Sep 262008

Like an Organ Transplant

Like an Organ Transplant

I’ve often said that hiring a new senior person into an organization is a bit like doing an organ transplant. You can do all the scientific work up front to see if there’s a match, but you never know until the organ is in the new body, and often some months have gone by, whether the body will take or reject the organ.

New senior people in particular have a vital role in organizations. Often they are brought in to fix something that’s broken, or to start up a new position that growth has created. Sometimes they are replacing a problematic person (or a beloved one). Usually the hope is that they will also bring a fresh perspective and good outside view to bear on people whose heads are too much “in the business.” In all cases, their role as leaders makes them higher visibility and higher profile than most, and therefore more impactful if they succeed. It also makes them more problematic if they don’t.

What happens that causes the body to reject the organ? It could be a few things, but in my experience it’s usually one of three. Sometimes the execution isn’t there — in other words, the person knows what needs to be done but isn’t effective in getting it done, for any number of reasons. Usually you feel like you were sold a bill of goods. Other times, specifically in cases where the person is coming into a new job that didn’t exist before, it turns out the job was poorly specified and doesn’t need to exist, or that the person coming in is the wrong person for it. Usually the person feels like he or she was sold a bill of goods.

But I think in most cases, the cultural fit just isn’t there. And that’s not really anyone’s fault, although it *should be* something you can interview for to a large extent. These are the most painful ones to deal with. Decent to stellar execution (good enough to not end employment over it), but poor cultural fits.

How quickly does this take? I’ve seen it take a quarter. I’ve also seen it take a year. But in both cases, the warning signs were there much sooner.

A footnote on this is that as Return Path has grown, I’ve come to a new thought about this — it doesn’t just apply to senior people. It applies to almost any new hire. It may be an outcome of having a really strong and consistent culture, or it may just be the natural extension of this axiom.

Filed under: Human Resources, Leadership

Sep 222008



This past weekend was a weekend of closure for me. As I prepare to leave the city after almost 17 years and the apartment I’ve lived in for almost 15, we had my two original roommates from this apartment in town for the weekend with their families for a bit of a farewell party. Times certainly have changed – from three single guys to three families and 7, almost 8 kids between us. Sitting around and noting that all three couples had either gotten engaged or first started dating within the confines of Apartment 35B, then saying goodbye as everyone left the apartment for the last time, was a little surreal. But overall, having everyone around was great fun and was a fitting way to mark the occasion.

If that wasn’t enough to drive the point home, we were lucky enough to get tickets to the Yankees game last night, which was the last home game the Yanks will play in their 85-year old stadium before moving across the street next season to their fancy new home. The ceremony before the game, which featured a bunch of prominent Yankee greats and their progeny (Babe Ruth’s daughter threw out the opening pitch!), was similarly surreal, but a fitting ending to a long-standing tradition.


Why is closure important? I’m not a psychologist, but for me and my brain anyway, celebrating or formally noting the END of something helps move on to the BEGINNING of the next thing. It helps compartmentalize and define an experience. It provides time to reflect on a change and WHY it’s (inevitably) both good and bad. And I suppose it appeals to the sentimentalist in me.

I think it’s important to create these moments in business as well as in one’s personal life. We and I have done them sporadically at Return Path over the years. Moving offices as we expand. Post-mortems on projects gone well or badly. Retrospectives with employees who didn’t work out, sometimes months after the fact. Whether the moment is an event, a speech at an all-hands meeting, or even just an email to ALL, one of the main jobs of a leader in building and driving a corporate culture is to identify them and mark them.

Sep 192008

Why The Rules Have to Be Flexible

Why The Rules Have to Be Flexible

We have clients ask us all the time – how much email should I be sending out to my subscribers? One a week? One a month? And usually, we give the same advice – it depends on what you are sending, and on what expectation you set with your subscribers when they sign up.

