I have a few questions I always ask when I’m recruiting anyone. I was reminded just how important one of them is this week.
That one question that you really do need to know the answer to before you choose someone to add to your team.

Some context

We were approached by a big job title holder, with an amazing big title CV, in big ‘blue chip’ companies*.

We grabbed a coffee, for a casual interview. I casually asked my five simple questions, weaving them into the casual convos about weather and life, etc etc etc.

“Amazing background, and thank you so much for approaching us, etc etc etc.

I was wondering if there’s one achievement that you’re really proud of in the last year – that made a difference to your business, your team, or your customers”.

I assumed the list would be long and fascinating, and leaned back ready to learn new things and be inspired.

Instead, came the quiet the drivel of nothingness. A lack of ideas or ideas that didn’t happen; a lack of support from their org, boss, and team; a lack of resources and time; a lack of opportunity.

In fact, I found myself listening – intently – to a lack of achievement, and a resounding lack of accountability.

Why does making a difference matter?

Achievement matters.

We’re not all champion sportspeople or Olympians, or Fortune 500 CEOs, or Newtownesque creators of the next Theory of Relativity. But we do all like to do something, or be part of something, that matters to someone. We like to achieve!

Achievements don’t need to be grand, or ground-breaking, but they need to be there.

They don’t need to be solo. In fact, being part of a team that did good things, or helping someone do their great thing, can be just as awesome.

If you’ve rocked up at work for a year, and thrown yourself in with your best effort, you need to look at your contribution and know it made a difference. If it makes a meaningful difference to others – brings joy to them, or makes their lives better, or helps the whole team win – then you did work that matters.

So when a person cannot answer with anything they’ve achieved, what are the usual reasons?

Well, we’ve narrowed it down to five personas. These are the usual suspects, who don’t achieve much, but have an odd way of describing it. For want of a better term, they have a self-narrative that makes not achieving anything sound OK.

Five personas to keep an eye out for:

i)    The 1000 ideas person

This is the person who has a thousand ideas. SO smart! And BUSY!!

No time to talk, or work together, or have lunch, or laugh.

They make long, long lists of ‘tasks to be done’, attend lots of presentations of ‘what’s coming’, and have to meet with millions to talk about the lists.

1000 ideas. 1000 people. 1000 meetings. 1000 lists.

If only one of them would land.

The follow-up question for these people is “What were the important small changes that got made along the way?”.

ii)    The one idea that doesn’t fly person

This is the singular focus on that one right idea. No time for anything or anyone else. They are razor-sharp on their one idea, and cannot collaborate, contribute or even think of anything else. No matter how small or inconsequential the request is, they cannot support it. Everything falls by the wayside.

Problem is that one perfect idea, never lands. They never quite get the support needed. The timing was never quite right. They were either too early or too late, but not open to doing something else while that timing got lined up.

The follow-up question is “What was Plan B?”

iii)   The person known for sweeping generalisations

This is the home of ‘The Transformation’, ‘the change that needed to happen’, the change plan that’s undercover until it’s launched with fanfare, and almost always in response to a ‘burning platform’.

The language is dramatic and exciting. The details a little less so.

The specific deliverables and specific impact that you can count on – the scorecard, if you like – is elusive. But it’s ‘going to be big’.

A follow-up question might be “Have you made these sorts of Transformations before?”, because these people almost always do the flurry of sweeping generalisations over and over.

iv)   The Constant Planner

They’re always getting ready.

One more meeting. One more plan. Can’t quite keep the team together because time keeps going on, and in the procrastination, people have to find new things to achieve.

The planner needs one more consultation. One more stakeholder to consider.

And often one more special app – which they insist the whole team downloads and completes to an inane level of detail using special colour codes. And it’s a different app than the one they asked you to use last week, and nothing like the one from the week before.

Close, but never the cigar.

A follow-up question might be “What’s the biggest detailed plan you’ve actually delivered?” because again, this is a pattern of behaviour. Planning without delivery.

v)    It’s everyone else, not me

I can barely talk about these people. They are my least favourite.

With a bit of coaching the 100-idea person can narrow focus; the one-idea person can do a Plan B and Plan C and know when to move to them; the dramatic generaliser can get detailed (or ensure they have a team that can) and deliver; and the planner can get the confidence to hold themselves to account to deliver to a date.

But the “it’s not me, it’s everyone else” person is missing fundamental accountability and self-awareness, that they own the lack of achievement as personal.

They have a bad boss, poor colleagues, bad org, bad industry, poor market, less than great family/partner/parents – the list goes on!  And, usually ,they’ve had three horrible workplaces in a row. Talk about unlucky 😃

I just yawn.

Truth is that you impact the people around you. If they’re all no good, look in the mirror. Do something differently. Find something extra. Be more generous. Be better. Lift them.

So, these are the personas that mask a lack of achievement.
Big self-narratives that never get things that matter over the finish line.

How should the answer sound?

In an ideal scenario, as you sit in the café and ask “what are you proud of achieving?”, the answer sound like this:

“We had this idea. It was almost too big. It scared us all, and me especially. Kept us, and me, up at night.

We got together and hatched a plan – this certainly wasn’t a one-person idea – and then we worked really hard. We gathered others and got smarter for their contribution. We fought for budget and got it. We delivered it. It did four of the five things we predicted perfectly, two of them above promise, and an extra thing we never imagined”.

But the world is rarely ideal.

How might it sound in real life?

“Oh, my goodness, we had this idea to change things up a little. Make some improvement. As we started, it got bigger than expected. We got a bigger team together and made a plan. We hustled for budget and got 50% of what we knew we needed. We pruned a few non-essentials off the initial plan, and stretched a little more. Then the best person on our team took parental leave, and we had to run short., but they took a few random calls and helped us out with great advice a few times.

But we got there.
Five goals. Three absolutely nailed. Two we’re still going at in this next year. There was one totally unexpected side effect that was awesome and totally the result of getting lucky. We failed a few things, learned heaps, and we’re smarter for next time.

Loved the work, and the team, and we celebrated together”.

And a nice add – “We’re already working on those last two. We so want the whole set of what we originally planned! Seems a shame to leave anything on the table”.

The best people grow where they are planted

We all know that not every team or environment is exactly right for each of us. That’s life.

But wherever you find themselves, the best people will always do something good while they’re there.

The best people make the best of where they are – make as much of a difference as they possibly can, contribute at their best, generously support someone else having a go, and don’t make excuses.

Sitting in that café, as you ask them what they are really proud of over the last few years, their eyes light up, and no matter how tough a year they’ve had, they tell you a story of something they really dug deep on, and how it mattered and made a difference to people – usually by name and example – and how they still feel happy when they think back to the work and the team, and hope they have a chance to do it again.

You smile back. Impacting others is the best of life, defying odds, making a difference is the best of life. Achieving things together! It’s fun to listen to. Its joyful.

Then I ask my second question. “What was the biggest lesson/learning you’ve had in the last 2 years, that really challenged you to be better?”.
We’ll save the last three questions can wait for another day.


*’Blue Chip Companies’ – According to Investopedia are “well-known, well-established, and well-capitalized. They dominate goods and services in their sector.” But, in my humble experience, the logos don’t always translate to high achievers in every role. While there are awesome people, there are also lots of places to hide. I’ve met just as many high achievers in mid-tiers and start-ups.


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