Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Characteristics of Successful Job Applicants: Coachable

This is the last in a series of posts on the characteristics frequently present in successful candidates for jobs at Microsoft. Previously, we discussed the importance of being a good communicator, persistent, passionate, a continual learner, and reflective.


I the last few posts, we've talked a lot about learning from others, which leads to the last area covered in this series. Being coachable means being willing to accept the advice and experiences others share with you. It is critically important to understand that this doesn't mean you have to agree with what others are telling you. In fact, the conversations you'll learn most from are probably those in which you disagree with your counterpart. This is because having your views challenged forces you to provide supporting evidence and to consider alternative approaches. Being coachable is having open ears and a willingness to factor the advice and experiences of others into your evaluations.

Again, don't be scared to admit what you don't know and to seek help figuring things out. As discussed, extensive experiences are good, but if you have some guidance to reduce the amount of friction you suffer along the way, why not take advantage of it?

When I was in school, a big failure on my part was my reluctance to ask for help. When I had difficult programming assignments I would struggle for hours to find subtle bugs, refusing to ask for help from TAs or peers. I loved the tasks (passion), fought until I succeeded (persistence), and learned from my mistakes (reflection and continual learning), but in so doing, I probably lost hundreds of hours in aggregate, which I could have applied to more beneficial tasks like doing additional testing, reading for outside interests, or working on personal projects.

Another critical aspect to understanding what it means to be coachable is to understand that when people give you feedback, you really need to digest it. Don't seek feedback for the sake of marking off a checklist. If that's your goal, you can accomplish it without wasting someone else's time. When someone offers you feedback, use it. And if you want more feedback, be able to demonstrate that you used it. A common question among students looking for internships or jobs at Microsoft is what classes they should take. If you get a suggestion, either follow through or be able to explain your process of consideration and why you decided it wasn't in your best interest. If you come back to interview with that same person and you didn't take the time to consider what they suggested, it leaves a bad impression. Why would they want to hire someone who either doesn't take their opinions seriously or doesn't follow through?

Concluding Remarks

To wrap up this series of posts, observe how the different characteristics are inextricably linked. Passion drives persistence. Reflection helps understand passion and leads to learning. Good communication skills and the ability to learn are required to be coachable, which in turn increases the effectiveness of persistence. All of these characteristics are strongly correlated with success, which is why we look for them in candidates.

There are a few important things to keep in mind when reflecting (yes, that was intended - sorry, I couldn't help it) on all of this information. The first is that the descriptions of these characteristics may appear to have been very black and white, but the reality is that these characteristics do not manifest themselves as binary attributes with on-off switches. They are continually developed over a lifetime. The second is that they must be balanced. Spending the entirety of one's time focused on a single aspect and ignoring others is detrimental to one's development. It is much more effective to spread effort across the different characteristics and leverage them to enhance one another. Think of them as your vitamins for success. There are undoubtedly times when it is appropriate to increase the dosage of one, but you need to get enough of each of them to remain healthy. The last thing to keep in mind is that these are not the only important characteristics. They just happen to be fairly universal. Whenever you apply for a job, or identify any goal for that matter, take time to evaluate how you will achieve success and follow up with the appropriate actions to prepare yourself.