Jul 162015

Everything Is Data

Everything Is Data

As our former head of People, Angela used to say during the recruiting process, “Everything is Data.”  What she meant is that you can learn a lot about a candidate from things that happen along the way during an interview cycle, not just during the interviews themselves.  Does the candidate for the Communications role write a thank you note, and is it coherent?  Does the candidate for an outside sales role dribble food all over himself at a restaurant?  Here are two great examples of this that have happened here at Return Path over time:

Once we had a candidate in the office, waiting in our café/reception area before his first interview.  Our office manager came in and was struggling with some large boxes.  The candidate took off his suit jacket and immediately jumped to her assistance, carrying some of the boxes and helping to lift them up and put them away.  He is now an employee.

Another candidate once was waiting in a nearby Starbucks for an interview, was incredibly rude to the barista, and spent a few minutes on the phone with someone making self-important, then snide and condescending comments about the company.  Unfortunately for her, two of our employees were sitting at the next table at Starbucks and observed the whole thing.  She did not make it to the next round of interviews.

In both cases, the peripheral interactions were solid data points that the candidates would or would not likely be good fits from a Return Path Core Values perspective.  Everything is Data.

(After I finished writing this post, a little bell went off in my head that I had written it already, or Angela had…I found this post on Brad’s blog that she wrote four years ago.  It has some of this thinking in it, without the two examples, then makes several other excellent points.)

Jun 252015

The Difference Between Culture and Values

The Difference Between Culture and Values

This topic has been bugging me for a while, so I am going to use the writing of this post as a means of working through it. We have a great set of core values here at Return Path. And we also have a great corporate culture, as evidenced by our winning multiple employer of choice awards, including being Fortune Magazine’s #2 best medium-sized workplace in America.

But the two things are different, and they’re often confused. I hear statements all the time, both here and at other companies, like “you can’t do that — it’s not part of our culture,” “I like working there, because the culture is so great,” and “I hope our culture never changes.”  And those statements reveal the disconnect.

Here’s my stab at a definition.  Values guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right.  Culture is the collection of business practices, processes, and interactions that make up the work environment.

A company’s values should never really change. They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there 10 or 100 years from now.  They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game. To pick one value, if you believe in Transparency one day, there’s no way the next day you decide that being Transparent is unimportant. Can a value be changed?  I guess, either a very little bit at a time, slowly like tectonic plates move, or in a sharp blow as if you deliberately took a jackhammer to stone and destroyed something permanently.  One example that comes to mind is that we added a value a couple years back called Think Global, Act Local, when we opened our first couple of international offices.  Or a startup that quickly becomes a huge company might need to modify a value around Scrappiness to make it about Efficiency.  Value changes are few and far between.

If a company’s values are its bedrock, then a company’s culture is the shifting landscape on top of it. Culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate. Landscapes change over time — sometimes temporarily due to a change in seasons, sometimes permanently due to a storm or a landslide, sometimes even due to human events like commercial development or at the hand of a good gardener.

So what does it mean that culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate?  Let’s go back to the value of Transparency. When you are 10 people in a room, Transparency means you as CEO may feel compelled to share that you’re thinking about pivoting the product, collect everyone’s point of view on the subject, and make a decision together. When you are 100 people, you probably wouldn’t want to share that thinking with ALL until it’s more baked, you have more of a concrete direction in mind, and you’ve stress tested it with a smaller group, or you risk sending people off in a bunch of different directions without intending to do so. When you are 1,000 employees and public, you might not make that announcement to ALL until it’s orchestrated with your earnings call, but there may be hundreds of employees who know by then. A commitment to Transparency doesn’t mean always sharing everything in your head with everyone the minute it appears as a protean thought.  At 10 people, you can tell everyone why you had to fire Pat – they probably all know, anyway.  At 100 people, that’s unkind to Pat.  At 1,000, it invites a lawsuit.

Or here’s another example.  Take Collaboration as a value.  I think most people would agree that collaboration managed well means that the right people in the organization are involved in producing a piece of work or making a decision, but that collaboration managed poorly means you’re constantly trying to seek consensus.  The culture needs to shift over time in order to make sure the proper safeguards are in place to prevent collaboration from turning into a big pot of consensus goo – and the safeguards required change as organizations scale.  In a small, founder-driven company, it often doesn’t matter as much if the boss makes the decisions.  The value of collaboration can feel like consensus, as they get to air their views and feel like they’re shaping a decision, even though in reality they might not be.  In a larger organization with a wider range of functional specialists managing their own pieces of the organization, the boss doesn’t usually make every major decision, though guys like Ellison, Benioff, Jobs, etc. would disagree with that.  But in order for collaboration to be effective, decisions need to be delegated and appropriate working groups need to be established to be clear on WHO is best equipped to collaborate, and to what extent.  Making these pronouncements could come as feeling very counter-cultural to someone used to having input, when in fact they’re just a new expression of the same value.

