What is great leadership?

It’s a lot of things, but it’s mostly listening and embracing change

Hello everyone! Thank you all for the helpful feedback from the Gridology survey (you can still take it here). First, I will opt for a less frequent cadence—I plan on aiming for 2-3 posts per month. Second, I’m going to anchor the majority of my posts on the following topics: career development, self-help, growth mindset, and prioritization. Third, I will start to expand outside of just the 2x2 grid to other types of frameworks and mental models.

For my first post back from my mini-hiatus, I’m sharing my takeaways from my first completed class at NYU Stern. Special shout out to Professor Nate Pettit for teaching such a terrific course.

And here we go:

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Great leadership is having the courage and ability to drive change in a compassionate, inspiring, and inclusive manner. Great leadership, then, is a lot of things all rolled into one. It’s not a skill you can learn but rather a goal and mindset you can strive to achieve. Becoming a great leader requires many different abilities working together for a higher-order cause.

A younger version of me also wrote a post on leadership. If you want to save the five minutes reading it, here’s younger me’s thesis:

“When your successors outperform you, that's when you know you've done right by them.”

This misses a lot of the nuance. For one, the team could have outperformed you because you were holding them back. It goes without saying that many leaders strive to leave teams better than how they joined them. However, assuming you’re a good leader just because your old team outperforms without your presence misses a few dots between points A and B. There’s more to the story.

I filled in many of these gaps in the last three weeks after finishing my first class at NYU Stern. As you could probably guess, it was a class named Leadership, and it was taught by Nate Pettit. It forced me to rethink many of my views on how to be a great leader. 

Most importantly, I learned being a leader is less about gaining new skills and more about refining ones we practice every day. It’s about being a great listener, having courage, and embracing change. It’s about having the right mindset on how to collaborate with others. These things, right now, are 100% in your control.

Let today’s grid be a tool for us all to strive to be the leaders we want to be.

On the x-axis, we have an individual’s level of emotional intelligence (EQ). I wrote about EQ back in March, but I applied it to the concept of managing your friendships rather than leading people. Great leaders have a high EQ. Full stop. As Professor Pettit puts it, “EQ does not just mean you are nice.” He goes on to say that EQ is characterized by five traits:

  1. Self-awareness — How do my actions affect others?

  2. Self-regulation — How am I able to monitor and adjust my emotions across different situations?

  3. Motivation — Do you have an internal self-drive for improvement?

  4. Empathy — Can you know/feel what others are feeling? I’d make the argument here that compassion is probably better to use as it’s based more on your ability to combine action and empathy rather than to just know/feel what others are feeling.

  5. Social Skills — Are you generally a tolerable person with good people skills?

For the sake of simplicity, I’d like to narrow the focus for identifying EQ to the most observable indicators: a person’s ability to listen and be honest.

When you listen, and I mean deeply listen, to the point where you provide others the space to solve their own problems just by affording them the opportunity to be heard, it’s an indicator you have strong social skills and are an empathetic/compassionate person. Take any conversation: you have a speaker, and you have a listener. Often when someone speaks, the listener is thinking more about what to say next than what is being said to them. When the listener stops evaluating and starts actually listening, it allows the person speaking to feel more open and cooperative.

When you’re honest—not just with others but with yourself, too—it indicates self-awareness and self-regulation. You can make better decisions from a place of transparency and openness rather than through lies and deceit.

On the y-axis, we have an individual’s tolerance for change and failure. As I alluded to earlier, great leadership is about having the courage to drive change and respond to failure. The best leaders are ones who don’t resist change but seek it. Change is a constant: we can count on the fact that 10 years from now will look nothing like 10 years ago. The best leaders prepare for this reality by shifting priorities, dreaming new strategies, and aligning individuals accordingly. Change, too, is a lot like Rome. It’s not created in a day. Sure, there are seismic, black swan-type events that can rock our system (COVID-19, cough). Those are not the norm, however. That said, great leaders embrace change—however and whenever it comes.

Great leadership also appreciates the power of failing. Not every idea can be a winner, but every failed idea helps lead to winning. Simply put, “failure is a prerequisite to invention.” Great leaders encourage their employees to innovate, fail, and try again. When I worked at LinkedIn, this point was made clear through the company’s culture. Communication from executives to middle managers encouraged every employee to “take intelligent risks.” This provided a safety net for failure. Rather than being scolded for trying an idea that didn’t work, employees were generally recognized for innovating on the status quo.

