Joe Hirsch

Turn Performance Into a Partnership


Instead of associating performance with power, try a partnership approach for positive and lasting change.

You may not like getting feedback, but you can’t deny its importance. Receiving robust feedback is a key driver of performance and leadership effectiveness. And when people ask for feedback, they are generally seen as more effective by their superiors and peers.

There’s just one problem: Most of the time, feedback is hierarchical. One person (e.g. the manager) holds the power and directs the process while the other (e.g. the employee) takes cues from the top. When feedback becomes a power play, people recoil. They get defensive, angry and self-conscious. They may even try to find new social networks that offer more positive affirmation of who they think they are.

Instead of relying on top-down feedback for insights, try approaching performance in a whole new way:

A partnership.

That’s right, a partnership.

Drawing on the power and principles of “feedforward,” this partnership approach can transform the way you think about the whole enterprise of performance reviews. Instead of relegating power to someone else, you take control of that process yourself – and help others along the way, too.

Find someone you trust and respect, and forge a performance partnership with that person. Your joint mission: Help one another navigate the long and sometimes twisted road of personal and professional improvement.

Think of this person as your “journey partner” – someone who will help you find your way towards becoming or maintaining a better version of yourself.

You and your journey partner will take turns acting as “mirror holders,” guiding one another on a journey through your past accomplishments and future success. The journey has three stages:

partnershipStage #1: The Summit

The journey begins at its conclusion – the summit. The person starting off begins by identifying a peak moment of personal or professional success, the feeling one gets when he or she is standing atop the mountain. As your partner is describing the summit, listen attentively and ask clarifying questions like, “So why does that moment stand out to you?” or “How was that feeling different than the feeling you got from doing other parts of your job?” The goal is for each partner to label a peak moment and describe it in rich terms with help from the other person.

Stage #2: The Trek

Next comes the trek. This is where you try to help your journey partner uncover who and what made that peak moment possible. Even when we scale great heights, we rarely do it alone. There’s always someone or something that guided our ascent. Guide your partner along the trek with probing questions like, “Was there someone on your team who brought out your best work?” or “Was there something about this particular assignment that elevated you?” The point of the trek is for each partner to trace the steps that led to these big moments.

Stage #3: The Climb

Now that each partner has identified his or her peak moment and the circumstances surrounding it, it’s time to move to the last and most important part of the journey: the climb. Because “feedforward” points towards future steps, not past actions, the goal of the journey exercise is for each partner to experience this sense of professional flow again in the future – to scale their success.

During the climb stage, each partner asks a fundamental question of the other: You’ve told me about a time when you felt like you did your best work and identified who and what made that possible – so do you feel that you have what you need to do this again?

The answer might be affirmative. It might not. Each partner may come to realize that he or she is positioned for future success, or may suddenly recognize that the conditions for scaling are lacking. Either way, the landscape for future journeys is clearly defined, for better or worse. Setting out again now becomes substantially easier once the contours of that path are laid out and marked. You can’t get anywhere unless you have a sense of where you’re headed!

Progress through partnership

Having a journey partner completely redefines the prospect and process of performance conversations. You’ll get critical insights into your behavior without having to wait around for review season. You’ll develop trusting relationships with peers who can offer valuable information that your boss may not hold. And you’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that you helped another person succeed in getting better, even as you experience your own sense of improvement. Journey partners don’t cost a thing – but the outcomes can be priceless.

Don’t Hire Without the “Wrapper Test”


Your next hire should be able to pass this interview technique.

Hiring the right person for your business or team is one of the most critical decisions you’ll make. The effects on resources and morale can be significant: According to a recent survey by Robert Half,  the high costs of even one bad hire include time lost to training, increased team stress, and diminished faith in the leader. It may even cause illicit activity to spread. And while due diligence helps, interviews that rely on heavily scripted and surface-level questions often fail to predict how someone will actually behave on the job.

There’s a simple but effective way to change that. I call it the “wrapper test.” Read More

Know it alls vs. Learn it alls


“Know it alls” don’t find the answers, but “learn it alls” do.

