job interview questions

The only three true job interview questions are:

1.  Can you do the job?
2.  Will you love the job?
3.  Can we tolerate working with you?

That’s it.  Those three.  Think back, every question you’ve ever posed to others or had asked of you in a job interview is a subset of a deeper in-depth follow-up to one of these three key questions.  Each question potentially may be asked using different words, but every question, however it is phrased, is just a variation on one of these topics: Strengths, Motivation, and Fit.

Can You Do the Job? – Strengths

Executive Search firm Heidrick & Struggles CEO, Kevin Kelly explained to me that it’s not just about the technical skills, but also about leadership and interpersonal strengths.  Technical skills help you climb the ladder.  As you get there, managing up, down and across become more important.

You can’t tell by looking at a piece of paper what some of the strengths and weaknesses really are…We ask for specific examples of not only what’s been successful but what they’ve done that hasn’t gone well or a task they they’ve, quite frankly, failed at and how they learned from that experience and what they’d do different in a new scenario.

Not only is it important to look at the technical skill set they have…but also the strengths on what I call the EQ side of the equation in terms of getting along and dealing or interacting with people.

Will You Love the Job? -Motivation

Cornerstone International Group CEO, Bill Guy emphasizes the changing nature of motivation,

…younger employees do not wish to get paid merely for working hard—just the reverse: they will work hard because they enjoy their environment and the challenges associated with their work…. Executiveswho embrace this new management style are attracting and retaining better employees.

Can We Tolerate Working With You? – Fit

Continuing on with our conversation, Heidrick’s Kelly went on to explain the importance of cultural fit:

A lot of it is cultural fit and whether they are going to fit well into the organization…  The perception is that when (senior leaders) come into the firm, a totally new environment, they know everything.  And they could do little things such as send emails in a voicemail culture that tend to negatively snowball over time.  Feedback or onboarding is critical.  If you don’t get that feedback, you will get turnover later on.

He made the same point earlier in an interview with Smart Business, referencing Heidrick’s internal study of 20,000 searches.

40 percent of senior executives leave organizations or are fired or pushed out within 18 months. It’s not because they’re dumb; it’s because a lot of times culturally they may not fit in with the organization or it’s not clearly articulated to them as they joined.

Preparing for Interviews

If you’re the one doing the interviewing, get clear on what strengths, motivational and fit insights you’re looking for before you go into your interviews.

If you’re the one being interviewed, prepare by thinking through examples that illustrate your strengths, what motivates you about the organization and role you’re interviewing for, and the fit between your own preferences and the organization’s Behaviors, Relationships, Attitudes, Values, and Environment (BRAVE).  But remember that interviews are exercises in solution selling.  They are not about you.

Think of the interview process as a chance for you to show your ability to solve the organization and interviewer’s problem. That’s why you need to highlight strengths in the areas most important to the interviewers, talk about how you would be motivated by the role’s challenges, and discuss why you would be a BRAVE fit with the organization’s culture.

There are several components of this including positioning yourself for a leadership role, selling before you buy, mapping and avoiding the most common land mines, uncovering hidden risks in the organization, role, and fit, and choosing the right approach for your transition type.

Stressed girl on phoneI know how to handle stress. I know that each day I need to get seven or eight hours of sleep and an hour or so of exercise. I know I need to meditate for a few minutes and eat normal sized, well-balanced meals. I know I need to take deep, calming breaths throughout the day.

I know all this and, for the most part — disregarding the second bowl of chocolate chips mixed with peanut butter and Rice Krispies I just devoured — I do those things.

And yet, even knowing — and doing — the right things to manage stress effectively, I’m still stressed. Almost overwhelmingly.

The work-related things that are stressing me this week are on top of the normal demands of life — raising three children, each with their unique set of blessings and challenges; making time for an amazing wife who has stresses of her own; and growing my own business. These are all good stresses to have. I’m healthy, my family is healthy, my business is healthy, and our finances are healthy.

