Mar 262008

Closer to the Front Lines

Closer to the Front Lines

When we started Return Path, we added a little clause to our employee handbook that entitled people to a sabbatical after 7 years of service (and then after every 5 incremental years).  Six weeks off, 3/4 pay.  Full pay if you do something “work related.”  Sure, we thought.  That’s an easy thing to give.  We’ll never be 7 years old as a company. 

Now, 8 1/2 years later, of course, the first wave of people are reaching their sabbatical date.  A couple have already gone (one trip around the world, one quality time with the kids).  A couple others are pending.  Four of us at the exec level are overdue to take ours, and we all committed to take them this year, planning them out so we can back each other up.  My colleague George Bilbrey is in the middle of his 6 weeks off now, and I’m his backup.  And wow – is it a great experience.  Busy, but great.

The reason it’s great is that I am one step closer to the action.  Usually when someone on my team goes on vacation, we just let things run for that week or two.  The people who report into that exec know I’m around if they need something, but I don’t take over actively working with them.  Not so this time.  Six weeks is too long for that.  I’m actively subbing for George.  I’m sitting in his office in Colorado every other week for the sabbatical.  I have weekly meetings with his staff.  I’m working with them on their Q2 goals (for added fun, we’re even working on George’s Q2 goals!).  I’m attending meetings that George usually attends but that I’m not invited to.

The insight I’m getting into things in George’s area of the business is great.  I’m learning more about the ins and outs of everyone’s work, more about the team dynamic, and more about how the team works with other groups in the company.  Most important, I’m learning more about how George and I interact, and how I can manage that interaction better in the future.  And I’m making or suggesting some small changes here and there on the margin.  Hopefully I’m not messing things up too badly.  Otherwise, I will hear about it in 3 1/2 weeks!

I strongly encourage everyone who is a Manager of Managers or higher in their company (especially if that company’s name rhymes with Geturn Fath) to use any vacation of someone on their team as an excuse to really substitute and get closer to the front lines.

Mar 182008

Don't Ever Do a Conference Call from an Airport

Don’t Ever Do a Conference Call from an Airport

Ever.  Just say no thank you, you’re not available.  Airports are terrible places to be on a phone call.  You can’t hear the call, the call is barraged with P.A. system announcements.  It’s disjointed and difficult. 

Better to force the call to happen at another time or send a delegate from your team or company on your behalf.  If you *must* do a call from an airport, I’d say best practices are:

1. Let the meeting organizer know ahead of time that you have no choice (if the meeting must be scheduled at that time)

2. Remind all participants up front that you’re in an airport

3. Make liberal use of the mute and unmute functions.  Phones all have different ways of doing this, but most conference call platforms have universal *6 mute and *7 unmute commands

4. If you can’t hear everything you need to hear on the call, ask one meeting participant at the end of the call if they can recap key items and next steps for you after the fact

Filed under: Leadership

Mar 182008

A Flurry of CAN-SPAM Activity – Is It Meaningful?

A Flurry of CAN-SPAM Activity – But Is It Meaningful?

Our four-year old oft maligned anti-spam legislation in this country, the CAN-SPAM act, has seen an uptick of activity this past week. 

Melinda Krueger sums up the sentiments of many in the anti-spam community in her Email Insider column today when she says,

There is no provision in the act against sending unsolicited email as long as you comply with the rest of the act. The motivation of the act was more to make voters feel politicians were doing something about this annoying problem.

In the last two days, however, we got news of ValueClick’s $2.9 million settlement with the FTC over a CAN-SPAM violation (the largest ever), as well as notorious hardcore spammer Robert Soloway pleading guilty on a variety of charges for Really Bad Things, probably including spamming (I’ve read differing reports of his plea, some of which include the CAN-SPAM violation, and some of which don’t).

I’ve never felt that CAN-SPAM did all that much to stop sneaky practices.  It has loopholes so large you can drive a semi through it.  People joke that the law means, “yes, you CAN spam.”  Yet, the law does seem to be doing at least a little of what it was intended to do, which is give the federal government the teeth to go after the bad guys. 

Soloway undoubtedly is a bad guy.  ValueClick may or may not be a bad guy, depending on who you talk to.  But, weak as the law may be, public fines and convictions for violations of CAN-SPAM will ultimately start to impact both the black hats and the grey hats.  Let’s just hope the feds keep up their enforcement work!

Filed under: Email


Mar 172008

Book Short: Smaller is the New Small

Book Short: Smaller is the New Small

Last month, it was Microtrends. This month, it’s MIT Professor Ted Sargent’s The Dance of Molecules: How Nanotechnology is Changing Our Lives. It seems like all the interesting things in life are just getting smaller and smaller. (Note to self: lose some weight.)

Sargent’s book is geeky but well-written. He dives into a couple dozen examples across many fields and disciplines of how nanotechnology holds extraordinary promise for solving some of mankind’s toughest scientific challenges — while creating a few new ethical and economic ones.

The science is for the most part beyond me, but the practical applications are fascinating:

- making solar power the sole source of global energy needs a possibility

- detecting cancer at the level of a single cancer cell rather than waiting to discover a grape-sized tumor; curing that cancer through embedded “pharmacy on a chip” drugs that release the right drugs over long periods of time locally at the spot of the disease

- figuring out how to keep proving the ever-more-challenging Moore’s law when only 4 years from now, parts of a transistor will need to be only 5 atoms across

- curing blindness with wireless retinal implants

Once every year or so, I read a book that makes me sad I didn’t go into engineering or science. The Dance of Molecules is that kind of book.