Understanding the Grid

The objective of this grid is to land in the top right quadrant. The more you can improve your EQ, encourage failure, and embrace change, the more impact you will have as a leader.

Transformation

You have high EQ, and embrace change and failure. Think about the best leaders you’ve known. Here are a few guesses: They don’t only care about your work. They also care about you as a person. When they ask you how you’re doing, responding “good” is considered inadequate... they did deeper. These leaders share their own shortcomings. They don’t pretend to be god-like figures or business messiahs. As Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes wrote in The Failure-Tolerant Leader, “[a]dmitting mistakes show’s a leader’s self-confidence… a blunder admitted is empathy earned.” Transformational leaders build a culture that’s diverse and inclusive—one where all team members can act like themselves and feel like they belong.

These leaders are transformational because of their ability to shape both their business and their people. On the business side, transformational leaders embrace the hunt for new ideas… not necessarily good ideas. Every idea to these leaders can offer essential learnings needed to achieve their vision. When it comes to people, they use their ability to listen and understand rather than speak and demand. This garners respect amongst their team and improves collaboration.

Conservative

You have high EQ, but avoid change and failure. These individuals tend to act more like managers than they do leaders. According to John P. Kotter, managers “cope with complexity” while leaders “cope with rapid change.” This division is profound. When individuals fall in the conservative quadrant, they prefer to resist change rather than embrace it. That’s because the systems they’ve set up to manage current business complexity do not apply to future business complexity. Change creates new obstacles, upsetting the status quo. While these managers care deeply about their team, they don’t accelerate the growth of the business. They prefer to optimize for here and now rather than tomorrow and the future.

Because of their high EQ, these individuals fear upsetting others. However, to enact change, you’re going to upset someone. As Ginni Rometty, former executive chairman and CEO of IBM, says, “growth and comfort do not coexist.” Making people feel comfortable with uncomfortable situations is a large part of being a great leader, and conservative individuals have a hard time operating in uncomfortable environments.

Cures: Demonstrate that doing nothing is more dangerous than pursuing new strategies; showcase how failures are not really failures, but opportunities to learn and find the right solution.

Pushy

You have low EQ, but embrace change and failure. Leadership stereotypes often apply to these people. They can be loud, assertive, demanding, and action-oriented. These traits are considered the “push” elements of leadership—activities that compel others to act. Where these people lack is in the “pull” elements of leadership—activities that build credibility and garner respect through listening. I’m sure you can think of some pushy managers you’ve had… they probably don’t do a good job listening to your feedback. They may be micromanagers. As Maslow said, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Pushy managers only have a hammer in their toolbox. They must solve problems any way they can. I’ve had managers like this. It’s a painful experience. Things need to be done their way and on their timeline. They do a poor job of listening. When you speak, they evaluate and critique as a means to convince you to see it their way rather than trying to understand your point of view.

Cures: Listening; self-reflection; receiving open, honest, and constructive feedback

Stationary

You have low EQ, and avoid change and failure. These individuals believe they know best and are desperate to protect the status quo. After all, the present is the environment where they have thrived. These individuals may be more extrinsically motivated than intrinsically motivated, meaning they care less about seeing the company succeed than they do cashing (large) paychecks. They lean into their titles to assert their leadership ability, too. As a general rule, when you have to tell others to listen to you because you’re the “leader,” you’re not really the leader you think you are. Leadership isn’t bestowed through titles. It’s granted through courage, conviction, compassion, and action. This quadrant could have been named regressive, as these stationary people can cause teams to move backward through intra-team drama and/or poor results.

Cures: Pursue strategies listed in the Stationary & Pushy quadrants.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid ignores results. Leaders are ultimately deemed effective when they can drive positive outcomes. Part of driving success is making good decisions. However, every great leader must account for different biases and shortcomings that can negatively affect decision-making (i.e. overconfidence or prospect theory).

  2. This grid ignores personality. That’s because it isn’t a strong indicator of what makes for a great leader. Great leaders can be introverted or extraverted, Type A or Type B, ESTJ or INFP. What matters more is someone’s EQ, as discussed.

  3. This grid ignores company culture. A strong and healthy culture is a byproduct of great leadership, not an input to it. Transformational leaders build a diverse and inclusive team where everyone has the opportunity to grow.

  4. This grid ignores team development. While I didn’t specifically call it out, great leaders help their team become better professionals (and people). As Pettit said in a class lecture, “the higher you go, the more you are judged by the performance of those beneath you.” Great leaders build their team while aligning each member towards achieving a shared and urgent vision.

