The Hardest Part: Why All Recruiters Should Be Required To Listen to Tom Petty…and David Maister

We’ve all been through the recruiting process sometime in our career.  Whether you were  – at that point  – currently employed and just curious about the job market, recently laid off (my new favorite term for laid off, btw, is now “RIFFED”, from Reduction in Force), or like myself, employed in the masochistic world of contract consulting where you purposely CHOOSE to look for a job every six months.  Whatever your reason, odds are that you also probably worked with a (or several) professional recruiters to help you identify and eventually obtain a new role.

Now, over my 20+ years in the business, I have worked with literally dozens of recruiters.  Some  better than others.  Some WAY better than others.  Finding a new job can be an extremely stressful time, when our very financial (and often emotional) existence can be at risk. Through all of this, there is single fundamental component common to almost every job search and as almost as uniformly mis-managed by the recruiter, causing that much more stress.

As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers  so aptly put it back in 1981:

The Waiting  – it’s the hardest part.

By my own estimate, I’d say upwards of 75% of the time spent during the recruiting process is spent just plain waiting.  Waiting for the recruiter to call you back.  Waiting to see if you were selected for the first round phone screen.  Waiting for the phone screen. Waiting for the recruiter to call you back after the phone screen with feedback,  waiting for the next round, waiting for the offer, waiting…waiting…waiting…

So what I’m saying here is that if recruiters were truly conscious of the effect that this waiting had on their candidates, and took steps to actively manage these waits, the overall experience would be dramatically improved for both parties.  

But what could the recruiters do to effectively manage the waiting time? 

Enter David Maister

Mr. Maister, a former Harvard Business School professor, writer and expert on business management practices and the management of professional service firms, wrote an article back in 1985 titled:

The Psychology of Waiting Lines

In this article, Maister hypothesized:

“…if managers are to concern themselves with how long their customers or clients wait in line for service (as, indeed, they should), then they must pay attention not only to the readily measurable, objective, reality of waiting times, but also how those waits are experienced. It is a common experience that a two-minute wait can feel like nothing at all, or can feel like ‘forever’. We must learn to influence how the customer feels about a given length of waiting time.”

Let’s, for a moment, replace the word “manager” with “recruiter” and “customer” with “client.”  Can’t we now examine the job candidate recruiting process the same way????

Maister suggested several principles for increasing the pleasantness of waiting.  They were:

  1. Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time
  2. People Want to Get Started
  3. Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer
  4. Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits
  5. Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits
  6. Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits
  7. The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait
  8. Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits

What if recruiters were to very simply apply these ideas to their process…?

Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time – this point can also be illustrated with the old favorite “a watched pot never boils”.  If a wait is unoccupied, the person then becomes occupied with the wait itself.  In the case of improving the recruiting process, the recruiter might do something like provide the candidate some type of documentation that either needs reviewing or completion, possibly employment applications, benefits forms, etc.   This would both occupy some of time spent waiting for the next call as well as save some time at the end of the process when this work is normally done.  And take their minds off the wait.

People Want to Get Started – Maister writes, “…one’s ‘anxiety’ level is much higher while waiting to be served than it is while being served, even though the latter wait may be longer. There is a fear of ‘being forgotten’.  If the recruiter makes it a point during initial conversations to point out that the candidate is officially in the queue, and couples that with the documentation steps mentioned above, this will go a long way to ensure the person that they haven’t been forgotten.

Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer – as applied to the recruiting process, this one manifests itself as the wait between recruiting steps becomes longer and the candidate becomes fearful that – again – he/she has been forgotten.  Whether or not the elapsed time is extreme becomes irrelevant – the candidate’s growing fear makes the wait seem longer.  Here again, communication is key.  The recruiter needs to,  at least understand this phenomenon and either touch base with the candidate often or, if that is not possible, be accepting of the fact that the candidate may be reaching out often themselves. 

Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits – this one is easy.  As stated, a candidate will grow more anxious if he/she has no idea how long the recruiting process will take.  We all understand that sometimes there is no way the recruiter can know how long each process will take, but if he/she can at least set timeline expectations up front with each candidate (always OVER-estimate), the fear factor will greatly be reduced, as will the number of calls/emails back to the recruiter seeking an update on status.

Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits – this really follows suit to the principle above.  If the recruiter can keep the candidate informed as to how/why the process is proceeding (without betraying any confidence with recruiter’s client, of course), this, too will dramatically decrease the candidates in-process anxiety.  Simply put, people wait with more patience when they know the cause of any delay.

Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits – did you ever feel that another candidate may be getting just a little preferential treatment? Maybe you’re both up for a consulting contract, and the person that you think is being considered alongside you already has worked for the potential client?  For whatever reason, it has been observed that if one perceives he/she is being treated unfairly, the wait for any type of service feels longer.  It is therefore up to the effective recruiter to somehow ensure that all candidates feel that they are being treated equally throughout the process.  One must, of course, continue to be as truthful as possible – we all know that there are often inequities in the process.  Still, understanding the correlation between the level of candidate anxiety and their perception of the recruiting process remains critical.

The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait – this one is pretty straight forward.  Maister’s explains it this way…”That perceived value affects tolerance or waits can be demonstrated by our common experience in restaurants-we will accept a much longer waiting time at a haute cuisine facility than at a “greasy spoon.” Will we wait longer for a job we perceive as “better” (rewarding professionally? financially, spiritually?)? Absolutely!  A good recruiter can therefore manage our expectations – and anxieties – more effectively by making sure that each candidate creates his/her own strong value proposition around every opportunity.   

Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits – in this area Maister writes “…that there is some form of comfort in group waiting rather than waiting alone.”  Here, though, he is talking about how people who are physically waiting with each other will eventually start interacting and develop something of a relationship while they wait. Waiting becomes part of the “fun”.   This scenario rarely occurs during the recruiting process (though sometimes it does occur as you are waiting with others to go into an interview). Where I see this point more applicable for recruiters is in simply communicating that the job seeker is part of a larger pool of potential candidates, and that they are waiting together to “hear back.”  This is also seen as part of the Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits observation, where anxiety levels are reduced when candidates feel they are all equal and being treated the same.

The point in all of this is that the time spent waiting to (hopefully) proceed through the process of finding a new job can be exceedingly stressful for both the candidate and the recruiter.  If both parties become more aware of some of the qualitative factors that affect how the wait feels, and take steps to manage these factors, much of the anxiety common to recruiting activities can be reduced.

Then we can get back to listening to TP…

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More Efficient E-Mail Practices: Why I Love (and still cannot afford a) Ferrari:

Over the last year or so, I’ve written a couple of times about my pet peeves from the world of corporate email practices.

Last December, I tried to explain how the overuse of the cc: function, both when you create as well as when you read an email, was a very serious drain on one’s productivity (see Reducing Your Carbon (Copy) Footprint – Say “No” to the CC)

Then in March, I went on about another email use that really bothers me – the practice of responding to or forwarding an email with the express purpose of simply transferring the responsibility of its content to someone else and avoiding that pesky task of solving the issue (Food For Thought: When “Getting It Off My Plate” Is Bad For Project Digestion).

I have seen both of these modes of electronic communication used fairly often within my financial services client-base, but I have to tell you – I was ecstatic to learn recently that another industry was also feeling the pain of these same inefficient email habits…and was actually doing something about them!!!!

Ferrari to employees: Put brakes on group emails

In July, the Italian sports car maker Ferrari announced:

“Concerned that messages are slowing down their 3,000 employees, the luxury Italian car manufacturer said in a statement that workers will only be able to send the same email to three people in-house.”

Three people?  Wow…how do you think your company would deal with that…???

The article goes on…Stefano Lai, the Ferrari vice president for communications stated:

“Sometimes people are so flooded by e-mail that it is difficult to find what is important,” Lai added. “If it is important it is better to call rather than wait and see what the answer is?”

“We hope people will call or go to the office and say: ‘When can we solve this thing,’ instead of waiting for an answer.”

