In Defense of Pen & Paper

While similar in age to our new prime minister, I’m old enough to remember and have used things like carbon paper, typewriters and personalized stationery (the perfumed kind!). I remember the day when we got a personal computer at our house. It was a big deal. There was something similar at my school, and it lived on a dolly and got wheeled from classroom to classroom so we all got a chance to learn how to use it. For what I’m not sure, as all through public school and university I took notes with pen and paper, and submitted hand-written reports and essays. The fingers of my writing hand are permanently deformed from hours spent writing notes.

Today, in order to do my job efficiently, I have a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet and a “phone” that really should be called a mobile email device because I rarely use it to talk to people. I have a big pile of pens on my desk, and I know there’s lined paper around here somewhere, but I’m not totally sure where.

When I meet clients, I bring my tablet and efficiently type my notes about the candidate profile. When I interview candidates, I transcribe my notes on my laptop. While certainly we’re trying to save paper, we’ve mainly moved to doing everything electronically because of bad handwriting; I can’t read my co-workers’ handwriting, and if I need to interpret his interview or client notes, I can’t do my job. That, and most of us type faster than we write so we can take more accurate notes with our computers.

Of course, we aren’t the only ones who have whole-heartedly embraced the efficiency technology affords us. Nowhere is this more evident than in university lecture halls. If I were in university today, my fingers would all be straight. Laptops are no longer a luxury, but rather the standard equipment for note-taking students. Laptops are also being introduced in K-12 schools, particularly for students who struggle with reading and writing. We’re all being more efficient and effective thanks to technology.

Or are we?

A recent study by Pam A. Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer at UCLA suggests the method by which we record notes may affect the way we absorb the information we’re hearing. While the study’s authors didn’t have an answer as to the cognitive reasons why, it was clear that those who used pen and paper more effectively processed the information they heard more than those who typed.

My first thought when I heard about this was that all those other things on our laptops and tablets are distracting us from the task at hand, and in fact that has been borne out in other studies. What makes this study so interesting is that they controlled for these distractions and the pen and paper users still performed better answering conceptual questions after the note-taking exercise.

While they call me “Rainbow” at the office because of my commitment to being green, I didn’t switch from pen and paper to technology to save paper. In fact, I worry our technology waste is a far larger problem. I simply thought I was being more efficient and making life easier for my colleagues. However, my clients pay me to listen, to think, and to form opinions and judgments based on what I’ve heard. If I’m too busy transcribing information as opposed to really hearing what’s being said, I’m not being as effective as I’d like. So I’m going to take a little tech break and track down that lined paper. I promise I won’t be submitting my candidate reports or job profiles to you in longhand on scented personalized paper. But try not to be too distracted by my deformed fingers.

Allison’s Triumphant Return!

It seems I blinked and a year went by. A year of family time, welcoming our second child into the fold. A year of doing a lot on a very little amount of sleep; eating one-handed while feeding children, folding laundry and setting up an art project with the other hand; learning how to cover spit-up stains with a strategically placed scarf; and appreciating every last second of it because, as everyone with kids likes to tell you, they don’t stay little like this forever.

In the weeks leading up to my return to work here at PFM Executive Search, people kept asking me if I was excited to get back to my corporate life. The question is always asked either trepidatiously because people worry I’m going to be very emotional about it, or sarcastically, assuming my “time off” has been so glorious that of course I don’t want to go back to “work”.

My answer to this question? A resounding, HECK YES (or some variation thereof). I am excited to be back. Of course there are all the appropriate reasons, like having adult conversation, flexing some brain matter that’s been left idle, and continuing to advance my career in an industry and organization that I truly enjoy. But as any parent who has spent an extended period of time at home with really little people will tell you, there are many compelling reasons why going to “work” is a luxury.

*During lunches, I will no longer have to negotiate the number of bites my dining companions must take before they can be all done.

*Going to the bathroom with no one else in the stall with me.


*If I want some fresh air, I don’t need to slap sunscreen on a wriggly toddler or squeeze an infant into their rain gear, then wrestle them into a stroller, then worry that they’ll eat dirt. I can just go outside.