When you reflect on the best leaders you’ve known, what made them so great? Did you feel like they cared about you as a person and as a professional? Did they listen to you? Did your career accelerate after being on their team? My guess is the answers to all of those questions are yes.

Everyone can be a leader. However, we often default to not rising to the occasion. Being a leader is scary, and it’s not for everyone. However, if you strive to be a great leader there are simple things you can start doing right now to improve.

You can listen better. Rather than interrupting others or “trying to be a good conversationalist,” ask follow-up questions and give them space so they can take their time to speak.

You can pursue the right thing rather than the popular thing. It takes bravery to stand with conviction against the norm for what you believe is right. Conformity is not leadership. It stunts a team’s potential.

While these things are hard, they’re not impossible. All it takes is a bit of courage to get going.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


If you enjoyed today’s post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family, or colleagues. As always, please reply to this note or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback, have ideas for a post, or want to collaborate. Want more from Gridology? You can always access the entire archive here or you can check out the podcast.

What's next for Gridology?

Please take the reader survey to help me make Gridology better

No traditional post today. I’ll be taking some time off to figure out what’s next for Gridology, and I’d love your help. Please take the reader survey below to share your thoughts. If you want to chat about your experience reading this newsletter, I’d love to speak with you. Feel free to drop me a line, and we can set something up.

Click here to take the survey


Nearly nine months ago on March 8, I published the first Gridology post. Every Sunday morning since, there’s been an email from gridology@substack.com in your inbox. That weekly deadline felt like a forgotten friend. From 2007 to 2015, I had an article due nearly every week between my work for the high school newspaper and my journalism classes at Northwestern. However, somewhere along the way after graduation, I stopped writing. The deadline disappeared and so did hitting publish on my work.

There’s something special about writing in public vs. writing in private. The former breeds consistency. The latter breeds intimacy. When others are expecting your work, you actually get something written. When you’re only writing for yourself, it’s easy to procrastinate to the point of avoidance. That said, some of the most important writing I’ve ever done has not been published, nor will it ever be published.

Either way, whether it’s in public or private, writing is cathartic for me. It detangles ideas. It transforms the confusing into the straightforward. It forces me to spend time with my thoughts rather than ignoring them. I’ve missed it. Thank you all for being part of this journey in what has been a wild 2020.

I started this newsletter with just one goal: to give myself a real deadline so I could start consistently writing again. Going in, I had no expectations. Right now, I’m floored at what’s transpired.

Some 2020 Gridology Highlights

  • There are 271 people who are subscribed

  • I was featured on a podcast

  • I spoke on a side projects panel

  • I featured six awesome writers and companies through collaborations

  • Substack analytics aren’t the best, but Gridology posts have received ~10k views

  • Jeff Weiner read and commented on one of my posts

  • I made lots of Internet friends through Compound Writing

  • I detangled tons of thoughts and ideas by writing consistently for 37 weeks

  • My writing improved (I know that because I’ve reread my first 10 posts and would heavily edit them)

  • I started a podcast (more to come there)

In an effort to always put out writing I find valuable, I’m going to be taking a short break to refocus, retool, and realign on the type of content I want to publish. While my consecutive writing streak will come to an end, sometimes it’s vital to take a moment to reflect.

With the remaining time I usually occupy on your Sunday morning, I’d greatly appreciate it if you could use it to complete this short reader survey I prepared.

Take the survey

And again, if you have some time and you’d love to jump on a call to discuss Gridology, I’d love that, too.

Wishing you all the best this holiday season. Stay safe.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


If you enjoyed today’s post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family, or colleagues. As always, please reply to this note or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback, have ideas for a post, or want to collaborate. Want more from Gridology? You can always access the entire archive here or you can check out the podcast.

How do I actually pick a group movie?

Methods to help you to stop scrolling and get the movie started

A bit of an interesting week—my computer broke in the middle of it. Fun times. So, in an effort to still be a useful resource in everyone’s inbox, I’m sharing some quick tips on what I’ve seen work when it comes to the toughest thing you can possibly do during a quarantine evening: pick a group movie to watch.

I wish you all happy and shouting-free Netflix browsing—may you be able to select a movie in five minutes or less.

