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Aural history

07 March 2011

I spend a lot of time listening. It's my job. I also get to ask people questions. Now that can be a powerful and confrontational position, because when you're asking questions in the formal structure of an interview and people are answering those questions, they very rarely have time to - or even think to - ask you questions back. It leaves me feeling immune, sort of outside the process and a bit untouchable.

And then you get the interviewee who turns the tables. Who asks you the questions and, what's worse, asks the questions you blithely ask them but actually hope no-one will ever ask you.

It's exposing to demand someone tell you how they've arrived at where they are in life, and what would they have done differently if they could. It's difficult to speak about the successes and failures that make us who we are: especially as women.

So in one of the Women @ Work pieces this month, with Jo Brennan from Habitat for Humanity, Australia, I got the surprise of my life when she asked me how the term 'turnaround' related to my career and if there was anything I regretted in my life. They're not easy questions to answer if you don't want to divulge too much about yourself, but the hardest questions are those that demand you answer on your successes, and ask you to expound on the benefits of positive self-marketing within your career.

Who Me?

There's some well-known anecdotal evidence out there that women going for a position will undersell themselves, believing they're not good enough for the next step up but if the company can just see its way clear to giving them a go they'll do their best to prove it was a good decision.

Many an HR head has recounted to me the story of the graduate intake interviews. Typically the young men come in having achieved 60% in their final exams and their attitude is: 'you want me; I'm top of the class; I'll consider working here and you'd be mad to pass up the opportunity because what I have to offer is the best'.

The women arrive, having achieved distinctions or better (which they often fail to mention, let alone capitalise on), approaching the whole thing with the attitude that nothing they've done to date is good enough and they'll completely understand if they don't get the position but if the company can maybe just see its way through to giving them a go they'll work extra hard to prove the decision was worth it.

In fact, one graduate intake assessor said to me: \"You almost think the women are going to offer to pay the company to take them on.\"

For many women it is self-perpetuating behaviour continuing throughout their work life no matter what they achieve. Just the other day I spoke with a friend of mine who after numerous years in the work force and a number of career moves and changes involving the usual process - application, CV, bio, interview and then pray for the job - has come to the conclusion she no longer wants the one interview followed by the desperate 'give me the job, I want the job, I need the job' angle, any more. Instead, she relishes the second interview - the time to consider is the job right for me, is it where I need to be, is it a good fit and am I getting from them what they are going to get from me: respect, commitment, satisfaction and a feeling of worth.

It's an attitude shift.

Risk reward return

It's what Ann Sherry, CEO Carnival Australia and our Ruby of the month, counsels people beginning their careers to be from the very start: \"Courageous. Take risks. Set high standards for yourself and don't let people talk you down. Be confident in yourself because if you don't believe it why would anyone else.\"

Drawing that potential out of staff, reversing lack of confidence (which often grows because we continually butt up against the ingrained sets of low expectations inherent in others and entrenched in the corporate world), is something Ann is passionate about. There's nothing wrong with failing, she says... you just need to do it fast. It's about sorting it, moving on, taking the lesson.

The process of interviewing Ann also unearthed some amazing stories about how Carnival uses customer feedback and how accurate and immediately useful that feedback can be. In the business of cruising - \"listening fast\" has the same dynamic as \"fail fast\". It's all about not taking it personally but learning from the mistake and it can make all the difference - 18% growth per year difference.

Cold soup

\"If customer feedback in my past positions [banking] got over 50% we'd pop champagne corks,\" says Ann. \"Here [at Carnival Australia, cruising] if it sinks below 90% we're having a crisis.

\"Some of what we learn through Facebook, Twitter and more conventional feedback methods, such as surveys, is incredibly helpful. It can be about delivery on individual cruises.

\"One cruise, we had all this feedback telling us the food wasn't hot enough. We all thought, how could the food not be hot enough? We went on board and had a look, and found that although the lights were on in the hot boxes, the actual heat wasn't working properly. It was a technical problem no-one had picked up. We went in and fixed the problem. That's real time feedback.\"

Ann's advice: don't be defensive when customers tell you, 'stuff' isn't working... because it probably isn't.