But stress doesn’t discriminate between good and bad. It comes, unbidden, anytime we are in a situation in which we are worried about an outcome we feel is beyond our control. So we complain. We gossip. We get snarky. Which quickly infects those around us. And then they complain, gossip, and snark. Pretty soon we’re competing for who’s most stressed. Who’s got the most work. Who’s got the most ungrateful, unreasonable boss. Which, of course, just makes us all more stressed. What is the best way to cope with feeling overwhelmed while also managing the complaining, gossiping, snarky colleague? How should we respond without becoming that person ourselves?

Offer to do some of their work for them

I know it sounds crazy because you’re already so busy. Probably busier than then they are. Even if you did have the time and energy to help them, you might not be feeling so generous towards them because all of their complaining is annoying. On top of that, if you’re competing for who’s the busiest, how will it look to offer to do their work? You’ll lose that battle for sure. But you’ll win the war on stress.

We complain because we feel alone and disconnected in our stress. So we gossip to create camaraderie with our fellow gossiper. We get snarky about our boss to align ourselves with our colleague.

But complaining and gossiping are like my chocolate chip peanut butter Rice Krispies mixture — they make us feel good while we’re doing it, but we feel worse immediately afterward. Complaining breeds distrust with our colleagues, it infuses the office with negativity, it wastes time, and it solidifies our sense of isolation. Offering to take some of their work, on the other hand, achieves the opposite; it creates connection, which, ultimately, is what we’re after.

If someone we’re really in serious trouble — think of the people in Japan after the tsunami — we wouldn’t hesitate to reach out and help. Think of this as that same, generous, human response only on a much smaller, less critical scale.

The unexpected offer will immediately change the dynamic. Who would continue to complain in the face of an offer to share the burden? It builds trust, creates a positive work atmosphere, and gets things done.

It also helps you get your own work done. Reaching out in an act of generosity makes you feel better and moves you away from your stress and toward your productivity. By acting as if you have the capacity to help someone out, you actually gain that capacity.

So how should you do it?

1. Listen without contributing or competing

Empathize with the other person’s challenge. Resist the temptation to join in, add your own juicy piece of gossip, or talk about how much work you have and how hard it is for you, too. Just listen.

2. Acknowledge the challenge she is facing

In one or two short sentences, let them know that you understand they’re in a tough, stressful spot. Don’t patronize; don’t add on. This might be hard if you feel like you’re in a tough spot, too, but you don’t need to agree with what they’re saying. You just need to convey that you hear what they’re saying.

3. Offer to help in a specific way

Maybe they’re dreading a conversation with someone and you can offer to intervene on their behalf. Maybe you can help them out in a personal way like grabbing lunch for them when you get your own, saving them the trip. Don’t worry that they might become dependent on your doing their work for them. Sure there’s a risk they might take you for granted. But, more likely, they’ll be appreciative, stop complaining, and you’ll both get to work with renewed energy. Next time, they might even do the same for you. Which is how a great, productive team operates.

The other night I fell into the trap of complaining to my wife Eleanor about how busy and stressed I was, even though I knew how busy and stressed she was. She didn’t compete. She listened, told me she could see how stressed I was, and then, even though the next day was my morning with the kids, she offered to wake up with them at 6 a.m. while I slept a little later.

It completely changed the dynamic. I stopped complaining and immediately realized how fortunate I am. Later that next day when she needed time to do some work, I offered to cover for her. Which made me feel even better than sleeping late.

Now you may be thinking, this is your wife, of course she should help you. You two are partners in life. The way we manage workloads with our colleagues is different. But does it need to be? Why can’t we take small steps at work to share an individual’s load in the interest of the well-being of the team?

I’m still super busy. I still have all these obligations that are hanging over me. Nothing material has changed. And yet everything has changed. Because even though I’m singularly responsible for achieving my obligations, somehow, I don’t feel alone in them.



About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

Eleanor and I were fast asleep at my parents’ house in upstate New York when my five-year-old daughter Sophia came running in.

“Look out the window!” she screamed, as she pulled on our shades. I looked at my watch: 6 a.m. Not bad.

Sophia was jumping with excitement as the shade opened, revealing about a foot of new powder.

“Let’s go skiing!”