Chances are you’ve seen a Nest thermostat before. You may even have one at home. Back in 2011, Nest broke new ground with the launch of the very first “smart” thermostat. It revolutionized the HVAC industry and smart home sector. That part is well documented. The back story, not quite as known, is that the thermostat almost didn’t make it to market – at least not the way we’ve come to know it.

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Build a Culture of Respect: An Interview with Stan Richards

The legendary ad man talks teams, leadership and how great work starts with a culture of respect.

Stan Richards is an advertising legend. He’s the founder and principal of the Richards Group, the largest privately-held ad agency in the country whose memorable campaigns have ranged from the folksy (Motel 6’s “We’ll leave the light on for you”) to the renegade (Chic-fil-A’s irreverent cows). But Richards’ proudest achievement is the company culture he’s fiercely built and protected over more than four decades – a no-barriers, no bull “peaceable kingdom” where information is shared freely and people are treated fairly and with respect. At 85, he’s as passionate about his agency’s mission as the day it first opened.

I sat down with Richards in his wall-less office to talk culture, teamwork and leadership. Excerpts:

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How to Deal With Performance Stress


Prime yourself for better performance with three simple tricks.

Think back to your last high-stakes encounter. A major investor pitch. A nail-biting client presentation. Maybe even your all-hands meeting. When forced to confront these moments, we face a jarring mix of dread, uncertainty and self-doubt. We start to wonder: Am I up to this? What if I say the wrong thing? And while research shows that pre-performance jitters can be a positive force, most people would rather find ways around the pressure. Here are three tricks to take the edge off your fears:

  1. Talk it out – with yourself: Strange as it sounds, there’s good reason to talk to yourself before your next big performance, especially in the second person. (“You can do this!” is more effective than saying “I can do this!”) Self-talk centers us in the present moment and helps us regain focus on the task at hand. This allows us to talk our way around distraction and screen out the stimuli that weaken our concentration. Self-talk also creates the conditions for better decision-making and helps rescue us from doing things we may later regret. There’s even evidence showing how self-talk enhances leadership and produces better managers. Telling yourself that you’re primed for performance may seem crazy, but it turns out to be crazy helpful.
  2. Name the monster: In Good to Great, Jim Collins pointed out the “scary squiggly things” that hold us back from achieving our personal best. As humans, we’re programmed to run away from perceived threats, but it turns out that a better approach is to head-off the fears by labeling them from the start. Researchers at UCLA found that people with spider phobias showed fewer signs of reactivity when they verbalized their emotions. So before the fear overcomes you, take a deep breath, acknowledge the threat (“I’m scared I might stumble on stage”) and remind yourself of the things you’ve done to contain it (lots of rehearsal, solid content, good night’s sleep). “Naming the monster” won’t make the fear disappear, but it helps us gain a much-needed psychological advantage over it.
  3. (Phantom) Practice Makes Perfect: Brain scans show that people use the same parts of their brains whether they are actually moving or simply thinking about the movement. Researchers call this “phantom practice,” but the effects are quite real: Simply going through the motions has been shown to have the same effect as physical practice — and can even produce a boost in performance. Before your big moment, run through a mental sequence of what you’re about to say or do. Replaying your performance steps will make you feel like you’ve already mastered the act by the time you have to do it “again” for real.

We can’t always avoid the spotlight, but we can definitely take the glare off our fears by reminding ourselves that we’re ready for whatever might come next.


Great Cultures Live By These 19 Words


Great cultures are marked by great caring. Here’s how.

It’s well understood that culture can make or break a workplace. Understanding what “culture” means, however, is a whole other matter. As a working concept, culture can’t be easily defined or measured. Merriam-Webster offers six different definitions (and even named it their Word of the Year in 2014 after it received the highest number of web lookups). Culture construal seems to run the gamut, from the practical (a “set of living relationships working toward a shared goal” –  Daniel Coyle) to the whimsical (“roughly anything we do and the monkeys don’t” –  Lord Raglan). Ask the students and alumni of Texas A&M about their culture, and they’ll tell you it’s downright incomprehensible: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”

So much for a culture of clarity.

