saw me smiling to myself, she asked what I was up to.  I told her I was simply writing her something and she immediately wanted to know if I was writing about Gnomes.  Or Bunnies.  Or Gnomes with Bunnies.  Damn it.  Now I *have* to do that.  But before I get to that, let me at least share this quick piece with everyone 🙂

[Flash Fiction: One Mad Night – October 30, 2013]
“Come on, I dare ya!”

Mickey tried to be brave as Frank kept badgering him.

“I bet ya can’t do it! I bet ya can’t!” he kept repeating, literally turning it into a chant.

“I can, too!” said Mickey, sounding braver than he felt.

It was the same thing every year. October 30. Mad Night. The eve of Halloween, when all the so-called ‘bad boys’ come out to play.

Mickey wasn’t really a bad boy. Truth was, he never got into any trouble. Not because he was afraid of causing any, but just because he tended to not see the entertainment value that others, like Frank, did.

This year, however, he knew he couldn’t walk away. He was eleven years old now and in Junior High School. If he didn’t prove he could handle a little trouble, his next five years of school would be a nightmare.

“Watch. I’ll show you what I can do,” he finally blurted out as he screwed up his courage and lunged for the gate in front of him.

Frank ducked back onto the street and hid behind a parked car while Mickey crossed the walkway and made his way to the door of Old Man Boris’ house. This was it. No turning back now. He would ring that doorbell and take off before anything could happen to him. All that talk about giant spiders was just talk. No one kept pets like that! He’d show Frank that he wasn’t afraid.

As he got to the door, he took one quick look behind him to ensure Frank was watching him. If he was going to go through with this, he needed a witness. He saw Frank hiding but before Mickey could turn back to the door, Frank suddenly yelled out and ran away screaming.

Mickey whipped his head around and a yell escaped from him as he came face to chest with the monstrous Boris.

“Good evening,” he said, with a voice that sounded like heavy rocks sliding down the surface of a mountain. “How may I help you?” he asked.

Mickey, mouth agape and eyes bulging out, just stood there, literally shaking with fear.

“Yesss?” drawled Boris as he leaned forward and downwards, putting his face a few inches from Mickey’s.

Mickey tried to get his mouth to work but the only sounds coming out were little gasps and wheezes as he tried to get his breathing under control and slow the crazy beating of his heart.

Boris tilted his head and furrowed his brow at this strange boy standing before him. “Are you unwell?” he asked slowly.

Mickey finally managed to snap himself out of his stupor and in a surge of adrenaline he pounded his chest, took something out of his jacket pocket, and yelled, “TAG! YOU’RE IT!” In one quick motion he slapped Boris on the forehead and took off before Boris could react. Mickey kept running at top speed, never looking back, as Boris blinked in surprise and straightened up. He reached up, removed the sticker from his forehead, and looked at it blankly. It was a black cartoon bomb with the word “boom!” written on it in yellow. From behind him, inside the house, he heard laughter.

“He did it! He really finally did it!” laughed Frank hysterically.

“You have some very strange friends, son,” said Boris as he walked inside and closed the door behind him.

[Story (c) Mike Aragona]
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
[Alternate Ending: “Please be sure to invite him over tomorrow night. It would be nice to have him for supper…”]

Sorry, I couldn’t resist 🙂

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