Want Better Employees? Give Them An Impossible Task.

F Cancer founder Yael Cohen’s logic is simple: if you’re going to be dealing with cancer on a daily basis, you better be tough as nails. Cohen makes new team members jump through a lot of hoops to get hired: they have to serve as an intern for a month and are purposefully and repeatedly put under pressure.

“Cancer is my day in and my day out,” says Cohen. “I often deal with people on the shittiest days of their lives.” So, she says, she has to make sure her employees are up to the task.

But because the bad news can come fast and furious, F Cancer makes a point of keeping things light-hearted, both internally and externally.

“When you’ve lost your sense of humor,” reads the group’s website, “you’ve lost it all.”

Based in Vancouver, F Cancer was founded after Cohen’s mother was diagnosed in 2009. Cohen gave her mom a t-shirt printed with the words “Fuck Cancer.” Wearing it everywhere, her mom was often approached by complete strangers offering support, and a movement was born.

When you’ve lost your sense of humor you’ve lost it all.

Since then, F Cancer has made headlines for the way that it is reframing the way we think about charity. Namely: it leverages technology and social media to exclusively target young people using a refreshing mix of humor and honesty.

The charity’s playful name and campaigns aren’t just window dressing, either, Cohen says it all starts with a great company culture created by doing things a bit differently.


F Cancer founder Yael Cohen (right) and her mother.

What’s your litmus test to make sure you hire the right people?

I want to know how do people react when shit hits the fan. Everyone we hire works for free as an intern for a month first and I will give them tasks that are impossible on purpose just to see what happens. Do they lose their shit? Do they blame themselves? Do they take it out on someone else?

Do you tell them that you are “testing” them?

I never tell them. Though sometimes they figure it out. You want to see people happy and sparkly so they can turn that on when they need to, but you need to see what happens when they fail. As a team we’re going to fail. As individuals we’re going to fail.

I want to know how do people react when shit hits the fan.

Have you ever not hired someone afterwards?

Yes, I’ve fired four people over the last three years and at least one was from that exercise. If you’re not a good fit for this team, you’re not only damaging our work environment, you’re potentially damaging the experience of hundreds of thousands of community members. It’s not about us. If, at some point I’m the problem, I’ll leave, too.

Are there any other things you do to ensure a good team?

The first time someone comes in for interview I am so harsh. I tell them the worst part of everything. I tell them I’m going to call them at 11:30 at night and need something.

So they walk out thinking you’re crazy?

I want them to see the worst of it. The reality is our day-to-day rocks. We have healthy food everywhere. I give out gym memberships. The best people and minds are constantly coming through our office. If you’re an intern in marketing, I can give you access to your heroes.

This is about making the company better, which starts with making your team better. I want them at their personal best. I need them to see that there are days when one of us loses someone we love. Or we lose a supporter that has written on our Facebook wall every three days for two years.

There can be a heaviness in the office sometimes. We don’t want to create a environment where we get upset and pick at each other. We have written on the wall “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting their own fight.” It’s important to know that we all need to have compassion.

I need them to see that there are days when one of us loses someone we love.

When disagreements come up, how do you manage that?

I think that you have to have a fundamental love, trust, and respect for each other. It’s going to get heated, we are going to argue. We shout, we argue.

But it’s because we really care about what we do. You have to know it’s based on a will to do the best possible thing for the charity. I don’t think you’re stupid, I just disagree with your idea. It’s not about you. “Ego will kill all talent.” That’s on our wall, too. It’s about something so much greater.

What else is on the wall?

“Pigs fly just fine with sufficient thrust.”

“Don’t cut anything that can be untied.”

We have chalkboard walls so they can change. One of our girls is a crier, so, as a joke, we draw a teardrop for every time she cries. There was even a “thats what she said” wall that unfortunately made its way into some copy on our website. [laughs]

When culture goes too far…

That’s our culture, it’s ridiculous sometimes but it runs so deep. Sometimes, we are so tight-knit that we think something is a good idea. But then we run it by an advisor who, rightfully, calls us crazy. That’s why it’s important we all don’t work on everything.

Collaboration is important but so is autonomy. I always say: “Don’t hold each other’s hands.” If you need someone to look over it, fine, but we don’t want homogenization. It’s why we split up when we work and make sure to write briefs before projects and debriefs after we’re done, so we can all learn.

On everything?

Everything. When you have a small team, making sure you’re getting better is really important.

What about you?

How do you make sure you surround yourself with a great team?

More insights on: Focus, Motivation, Office Dynamics

Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. He is also a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week. Email him: blanda@adobe.com or find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
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