Interesting…trying to get folks to communicate and SOLVE issues…not just pass the euro…

…perhaps this is something that Ferrari will also be able to export to the U.S…I certainly would be first in line for a test drive…

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At Long Last! My First Book – “NO PROJECT MANAGEMENT BY POWERPOINT” – is now published and available…

I’ve been away from the blog for a long time, I know…Mostly because I was finishing up…then editing…and reviewing…and editing…and reviewing…and approving…my first book, entitled:

No Project Management by PowerPoint:  Observations and Advice on Better Project Execution in the Financial Services Industry


No Project Management by PowerPoint examines the practices, processes, tools, and future of project management in the financial services industry. Through example and observation, this book takes a detailed look at the unique attributes of financial projects and how the people charged with delivering these initiatives might best achieve success.”

You can check it out further at either my e-store or, of course, our friends at Amazon.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

For those in the Boston area, we will be doing a formal launch party mid-September. Stay tuned for the specifics.

Next week – back to the blog…


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The Triple Constraints of Choosing a PM Consulting Engagement

So I’m currently in the process of wrapping up a two-year consulting engagement.  And – as a professional project management consultant – my time now has to be divided equally between two very important tasks – closing out my existing project, and – maybe a little more importantly – finding a new one.

In going through this for the umpteenth time, I have begun to put a very familiar framework around what I see as the common components each of us examine as we choose amongst (hopefully) several opportunities for new PM engagements.  In other words  – how we evaluate which project to pursue and which to avoid.   I call this decision framework the Triple Constraints of PM Consulting.  Ring a bell?  And – like our Triple Constraints of Project Management (Scope, Time, Cost, and Quality) there are four…

My Triple Constraints of PM Consulting are: Content, DurationRate/Salary and Commute.  I compare these to the Project Management Constraints not only because they are the same in number (3/4), but because the relationship between the four is similar.   Whether Project or Consulting, the key elements always work in tandem with one another. In Project Management, where one of these elements is restricted or extended, the other elements will then also need to be either extended/increased in some way or restricted/reduced in some way. The same can be said for the Consulting Constraints. If one component is judged to be coming up short, the others need to supply enough positive value to effectively negate the downside of the first. When choosing your next consulting engagement, there needs to be a balancing  – based on your own personal and professional requirements  – of all of the elements in order ensure your (and ultimately the client’s) satisfaction.  Let’s look a little further into the Consulting Triple Constraints and examine their importance in choosing your next consulting “gig”.

Content – obviously, the actual subject matter of your next project is important.  Do you want to stay in a particular industry (like financial services)?  Want to focus on systems implementation? Or software development?  Want to do Buy Side? Sell Side?  All of the information you can gather about what the project is actually about and how much it interests you will play into your decision on whether it is right for you.  I also fold into the Content area the actual client for which you will be working.  Is it a firm that you’ve always wanted to work in?  Or – is it a company that you would prefer to avoid?  All of this data will get factored into your decision…

Duration – very simply, how long is the engagement (or project) supposed to last? Is it variable/open?  How much does that matter to you?  In many of the financial services clients that I have worked with, the initial length of an engagement usually ranges from 3-6 months.  Doesn’t matter  if the project supposed to move 3 buildings and 14,000 people from Massachusetts to Madagascar…the engagement is 3 months – with the infamous “option to be extended”.   How comfortable are you in accepting the project at the stated duration?  After speaking with the client, do you get the feeling that the project will go longer, and your engagement will be extended?

Rate/Salary – will this engagement be profitable for you?  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we should – as consultants – expect that our compensation will vary by project, year, even geographic location.  In evaluating a potential engagement, we have to decide if the compensation we are to receive – whether it be hourly or salary – is acceptable to us for the length of time the project has been slated for.  Notice I did not say “fair” – it may not be…You may again be asked to move that data center to Madagascar for $10/hr.  Or you may be asked to be the full-time Outlook meeting scheduler for $100/hr.  Is either “fair”?  What is acceptable to you as a consultant at that particular time in your personal and professional life?

Commute – It’s important.  Where will this new project be located?  Will you drive/train/boat there like an everyday commuter?  Or do you have to fly there Sunday afternoon and take the “red eye” back Friday night?  Is domestic or international travel acceptable (even desirable)?  Or do you want to be home every night by 6pm?