No matter what you call it, here’s an easy way to spot it. It comes down to these 19 words:

I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.

Here’s why:

Several years ago, a team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale and Columbia analyzed two different sets of teacher feedback given to students. One stack of marked-up papers featured generic statements like “good job” or “nice work.” But another batch came with something more: the 19-word encouragement scrawled on a Post-It note.

Researchers found that this small gesture paid big returns, especially for students of color: 72% voluntarily revised their papers, compared to just 17% who just received the generic feedback message. Not only that, but those students also received better overall grades on their work.

Amazingly, students who demonstrated these gains did so without receiving any specific directions for improvement. The notes contained no tips or strategies, no editorial guidance or revision goals. Their magical effect on student outcomes had almost nothing to do with the message itself, but the meaning behind it:

I believe you can do this.

 Students who received the notes understood that they mattered and that the work they did mattered. Their willingness to adapt and improve shows the power of caring and commitment, and how the combination of both can elevate the way we choose to see our people and the way our people choose to see themselves.

If this sentiment can transform the learning culture in schools, imagine how it might change the performance culture at work.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that too many workplace cultures are bereft of deep connection. A recent study showed that loneliness at work is growing at alarming rate, leading to troubling effects on people’s job performance and potential, including lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting a current job within six months. There’s even evidence showing that the feeling of being isolated can provoke the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause.

How do you solve a loneliness epidemic? By replacing it with a culture of caring.

When leaders manage inclusively, making an effort to draw people together through a virtuous mix of caring but challenging directives, they engineer a culture of belonging and trust. Matching high expectations with generous support, these leaders make it possible for people to excel together. People begin to feel good about their role and see their work as critical to the success of the organization as a whole. Fueled by this sense of purpose and passion, the organization becomes more effective, more open to ideas, and more creative. People are more likely to share ideas, pass along information, and manage their levels of stress.

All of this feel-good energy isn’t just good for morale – it’s also a boon to the bottom line. In one study, friendship groups – teams that reported a high level of connection, both within and beyond their work space – outperformed groups with only slight levels of connection on tasks that required  significant amounts of decision-making and motor planning. The reason: Enhanced levels of group commitment and cooperation boosted their performance outcomes.

Which brings us back to that thorny meaning of “culture.” It comes from the Latin cultus, meaning “care.” Somewhere in all that ambiguity, there’s an unmistakable truth: Great cultures are marked by great caring. And that, perhaps, is all we need we need to know: If you care a lot about culture, start by caring a lot more.

The Surprising Secrets of High-Performing Teams

Hint: It’s not how well they interact, but how often

As companies continue to reinvent the ways employees experience and perform their work, teams play a crucial role in how that work is shaped, managed and executed.

But what are the habits of high-performing teams?

Cisco has spent the past several years researching, analyzing, prodding and experimenting the ways the tech company drives performance and empowers its 73,000 employees. In a recent interview, Cisco’s SVP of leadership and team intelligence, Ashley Goodall, highlighted three key characteristics of successful teams:

They play to people’s strengths: When asked about the dynamics of their group, members of high-achieving teams said they felt empowered to do their best work and that team leaders encouraged them to use their strengths every day. Not surprisingly, Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace report shows that strengths-based leadership has the potential to deliver improved business outcomes: Employees who say they use their strengths every day are 8% more productive and 15% less likely to quit their jobs. They are also more likely to strongly agree that they like what they do each day.

They create a safe environment: The litmus test of team effectiveness is psychological safety, the ability of  group members to think and act without worrying about social repercussions – basically, to just be themselves. Google discovered this firsthand when it studied 180 of its own functional teams to learn why some were successful and others were not. After a series of trials, research analysts turned up only one reliably consistent pattern of high performance: psychological safety.

They have common goals: Great teams need a shared roadmap: a realistic appraisal of where they are, clarity on what success looks like, and a common path to that success. Each member of the team knows what’s expected of them and how that role contributes to the team’s larger purpose and priorities.