Let’s dive in:

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It’s 8 pm. You're with your family or your significant other or your kids. You’re in your favorite spot on the couch, smothered in your favorite blanket. A big bowl of Thai food sits on the coffee table in front of you. You’re eager to put something on the television, enjoy it, and crawl right into bed. The problem is you first need to conquer this screen:

Screenshot is taken from Netflix

You can’t dwell on a title for too long. Otherwise, an annoying trailer starts playing (please, oh please, let me press and hold the OK button to preview content). When you move the cursor too slowly, the peanut gallery erupts in a cacophony of grievances to pass the remote. Oh, and don’t even dare navigate this screen too fast, either! That’s a one-way ticket to having the remote snatched from your hand.

This, clearly, is a struggle I know far too well. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers—I’ve been trapped on this screen for the length of an entire Pixar movie just to watch a real Pixar movie (side note: go watch Onward… it’s awesome).

Often, these moments before selecting a group movie can get really heated. You have several people invested in the decision, all with different tastes and past viewing histories. Nowadays, given our lives are filled with dings of distraction and clips of content, it’s a scary proposition for many to put their phone down and watch something for two hours straight. Focus is scary and the reward better be worth it.

To avoid the endless carousel of titles requires focus and finesse. It demands prior preparation. And, hardest and most of all, it requires maturity—something everyone somehow forgets when their movie choice loses to that option they really, really didn’t want to watch.

So, let’s review how to avoid couch conundrums and pick a movie fast.

On the x-axis, we have the environment for how the movie will be selected. Are you operating in a democracy, where everyone has an equal chance to pitch their idea (and have it inevitably shot down)? Or, are you potentially risking the total destruction of the movie night by bestowing full film selection powers to one person? Understanding the rules in which you must operate is essential to picking a winning movie picking strategy.

On the y-axis, we have what type of movie you’re hoping to watch. Are you actually trying to watch a great movie? Are you looking for just some noise in the background to liven up your conversation? Depending on what type of movie night you’re in for should dictate the strategy pursued.

Understanding the Grid

There are two strategies I use that work best (spoiler: they’re the quadrants on the top half of the grid). The Veto Technique works well when you want to give everyone a chance to be the savior of the night. Dealer’s Choice works well when you just want to avoid any bit of debate around what movie to watch.

Veto Technique

You are operating in a democracy, and you want to watch a great movie. Here’s how it works:

  • Everyone takes three minutes to come up with a list of five movies they want to watch. These five movies must be ones that you are eager to watch.

  • Someone goes first and shares a movie on their list.

  • Everyone else has the ability to veto the movie. However, you only have one (or two if you want) “vetoes” to use during the entire selection process.

  • If no one vetoes the first movie shared, you just found your selection. Hit play and start watching.

  • If someone does veto the film, a veto is selected from that person’s allotment and then the next person suggests a movie.

  • The process continues until everyone agrees or a movie is shared and there is no one to veto it.

This method, when you actually follow the rules, is flawless. You spending five to eight minutes picking a movie in a democratic and fun way. Everyone gets along. There’s no arguing. No one stomps out of the room to go watch a different movie.

Hopelessness

You are operating in a democracy, and you don’t really care what movie you watch. This is like trying to pick a restaurant for dinner, asking others in your group where they want to eat, and having them respond, “I don’t care… whatever.” In reality, we all know it’s not whatever. The moment you propose a potential restaurant, someone disagrees. It’s the same deal when picking a group movie. The team is hopeless. Someone will randomly call out a movie to watch only to have it knocked down a moment later. This is how you get caught selecting movies for more than 30 minutes. There are no shared objectives, no boundaries on what the group wants or doesn’t want to watch, and thus no chance of success. Disaster strikes and oftentimes you don’t even end up watching a movie. Go in with focus rather than ambivalence. It makes a world of difference.

Dealer’s Choice

You are operating in a dictatorship, and you want to watch a great movie. This quadrant is simple: one person picks the movie, no questions asked. The rest of the group can certainly put some guidelines around the selection such as no action films, no Tom Cruise movies, no movies released prior to 2010, and no movies below a 70% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. You can randomly decide who selects the movie or you can set a rotation if you tend to watch movies with the same group. Here you are optimizing for speed. You want to get to a decision quickly. Sometimes, that means letting the selection format be Dealer’s Choice so that the show literally goes on. Not everyone can be happy with the outcome, but it’s just a few hours of your life. Watching something is better than aimless scrolling through title cards.