Once you have an idea about how each of these elements will be satisfied by your potential next engagements, you can go through the process of choosing and committing.  It may go something like this…

Project A is really something I want to do.  I’m very interested in doing more Agile project management, and Project A is all about Agile.  It’s also supposed to last 6 months, but the VP said that it’s almost certain to go a year plus. Tough commute, though…

Project B is pretty generic…data center move.  This one will definitely last a year – the contract will say that.  Its right on the commuter rail, and the hourly rate is about 10% more than my last project…

Which one would you choose?????????

Again – it depends on where your current priorities reside…if you are more focused on professional development, then you may go with Project A.  If, however, you strive more for convenience and financial gain, then Project B may be for you.  The important thing is that you realize that there are several distinct factors that must be weighed when evaluating your next assignment.  Decide what is important to you, and choose the project that best fits your needs.

SHAMELESS BOOK PLUG!My new book has gone through its final (I hope) edit and is now being constructed into a final proof.  I hope it will be published within the next two weeks!!!  Update again next week!!!!

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Industry Jargon 101: What is “Senior”

What would the financial services industry do without the word “Senior”?

There are Senior Vice Presidents, Senior Analysts, Senior Teams, Senior Management…and of, course, Senior Project Managers…

But what really does “Senior” mean?  I can tell you from personal experience that in one large organization, I was on three different “senior” project teams…for the same project…all composed of entirely different people…

So what is “Senior”?

Simply put, “Senior” here means “to be considered  more organizationally important.”

Does that mean that the position or team or person is actually better at their job or responsibilities than a more “junior” version? Does the “senior” have more experience? Better training?  Maybe they’re just older?

Not necessarily…

I think we’ve all come to realize that, especially in financial services, the word “senior” is placed in front of a title simply to give stakeholders an overall impression of advanced competence.  Or at least competence more advanced than a regular, or, g-d forbid, a junior person….

Creating this perception of greater competence, though, can be either a necessary evil, or a process that just makes all of us shake our heads in amazement…it depends on the situation…

A couple of examples…

I know of a small industry consulting firm – fewer than 10 people – that calls both of their PM’s “Senior Project Managers.”  They have no junior project managers, mind you, or regular project managers…or any other kind of project managers…so the obvious question is “Who are these Senior Project Managers senior” to?”

But look at this from their client’s viewpoint.  Wouldn’t it give you at least a little greater feeling of confidence to know that you were dealing with a person holding the title of “senior”?  That SOMEONE thought this person had enough knowledge and expertise to have earned that designation? I know its just a silly little word, but my experience has shown that both the vendor and the customer see value in this somewhat less than quantitative documentation of expertise.

A seemingly less productive use of the term “senior” is often found in large organizations that may use job titles as representations of internal organizational status.  Here, the word “senior” not only demonstrates your superior rank, but it also becomes a reward – in the form of a “promotion” – for a job well done.  Yesterday you were a Business Analyst.  Today you are a SENIOR Business Analyst. And sometimes the new title is all you get.  I have seen numerous situations where staff members are “promoted” to Senior This or That without receiving any more compensation.   And, in many instances, these employees are ok with the scenario because their new status in the company is worth as much to them as any raise in salary they would have received.  So again, just the addition of this single word could change not only how our stakeholders view our potential performance, but how we view it as well…

To all you “senior” professionals out there – take the title to heart.  Your customers expect you to live up to the designation – and you should, too.

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PM Consulting in Financial Services – It’s a Living

I’ve been helping a good friend work his way through his first ever engagement as a full-time “honest-to-g*d” project management consultant.  This is a seasoned financial services professional who, when presented with this opportunity simply decided to give it a try. No formal training…no PMP…but enough industry “chops” to offer his client significant value in leading what is a fairly large scale technology program.

After several meetings where we went over various project management theories, deliverables, and approaches, he seemed to be catching on pretty quickly.  Really getting the hang of it…Another satisfied customer!!!!

So a week or so ago, we met over coffee to catch up.  Here – word for word – is exactly what he said…

“I kind of like this Project Management thing. Can someone really make a living at it?”

Hmmmm…Can someone make a living at it?

