Sep 172015

The Playbook

As Return Path gets older, we are having more and more alums go on to be successful senior executives at other companies – some in our space, some not.  It’s a great thing, and something I’m really proud of.  I was wondering the other day if there’s effectively some kind of “RP Playbook” that these people have taken with them.  Here’s what I learned from asking five of them.

People-related practices are all prominent as part of the Playbook, not surprising for a People First company.  Our Peer Recognition program, which is almost as old as the company and has evolved over time, was on almost everyone’s list.  Open Vacation is also part of the mix, as was a focus on getting Onboarding right so new employees start off on the right foot.  Live 360s were on multiple lists, too, as were Skip-Level 1:1s.

Beyond People-related programs, though, there was general agreement among the five that the mentality of trust in management was something they brought with them in this mythical Playbook.  Specific examples include fostering a culture of idea sharing, having difficult conversations, driving as much self-management as possible, focusing on managing high performers as opposed to spending all our cycles on managing low performers, balancing freedom and flexibility with performance and accountability, and going above and beyond and bending rules for sick employees and their families.

Connections and networking – both internal and external – made the cut as well.  A lot of those, especially external ones, are used to foster benchmarking, best practices sharing, and “leveling up” to help teams and organizations scale by learning from others.

Finally, there were some specific execution-related Playbook items from establishing a vision, to translating it into goals and fostering alignment across the organization, to instituting processes and systems instead of throwing bodies at problems.  One important element of execution cited is the importance of giving new and existing managers the tools to grow as the company grows.

This is hardly an exhaustive Playbook and unscientific in its construction, but I thought the “top of mind” answers from five senior people I respect was an interesting list and probably the beginning of something broader.

Thanks to the following friends for their contributions to this post:  Jack Sinclair, CFO of Stack Overflow; Angela Baldonero, SVP Human Resources for Kimpton Hotels; Tom Bartel, CEO of ThreatWave; Chad Malchow, CRO for Gitlab; and Dennis Malaspina, CRO for Parsley.

Aug 272015

The Joy of Coaching

I was the head coach of my two older kids’ little league team this past spring.  The whole thing was a little bit of an accident – I vaguely volunteered for something and ended up in charge.  The commitment was a little daunting, but I was ok with it since the season was only a couple months long, it was both Casey and Wilson, and both kids, especially Wilson, are really into baseball.  Other than helping out a bit here and there, I’d never coached a sports team before.

What started off as an unclear assignment ended up as one of the most fun and fulfilling things I’ve done in years.  I loved every minute of it, looked forward to our practices and games, was hugely bummed out when we got rained out, and never had a moment where I couldn’t make the time for it (though clearly the hours had to come from somewhere!).  Given some of the overlap between leading a sports team and leading a company, I thought I’d reflect on the experience a bit here.  There are some common themes between this post and something I wrote years ago, Parenting and Corporate Leadership, with the same caveat that no, I don’t think employees are children or children are employees.  But here are some things I take away from the experience and apply or compare to work.

We established a clear philosophy and stuck to it.  That’s a step that lots of coaches – and managers in the workplace – miss.  The other coaches and I discussed this before the first practice, agreed on it, and shared it directly with the kids.  For this age group in particular, we felt that we were there first and foremost to have fun; second to learn the game; and third, to play hard and fair.  Note there was nothing in this about winning, and that we were really specific about the order of the three objectives.  Even 7 and 8 year olds know the difference between “win at all costs” and “have fun and play ball.”  We reinforced this at every practice and at every game.  Being intentional about a philosophy and communicating it (and of course sticking to it) are key for any leadership situation.

We got lucky.  As I repeatedly said to the parents on the team, we had a group of awesome kids – happy and generally paying attention, and not one troublemaker in the bunch; and we had a group of awesome parents – responsive, supportive, and not a single complaint about what position a kid was playing or where someone was in the batting order.  I’d heard horror stories about both kids and parents from other coaches ahead of time.  It’s possible that the other coaches and I did such a good job that both kids and parents were great all the time…but I think you have to chalk most of that up to the luck of the draw.  Work isn’t all that different.  Having stakeholders who are consistently positive forces is something that sometimes you can shape (you can fire problematic employees) but often you can’t, in the case of customers or even Board members.  Luck matters.

Stakeholder alignment was a critical success factor.  Having said that, I do think the coaches and I did a good job of keeping our stakeholders aligned and focusing on their needs, not ours.  We put extra effort into a regular cadence of communication with the parents in the form of weekly emails and a current web site.  We used those emails to highlight kids’ performance and also let parents know what we’d be working on in practice that week.  We made sure that we rotated kids in the batting order so that everyone got to bad leadoff once and cleanup once.  We rotated kids so that almost every kid played half of each game in the infield and half in the outfield.  We took any and all requests from kids who wanted to play a specific position for a few innings.  Many of these basic principles – communicating well, a clear operating system, listening to stakeholders, a People First approach – are lessons learned from work as a CEO.

Proper expectations and a large dose of patience helped.  After the first couple games, we were 0-2, and I was very frustrated.  But I reminded myself that 7 and 8 year olds are just kids, and my frustration wasn’t going to help us achieve our objectives of having fun and learning the game.  So I recalibrated my expectations and took much more of a laid-back attitude.  For example, any time I saw one kid goofing off a little bit in practice, I gently got him or her back in line.  But when I saw multiple kids’ attention fading, I took it as a sign that whatever I was doing as a coach wasn’t working, called a break, and did something else.  This kind of “look in the mirror” approach is always helpful at work, too.