Naturally, team leaders lie at the heart of this – it’s their job to help challenge and develop their reports to reach personal and team best. But Cisco has found that the real driver behind great teams isn’t how well leaders interact with their teams. It’s how often.

When leaders showed a high frequency of attention, team effectiveness spiked. The more often team leaders held routine check-ins with employees, provided just-in-time feedback, and intentionally built development and career advice into performance conversations, the better their teams became.

But the most surprising discovery: These gains emerged regardless of how well these interactions actually went. Team leaders who consistently made time for weekly conversations with reports delivered increased value for the employee and the team’s working dynamic – even when those conversations may have lacked style or finesse.

There’s a powerful lesson here for other organizations. Rather than coach leaders on how to design quality conversations or improve their EQ – not an easy proposition, especially at scale – a simpler target would be to get people talking to each other.

A lot.

Don’t break your company’s silos – bend them

Silos can cause problems. How “bending” them can speed the flow of information and strengthen collaboration.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the best way to deal with organizational silos is simply to break them. Whether it’s the inward focus of HR departments or the “tower vision” that blinds leaders to surrounding issues and events, silos must be torn down – or so they say.

The problem with extreme thinking is that it’s rarely correct. On a functional basis, silos do a lot of good: They provide service specialization. They create defined work structures. And they foster a deep sense of socialization and interaction between colleagues. Hardly a reason to bring out the wrecking ball.

Instead of trying to break silos, we should bend them. A more effective approach is to find the touch points that run between different departments and begin to form what I call “genius bonds” – networked connections that speed the flow of information and bring together the very best ideas and talents across teams. In this framework, specialized units or departments retain their unique function within the organization, just arched differently. The goal is not to eliminate silos but to address the problems they cause: lack of collaboration, drags in communication, and diminished trust.

In The Feedback Fix, I show how companies who managed to bend silos achieve breakthrough success. In 2011, when Nest Labs started developing its first-ever learning thermostat, it knew that it had to do more than just produce a marvel of artificial intelligence capable of saving people energy. It needed to sell consumers on the merits of energy conservation.

So Nest assembled a cross-functional team made up of engineers, designers and marketing executives to link all stages of product design. These traditionally siloed departments leaned into each other’s space and brought specialized knowledge to bear during critical stages of development. This process of “creative abrasion” set the conditions for ideas to be tested and challenged productively. For their part, the engineers succeeded in designing a device that taught itself to raise and lower temperatures based on homeowners’ schedules. The marketers infused the concept with the Nest Leaf, a clever display feature that rewarded homeowners for choosing an energy-saving temperature. The engineers mastered the intricacies of AI. The marketers leveraged the human need for recognition and control. Working together, these departments formed genius bonds that gave rise to a product smart enough to make a difference and sexy enough that people actually wanted to buy it. Instead of hoarding talent in silos, Nest sparked collaboration among teams.

Silo-bending can also lead to better service outcomes. In 2008, the Cleveland Clinic – arguably one of the world’s best healthcare centers – got a devastating prognosis: negative patient feedback. Patients gave the hospital low marks for room cleanliness, noise levels and doctor-nurse communication. Hospital floors with as many as three separate specialties and staffs operated in siloes. In effect, there was a wide gap between the level of care and how patients experienced that care during their hospital stay.

That began to change once Cleveland Clinic instituted a practice of weekly huddles between care givers. Doctors, nurses, case managers, head of housekeeping assembled to discuss patients, raise concerns, and coordinate care-giving measures. Now considered a standard of patient care, these huddles not only increased the overall efficiency of patient flow, but also delivered a more complete picture of patient care. By causing these entrenched silos to bend, the Cleveland Clinic turned specialization into a force for collaboration.

How can your organization get better at silo-bending?

Get teams to bump up against each other: Find opportunities for creative collision between teams. For all the hype about offices that are cubicle-free, it’s important to consider how all that open space can be used for intentional interactions. A few ideas: Arrange a company read or monthly lunch-and-learn series. Align business goals with team-building exercises that match different units and departments within the organization. Town halls may be great for big announcements, but what about a “village square” for less formal but frequent gatherings of your employees? Putting a premium on meaningful interactions won’t eliminate the silos, but it certainly shaves off the rough edges.