Background Noise

You are operating in a dictatorship, and you don’t really care what movie you watch. In this quadrant, watching a movie is really the last concern. You are actually just going to talk the entire time anyway, so who really cares what’s playing in the background. Have someone pick a fan-favorite—already-seen comedies fare well in this quadrant—and end the decision making process. It’ll be easier for everyone involved. Another technique that’s effective is someone taking control to force a faster decision from the group. Here’s how it works":

  • Whoever has the remote sees any movie they’d watch and, without asking anyone, just starts playing it.

  • The room will erupt in anger. This is your cue to give an important ultimatum, “I’m fine not watching this, but everyone has to agree on something different to watch before I turn it off.”

  • This acts as an incredible forcing mechanism for the group. With a potentially unapproved movie playing in the background, everyone else begins to focus on new possibilities.

  • Once the ultimatum is given, I find it takes five or so minutes to decide a new movie or the team just gives up and watches what was on.

Either way, you end up spending less time on the movie selection screen, which is the goal of this entire post.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid doesn’t account for strong personalities. When you are dealing with a Hollywood diva who is extra picky on movies, using any of these strategies may prove ineffective. In these cases, share your plans early. If you want to watch movie with the full group, tell everyone to start thinking and discussing during the day. That way, once it’s time to sit down for a movie, all of the frustrating deliberation will be complete.

Reaching consensus for a group movie night is challenging work. Sometimes it feels like a real battle—something fresh out of Gladiator. Increase your group’s effectiveness during your next movie night by employing some of these strategies. Hopefully it helps the next time you snuggle up for Pad Thai and a movie.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


If you enjoyed today’s post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family, or colleagues. As always, please reply to this note or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback, have ideas for a post, or want to collaborate. Want more from Gridology? You can always access the entire archive here or you can check out the podcast.

How do I give thanks?

Nothing's more important than telling people they're important

Thank you to everyone who wrote to me about last week’s post on resumes. I’m glad so many of you found it valuable and helpful. The offer still stands—I’m happy to provide feedback on your resume… just send it my way.

This is a Thanksgiving week unlike any other. The CDC has recommended a very different type of Thanksgiving, one that's masked, distanced, and outside.

It’s not what any of us want to hear. The last eight months have been a real challenge. That said, there are other ways to celebrate Thanksgiving aside from the entire family on the couch, watching football, and stuffing your face with pecan pie.

Let’s get into it:


For me, Thanksgiving is family, friends, and loved ones. It’s the crisp autumn air. It’s leaves in red and orange and yellow. It’s flannel shirts and heavy sweaters. It’s pumpkin spiced lattes and pumpkin pie. It’s football. Lots of football. But, above all, it’s an opportunity to take stock of what we have and to stop thinking about what’s missing.

When we pause and reflect, the reality of our lives becomes clear.

Most of us already have what we need. We just forget.

Let this week not just be an opportunity to remember, but to exclaim it. Let this week be your opportunity to let the important people in your life know how much they mean to you. I’ve left important people intentionally vague. Spare no one who matters:

  • Family

  • Friends

  • Colleagues

  • Customers

  • Doormen

  • Mentors

  • Role Models

  • That person you’re friends with behind the deli counter

Give thanks to anyone and everyone who improves your life. This isn’t a controversial concept. Most people agree that telling people they matter is a worthwhile activity. Where people—myself included—get lost is how to give thanks. Sometimes heartfelt messages feel out of place. Surprise gifts are a challenge to think of and get.

Let today’s grid be a framework for tackling the how to give thanks.

On the x-axis, we have the format of how you give thanks. There are dozens of ways to show others you’re grateful for them. On one end, the simplest thing you can do is use your words—telling people they matter in text or to their face. On the other, you can give someone a meaningful and personal gift. The strength and nature of your relationship should the way to demonstrate to them that you care and they matter.

On the y-axis, we have the forum for how you give thanks. Not every expression of gratitude needs to be on display for everyone to see. Sometimes, however, sharing praise publicly is a simple way to demonstrate high praise.

Understanding the Grid

This grid is most powerful when used as a framework to power your thinking around how to demonstrate gratitude. All four categories below are worthy of your time. Different individuals in your life will fall into one (or multiple) categories. Use what you know about the person’s personality and the nature of your relationship to choose a quadrant that works best.