Filed under: Books, Current Affairs

Mar 102008

Couldn't Happen to a Nicer Guy

Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy

As I said in this post, sometimes calling for the boss’s head is a mistake, and that

an alternative — an honest apology, some kind of retribution, and a clear and conspicuous post-mortem

can often be a better way for an organization to move forward after a leader-involved crisis. 

But not today. Elliot Spitzer has to go.  The hypocrisy he displayed in running a law and order campaign, administration, and career, using his office as a bully pulpit and unnecessarily ruining innocent people’s careers to stroke his own ego, while willfully breaking the law himself in the manner that he did, is way too much for an elected official at that level. 

I just hope the relevant prosecutors here don’t make a deal that lets him off the hook if he resigns his office.  That would be an ultimate, final abuse of power.

Filed under: Current Affairs

Mar 052008

Sophisticated Negotiation Technique

Sophisticated Negotiation Technique

Brad and our co-tenants in Colorado, Still Secure, have already documented this — including a dedication from Still Secure (thanks, guys – you took the words right out of my mouth).  But still, the story must be recorded here for posterity as well, if for no other reason than how absurd it was.

We share a lease in Colorado with Still Secure (the lease used to be Brad’s/Mobius’s), and the lease ends this fall.  Both we and Still Secure have grown to the point where we’re bursting at the seams, so someone is going to have to move out.  After months of polite wrangling, it was clear there was no easy solution.  Sometimes, win-win just doesn’t exist.

So we did what any civilized bunch of people would do.  We flipped a coin.  It just seemed more entertaining in the end than rock-paper-scissors.  And unfortunately, we came up short.  But we had pre-negotiated a buy-out with Still Secure whereby the party who got to keep the space paid $X to the other party to cover moving expenses, furniture, and presumably pain and suffering, so now we have a full piggy bank to go procure and set up new space for ourselves.

Harvard Program on Negotiation — do I see a case study in the works?

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

Mar 052008

The Gift of Feedback

The Gift of Feedback

My colleague Anita Absey always says that “feedback is a gift.”  I’ve written in the past about our extensive 360 review process at Return Path, and also about how I handle my review and bring the Board in on it.  But this past week, I finished delivering all of our senior staff 360 reviews, and I received the write-up and analysis of my own review.  And once again, I have to say, the process is incredibly valuable. 

For the first time in a long time this year, I got a resounding “much improved” on all of my prior year’s development items from my team and from the Board.  This was great to hear.  As usual, this year’s development items are similarly thoughtful and build on the prior ones, in the context of where the business is going.  Since one of my prior year’s items was “be as transparent as possible,” I thought I’d share my development plan for the coming 12-18 months here on my blog.  If you’re reading this and you report to me, you’ll get a longer form debrief at our next offsite.

1. Continue making the organization more of a Hedgehog, lending more focus to our mission and removing distractions wherever possible.

2. Move the organization’s leadership team from “pacesetting” to “authoritative” management styles by focusing more on :

    a. standards of excellence around employee behavior and performance: develop a more clear performance management system, raise the bar on accountability around leadership and management issues, shift management training from tools to values-based coaching

    b. clear communication loops: balance open door policy with manager empowerment by getting the executive in charge to fix issues (instead of fixing them myself) and/or facilitating stronger manager-employee communication

    c. constant translation of vision into execution: foster clearer context and deeper employee engagement by not just communicating vision, but communicating HOW the vision becomes reality at every opportunity

3. Sharpen elbows further around leadership team: identify key attributes of success, weed out underperformers, re-scope other roles, and clarify “partner for success” opportunities as part of core responsibilities. Make each individual’s development needs public in the senior team (I guess this is the first step towards that!)

4. Make the organization more nimble, inspiring a bias for action through shifts in priorities and cross-functional swat teams where required

So there you go.  If you work at Return Path, please feel free to hold my feet to the fire in the coming months on these points!

Filed under: Leadership, Management


Mar 022008

Advisory Boards

Advisory Boards

This is a topic that’s come up a fair amount lately here. Advisory Boards can be great sources of help for entrepreneurs. They can also be great things to participate in. Here are a handful of quick tips for both sides of the equation.

If you are building an advisory board:

- Figure out what kind of Advisory Board you want to build — is it one that functions as a group, or is it one that’s a collection of individual advisers, and a Board in name only?

- Clarify the mission, role, and expected time required from advisers on paper, both for yourself and for people you ask

- Be prepared to pay for people’s time somehow (see below)

- Figure out the types of people you want on your Advisory Board up front, as well as a couple candidates for each “slot.” For example, you may want one financial adviser, one industry adviser, one seasoned CEO to act as a mentor or coach, and one technical adviser

- Aim high. Ask the absolute best person you can get introduced to for each slot. People will be flattered to be asked. Many will say yes. The worst they will do is say no and refer you to others who might be similarly helpful (if you ask for it)

- Work your Advisory Board up to the expectation you set for them.  Make sure you include them enough in company communications and documents so they are up to speed and can be helpful when you need them.  Treat them as much like a Board of Directors as you can

If you are asked to serve on an advisory board:

- Make sure you are interested in the subject matter of the company, or

- That you have a good reason to want to spend time with the entrepreneur or the other Advisory Board members for other reasons, and

- Don’t be afraid to say no if these conditions aren’t met (it’s your time, no reason to be too altruistic)

- Clarify up front the time commitment

- Try to get some form of compensation for your effort, whether a modest option grant (size totally depends on the time commitment), or the ability to invest in the company

- Be sure to let your employer know. Ask for permission if the business you’re advising is at all related to your company, and get the permission in writing for your HR file

- Follow through on your commitment to the entrepreneur, and resign from the Advisory Board if you can’t

Those are some initial thoughts — any others out there?

Filed under: Entrepreneurship