Well – the short and simple answer is “yes”…followed by a few “if’s”…

You can make a living (a pretty good one!) as a financial services project management consultant IF:

  1.  You can accept that your yearly compensation will vary (sometimes greatly) – given the current – and probably future – economic climate, consulting bill rates most likely will not rise dramatically.  That said, there will always be an abundance of work in the middle tier range.  What a potential PM consultant needs to understand is that the rate (or salary) he/she is getting now may be greater than the rate he/she will get for their next gig.  Or it may be less.  And the difference may be in the range of 10%…15%….or more
  2.  You are comfortable with preparing and interviewing for a new job very six months – consulting engagements are short term by nature.  Depending on your consulting position (contractor or FTE), there is a very good chance that you will be constantly looking for a new job.  If you are going to be successful at PM Consulting, you need to be prepared for this – and many folks aren’t.  The process can be both challenging and exciting, and always a true test of one’s networking prowess.  Still – once you get the hang of it, it is manageable.
  3.  You are supremely confident in your professional persona and accepting of any/all duties assigned by your client – this is a big one.  We’ve all worked hard for our resume “letters” – PMP, MBA, SCM, etc.  – and are very proud of the multitude of multi-million dollar global initiatives we’ve delivered. What a PM consultant needs be ready to accept is that – depending on the situation – you may be engaged by a client who finds more value in your MS Outlook prowess than in your ability to calculate Earned Value.  THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!!  You need to be ready to vigorously execute the most mundane project (or even non-project) activities with the same enthusiasm as when you’ve been asked to create fascinating and complex PM strategies.  I wouldn’t go as far as saying a PM Consultant needs to be able to swallow his/her pride…its more like you need to be willing and able to add  true project management value while having to execute the infamous “other duties as assigned”.

I was grateful for my friend’s honest question -I really hadn’t given the viability of my profession much real thought recently.  Now that I have, I remain convinced that its the right place for me…and that I can make a living at it.

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PM Practices – The Project Management Abstract Question

Sorry I’ve been away from the blog a couple of weeks. Really had a good excuse, though – been working on the final stages of my first book.  Should be out mid-late May…and I will be publicizing the living heck out of it here, believe me…

…and had no intention today of writing, either, except for the fact that I think I have, in some macabre fashion, truly created  new genre of Project Management Practices – The Project Management Abstract Question.

I am calling it an area of practice because the Abstract Question is more than an ad hoc occurrence of mindless inquiry.  It truly is a consistent and often called-upon set of PM tools that I am almost 100% certain all of us have had opportunity to fully utilize.

So let’s define – a Project Management Abstract Question (PMAQ) is a stakeholder query that appears to thoughtfully and with good intent look to add significant value to a project but, upon further examination, is found to be… well… abstract...abstract because  – although impressive sounding at delivery – the question simply cannot be answered…at least in any realistic terns…

Couple of examples:

“How are we going to make up that time?”

“How can we be sure we captured everything?

Now we’ve all been asked those questions (and many more like them, I’m sure)…and I bet we’ve all asked this type of question ourselves…and either we tried to quantitatively propose solutions based on our years of training, or looked for answers from our colleagues as to how we might reverse the time continuum or guarantee their review of infinite knowledge.  Doesn’t work…

But still we are asked – and look to answer – the PMAQ…

What should we do?

I am by no means advocating we glare incredulously at our sponsors every time they inject a PMAQ…probably not a good idea…

The point I’m trying to make here (yes – there is one) is that we, as PM’s, need to focus our stakeholders on the realities of our projects.  What actually is achievable…what can be done…It is our job to identify and resolve the root cause of an issue, to propose and deliver concrete solutions. We must be able to identify when we are trying to solve the abstract, and direct our team’s focus back to tangible steps that will lead to a positive outcome.

Can we make up time? Probably not – but we can examine the schedule to potentially improve delivery by adding resources or working once sequential tasks in parallel.

Can we ever be sure we’ve captured everything? No, but we can create iterations of deliverables that allow our stakeholders the opportunity to review their products along the way and progressively elaborate to their final version.

Avoid the abstract – Look for real answers…

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