A few hours later, I stood with Sophia and her eight-year-old sister, Isabelle, at the top of an intermediate slope we had all skied many times. But this time was different. Northeastern powder is not the light, fluffy stuff of the West. It’s heavy and hard to ski, especially when you weigh 45 pounds.

Isabelle struggled but managed to navigate the new conditions. Sophia, on the other hand, fell almost immediately. She laughed, got up, and started again. A few feet down the slope, she fell once more. Again, laughing, she got up. Now Isabelle started laughing too.

But not me. I was worried. This was too much for Sophia. She might get hurt. And her ski class started in 15 minutes. At this rate she would never make it.

I shouted a few words of encouragement and advice. But her laughter was making it hard for her to ski. Was she falling on purpose? Because it was fun?

I stayed behind her so I could help when she fell, but I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I yelled at her to stop playing around. But she kept falling and laughing.

I looked at the time. “Sophia!” I shouted. “Come on, stop fooling around. It’s not funny. We’re going to miss class.”

“I’m trying,” she yelled back.

I paused for a moment, looked up, and took a deep breath. The beauty of the snow-covered trees was incredible. And that’s when I finally realized: I’m an idiot.

Here was my awesome five-year-old having an outdoor experience I want to encourage. And even though it was hard and scary and challenging, she was handling it gracefully, having the time of her life. And how did I help? By yelling at her.

It seems obvious now. But at the time my response felt perfectly natural. Which is the point, actually. It felt natural because it reflected how I was feeling. My own fears and frustrations and goals.

My mistake? I forgot that the situation wasn’t about me. I forgot to focus on the needs of my audience, in this case a five-year-old skiing powder for the first time. That’s presentation and communication skills 101.

I would never make the same mistake if I were giving a speech or working with a client. In other words, if I were thinking.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to skip the thinking part. An employee comes to us with substandard work and we get angry. But is that really going to help the employee do better work next time? If the reason for the poor performance was that the employee didn’t care, and my anger frightened him into caring more, then maybe. But poor performance is rarely caused by lack of fear. It’s usually because of a misunderstanding or lack of capability. In which case asking questions would almost certainly be more helpful.

That’s hard to do because when we’re angry, we respond with anger. And when we’re frustrated, we respond with frustration. It makes perfect sense.

It’s just that it doesn’t work and it won’t help.

The solution is simple: When you have a strong reaction to something, take a deep breath and ask yourself a single question: what’s going on for the other person?

Then, based on your answer, ask yourself one more question: What can I do or say that will help them?

In other words, don’t start from where you are, start from where theyare. What do they need in that moment? Some advice? A story about what you did in a similar situation? Perhaps just an empathetic ear? Or maybe simply some patience.

Imagine your favorite employee — the one you spent all that time developing — told you she was thinking of leaving your team for another job offer. You might feel angry and betrayed, but would it help to get angry at her? No, you’d be better off asking questions about what’s working and what’s not.

Once I realized my mistake, I got angry at myself for almost stomping out Sophia’s enthusiasm.

But I didn’t beat myself up for long. I took a few deep breaths and just watched her. She skied a few feet, fell, laughed, got up, and started skiing again.

Watching her laughing at her mistakes reminded me not to take myself so seriously. It turns out that meeting people where they are doesn’t just help them. Sometimes it helps you too.



About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

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Effective Communication in OrganizationsI stepped up to the counter and ordered a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese. I asked for the sandwich to be open-faced, “with salmon on both sides of the bagel so my friend and I can share it.”

“No problem,” Andrea*, the waitress behind the counter, told me. She punched a few buttons on the computer display of her cash register, electronically communicating our special order to the kitchen, and gave me a table stand with a number on it to identify us to the waiter responsible for serving the tables.

About ten minutes later, David, the waiter, brought out the bagel. It was open-faced but all the salmon was on one half of the bagel. The other half just had cream cheese.

No big deal. But the restaurant was nearly empty and I was curious. “Thanks,” I said, “but I had asked for salmon on both sides of the bagel.”

David apologized and took it back to the kitchen. A minute later, he came back. This time, the salmon was placed on half of each side of the bagel. The other half was plain cream cheese. Think salmon/cream cheese yin/yang symbol.

