Arriving in a New Place: Bolivia

Much of my travel these days takes me back to places I’ve already been. The past couple years I’ve made repeat visits to UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Singapore, Saudi, Germany, Austria, Chile, Mexico. There’s a certain confidence that springs from familiarity: you cross the immigration checkpoint and walk the foreign streets with a comforting foreknowledge.

The past couple years I’ve also had the singular experience of arriving in several countries for the first time: Uganda, Kenya, Seychelles, New Zealand, Finland, Bolivia. A country moves onto the “places I’ve visited” list only once, of course, and the physical act that allows for this designation is a small but memorable sequence — the final set of doors opening from the airport, stepping onto the curbside outside the international arrivals terminal, and ahhh…. breathing in fresh outdoor air after hours of indoor air only.

There’s actually quite a bit you learn about a country in the first 10 minutes. You notice the ethnicities of the local staff waiting in the jetway to wheelchair out of the plane those needing extra assistance: that ethnic group is usually the ethnic group that runs the hourly wage part of the economy. You notice the norms around how locals exit off an aircraft and queue in immigration lines — the orderliness or lack thereof, which predicts for rule-following norms writ large. You notice the degree to which local taxi drivers try to hustle and scam you, respecting tout laws or not. You notice how nice the airport bathrooms are — your first glimpse at the wealth of the country.

Recently, I arrived in Bolivia for the first time. It was actually an overland crossing, which is rare for me. When we drove from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile into Bolivia, the first person to greet us — before even having arrived at the immigration checkpoint — was a tour guide woman who was waiting for someone else. Nonetheless, she flashed a big smile and exclaimed: “Welcome to Bolivia!!!” It was such a personality contrast from the Chileans who guided us until that point. Chile is a country I adore and lived in for close to a year but no one would characterize Chileans as jovial. Bolivians, in direct contrast, bubble with energy and friendliness. (At least it’s true of those who work in the hospitality industry in Bolivia.)

The immigration crossing itself into Bolivia also provided instant insight. Our guide escorted us to the immigration checkpoint which was stationed in a tent which was stationed on a dusty unpaved road at 14,000 feet elevation. He then “suggested” we offer the border patrol officer an extra $20 USD, personally, as a thank you for processing our visa-on-arrival so quickly. We did so, with gratitude. Yay for old fashioned hospitality and generosity!

Bolivia is a uniquely beautiful place. To be sure, we didn’t see La Paz or anywhere outside of the area immediately across from northern Chile and the Uyuni salt flats. But the desert wilderness near the salt flats, and the salt flat itself, is truly spectacular. I’ve seen many incredible mountain ranges, beaches, churches, mosques, rivers, skyscrapers, waterfalls, deserts, open savannahs, etc. The truth is many of those can blur together in your mind — they are remarkable but not totally distinct from other remarkable insatiations of that same thing somewhere else in the world. But, I’ve never seen anything like the Uyuni salt flat.

Finally, who knew Bolivia is one of the world’s largest exporters of quinoa, arguably the second best grain after farro? Quinoa fields as far as the eye can see.

I could see Bolivia breaking out and becoming a top tourist destination in the coming decade. More luxury hotels will proliferate, and the salt flat — in all its Instagrammable glory — provides the ultimate draw.


Hiring Superstars is Different

Superstar actors in Hollywood don’t read scripts and audition. Producers get on their hands and knees and beg Tom Cruise to accept their gig — not the other way around.

In business, most of the hiring advice to CEOs presumes a clear power dynamic in favor of the employer. But when you are the one begging Tom Cruise — when you’re recruiting someone senior, someone hard-to-close, someone happily employed elsewhere — the hiring advice needs to evolve.

Here are some specific hiring dynamics that apply when trying to close stars:

  • You have to sell before you know if you even want to buy. You sell the candidate on the opportunity before evaluating them formally. You need to sell him/her during your evaluation. You need to sell after evaluating and trying to close. Sell, sell, sell. And yet…you need to remember you don’t actually know if you want to hire the person. It can be hard, psychologically, to not accidentally trick yourself into thinking the person is great given how much selling you’re doing. Indeed, the odds are the person actually isn’t the right fit. But you have no choice: selling creates the option to buy.
  • You can’t run “structured interviews” where you ask all the questions. The interviews need to be more of a conversation, more personalized, more fun. You’re building a relationship. You’re selling. You’re not really interviewing. (Although you are, secretly, still interviewing.)
  • You can’t easily reference check them on their recent accomplishments. Why? Because they’re currently employed by a company that likely wants to keep them. They probably haven’t told the company they’re leaving and they’re paranoid about keeping their informal interview process a secret. So referencing becomes a lot harder. You can talk to employers from earlier in their career, of course, but those references are inherently dated. Your best option is to talk to employees who recently left the company your candidate is current working at.
  • You will probably need to nurture the relationship for months/years before successfully closing them. Big companies do this more proactively — they’ll put a target person on an advisory board or begin inviting her to key events. It’s harder for startups to do this; startups tend to be more reactive and just-in-time with their hiring. But as much as possible, if you see a key role opening up in the future, begin nurturing candidates well in advance. If you haven’t spent years in effect recruiting someone, have you really spent time recruiting them?
  • Given the person’s comp and impact, you need to spend a lot of the “hiring time” working internally on alignment. Get your board aligned ahead of time. Set appropriate expectations: “We very well might not get this guy, but if we did, what could we pay him?” Have a “hunting license.” You don’t want to do all this work and have your VC be lukewarm. Or have them take a meeting and show up late, wander off script, pay half attention, and then say “actually you should work at this other company in my portfolio.” Hiring a star senior person is so time intensive because of all the people you need to talk to who aren’t the candidate herself.
  • Even if you do everything right, there’s a decent chance it won’t work out medium to long term and you’ll do it all over again. Exec hires frequently bounce. One CEO told me he expects a lower than 50% stick rate. This is the nature of the beast. It’s easy to become disillusioned and try to cut corners next time around. Which is a mistake, because when you land a star talent that sticks, the organization is never the same.
(Thanks to Josh Hannah for input on this post)

Thinking Clearly about a Person’s Substance Amidst Stylistic Differences

How easy is it to separate your experience of someone’s style from their substance?