I believe that a business whose culture never evolves slowly dies.  Many companies are very dynamic by virtue of growth or scaling, or by being in very dynamic markets even if the company itself is stable in people or product. Even a stable company — think the local hardware store or barber shop — will die if it doesn’t adapt its way of doing business to match the changing norms and consumption patterns in society.

This doesn’t mean that a company’s culture can’t evolve to a point where some employees won’t feel comfortable there any longer. We lost our first employee on the grounds that we had “become too corporate” when we reached the robust size of 25 employees. I think we were the same company in principles that day as we had been when we were 10 people (and today when we are approaching 500), but I understood what that person meant.

My advice to leaders: Don’t cling to every aspect of the way your business works as you scale up. Stick to your core values, but recognize that you need to lead (or at least be ok with) the evolution of your culture, just as you would lead (or be ok with) the evolution of your product. But be sure you’re sticking to your values, and not compromising them just because the organization scales and work patterns need to change.  A leader’s job is to embody the values.  That impacts/produces/guides culture.  But only the foolhardy leaders think they can control culture.

My advice to employees: Distinguish between values and culture if you don’t like something you see going on at work. If it’s a breach of values, you should feel very free to wave your arms and cry foul. But if it’s a shifting of the way work gets done within the company’s values system, give a second thought to how you complain about it before you do so, though note that people can always interpret the same value in different ways.  If you believe in your company’s values, that may be a harder fit to find and therefore more important than getting comfortable with the way those values show up.

Note:  I started writing this by talking about the foundation of a house vs. the house itself, or the house itself vs. the furniture inside it.  That may be a more useful analogy for you.  But hopefully you get the idea.

Filed under: Business, Culture, Uncategorized

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Jun 042015

Book Short: Blink Part II

Book Short:  Blink Part II

Years ago I wrote a post about Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Blink (post, buy).  While my post has lots of specifics in it for entrepreneurs, for VCs, and for marketers, my quick summary was this:

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

I recently finished another book, Thinking Fast, and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which was very similar.  I’d call it the academic version of Blink, or that Blink is the journalistic version of it.  Kahneman breaks down our ability to think and process information into what he calls System 1 (quick and intuitive) and System 2 (slower, rational and logical).  As he puts it:

In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The book is rich in examples, and while it’s a bit long and sometimes slow going, it is an excellent read if you want to learn more about how the brain works.  The work applications are many – we do a lot of work at Return Path on understanding and avoiding Unconscious Bias at work – and this book gave me a bunch of good ideas around that.  It’s clear that it’s impossible to become a true master of your intuition vs. logic, but you can design some systems, or at least insert some checks and balances into other systems, to blunt the impact of faulty intuition or lazy logic.  The book also has an overwhelming number of labels it applies to common situations – great, but hard to keep them all straight (the priming effect, anchors, endowment effect, etc.).

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to ponder as an entrepreneur, though, was the section on Loss Aversion (another great label).  It turns out we humans are motivated more by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain.  A poignant example in the book is that professional golfers make a higher percentage of putts (I forget the actual number, but a real one, like 3-5%) for par than for birdie, when the putts are like-for-like in terms of distance and difficulty.  Saving par is more of a motivator than being under par.  The application for work is interesting.  As companies get larger, it can be difficult for founders and management teams to maintain the same level of bold risk-taking they did as smaller organizations.  Having something to lose is harder than having nothing to lose.  And yet, as they say, fortune favors the bold.  Growth stage companies need to figure out how to institutionalize risk taking and experimentation, including putting enough resources into those activities that will generate future growth, rather than simply protecting what’s already running.  (Of course, what’s already running needs investment, too.)

Thanks to my colleagues Dragana and Richard for recommending this book, and to Jamie for facilitating our office book club around it this month!

 

May 142015

Give the Gift of a 360 to Your Board of Directors

Give the Gift of a 360 to Your Board of Directors

I recently ran our biennial Board 360, and I thought it would be interesting to share the details.  Attached are a few pages from, my book, Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business  which describe the process as well as share the survey I developed, which I adapted from one that the legendary Bill Campbell uses at larger public companies like Intuit.