What’s most interesting is what David said when he gave me the bagel. “I know this isn’t what you wanted,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “The chef obviously didn’t get it.”

Again, just to be clear, this was, of course, no big deal. I thanked him and took the bagel. But questions ran through my head: If you knew, why didn’t you explain it to the chef? When he gave you the bagel and you saw it wasn’t what I wanted, why didn’t you tell him? Or fix it yourself before bringing it out? And, finally, once you decided to bring it out as is, why blame the chef?

There’s a one-word answer to all those questions: silos.

Andrea’s job was to take my order and transmit it to the chef. The chef’s job was to create the sandwich. And David’s job was to bring out the final dish. In fact, David did his job well. Only it wasn’t the right dish.

This obviously isn’t just an issue particular to a restaurant. It’s an issue that most team members in most organizations face every day.

Here’s the problem: Our jobs are complex and interdependent, but our goals, objectives, and, most importantly, mindsets, are often siloed.

We each have a job to do — sell a service, design a product, address a customer issue — and the underlying mindset is: if I do my job well, and you do your job well, we’ll achieve our organization’s goals.

But it rarely works that way. People in one silo often have information needed by — but never given to — people in another silo. And, as my experience in the restaurant showed, if there’s a problem anywhere in the organization, everyone fails. Who is responsible for my sandwich? Andrea? The chef? David? It’s a waste of time to parse that one out. And it’s damaging to try. The truth is, they’re all, collectively, responsible.

In other words — and this might be hard to swallow — we are responsible for each others’ work.

This is not a question of blame. It’s a practical reality of collaboration. And every organization of two or more is a collaborative effort.

After breakfast, I asked David (“for the sake of an article I’m writing”) to spend a few minutes with me exploring his decision-making.

“Frankly,” David told me, “I work with the chef every day and I didn’t want to be too pushy. I didn’t want to make him angry.”

In other words, telling the chef that he had gotten the sandwich wrong — that the chef had made a mistake — was threatening to their relationship. It wasn’t a risk David wanted to take.

“It was a split-second decision,” David continued, “Is it worth a confrontation with the chef or would you guys be OK with the sandwich delivered wrong? You guys seem mellow and so I chose not to face the chef.”

David decided it would be less painful to pass the mistake to the customer than to confront his colleague or superior about it. It would be easy to judge David for this if so many of us didn’t make that same decision all the time.

How do we escape the silo mentality?

It helps if leadership is explicit about the cross-silo outcomes that are most important in the organization. It helps if everyone who works at the restaurant is clear that satisfying customers is their number one priority and that everyone is collectively responsible for that outcome. It helps if each person is committed to a whole that is larger than their part and if leaders communicate, prioritize, and reward for that outcome.

It also helps if the organization’s structures and processes support collaboration. If people meet regularly to share what they are learning and are taught the skills to give and receive feedback. It helps if people are taught to communicate clearly, gently, and inoffensively with each other, avoiding blame and embarrassment, for the sake of cross-silo outcomes.

All that helps. But even with all that support, direction, and skill, it still takes one more critical ingredient. Perhaps the most critical.


The courage of a single person willing to take personal risks for the sake of the organization’s success.

Because no matter how clearly leaders reward cross-silo outcomes, it takes great personal strength to identify and help correct a mistake in “someone else’s” silo and to overcome the fear of the consequences of taking responsibility for colleagues’ work.

When I spoke with David, he agreed that it would have been better if he had said something to the chef. Better for me, better for the restaurant, better for the chef, and even, over time, his relationship with the chef.

“So will you do it?” I asked.

David — a good guy, someone with enough courage to explore his decision-making with me honestly — looked over at the kitchen for a second, then back at me, and smiling, shrugged.
*Names and some details changed



About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

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Ron* was up next. As a senior analyst in this investment firm — and a good one — he knew a lot about the company he was about to pitch to the management committee.

He paused for a minute as he sorted through the pages of numbers in front of him and then he began to present his case.

Even though Ron described himself as a numbers guy, he seemed to really enjoy this part of his job. He was meticulous in presenting his ideas and took pride in the depth of his analysis.

Twenty minutes later, as the meeting ended, Laurie, the head of the firm, thanked him for his work, specifically remarking on his exhaustive research. He smiled and thanked her.