By “style” I mean a person’s personality, work habits, communication patterns, and so on.

By “substance” I mean a person’s overall effectiveness, performance, intelligence, etc. in the workplace.

Many professionals assert they can work with and respect the performance of people across the stylistic range — so long as the person is substantive. Successful people who work in teams like to think of themselves as flexible on style, inflexible on substance.

But how often is this actually true in the workplace?

In my experience, our rank of people’s substance is heavily influenced by the other person’s style. People, me included, tend to think more highly of the substance of professionals who happen to share our style. In this way, style similarity or differences hinders our ability to think clearly and fairly about the substance of the people we work with.

Why, then, do so many people think they’re immune from this bias?

Because in the vast majority of interactions at work, there’s a clear power dynamic that resolves stylistic tension. If you’re the person with more power, it’s easy to steamroll over the stylistic annoyances of the other person, or to force the person to adapt stylistically to you. For example, if an ultra detail oriented boss is supervising a not-so-detail-oriented subordinate, it’s obvious who in that relationship is going to have to make some stylistic tweaks to their behavior in order for the collaboration to work. The natural difference here eases tension, clears the mind, and allows for an accurate rating of substance.

However, in situations where two people are closer to power parity, style matters hugely because the stylistic differences do not get easily resolved. Which creates friction. Which affects your ability to fairly evaluate the person’s substance. Persistent stylistic friction clouds one’s judgment of substance; it makes it harder to see reality clearly.

Take two people of roughly equivalent power levels. Both super substantive in their own respect. But introduce a significant stylistic difference: perhaps one person is extremely humble by nature and the other person extremely boastful. Or perhaps one person is highly collaborative by nature and the other person highly decisive, even authoritarian. Both are substantive, successful, thriving professionals. But these stylistic differences, impossible to fully resolve due to their equal power positions, will cause them to likely rate each other differently on substance — more so than what would be advised based on an objective, god-view of the “facts” about each person’s performance.

Bottom Line: You can more easily separate stylistic differences from an objective evaluation of substance when you’re relating to someone meaningfully more or less powerful than you. When you’re relating to a peer or partner, stylistic differences metastasize and infect your ability to objectively and honestly evaluate substance. So, be really attentive to how stylistic differences may be affecting your view of true peers.

Sitting Around the Fire

Meditation teacher James Baraz played this video of Ram Dass‘s words at a recent dharma talk, and it’s beautifully done: Sit Around the Fire. When you’re in the right mood, watch it on full screen for 8 minutes. Truth.

On Intentionally Vague, Mystique-Infused Explanations of Talent

“Exactly what he does, and how, is difficult to describe,” Anderson Cooper says about music producer Rick Rubin on 60 Minutes.

Cut to interview between Cooper and Rubin.

“Do you play instruments?” Cooper asks.

“Barely,” Rubin replies.

“Do you know how to work a sound board?”

“No,” Rubin replies, “I have no technical ability. And I know nothing about music.”

“Well, you must know something,” Cooper says.”

“I know what I like and what I don’t like. I’m decisive about what I like and what I don’t like,” Rubin says.

“So what are you being paid for?”

“The confidence I have in my taste and my ability to express what I feel,” Rubin says.

It’s a fascinating exchange. And with the gentle music in the background, a scene that cuts to an image of Rubin meditating, and the long beard — you definitely get “genius” vibes.

We’re drawn toward hard-to-pin-down explanations of the attributes of successful people: the “taste” in a musical producer, a VC’s “good nose for founders,” an athlete’s “it factor.”

There’s a real and accurate phenomenon here. For example, it’s not totally quantifiable or describable the difference between elite supermodels and regular models — it has something to do with bodily harmony and symmetry of features. There’s an “it” factor, and sometimes it’s the only way to explain what sets apart a super elite person from a merely good person.

On the other hand, I believe there’s a tendency for experts in a field to sometimes try to describe what they do in intentionally vague, imprecise, omnipotent terms. I mean, who doesn’t want to seem God-like?

Ditto the writers who profile experts: they play up mystique versus straightforwardly describe a set of practical decisions, tactics, moments of luck that the subject of their profile embarked upon. There’s something gripping (by which I mean, click-baity) about the doings of an extraterrestrial genius. It also makes the reader feel less bad about themselves. “He was born that way.”

The Rubin framing takes it even further by undercutting the typical explanations before putting forth the mystical one: One of the most successful musical producers of our time doesn’t know anything about music, has no technical ability, he just…”knows what he likes.”

There may also be practical reasons for experts to talk about their journeys this way. For example, it’s a decent way of deterring competition — to suggest the reasons for your success are unreplicable. In the investing business, when venture investors ascribe their talent at picking companies to “I look for amazing founders and I have good taste” — they aren’t leaving any bread crumbs along the road for their competitors!

So, if afforded the choice between offering a description of their process that feels concrete, learnable, repeatable, at times banal…versus a description that teems with mystique — there’s a pull towards the latter.

And in my opinion, it’s not always true. Perhaps not even often true among the world class performers in our midst, whose development of expertise and deployment of their craft is more understandable than it may appear.