*Pretty dresses that don’t need to be covered with splash guards.

*The use of multi-syllabic words.

Without doubt, there will be tears when I kiss my girls good-bye, and they will be mine. But they won’t be tears of guilt. A recent Harvard Business School study found that daughters of working mothers do better in their careers. Adult women whose mother’s worked outside the home before they were 14 grew up to earn more and have more responsible and senior roles. It makes intuitive sense. Regardless of what their role may have been – from house cleaner to CEO – those working moms made working outside the home and contributing to the family purse “normal” and something to aspire to. You wouldn’t be asking yourself “if” you’ll pursue a career but rather what your career will be. Of course, it just might be that if you have the option, your career of choice will be that of a stay-at-home parent. And you will be a stronger person than me.

I’m back in a job I love with a team of friends who happen to be colleagues. I’m also back trying to find that elusive “balance” and carving out time for my home life while being the best executive search consultant for my clients. There will be days when I’ll want to pack it all in and move to a commune in Pemberton, but for the most part, life is good. I’m a lucky woman, a lucky mom, and a lucky professional.

Decision Fatigue – Ensuring you make the best choice

The average executive is making dozens of decisions a day. Some decisions come more easily, with the presentation of solid facts, data and concrete implications associated with the decision being made. Others are a lot more tied to your “gut”, like hiring a new leader on your team. You can have all the data points in the world, but at the end of the day you need to listen to that voice at the back of your head telling you if the fit is right or not.

The sheer volume of decisions we make in a day – and the heightened importance we place on all decisions – leads to a very real phenomenon known as “decision fatigue”. Put simply, when presented with too many decisions to make, one’s ability to make rational choices is impaired. Think about the time you went to that restaurant with an enormous menu and you ended up with something boring and unhealthy because it was too much to take in.

Decision fatigue has significant implications when the stakes are much higher. In a study conducted by Shai Danziger of Ben Gurion University, and Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School, they found that judges were more likely to give favourable rulings to cases of similar legal characteristics earlier in their day or after breaks when their minds were fresher and less cluttered. Other researchers have been studying the effects of “ego depletion”, finding that we only have a finite amount of willpower at any given time, and once it is depleted we start making poor – or no – decisions.

With these studies in mind, I decided to conduct my own highly unscientific research into our short list interview processes. I looked at our nine most recently completed searches where our clients interviewed all candidates on one day. The average was 4 – 5 candidates in a day. I looked at the ordinal of the eventual placed candidate. 6 of the candidates who were successful were the first candidates seen by our clients. The other 3 were interviewed right after a lunch break. Not a single candidate who was seen later in the day was successful which was quite surprising, given we’d often thought the last slot of the day gave someone a leg up as they’d be the most memorable.

As senior leaders, we are asked to make exceedingly important decisions that affect business outcomes, shareholder returns, and, ultimately, the livelihoods of our team members, customers and clients. Think about when you make some of your most important decisions. Are they at the end of a day-long Board meeting or strategy session? Think of the last time you sat in a room all day with your colleagues, trying to set a course of action, and remember that feeling of being frustrated and itchy because the day has just drained you. Then think again about the importance and long-term implications of the decision that was in front of you. Is this the best way to resolve the situation?

Many times I’ve walked out of a full-day of interviews with my clients, feeling like we’d thankfully gotten to a decision, but also feeling drained and completely unexcited about the outcome. This is why we always champion more than one opportunity to meet potential candidates, and seek multiple data points to make sure the fit is there. While many people feel a huge sense of urgency to close the deal, making the wrong decision on a senior leadership hire can have far-reaching implications and can literally cost you thousands upon thousands of dollars.

While we don’t always get to choose our decision making deadlines, we can be more mindful of the fact that there are more variables at play than the data in front of us and our intuition. In our fast-paced, no-time-to-lose world, we need to remind ourselves that unless we’re literally in the midst of a life-or-death situation, there is nothing wrong with sleeping on something, taking some quiet time to reflect, and then coming back refreshed and capable of making the right decision.