Everyone filed out except Laurie and me. I asked her how she thought the meeting went.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, “What’s the best way to handle an analyst who drones on and on?”

“Who?” I asked. “Ron?”

“He’s a great analyst, a smart investor, and a really nice guy. But he talks too much.”

“But you told him he did a great job!”

“His analysis was great. But his presentation . . .” She trailed off with a chuckle.

“Have you told him?”

“I’ve hinted but no, not specifically.”

“Why not?”

“I probably should.”

But she hasn’t. And the reason is simple: Laurie is nice.

I know her socially and she’s a delight. I’ve never seen her do anything that could be remotely construed as mean or rude. And to tell someone that they drone on feels both mean and rude.

But it’s neither. It’s compassionate.

If we don’t provide each other with feedback, we won’t become aware of our blind spots. Which means that Ron will continue to drone on and, without ever understanding why, lose his audience and his impact.

Giving people feedback is an act of trust and confidence. It shows that you believe in their ability to change. That you believe they will use the information to become better. And that you have faith in their potential. It’s also a sign of commitment to the team and to the larger purpose and goals of the organization. Because, ultimately, we’re all responsible for our collective success.

Laurie knows this. And yet even for Laurie — a competent and courageous CEO — it’s hard to give someone critical feedback because it still feels aggressive and confrontational. Should you really tell people they talk too much? Or dress poorly? Or appear insincere? Or walk all over others?

Without question, you should.

And not just if you’re the CEO. Everyone should offer feedback to everyone else, regardless of position. Because as long as what you say comes from your care and support for the other person — not your sympathy (which feels patronizing) or your power (which feels humiliating) or your anger (which feels abusive) — choosing to offer a critical insight to another is a deeply considerate act.

That doesn’t mean that accepting criticism is easy. In How to Handle Surprise Criticism I shared my own struggles with accepting criticism and offered some tips to being open to learning from critical feedback from others.

But even though it may be difficult, letting someone know what everyone else already knows is the opposite of aggressive. Aggressive is not giving people feedback and then talking about them and their issues when they aren’t around. Aggressive is watching them fail and not helping.

Ironically, when we avoid sharing feedback, it usually comes out at some point anyway, as gossip or in a burst of anger or sarcasm or blame directed at the person. And that’s aggressive. Passive-aggressive.

To avoid that kind of ugliness, it’s critical not to delay.

On the other hand, if we all strutted around willy-nilly tossing criticisms at each other, things would deteriorate quickly. So how should we do this?

First, ask permission. As in: “I noticed something I’d like to share with you. Are you interested in hearing it?” Or simply, “Can I share some feedback with you?” Once they say “yes” — and who wouldn’t? — it evens out the power dynamic, makes it easier for you to speak, and prepares the other person to accept the feedback more openly.

Second, don’t hedge. When we are uncomfortable criticizing, we try to reduce the impact by reducing the criticism. Sometimes we sandwich the criticism between two compliments. But hedging dilutes and confuses the message. Instead, be clear, be concise, use a simple example, make it about the behavior, not the person, and don’t be afraid of silence.

Third, do it often. That’s how you create a culture in which people are open and honest for each other’s benefit. If you only offer feedback once in a while, it feels out of character and more negative.

Of course, not all feedback needs to be critical. Positive feedback is excellent at reinforcing people’s productive behavior, encouraging them to use their strengths more effectively and abundantly. Offer it frequently. Just do so at a different time than you share the critical feedback.

“May I offer you a thought?” I asked Laurie as we finished up our conversation.

“Please do,” she responded.

“Not telling Ron that he drones on is hurting him, you, and the business. I know you feel badly sharing the criticism but in this particular case, choosing not to share this feedback is a selfish behavior. You’re hurting him in order to avoid your own discomfort. He needs — deserves — to know, don’t you think?”

Silence. It was an awkward moment.