Reward and recognition were key.  We definitely adopted a Whale Done! approach with the kids.  We got the kids in the dugout fired up to cheer on batters.  First base coaches did big high fives, smiles, and literal pats on the back for every hit.  Post-game huddles and emails to parents focused on highlights and what went right for the kids.  One of my favorite moments of the season was when one player, who only had one hit all year and struck out almost every time at bat, had two hits, an RBI, and a run scored in our final game.  Not just the coaches, but the other kids and all the parents went absolutely BANANAS cheering for this player, and it brought huge smiles to all our faces.  I am 100% certain that the focus on the positive encouraged the kids to try their hardest all season, much as I believe that same philosophy encourages people to take risks and work hard at the office.

The biggest thing I take back to the workplace with me from the experience.  I was reminded about how powerful achieving a state of “flow,” or “relaxed concentration” is.  I recounted these principles in this blog post from a couple different books I’ve read over the years – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Tim Gallway’s Inner Game books – Golf, Tennis, and Work.  The gist of achieving a state of flow is to set clear goals that are stretch but achievable, become immersed in the activity, pay attention to what’s happening, and learn to enjoy immediate experience.  All leaders – in sports, business, or any walk of life – can benefit from this way of living and leading.

I loved every minute of coaching.  It helped that we ended up with a really strong record.  But more than that, building relationships with a bunch of great kids and great parents was fun and fulfilling and incredibly thankful and rewarding.  The “thank you ball” that all the kids autographed for me is now a cherished possession.  Working and getting extra time with my own two kids was the icing on the cake.  All I want to know is…is it time for next season yet?  I am ready!

This post is really for Coaches Mike, Paul, and Oliver; and players Emily, Casey, Lauryn, Mike, Josh, Holden, Hudson, Wilson, Drew, Kevin, Matthew, and Christian.

Aug 192015

ReturnShip Program, Part III

I’ve written a couple times this past year about our ReturnShip program, which is a 4-month paid internship program designed for women who have been out of the workforce for more than 3 year to re-enter and  build credible and relevant experience, and to expand the talent pool for our organization.  I wrote about the initial concept when we launched v2 of the program, and then again when v2 concluded with the hiring of four of the six participants.

I’m immensely proud of our organization for inventing the program (Andy Sautins, our CTO, gets credit) and for managing it so well during the last cycle (Cathy Hawley, our VP People, and Miranda Reeves, VP Solution Management, get lead credit, but lots of other people had a hand in its success).

Yesterday, we officially launched v3 of the program and are very excited about how it is scaling.  The launch was coincident with a visit to our office by Congressman Jared Polis, who represents our district in Colorado, as part of his Startup Day Across America visit to the district, which was exciting for us.

v3 of the program is poised to take the concept to the next level.  We will have almost 40 Returnees in the program – but we’ve taken the program beyond Return Path and beyond our Colorado office.  We are going to place Returnees in five locations – Broomfield, Colorado, New York City, Austin, Indianapolis, and London – and we recruited five like-minded partner companies to join the program as well.  SendGrid, ReadyTalk, MWH Global, and SpotXchange will participate in the program in the Denver area, and Seattle-based Moz will participate as well.  We are still going to administer the program out of Return Path, with Andy and Cathy being joined by Katie Green from our People team as well as Laura Harrison, one of our v2 Returnees, as program manager (among others).

We are starting the recruiting cycle now for the program, which starts mid-October.  While we are getting a centralized web site up and running, in the meantime, you can see the available openings on the respective company web sites:

Here are a couple pictures from our time with Congressman Polis yesterday – one of him and Laura Harrison, Karen Brockwell, and Lisa Stephens (three of our v2 Returnees), and one of me along with representatives of the other participating companies.

ReturnShip with Jared Polis ReturnShip with partner companies


Aug 062015

The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project:  a novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford  is a logical intellectual successor and regularly quotes Eli Goldratt’s seminal work The Goal and its good but less known sequel It’s Not Luck.

The more business books I read, the more I appreciate the novel or fable format. Most business books are a bit boring and way too long to make a single point. The Phoenix Project is a novel, though unlike Goldratt’s books (and even Lencioni’s), it takes it easy on the cheesy and personal side stories. It just uses storytelling techniques to make its points and give color and examples for more memorable learning.

If your organization still does software development through a waterfall process or has separate and distinct development, QA, and IT/Operations teams, I’d say you should run, not walk, to get this book. But even if you are agile, lean, and practice continuous deployment, it’s still a good read as it provides reminders of what the world used to be like and what the manufacturing-rooted theories are behind these “new” techniques in software development.

I am so glad our technology team at Return Path, led by my colleagues Andy Sautins and David Sieh, had the wisdom to be early adopters of agile and lean processes, continuous deployment many years ago, and now dockers. Our DevOps process is pretty well grooved, and while I’m sure there are always things to be done to improve it…it’s almost never a source of panic or friction internally the way more traditional shops function (like the one in the book). I can’t imagine operating a business any other way.

Thanks to my long time friend and Board member Greg Sands of Costanoa Venture Capital for suggesting this excellent read.

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


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?