Awards & Surprises

You give someone a gift in public. Public displays of gift-giving, when done right, can create immeasurable amounts of goodwill and affection. For example, when I left LinkedIn a little more than eight months ago, my team surprised me with a going-away gift featuring a personalized Photoshopped cake, back-to-school supplies, and a marble notebook filled with heartfelt notes. It warmed my heart. The gift assured me I had made a difference as both a colleague and a friend to my coworkers. Because of that warm send-off, I have and will always have a special place in my heart for the Insights team at LinkedIn. Big, public, sentimental gifts are best used to show thanks in milestone moments: farewell parties, marquee birthdays, end-of-year awards ceremonies.

Something Special

You give someone a gift in private. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are perfect opportunities to demonstrate thanks with private, personalized gifts. It allows the person being recognized to know that you listen and care. Sometimes, however, no occasion is needed. This week, George Clooney was in the news for doing something special. In an interview, he explained why he had given each of his closest friends a million dollars.

While this is an extreme example, the sentiment is there. “Why wouldn’t you do that, you schmuck?” When people matter—when they really show up for you—show them you noticed. It’s in these moments, where people go above and beyond, that you should, too. It’s when a gift is worth more than just verbal or written pleasantries.

Digital Love

You share kind words about someone in public. Best reserved for projects with a set start and end date, sharing public words of thanks is a powerful way to quickly show people they matter. However, this format isn’t limited to just projects—any occasion will do. Often it’s easiest (or least awkward-feeling) to publicly share a sentimental message of love on people’s birthdays or relevant holidays. For example, here’s a post I shared about the important women in my life (I believe for International Women’s Day back in 2018):

Publicly expressing how much these women impacted my career trajectory was an easy way for me to demonstrate to them how important they all are to me.

Dwayne Johnson is an even better example of someone who’s mastered Digital Love. You don’t need to look hard to discover that The Rock understands the value of gratitude. It’s all over his Instagram, where he often gives thanks to crew members, co-stars, his team, his family, and ordinary people who are doing awesome things. Giving thanks and recognizing others is in The Rock’s DNA. See for yourself (both Instagram posts are videos, so you have to click on them… and remember to read the caption):

A post shared by therock (@therock)
A post shared by therock (@therock)

Personal Messages

You share kind words with someone in private. For me, this quadrant is my favorite. I’m always shocked and elated when someone writes me a personal note of gratitude. Email, text message, snail mail… it doesn’t matter. To me, what matters most is that someone took the time to share serious words of praise or thanks. George H. W. Bush did this often. In fact, he was known for it. Frank Blake, former CEO of The Home Depot and deputy counsel to Bush when he was Vice President, said this of Bush’s letter-writing habit:

“Vice President Bush started every day by typing notes to people. You knew they were typed by him because some of the letters were off line and there could be misspellings. I saw the power of taking the time to write a nice word to someone.”

Inspired, Blake took up the practice himself. He says he must have wrote at least 25,000 notes. Personal messages matter. I’m always quick to shoot someone a meaningful text message or email after a favor. While we can debate whether writing notes by hand and sending them over USPS is more meaningful than the immediacy of a sentimental digified note, what we can agree on is writing something is better than writing nothing at all.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid doesn’t mention when you should give thanks in multiple quadrants. Oftentimes, both quadrants on the top or the bottom half go together. For example, when giving a personalized gift, it’s common that a sentimental note is also part of the package. Ultimately, there’s no science. Just use your judgment. Bigger, Herculean moments deserve all the thanks they can get.

So, while we all may not be with all of our loved ones this Thanksgiving—this is the first time I won’t be spending Thanksgiving at home with my parents—there are ample ways to show them that they matter and we care. Don’t lose the spirit of the holiday just because the holiday looks a little different.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


If you enjoyed today’s post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family, or colleagues. As always, please reply to this note or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback, have ideas for a post, or want to collaborate. Want more from Gridology? You can always access the entire archive here or you can check out the podcast.

How do I write a great resume?

Use the magic bullet point formula

This post has been on the back burner for quite some time. I’m excited to share my thoughts on crafting an elite resume with you all.

Was this post forwarded to you? Why not get Gridology delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning? The subscribe button is just below.

Let’s jump in:


One of my favorite things to do outside of work is to help my friends with their resumes. A buddy of mine calls me “The Walking Career Office: Open 24/7.” While I consider it an overly nice compliment, I don’t consider myself the de facto authority on what makes the perfect resume. That said, I’ve seen enough examples to know when a resume does an excellent job. I’m eager to share that wisdom with you all today. Please use this guide as an input in a sea of resources available to you online.

At its core, a resume is supposed to prove one thing: That you have professional abilities well-beyond your current job title.