Which, it turns out, is a useful catalyst to action. Laurie thought for a moment and then picked up her blackberry and emailed Ron, asking him to meet later that day.
*Names and some details changed

About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)




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What Oscars (Academy Awards) Tell Us About TeamworkI was walking down Main Street in Park City, Utah during the Sundance Film Festival with my friend Allison*, a casting director who seemed to know everyone. We stopped to say hello to an actor who was disappointed by the reception he was getting at the festival. “Actors are who really make the movie,” he told me. “The script is just black and white on a page. It’s the actor who breathes life into the words.”

Later, we bumped into another friend of Allison, a writer who had a movie in the festival. He too was feeling dissatisfied and the conversation was remarkably similar. “A movie is created by the writer,” he told us, “It’s the writer who invents the story, who’s responsible for the film.” We didn’t speak with a director on that walk, but I’m confident that if we had, we would have heard the claim that films are most influenced by the creative voice of the director.

That walk happened to be down Main Street during Sundance but it could have been down the corridor in almost any office building during a typical day.

Who is responsible–and should get the most credit–for a product or service that brings in high revenues? The team who designed it? The people who marketed it? The sales force who sold it? The service reps who gave customers the confidence to buy it? The executive leadership team who strategized it?

Not every person on the team is equally valuable, right? Think of a sports team–there are stars, who get paid tens of millions, and then there are the other players, who make, well, a lot less. It’s simple supply and demand: some people are more easily replaceable than others.

So, logically, we would have to say that the highest paid, most visible, most irreplaceable people are responsible for the greatness of the product or service. Until we look at the list of Oscar nominees for 2010.

What’s most interesting about the list isn’t which movies were nominated for Best Picture. What’s most interesting is what other categories the Best Picture winners were nominated for.

Best Picture nominee, Black Swan, for example, was also nominated for Directing, Actress in a Leading Role, Cinematography, and Film Editing.

Best Picture nominee The Fighter was also nominated for Original Screenplay, Directing, Film Editing, Actor in a Supporting Role, and two nominations for Actresses in Supporting Roles.

Best Picture Nominee Inception was also nominated for Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects.

Best Picture nominee The King’s Speech was nominated for a total of eleven other awards.True Grit had nine other nominations. The Social Network, seven.

And, perhaps most telling, the number of Best Picture nominees with no nominations in other categories? None. In fact, to be nominated for Best Picture, a film had to be best in at least three other categories.

In other words, a movie is only considered great when all the various parts are independently, and collaboratively, great. It’s never entirely the talent of a single person or team. It’s never even mostly the talent of a single person or team. Even when that person is Mark Wahlburg, or Natalie Portman, or a Coen brother.

In total, the ten Best Picture movies were nominated for 5 directing awards, 9 screenplay awards, 15 acting awards, and 29 other awards. I call these others the back office awards–like film editing, sound mixing, cinematography, and art direction.

It is unlikely that any of these movies would be nominated for best picture–and even more unlikely that they would win–if not for the stellar work done by the teams and people we rarely see and almost never acknowledge. We probably don’t even know what most of them do.

It is almost always a mistake to highlight an individual, a role, or a team as responsible for the success of a venture in which a group contributes. Those we spoke to at Sundance might have each been correct in thinking that they don’t get enough credit. But they were also each wrong in thinking of themselves as deserving the credit.

The best producers–arguably the CEO of the movie–understand this. I spoke to one highly accomplished producer who told me that the film world highlights directors because, from a PR standpoint, it helps to have a focal point for a movie. Like a brand name for a company. But, he told me, putting all the focus on a great director or a famous actor is clearly not the way to make a great movie. Did you see The Tourist? Even Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie can’t save a bad film.

The best leaders know this–they don’t just devote lip service to it–they really know it to be true. And they convey it through their own humility. Humility isn’t just an attitude, it’s a skill. The most effective people are highly confident (they know they add significant value) and manifestly humble (they recognize the immense value added by those around them). The skill is letting those around them know it.

At the end of our walk down Main Street in Park City, I turned to my friend Allison and asked her whether she wasn’t the most important person in a film because she chose many of the people who would make it successful.

“Oh, I’m important,” she told me smiling, then added “At least as important as everyone else.”