Increase people’s capacity for empathy: Empathy is the signature skill of collaboration. It comes from seeing things from another person’s perspective, and while that’s not easy to achieve, research shows it surfaces at a young age. In one study, researchers gave a group of infants ranging from 14 to 18 months two bowls of food: one containing Goldfish crackers and the other filled with broccoli. As the infants gobbled up the Goldfish and ignored the broccoli, researchers ate from the same two bowls – except this time, they showed visible signs of disgust while eating the crackers and obvious delight while eating the broccoli. When researchers stuck out their hands to receive food, the infants were more likely to give them a broccoli – as much as 7 times out of ten. Even though the infants favored Goldfish, they could already sense that their adult companions had a stronger preference for broccoli.  If infants can reason past their own desires and demonstrate empathy, surely we can do the same.

Create channels of information sharing: Nothing screams “silo” like a bottleneck. When information is slow to reach various departments, the drag creates distrust and discord in the workplace. The best companies I’ve worked with know how to ensure that information continues to move at a steady pace throughout the organization. Creating a culture of information sharing is the cornerstone of strong teams. Take the way Facebook onboards all of its engineers. Rather than putting them through standard HR training, it requires new hires to participate in an intensive six-week program called Bootcamp. According to Andrew Bosworth, who helped launched the program, Facebook’s goal is to “immerse the new engineer into our code base, give greater flexibility in choosing a project, and promote the types of habits that would allow us to scale up our organization.” The premium on information sharing – fixing bugs from the live site, building internal tools, and making improvements to Facebook’s infrastructure – not only gives new engineers the chance to immediately work on and solve real problems, it also fosters a culture of information sharing that permeates the culture long after engineers land in different functional units.

Cooperation, communication, and collaboration are the three keys to working across silos. The remedy to a silo isn’t a sledgehammer, but a shoehorn – something that allows the space inside the silo to fit in more seamlessly with its surroundings. If we focus on bending silos rather than eliminating them entirely, we’ll create stronger organizations and better relationships among the people who serve them.

Giving Difficult Feedback to Parents


When teachers “bundle” feedback for parents, tough conversations can go much smoother.

As educational partners, teachers and parents share responsibility for the success of children. Keeping open lines of communication is essential to maintaining a relationship of transparency and trust. Parents expect and deserve honest feedback about their children’s progress. But when situations call for difficult conversations, teachers can become agitated and apprehensive. Read More

5 Coaching Questions To Build Your Self-Awareness


Ask these questions to create self-awareness about your work, goals and growth.

Great coaching starts with mirror holding – the things we say and do to help people see themselves in a whole new light. Instead of telling others how to improve, great coaches ask questions that help others chart their own improvement path.

It’s also the key to generating more self-awareness about how you work and develop next-level strengths.

Based on the inspiring leaders I wrote about in The Feedback Fix and my own experiences as a leadership coach, here are five must-have question sets that can help you become more self-aware and drive deeply honest conversation about work, goals, and growth.

1. Strengths: What am I good at doing? Which work activities require less effort? What do I take on because I believe I’m the best person to do it? What have I been recognized for throughout my career?

2. Passions: What do I enjoy? In a typical work-week, what do I look forward to doing? What do I see on my calendar that energizes me? If I could design a job with no restrictions, how would I spend my time?

3. Values: What feels most useful? Which work outcomes make me most proud? Which of my tasks are most critical to the team or organization? What are the highest priorities for my life and how does my work fit in?

4. Goals: What creates a sense of forward momentum? What am I learning that will help me in the future? What do I envision for myself next? How’s my work today getting me closer to what I want for myself?

5. Relationships: How do I relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for me? What would an office of my favorite people look like? How does my work enhance my family and social connections?

Asking these kinds of questions helps us re-calibrate our personal and professional objectives and create an inner sense of alignment. It sets the conditions for more intentional and purposeful work and allows us to cut through the clutter and noise so that we have a clearer view of who we are, and, more importantly, who we are becoming.