If you’ve read this blog a lot over the years, you know that we are big on 360s for staff at all levels at Return Path , and at some point a few years ago, I thought, “hmmm, shouldn’t we do this for the Board as well?”

Most of our directors had never been part of one before as Board members, and they reacted to it with varying levels of interest and trepidation.  But all of them loved the output and the discussion we had afterwards.  Extending the level of transparency we have internally to the Board was a great thing and a great use of time, and I think making the Board members review themselves and their peers critically and then seeing the results sharpened overall Board performance.

The document also shares the survey we use, which we have each director take anonymously and compile the results to share in Executive Session at a Board meeting.  We also ask a few members of the senior management team to fill out the survey as well so the Board gets feedback from them, too.

Filed under: Boards, Management, Return Path

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Apr 292015

ReturnShip Program, Part II

Today marks the graduation for the six women who participated in our inaugural ReturnShip program, which I wrote about here and which was written up at least twice, in Harvard Business Review and in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The ReturnShip was a 14-week paid internship program designed for women who have been out of the workforce for more than 1 year to re-enter and  build credible and relevant experience, and to feed our funnel of prospective employees.

While there are still a couple things in the air, my guess is that at least three, and as many as five, of the program’s six participants, will continue their work at Return Path, either full time, part time, or as a contractor.  For many people who are returning to the workforce but still have full-time jobs at home, flexibility is the key.

The program was a huge success for us as a company, for the teams who worked with our six returnees, and I believe for the returnees as well.  We are already in the planning stages of the next wave of the program, potentially as early as this fall, where we’d like to expand the scope of the program in terms of departments covered, number of returnees, and geographies.  We learned a huge amount about, well, lots of things, from the last 14 weeks, and we’ll apply those learnings to the next wave.

I hope this work inspires other companies to do something similar, and we’d be happy to inspire anyone who wants to talk about it with us.  Most of all, I want to thank our six returnees, the managers who worked with them, and our People Team for being part of a bold and successful experiment.

Mar 192015

Corporate Sniglets

Corporate Sniglets

This might be showing my age, but those who may have watched Not Necessarily the News in the 80s might remember the Sniglets segment that Rich Hall pioneered which spawned a series of short, fun books. Sniglets are words which are not in the dictionary, but which should be. I can remember a couple of examples from years ago that make the point — aquadexterity is the ability to operate bathtub dials with one’s feet; cheedle is the orange residue left on one’s fingers after eating a bag of Cheetos.

As is the case with many companies, we have made up some of our own words over the years at Return Path - think of them as Corporate Sniglets. I’m sure we have more than these, but here are a few that we use internally:

  • Underlap is the opposite of Overlap. My colleague Tom Bartel coined this gem years ago when he was leading the integration work on an acquisition we did, as in “let’s look for areas of Overlap as well as areas of Underlap (things that neither companies does, but which we should as a combined company).”
  • Pre-Mortem or Mid-Mortem are the timing opposites of Post-Mortem. We do Post-Mortems religiously, but sometimes you want to do one ahead of a project to think about what COULD go wrong and how to head those things off at the pass, or in the middle of a project to course-correct on it. I believe my colleague George Bilbrey gets credit for the Pre-Mortem, and I think I might have come up with Mid-Mortem.
  • Frontfill is the opposite of Backfill. While you Backfill a position after an employee leaves, you can Frontfill it if you know someone is going to leave to get ahead of the curve and make sure you don’t have a big gap without a role being filled. Credit to Mike Mills for this one

RPers, are there others I’m missing?  Anyone else have any other gems from other companies?

Mar 092015

The Value of a Break

The Value of a Break

I’ve written before about our sabbatical policy as well as my experience with my first sabbatical five years ago.

I just got back from another sabbatical. This one wasn’t 100% work-free, which breaks our rule, but after a few false starts with it, when I realized a few weeks before it started in January that I either needed to postpone it again or work on a couple of things while I was on a break, I opted for the latter.  The time off was great. Nothing special or too exotic. A couple short trips, and lots of quality time with Mariquita and the kids.

Re-reading my post from my last sabbatical now, I realize I have re-learned those same three lessons again — that I love my job, my colleagues, and what we are working on.

But I also recognized, in three different ways, the value of a break this time around maybe more than last time.  Maybe it’s that I’m five years older or that I’ve been doing the job for five more years.  Maybe it’s because the last couple of years at work have been incredibly intense and both physically and mentally taxing.  But regardless of cause, the outcome is the same — I return to work today rested, healthy, a little tanner, a few pounds lighter, and with more clarity, resolve, and ideas for work than I’ve had in a long time.

