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

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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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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Jan 082015

How to Ask For a Raise

How to Ask For a Raise

I’m guessing this topic will get some good play, both internally at Return Path and externally.  It’s an important topic for many reasons, although one of the best ones I can think of is that most people aren’t comfortable asking for raises (especially women and more introverted people, according to lots of research as well as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In).

My whole point in writing this is to make compensation part of normal conversations between a manager and a team member.  This requires the manager making it comfortable (without negative stigma), and the employee approaching it maturely.

My guess is that the two most common ways most people ask for raises when they bother to do so are (1) they get another job offer and try to get their current employer to match, or (2) they come to their boss with a very emotional appeal about how hard they are working, or that they heard Sally down the hall makes more money than they do, and that’s not fair.  Although either one may work (particularly the first one), there’s a better way to think about the whole process that removes the emotion and produces a better outcome for both employer and company.

Compensation is fundamentally a data-driven process for companies.  The high-level data inputs are the size of payroll, the amount of aggregate increase the company can afford, and the framework for distributing that aggregate increase by department or by level of performance.  A second set of position- or person-specific data looks at performance within a level, promotions, and internal leveling, and external comparables.  Fundamentally, smart companies will approach compensation by paying people fairly (both internally and externally) to do their jobs so they keep their best people from looking for new jobs because of compensation.

If compensation is a data-driven process for companies, employees should treat asking for raises as a data-driven process, too.  How can you go about that?  What data can you bring to a compensation conversation with your manager to make it go as smoothly as possible?

  1. Let your manager know ahead of time that you’d like to discuss your compensation at your next 1:1, so he or she is prepared for that topic to come up.Blindsiding will never result in a calm and collected conversation.
  2. Be mindful of the company’s compensation cycle timing.  If the company has an annual process and you are just about to hit it (within 2-3 months), then consider carefully whether you want to ask for a raise off-cycle, or whether you just want to give your manager data to consider for the company’s normal cycle.  If you’re really off-cycle (e.g., 4-8 months away), then you should note to your manager that you’re specifically asking for off-cycle consideration
  3. Bring internal data:  your most recent performance review or ratings as well as any other specific feedback or praise you’ve received from your manager, colleagues, or senior people.  See below for one additional thought on internal data
  4. Bring external data:  bring in compensation and job requirement and scope data from multiple online sources, or even from recruiters if you’ve been called recently and asked about comp and scope of roles.  The most important parts here are the two I bolded – you can’t just bring in a single data point, and you also have to include detailed job scope and requirements to make your point.  If you only find one data point that supports a raise, expect your manager or HR team to counter with five that don’t.  If you bring in examples that aren’t truly comparable (the title is right, but the scope is way off, or the job requirements call for 10 years of experience when you have 5), then expect your manager to call you out on that
  5. Recognize that cash compensation is only one part of the mix.  Obviously an important part, but not the only part.  Incentive compensation, equity, perks (gym membership, healthcare, etc. – they all add up!), and even company environment and lifestyle are all important considerations and important levers to pull in terms of your total compensation
  6. Have the conversation in a non-emotional manner.  State your position clearly and unambiguously – you feel you deserve a raise of Q because of X, Y, and Z.  Tell your manager that you enjoy your job and the company and want to continue working there, fairly paid and amply motivated.  Don’t threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, leave the acrimony at the door, set a follow-up date for the next conversation to give your manager time to think about it and discuss it with HR, and be careful about citing your colleagues’ compensation (see next point)

The one piece of data that’s tricky to surface is internal comparables.  Even the most transparent organizations usually treat compensation data as confidential.  Now, most companies are also not idiots, and they realize that people probably talk about compensation at the water cooler.  But bringing up a specific point like “I know what Sally makes, and I make less, and that’s not fair” is likely to agitate a manager or executive because of the confidentiality of compensation.  However, as one point among many, simply asking your manager, “do you feel like my compensation is fair relative to internal comparables for both my position and performance?” and even asking questions like “which positions internally do you think are good comparables for my compensation?” are both fair game and will make your point in a less confrontational or compromising manner.

Managers, how can you best handle situations where employees come in to discuss their compensation with you?