Your resume should demonstrate to a recruiter that you’re an all-star candidate. On just one page, you need to prove to someone (without speaking to them) that your work experience has offered you opportunities to be a leader, stretch outside of your comfort zone (and succeed), and make a big impact on your team, business line, or company.

Easier said than done.

Writing an elite resume takes time. You need to reflect on your unique experiences in your role. What makes you different than every other marketer or investment banker? What can you bring to the table that no one else with a similar profile can bring?

You need to calculate the impact of your work. It’s not enough to share all of your completed projects. What impact did they have on the business? Once you master the formula of how to write a great resume bullet point, the process of writing your resume simplifies.

Here’s the formula:

Bullet Point = Your Contribution + Impact on the Business

That’s it. If you follow this formula, your resume will shine. Sure, there are other components around style, formatting, length, quantity, and what jobs to actually include. However, for the sake of this post, I want to focus on how to write good content for each job on your resume.

On the x-axis, we have how you explain your contribution. The trick to creating an eye-popping resume is being action-oriented. You want to frame your work as being self-driven and autonomous. Let’s say, for example, you want to include a line on your resume about creating a new sales strategy for WidgetProduct. Which way sounds more exciting to read?

  1. Implemented news sales strategy

  2. Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct.

Clearly, it’s the second option. While the first option isn’t wrong, it reads more like a completed checklist item than resume text. The second option provides the necessary context for your contribution:

  • What did you do, specifically?

  • Why did you do it?

  • Who/what was impacted?

On the y-axis, we have how specific you are about the impact of your contribution. The more precise you can be with impact, the stronger your resume gets. Of course, we can’t always have access to hard dollar figures, growth rates, or efficiency gain metrics for your projects… but we can do our best. Continuing from our example earlier, let’s finish the bullet point equation with the resulting impact. Which option sounds more impressive?

  1. Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct to drive new client relationships.

  2. Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct, leading to $500k+ new business in the six months after launch.

Again, the second option is clearly the better choice. With option one, we don’t have a strong understanding of how successful this new initiative was in the marketplace. With option two, we do.

So, before we jump into the quadrants, we just transformed a bullet that could have read, “Implemented news sales strategy to drive new client relationships,” to “Scoped, designed, tested, and launched a new sales strategy to a team of 10 sales reps for WidgetProduct, leading to $500k+ new business in the following 6 months after launch.”

Specificity matters. We’ve now framed the work in a way such that it’s more marketable, impressive, and accurate.

Understanding the Grid

As you could have guessed, the goal of this grid is to write bullet points that land in the top right quadrant. That means you’re following the bullet point formula. However, based on the information available to you, ensuring every bullet point is in the Elite quadrant isn’t always possible. Sometimes we have to settle for the Searching or Checklist quadrant.

In the sections below, you’ll find examples of what bullet points sound like in each quadrant so you know what to emulate and what to avoid.

Elite

Your bullet point is action-oriented and specific. Here, you follow the formula. When you have data, metrics, and estimated gains for the projects you’ve worked on, include them. They make your experience come to life and feel more tangible. If you’re a salesperson, you didn’t just “hit quota” you “achieved 102% of your quota by selling $1.4m in new business deals.” Elite bullet points pop. When a recruiter reads what you wrote, they pause, say “wow,” and eagerly move onto the next bullet point. That’s important. They keep reading. There are times where a recruiter or hiring manager will stop reading a resume if it isn’t strong. There’s a stack of dozens to get through. It’s your job as the writer to keep your reader engaged throughout. Every bullet point should have the reader think, “Wow… what else has this person done?!”

Some examples of Elite bullet points:

  • Wrote, tested, and shipped 2,000 lines of Python code to launch Groups feature, leading to a 20% increase in user engagement.

  • Designed new brand identity (logo, color pallet, typeface) for a local sports retailer, leading to a 15% increase in ad effectiveness and ~5% increase in site-wide traffic.

  • Collaborated and led team of four in launching new learning and development course for unconscious bias training, resulting in a course completion rate that was 10-points higher than the average course.

Searching

Your bullet point is action-oriented but vague. As the quadrant name suggests, the resume reader is impressed, but still searching for more information. Bullet points that fall into this category often (and unfortunately) cannot be improved. There are no metrics to gather. The data for the project doesn’t exist. There’s no way to even begin to estimate the impact that your project had on your team or company. Every resume tends to have a handful (read: 1-5 total) bullet points that are in the Searching category. To compensate for the lack of specificity around the impact of your contribution, be sure to fully elaborate on your contribution.