* Names and some details changed

About the Author

Peter Bregman writes a weekly column called How We Work at Harvard Business. He speaks, writes, and consults about how to lead and how to live. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and advises CEOs and their leadership teams. You can sign up to be notified of new articles. Bregman is the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change and the forthcoming 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done to be published in September. Peter can be found at or @PeterBregman.

[Via FastCompany]

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best-gifts-are-not-expensiveA few weeks ago was my birthday. I turned 43.

43 doesn’t mark a new decade. It’s not one of those birthdays people usually celebrate in a grand way, and mine was no exception. No one threw me a lavish surprise party. I had a few small dinners with close friends and family. I opened two presents.

And yet as I emerge from this birthday, I can’t imagine feeling any more appreciated, respected, and loved. Because on this particular not-a-big-deal birthday, in addition to those two presents, I received some other gifts — gifts that cost nothing, and that I have come to realize are, actually, a very big deal.

As we enter this holiday season, it makes sense to pause for a moment and think about gifts. What’s the point of them?

On a basic level, we give gifts because we’re supposed to. On certain occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, dinner parties, the end of the year — it’s customary.

Underlying that custom is an important purpose: appreciation. We give people gifts to show them that we are grateful for them and value the role they play in our lives.

But here’s a common misconception: the bigger, more valuable the gift, the more it expresses our appreciation. I know people who’ve received huge stock grants who feel severely under-appreciated.

Because gifts don’t express appreciation, people do. And when people don’t express it, neither do their gifts.

The gifts I received that meant so much to me on my forty-third birthday? My wife Eleanor asked a small group of my friends to write me a note of appreciation, “a thought or intention or poem,” she wrote to each friend, “that encourages him to accept himself just as he is.”

Just as he is. There is no more powerful way to acknowledge others than to be thankful for them just as they are.

And yet we almost never do this. Especially in a corporate setting where we often ask people to be change and where we value them for what they can do for us and for the company.

Think of our corporate end of the year rituals: performance reviews, holiday parties, and, sometimes, if we’re lucky, bonuses.

Performance reviews are supposed to identify our strengths, and the best reviewers spend most of their time dwelling on strengths. But it’s not a review unless we also look at weaknesses, areas “to develop,” places where we fall short. In other words, immediately after we tell people how great they are, we tell them how they aren’t good enough.

Holiday parties usually include a speech by the CEO or other leader thanking people for their hard work over the year and encouraging them to continue working hard over the next year. It’s an important ritual but it’s impersonal, given to the entire company or department at once. And it’s typically about what we’ve been able to accomplish, not about who we are. People don’t feel individually recognized.

And bonuses are a business deal, based not on appreciating us for who we are, but on compensating us for what we achieved, often delivered with no ceremony and no clearly expressed appreciation. The huge stock grants that left people under-appreciated? They were, literally, placed on people’s empty chairs overnight. No note. No conversation. Just a piece of paper on a chair.

I’m not suggesting these rituals aren’t important. People work together in organizations in order to accomplish things so it makes sense that our organizational rituals appreciate people for accomplishing things and for increasing their ability to accomplish more things in the future.

But I’d like to suggest an additional way to appreciate the people around us. A way that costs nothing and feels great to everyone involved: in a handwritten note, tell them why you appreciate them.

Not for what they do for you. Not for what they help you accomplish. Not even for what they accomplish themselves. Just for being who they are.

If you’re hesitant — maybe you think it’s too touchy-feely, too sappy — just think about what it would feel like to receive that type of note from the people around you.

Here’s the hard part: don’t be stingy.

You should do this even for people about whom you feel conflicted. Perhaps you don’t like everything about them. Maybe you don’t always appreciate who they are.

That’s OK. This isn’t a performance review. You don’t have to address everything about each person. This is a gift. There’s no reason to hoard your appreciation; it’s unlimited in supply. Just think about what you do appreciate about people and describe that part. Let them know what about them makes you smile. What you admire. What makes them special to you.

Then hand them your notes and thank them, individually, for working with you. Or, if you’re feeling bashful, just leave the notes on their chairs overnight; there’s no risk they’ll open them and feel under-appreciated.

I know, for me, it made my otherwise insignificant, mid-decade birthday the most significant one yet.

About the Author

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change.

(Via HBR)

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