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. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
load comments (14)
  • Joao Galdino

    So inspiring! It made my day better!

  • Butlerm.com

    Setting up an impossible task is a great idea. love it!

  • Scott Wagers

    A really insightful management style. All the elements of good collaboration are present and emphasized, i.e. shared vision, structured debates, mix of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Most importantly is the emphasis on hiring people who are not afraid to fail. Such employees will work via a process of iteration and refinement which is powerful way to innovate. When you think about it, this is also very useful for people who already have employed. Your employees who fail can come out on the other side all the better for it. It all depends upon how they react once they fail. It is probably important to let them know it is okay to fail.

  • George Baily

    lol “One of our girls is a crier, so, as a joke, we draw a teardrop for every time she cries.”

  • Christina Blust

    All future interns will be in on the shit-hits-the-fan test! :) Though I’m not as sold on the “make everybody work a month for free” model, I see what the organization gets out of it. But I’m not sold.

  • Jess Kutch

    It’s not entirely clear here, but it sounds like F Cancer is violating several federal guidelines governing unpaid internships: http://smallbusiness.chron.com

  • Sean Blanda

    I’m sure F Cancer is following all laws and guidelines. Also: they are based in Canada.

  • Kineta

    Excuse me for saying this, but what an asshole. What a horrible way to treat employees and what a terrible thing to hold up as a good model for employers. Ironically, stress is one of the possible contributors of cancer – deliberately causing stress in employees? Ugly. Making people work for free in the hopes of getting a job? Unethical and shameful.

    Whether F Cancer is doing good in the world or simply lining their pockets, it sounds like a HORRIBLE place to work and Yael Cohen sounds like a terrible person to work for.

  • k

    What is a good idea about playing mind games with your employees? It’s cruel.

  • Sean Blanda

    Across the entirety of our conversation Yael told many anecdotes about how pleasant it is to work at FC, not all made the cut for the above conversation. For example, she mentioned that some employees actually accomplish the “impossible” task!

  • Millan

    Why would anyone want to work for free for one month and be tortured? This is insane…

  • Nur

    I read this and thought it was awesome. It like that quote I use to have in my room “Under pressure a coal can become a diamond”. You will never know your limit if you are not tested. Great people throughout history were tested, adversity shows your character and potentially shape you to be a better person. We meet horrible people and we learn lesson. They help us through pressure make us better people. *This is my own subjective view*

  • Humalien

    How about a t-Shirt …. “Get a life Yael”

  • SaferdrivingVictoria

    There is a clear relationship to addressing workplace decision making issues and outcomes, with that of tailoring roles to create the right balance of forward thinking and ‘ad-hoc’ decision making preferences/personalities in an organisation. This is necessary to create the best long term outcomes for your business and/or organisation.

    From reading the article, I think that Yael prefers ‘Ad-hoc’ style decision makers. This is assumed due to her stating that she likes to give interns ‘diifficult/impossible’ situations to deal with-this scenario suits this decision making preference more. . While these people ‘like to get things done’ the old adage of a stitch in time saves nine comes to mind. Im also assuming that Yael, by not mentioning this factor, does not consider past decisions, processes and resourcing as a factor in how decisions are made now.

    Forward thinkers/plannners prefer certainty, structure and information. They prefer not to be ‘put on the spot’, unless they have all the infomration they need. There is a clear relationship between information, structured processes, that create decision making certainty, good decisions, and results that assist long term sustainable business growth. This approach avoids a waste of resources, even if initially, it means more work. It means the same issues are not re-hashed with every decision in the future.

    A balanced culture in an organisations perception of a good leader, manager and employee addresses causes of stressful situations. This is required to minimise or avoid adverse effects, particularly on high performers in key responsibility roles..

    When this occurs, roles can be tailored to the right attributes, experience and qualities, and not just to address the role ‘status quo’ (that can occur when addressing past and current causes of issues and stresses the organisation deals with in its decision making, are not present, or are inadequately addressed).

    Yael notes the importance of improving but seems to imply this occurs on a case by case/status quo basis. I think this because she speaks of bouncing ideas off each other, egos not getting in the way of debate, and that disagreement will be had, and a return to solid working rleationships thereafter. However I have to wonder how much time, energy, and stress is wasted doing this on almost every major decision where good forward planning could really streamline the decision making process and markedly improve case by case outcomes, and also save time in the review/improvement processes, (the latter still required to occur)..

    My message is, (assuming Yael does not already do this) improving requires searching beyond the status quo, and understanding the causes and effects of stresses in decision making in your organisation. If there are issues with the status quo, then a study at the resourcing, planning, decision making information, that has occurred previously, will highlight why the current situation occurs and help identify a path to improving the approach to decision making, and also employment considerations in your organisation.

    Please …do not create a situation where people are employed on a ‘status quo basis’, as your organisation and teams will end up with an imbalance of persons with the same or very similar qualities and attributes. This imbalance will ultimately mean the success or failure of persons who not sharing those qualities and attributes, are sidelined. They may otherwise have been the right long term fit for the role and the organisation, or the turning away of people who are best suited to your organisation during the interview or internship process.

    Individuals cannot fix an organisation’s problems if the owners or managers fail to understand a problem, or the significance of the problem, or that it even exists in the first place – because the organisation has become so imbalanced with one type of rigid decision making preference styles in senior positions.

    Yael says her organisation has a culture where issues can be argued and revisited, and that egos don’t get in the way. If that is so, then thats great, but the comments made in how she approaches internship (ie a month without pay) reflect a bias to gaining people who think like her, and who are ‘yes’ people who agree to anything out of fear for their job future.

    That sounds a bit like a bullying culture – such cultures are detrimental to persons long term health and careers, even if the intent is to find the right people with solid motivation. It can reduce optimal business growth through a tarnished reputation. Success isn’t a ‘one-person’ band/approach, and it isn’t without clear processes and strong ethics.

    The best way to guage how effective an organisation or leader is in terms of its balance, is to understand the relationship between forward planning that has occurred in the past, and occurs now. The practice of reviewing for improvement beyond a ‘case by case’ (status quo basis) to really understand the cause of issues isn’t mentioned in her article. This ncan identify the attributes and qualities mix of your leaders and your staff. Review why people have been fired or left your organisation.

    I arge that any successful organisation, worthy of note, needs the right mix of ‘ad-hoc/status quo decision makers (the get things done types) and the well considered decision makers-the forward planners/process/structure (the minimise problems) types.

    I commend Yael’s approach to failure – failure is not the be all and end all, if it can be viewed as a growth process. Ultimately, organisations do make mistakes, and some people will fail, and not always entirely due to their own doing. When failure is viewed in that light, ie not from a lack of effort, is quite insightful and inspiring. The only problem is the employer culture of today is not so enlightened, it views failure in anything as a massive sin, forgetting that high achievers will fail more than those less motivated..

    In summary, I think Yael demonstrates most of the qualities of good management – the only thing that outs me off is the one month without pay-most people cannot afford to consider that. And while noting no organisation is perfect, I am inspired by this article and the overall approach. . I only hope that Yael’s organisation has the right mix and approach to a balanced culture.


  • Yikes!

    From the get go, this article makes it clear that this manager is a probably an extreme narcissist. These types of leaders always brag about creating an amazing working environment. However, it’s pretty clear that this would be a horrible place to work. If you want to evaluate performance you do it in a fair and unbiased way.
    If i ever got wind of someone playing these types of games with me, particularly in the first month and as an unpaid intern, I would run as quickly as I could the other way.
    Honesty is the best policy. I’ve been on teams that seem to think the opposite is true. Never again.

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