This week is a great example that proves the rule “it depends.” I get the Wall Street Journal’s email alerts of major headlines. I think I’ve subscribed in two different categories, maybe three – I can’t remember, since I signed up about 10 years ago. In a typical week, across all the categories, I might get 5 or 10 emails from the Journal. So far this week, I’ve received 42 — and my guess is that we’ll close out the week around 50.

With all the global financial markets in turmoil, of course the Journal should be sending out news more frequently. It doesn’t even occur to me that it’s “too much email” or spam. In fact, I would have thought something was weird if I didn’t get a lot of them this week. Context makes it right.

Filed under: Email


Sep 182008

Entrepreneur’s Perspective on Non-Competes

Entrepreneur’s Perspective on Non-Competes

(Note: I just found this post in the “drafts” folder and realize I never put it up! It was written months ago, although I just updated it a bit.)

Bijan Sabet kicked off the discussion about non-competes by asserting that they are a barrier to innovation and that they are unenforceable in California anyway, so why bother?

Fred continued the discussion and made some good assertions about the value of non-competes, summarizing his points as:

Non-competes are very much in the interests of our portfolio companies. But the non-competes need to be tightly defined and the term of the non-compete needs to be paid for by the portfolio company if the employee was forced out of the company. The non-competes should certainly apply to all senior management team members and all key employees (like star engineers and such). It takes a lot of work to build a company. You should not risk all that knowledge and talent being able to walk out the door and set up shop across the street.

Brad and Jason/Ask the VC are generally on board with Fred’s view.

We’ve had non-competes since the beginning at Return Path.  I am generally in agreement with Fred’s parameters, but to spell out ours:

1. Our non-competes are very narrowly defined.  I had a very bad taste in my mouth when AOL acquired my former company, MovieFone, back in 1999 and stuck a 3-year non-compete in front of me that would have prohibited me from working anywhere else in the Internet.  I think the language was something like “can’t work in any business that competes with AOL or AOL’s partners in the businesses they are in today or may enter in the future.”  It was just silly.  Our non-competes apply very narrowly to existing direct competitors of the part of Return Path in which the given employee works.

2. We do not pay for non-competes.  Because our non-competes are very narrowly defined, we don’t expect to pay for someone to sit on the sidelines.  If people leave, or even if people are fired, they have 99.99% of the companies in the world as potential employers. 

3. We are willing to excuse people from non-competes if they are laid off.  Fair is fair.  However, we still expect our confidentiality and non-solicit agreements to remain in full force.

4. Everyone signs the same non-compete.  100% of the people, 100% of the time.  Same language.  No exceptions.  Again, this comes back to how narrowly defined the non-compete is.  It shouldn’t just be limited to senior executives.  Obviously you have to respect local laws of places like California or   Europ which have different views of non-competes.  If these cause in equalities in your employee base by geography, we make an effort to “re-equalize” in other ways.

5. We enforce non-competes in all situations.  I don’t believe in selective enforcement.  That sends the wrong message to employees.  We have had a couple instances where junior people have left and brazenly gone to a competitor.  While we have never blocked someone from starting a new job, we would if there wasn’t another resolution.  Fortunately, in those cases for us, we have contacted the employee and the hiring company and been able to work out a deal — the employee went to work in a non-competitive part of the new company, we struck a commercial relationship between us and the hiring company, etc.

6. We try to play by the rules when hiring people who have non-competes.  I think consistency is important here show to employees.  If we expect people to respect our non-compete, we should respect other companies’ non-competes.  This doesn’t mean we don’t try hard to lure competitors’ people to us when the situation warrants — it just means that if a non-compete is relevant and in effect, we will either make a deal with the other company, or in special circumstances, we will pay the employee to sit on the sidelines and ride out the non-compete.  This is a tricky process, but we’ve had it work before, and we’d do it again for the right person.