Not only did I recognize this with Return Path on my sabbatical, but during my sabbatical, I also reengaged with two organizations (Princeton and the Direct Marketing Association) where I sit on boards and used to be extremely active but have been pretty dormant for a couple of years. The perspective I gained from that dormant time not only gave me new energy for both, but I think very focused and creative energy that I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

Even with a little work sprinkled in, 6 weeks off and disconnected from emails, the office, and regular meetings is a blessing that I hope everyone gets to experience at some point in his or her career.

Filed under: Return Path

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Feb 192015

Option Grants over Time

Option Grants Over Time

Several people have asked me over the years how we think about subsequent option grants (e.g., not the employee’s initial grant when hired), so I thought I would just share my standard answer here.  We give the following kinds of grants other than new employee grants:

  • promotion grants – employees get the incremental grant between their existing grant and what someone being hired into the new position would get
  • performance grants – once a year we give the top 10-15% of performers a grant that is equal to approximately 25% of their initial grant (so if they are a consistent superstar, they get twice as many options over the four years)
  • refresh grants – we only give these when someone is fully vested (though there are plenty of companies who have overlapping grants) – the new grant is whatever someone being hired in at that level would get as of today, which is usually less than the person’s initial grant

I hope this is useful…fire away with any follow up questions in the comments

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Feb 052015

Book Short: Internet Fiction, part II

Book Short:  Internet Fiction, part II

I hate to write a lame post, but here’s what I wrote earlier in the year about Eliot Peper’s first Internet thriller, Uncommon Stock:

Eliot Pepper’s brand new startup thriller, Uncommon Stock, was a breezy and quick read that I enjoyed tremendously. It’s got just the right mix of reality and fantasy in it. For anyone in the tech startup world, it’s a must read. But it would be equally fun and enjoyable for anyone who likes a good juicy thriller.

Like my memory of Hackoff, the book has all kinds of startup details in it, like co-founder struggles and a great presentation of the angel investor vs. VC dilemma. But it also has a great crime/murder intrigue that is interrupted with the book’s untimely ending.  I eagerly await the second installment, promised for early 2015.

Having just finished that second installment, called Uncommon Stock: Power Play, basically I want to say “ditto.”  Power Play was just as good as the first book, and now I can’t wait for the third. Where the first installment’s startup focus was around funding and founder dynamics, this one’s startup focus was around shipping product and customers. The thriller part was just as juicy.

It’s also kind of fun reading about the Boulder startup scene, especially from a writer who doesn’t and who has never spent a ton of time there. He gets some things remarkably accurate with crisp descriptions. I was kind of hoping for a cameo by Brad, at least in the form of a throw-away comment about the “long haired homeless-looking investor in the corner of Frasca.”

 

Jan 212015

ReturnShip Program

ReturnShip Program

Today is a very exciting day for Return Path as we launch a new program we have been cooking for more than a year called the ReturnShip program. (Sometimes the name of our company comes in handy.)

Return Path has always had a significant commitment to building a strong and diverse organization as well as supporting and encouraging women to pursue careers in technical environments.  To this end, I’m very excited to share progress on our ReturnShip program: after a small pilot last year, our inaugural group of six female returnees will join Return Path in a variety of roles across the company as of today.

The ReturnShip is designed for women who have been out of the workforce for more than 1 year to re-enter and  build credible and relevant experience, and to feed our funnel of prospective employees.

The ReturnShip is 14-weeks long, during which each Returnee will own a project deliverable, learn about Return Path and get support from us in how to navigate today’s work environment.  We’re planning to hire 2-3 as employees at the end of the program (though as a practical matter, we will hire anyone who is great!), and for those who aren’t a match here, we plan to assist with connections and resume/interview reviews to find help them find a role externally.

We had an amazing response from applicants who hadn’t seen anything like this before.  We hope this program enables us to help the community and also find some hidden talent.  It will be a great learning experience for us, and we are very excited to get started.

On a personal note, although I cannot in any way take credit for dreaming up this program, I have felt the need for something like this a lot in the past 10-12 years in particular since getting married, having kids, and having a lot of friends and employees have kids for the first time. The number of immensely talented women who drop out of the workforce, or who struggle greatly with balancing work and home, is huge. Hopefully this program scales up and becomes a role model for other companies to make it easier for women who do take time off the work treadmill with their families to return to work either full time or part time. Reducing the hurdle of “I’ve been out of the workforce, so how do I get back into it?” feels like an important step.

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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