Some examples of Searching bullet points:

  • Designed and launched a new sales strategy for WidgetCo’s WidgetBreaker, leading to adoption by 40+ employees to increase sales.

  • Built models to perform market and business forecasting for six different industries; model was used to consider 10+ potential deals.

  • Created user engagement dashboard using SQL, Python, and Tableau monitored by 15 senior leaders to track the daily health of the company.

Checklist

Your bullet point is task-oriented but specific. In some cases, when the impact of your contribution is so impressive, keeping your contribution short allows the impact to shine. This allows the impact to speak for itself. Over explaining your contribution could dilute the bullet point entirely. However, there are times where the Checklist-style bullet point is ineffective. That’s when the impact is small and the entire bullet point does barely makes it to half of a line on paper. Effective Checklist-style bullet points should be used sparingly, though. When used correctly, they act as a very short sentence in a sea of intense prose. It just works.

Some examples of great Checklist bullet points:

  • Managed enterprise sales team in achieving 180% of quota, outperforming by $2.4m+.
    (The numbers here are large and impressive. Keeping it simple allows them to shine)

  • Raised $4.3m in Series A funding for WidgetCo.
    (Raising a Series A is no easy feat in and of itself)

Some examples of not-so-great Checklist bullet points:

  • Achieved quota of 130%.
    (Leaves room for you to explain how you did it)

  • Redesigned marketing website leading to 15-point increase in conversion rate.
    (Leaves room for you to explain what was so novel about the redesign)

Lacking

Your bullet point is task-oriented and vague. These bullet points require a full rewrite. They act more like notes, helping you identify the projects you worked on that are worth highlighting on a resume. They lack the necessary detail in your contribution and impact to make a recruiter keep reading. Elaborating and searching for how your work impacted those around you are essential improvements needed. Using these bullet points can be useful to outline your resume. Elite bullet points are born from Lacking ones. It requires editing and revision to transform vague and task-oriented bullet points into specific and action-oriented ones.

Some examples of Lacking bullet points:

  • Managed team of five in generating company sales.

  • Modeled industry trends to better inform department employees.

  • Identified data inconsistencies and adjusted models to improve accuracy.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. This grid doesn’t talk about bullet point length. As a rule of thumb, I strive to have a 50-50 ratio of 1-liner bullet points to 2-liner bullet points (with the 1-liner bullet points primarily landing towards the bottom of the resume). When your bullet point is more than 2-lines, it becomes unreadable. The recruiter or hiring manager gets jumbled in the words and loses the impact of the bullet point. Any shorter than one full line suggests you didn’t actually do all that much (or your contribution was small).

  2. This grid doesn’t mention how many bullets you should have per role. The number of bullets per role varies on a few things: how much you did, how impressive your work was, how long you were in that role, and how long ago you were in that role. The oldest role on your resume typically should have two to three bullet points while your most recent role can have anywhere from three to five. When you have more than five bullet points for a role, you need to be certain that every bullet point shares something new about what you did in that job.

  3. This grid doesn’t talk about what roles to include. Depending on the job you’re applying for, you may want to tailor your resume differently. That may mean deciding between including skills or your volunteer experience or this previous role over that role. A resume is about arranging your professional experiences in a way that is most eye-popping to the reader for the role you are trying to get. Remember, recruiters have a job, too: They need to hire someone as fast as possible who will be as successful as possible and who will stay at the company for as long as possible. Write your resume such that the risk of a recruiter moving you to the interview round feels negligible.

  4. This grid doesn’t mention formatting or style. One big tip here: Allow your text room to breathe. When you zoom out from a resume, it’s all just text. Reading a single page covered in text from end to end can feel like trying to swim across a swimming pool without taking a breath. Use whitespace to your advantage. Don’t suffocate the reader. Whitespace affords the reader the chance to ultimately finish your resume without stopping after the first few bullets. So, when it comes to adding an extra bullet point but reducing your font size to 8.5… just don’t do it.

As we gear up towards the end of the year, the largest hiring season of the year is upon us. Sure, things will be different given COVID-19. I assume that it is even more important to put your best foot forward by creating the best resume you possibly can make.

My hope is this post can act as a resource for those of you or your friends who are getting ready to start looking for a new job. Feel free to forward this to them. I’m also more than happy to take a look at your resume if you’d like a second set of eyes on it. Just shoot me a note.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


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