Our people and intellectual capital are a huge source of competitive advantage.  They are also the product of massive investment that we make in developing our people.  A good, narrow, non-compete is important for the company and can be done in ways that are fair to employees who are the beneficiaries of the training and development as well as their employment.  I think that’s part of the social contract of a great workplace.  Non-competes don’t stifle innovation — they protect investments that lead to innovation.  I suppose the same argument could be made of patents, some of which make more sense than others, but that’s the subject of another rant sometime.

But at the end of the day, it’s up to us to retain our people by providing a great place to work and advance careers so this whole thing is a non-issue!

Sep 152008



Note: Jonathan is a colleague of mine in our Authentic Response research business.

[Me] Hey, I heard you moved back to New York (from Boston)

[Jonathan] Yeah, the travel was getting to be too much. Plus, a buddy of mine was looking for a roommate

[Me] Where’s the place?

[Jonathan] Murray Hill

[Me] Oh – I lived there years ago. Where?

[Jonathan] Near 2nd and 34th

[Me] What building?

[Jonathan] It’s a small walk-up – you wouldn’t know it – 633 Second Avenue

[Me] NO WAY. I used to live there. Which floor?

[Jonathan] Third

[Me] Yup – that was my old apartment – from 15 years ago!

What a weird, weird, weird, thing.

Filed under: Current Affairs, New York

Sep 112008

7 Years On

7 Years On

My last September 11 as a New York City resident. I walked down to the World Trade Center site this morning as I have each of the last six 9/11s and rang The Bell of the Unforgotten, which is the New York City Fire Department’s port-a-memorial that they bring out for the day. As a long-time member of the lower Manhattan community, the day always bring out a lot of reflection for me. Seeing the memorial flood lights on tonight will do the same and bookend the day.

The main thing I was thinking about this morning was why there’s been nothing really built yet on the site. World Trade Center 7 (which is actually adjacent to the main site) went up in a hurry a few years ago (pictured here under construction four years ago), but nothing else.

My general understanding of the situation is that the holdup has not been around clean-up or pre-construction the last several years, but all about legal, political, and insurance issues. And that smacks to me of a leadership problem. I realize there are a lot of parties involved, and a lot at stake, but it’s just embarrassing to America that we haven’t rebuilt the site — and fast. Set an example to the rest of the world that we react swiftly and don’t let the bad guys knock us down…and keep us down.

It feels to me like a President who actually understood leadership would have gotten all the parties in a room together and not let them out until there was agreement on a plan. Don’t just let “the system” play things out laissez faire, but actually play them out in a hurry so the country and city can move forward. It feels like the kind of thing Reagan or Clinton would have done.

As I reflect on this today, the one thing I’m happy about is that no matter who wins the White House, America will be getting a leadership upgrade.

Sep 082008

I Can’t Tell If I Like This Or Not

I Can’t Tell If I Like This Or Not

I am blogging at 35,000 feet, using American Airlines’ new GoGo in-flight Wi-Fi service. I am definitely having mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it’s nice to download the 47 emails I just wrote before two-hours after landing (sorry, team!). It’s also nice to be able to clean out my Inbox so it’s not overflowing when I get to our California office.

On the other hand, it has the potential to destroy one of the last few places in my life that’s completely free of connectivity. That kind of makes me sad.

I think I’m going to turn it off once I do a single pass at the Inbox. I guess I can turn it back on for the same $12.95 fee if I need it again. This service is a great convenience but a bit of a luxury. At least the guy next to me isn’t using Skype!

Filed under: Email, Technology

Tags: ,

Sep 052008

Hands in the Cookie Jar

Hands in the Cookie Jar

It feels like I’m closing a lot of transactions lately. Today is another one – we are closing on a house. Somehow, no matter how much of an owner you are of your business, wiring money out of your own personal bank account is a bit harder than wiring from the corporate account.

I’ve observed something over the years with transaction closings – both personal and business. I call it the Hands in the Cookie Jar phenomenon. When a lot of money is on the table and trading hands, and when there are a lot of parties involved (not just the principles, but various agents and lawyers as well), the closer you get to the transaction closing, the more hands appear outstretched ready to grab a small piece of the money.