  1. Most important are two things you can do proactively here.  First, be sure to set a tone with your team that they should always be comfortable talking to you about compensation openly and directly.  That you might or might not agree with them, but the conversation is safe – remove the stigma.  Second, be proactive yourself.  Make sure you’re in touch with market rates for the roles on your team.  Make sure you’re rewarding high performers with more responsibility and more money.  And make sure you don’t let “job scope creep” happen where you just load up your good people quietly with more responsibility and don’t officially change their scope/title/comp
  2. If the employee does not more or less follow the steps above and approach this in a planful, non-emotional way, I’d suggest stopping him before the conversation gets more than one or two sentences in.  Empathize with his concern, hand him a copy of this blog post, and tell him to come back in a week ready to talk.  That saves both of you from an unnecessarily uncomfortable conversation, and it gives you time to prepare as well (see next item)
  3. If the employee does more or less follow the steps above and approaches this rationally, then listen, empathize, take good notes, and agree to the follow-up meeting.  Then sit with your manager or department head or HR to review the data surfaced by the employee, develop your own data-driven perspective, and respond in the meeting with the employee with data, regardless of your response.  If you do give a raise, the data makes it less about “I like you.”  If you don’t, you can emphasize the employee’s importance to you and steer the discussion towards “how to make more money in the future” by expanding role scope or improving performance

I hope this advice is helpful for both managers and employees.  Compensation is a weird topic – one of the weirdest at companies, but it need not be so awkward for people to bring up.

Filed under: Business, Management

Dec 182014

Typing as Core Competency

Typing as Core Competency

We just had our annual typing tournament in the Return Path New York office, and it got me thinking on this topic.  Fits, hats off to my colleague Rosemary Girouard for her smashing victory this year, even with an injury, and to fellow finalists Caroline Pearl and Nicole Niemiec for excellent showings.

So this is going to sound silly, but I’m increasingly thinking that typing speed is a core competency for many jobs.  With special thanks to my 8th grade typing teacher, Mrs. Van Vranken, my typing training on an old-school typewriter has paid off.  I type 100 wpm+ on a full keyboard, about 75 wpm on a tablet, and 50 wpm on a phone.  That enables me to rip through my inbox as well as any long-form writing pretty quickly.

Does it matter?

On a spot check of my mailbox, it looks like I send about 200 emails per work day with an average of 75 words per email, or 15,000 words.  At 75 wpm (blend of devices), that means I’m spending 200 minutes typing emails, or about 3.5 hours, probably more time than that “doing email,” which includes reading and thinking.  That feels a little high, but it’s probably not too far off.  Let’s round down to 3 or even 2.5 hours.  Someone who types half as quickly, which by the way is still not bad in terms of wpm, is spending 2.5-3 hours more per day to process the same volume of email.  Someone who still does hunt-and-peck (and there are still plenty of those people out there in the business world) has to spend even more time.

That’s a pretty significant difference in terms of output capacity.  Whether it means slower typists have to clock more hours to get the same work done, they get the same work done at lower quality, or get less work done, it is an issue either for them or their companies.

Maybe someday dictation software will render the point moot, but then being a motor mouth will become a core competency!

Filed under: Uncategorized

Dec 052014

35 at 15

This was a big week for Return Path.  First we announced a $35mm financing led by Vista Equity Partners, an exceptional private equity firm that I’d never heard of before the middle of the fundraising process a few months ago.  We are happy to have them join our very strong board and syndicate and even happier to have additional investment capital to accelerate our growth, especially in newer businesses for us like Email Fraud Protection and our overall data and analytic capabilities.

But in some ways even more important, or at least more sentimentally important news this week is that tomorrow, December 6, marks the 15th anniversary of Return Path’s founding.  A decade and a half with probably over 800 employees in total over time in a dozen locations and several thousand clients worldwide.  We’ve “served” over 30 million consumers, including some of our legacy businesses like ECOA, Postmaster Direct, and Authentic Response, as well as our current panel.  Preparing for our annual year-end all-hands meetings over the next couple weeks was a fun exercise this week in pulling up, diving into lessons learned from this past year (and more), and trying to crisply articulate our vision for the next few years.

The next leg of our journey is going to be interesting and quite different from the past in many ways, though of course some things, like our values and spirit, won’t change.  Lots of aspects of our jobs will.  But that’s a good thing.  I’m not sure I could have ever done the same job for 15 years, and even though my title and company haven’t changed since 1999, the substance of my job has changed every few years.  I have loved every minute of every day of this journey (even the not-so-good ones) and am privileged to work with such an amazingly talented executive team, staff, and board.  I won’t say “here’s to the next 15,” because I can’t count that high, but here’s to Return Path!

And to celebrate #15, my colleague Tom Sather assembled this fun infographic that has some fun stats and is a bit of walk through history.

Return Path 15th Anniversary (lower res)

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