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Lifelong Learning

Former Director of Getting Shit Done at Shopify

IP Interview
Published on August 10, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Common characteristics of lifelong learners and how to hire them
Executive Bio

Adrian Cho

Former Director of Getting Shit Done at Shopify

Adrian has over 30 years of experience working for both small and large organizations including IBM, Fujitsu, Bankers Trust, and Shopify. At Shopify, as the Director of Getting Shit Done, he started and led a business unit that helped the company through a critical period of hyper growth by accelerating and becoming more effective at scale through the growth of culture, hacking process, coaching people and teams, and building automation to reduce friction. Adrian is also a musician who has been performing for over forty years, he is best known as the Artistic Director of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, a unique, critically acclaimed symphonic jazz ensemble he founded in 2006.

Interview Transcript

How do you get a sense if someone is an effective or lifelong learner?

Feedback is one of the things that’s interesting, for a number of reasons. One is that, when you ask people about the idea of positive and negative feedback, they think positive feedback is good. Most people’s idea of it is that it means that I do something and someone tells me, good job. And negative feedback is, no, that’s bad. The idea is that positive feedback is good and negative feedback is bad. If you study systems theory and you study biology, there’s this idea of feedback loops and that the negative feedback loop is, actually, a correcting feedback loop. It’s the idea that, when you are doing something that is, perhaps, not helping you, that you would actually get some correction and that would be a good thing.

To have that mindset that you are always looking for the negative feedback, that’s a pretty powerful thing. I’ll give you another analogy. I’m a wildlife photographer; I spend a lot of time teaching photography and doing photography and I’ve seen many people who have been doing photography for years and decades. Some of them haven’t gotten very far at all or are, actually, perhaps worse photographers than when they started. For a lot of them, they will post their photos on Instagram or some other platform, where all they ever get is, hey, that’s awesome, fantastic, love it. No one ever says to them, I like how you did that, but did you think about doing this. Since they’re also never going and asking for that feedback, they’re in such a different place. Sometimes there is not even the awareness about the idea that what they’re doing might not be the best way to do it and that there might be a better way.

Just that willingness to be open to feedback and actually seeking feedback and seeing feedback as a gift, when you get it and not seeing it as a critical thing and refusing it, for example, that’s a hugely powerful thing. That’s not even just to do with business. You can find that in any discipline, in so many areas of our life and our work, people who are open to feedback and always take it. I work as a professional photographer and I teach people, but I also go and sometimes even pay other photographers to give me feedback on my work. They may see things that I don’t see and that’s a really important thing, if I’m going to get better.

How do you get a sense for that, when you are interviewing or hiring someone?

One thing that is very powerful is going back to some of that awareness and beginning with the self-awareness. When you talk to people, it’s not even so much the questions that you ask and the answers you give them; it’s the way they conduct themselves in the interview. Sometimes, the lack of self-awareness is actually quite interesting. When people are speaking and they are not even aware of some of the things that they might have said or the way that they might have said it, maybe putting their previous organization down. Or they will describe a situation and you get the sense of, okay, this person doesn’t take responsibility for things; it’s always someone else’s problem. It’s a very hard thing to judge but the more that you do it, you understand it more.

Here’s another analogy. I’ll be in a situation sometimes, when I’m playing with some musician and I’ve never played with that musician before. We get up on stage and we start performing and we’ve never played before. In that moment, you’re actually playing through this tune and, right there, as you’re having to perform in front of people, you’re getting a feel for this person and how they work and how they collaborate with others. All you can really do is feel people out and test their ability to give and take and to lead and to follow.

Going back to the interview situation, I think interviews are so interesting because they’ve evolved, so much, over time. Even if you look at Google, Google was always very much about, okay, we’re going to test people; we’re going to have these very technical tests. Then they realized that doesn’t really work. It’s always evolving. What I think is important is that you have a diverse panel that you are using, to interview people and you’re not just having that person be interviewed by one person or by only leadership and so on.

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