Today, it was about agents, lawyers, banks, mortgage brokers. And as we found out on yesterday’s walk-through of the house, it is also about the “guys,” as our real estate agent referred to them. You know, the tree guy, the termite guy, the plumbing and heating guy, on and on. Everyone is swarming to collect checks for all the work they’re doing or think they’re doing, some of which is valuable, and some of which just feels like highway robbery.

With corporate transactions, it’s usually more about the principles or people closer in. Sure, you have to pay bankers and lawyers, but corporate transactions are the time when others in the company — board members, execs, employees — all want to try to cut their own new deal at the last minute. We’ve had some bad experiences with this in the past, including a senior employee who threatened to quit if he didn’t get what he thought he should get out of a deal. And those situations are probably the most difficult to deal with.

Some of this is inevitable. Things come up that you didn’t anticipate in advance. Circumstances change. But in general, my approach to these things is that the best way to avoid the Hands in the Cookie Jar phenomenon is to document everything earlier on in the process and be unyielding as you get closer in. Just because money is changing hands doesn’t mean more hands get to be in the mix!

Filed under: Business

Sep 042008

Sometimes You Just Need a 2×4 Between the Eyes

Sometimes You Just Need a 2×4 Between the Eyes

Freshman year in college, fall semester, my friend Peggy and I were in a small seminar class together on Dante. We thought we were pretty smart before the class started. And that we were great writers. Lots of As in high school. Then we wrote our first paper. Professor Bob Hollander gave me a C-. I think Peggy got a D. We were devastated. And pissed. Sure, the ensuing cocktail took the edge off (this was college, after all), but we both scheduled time with the professor during his office hours to figure out where our carefully honed academic trains had gone off the tracks.

Essentially what he said to each of us was this (you have to picture the 60-something professor in a turtleneck smoking a pipe with gravely voice for full effect): “Matthew, your writing wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. But I feel like you can do better, and sometimes you just need a 2×4 between the eyes.” End of meeting. Thank you, sir, may I please have another?

I couldn’t have been more irritated. But I will tell you one thing. I worked four times as hard on my next paper, got an A-, and elevated my game permanently. Not just for this one class, but for all of them. Bob was right. His 2×4 between my eyes worked.

Sometimes when we deliver performance feedback in business, this approach makes sense. There are times when someone is really doing poorly and needs harsh (fair, but honest) feedback. There are also times when someone is doing so-so but generally just not living up to his or her promise and should be doing better. And in those cases, you have to just make a judgment call about whether to give feedback on the margin or go for the full 2×4 to drive the point home and get someone to really elevate his or her game for good.

Filed under: Leadership

Sep 012008

Back to…

Back to…

I’m not in school any more, and as far as I can tell now, schools start before Labor Day for the most part, but it still feels like tomorrow is “back to school” for the working world. Business still hums along in August, and we’ve certainly had our hands full with one of the busiest months ever at Return Path, but somehow, the traditional end of the summer season still manages to have the trappings of a European August, with lots of people on vacation or doing more “work from home” days than usual.

As all that draws to a close today, at least for me personally, it’s Back to…lots of things:

– Back to New York! After a few weeks out of the city at our house in the mountains, it’s great to be back in Metropolis

– Back to shorter and more varied workouts! Training for my recent half marathon meant a lot of long runs and not much else. Now back to weights, pilates, elliptical, and swimming

– Back to more serious reading! I’ve read a bunch of trash over the summer. I was way overdue. My brain was starting to hurt. So I tuned out of almost all news, business books, and non-fiction for a month, and I plowed through enough murder mysteries to wallpaper a library (no doubt one populated by Colonel Mustard and Mrs. Peacock)

– Back to business! A few days and half days off and some working from home behind me, it’s time to gear up for a very busy September and October. Always busy months with industry events and pre-holiday retail client frenzy, this year will be even busier as we work to integrate our recent acquisition of Habeas as well as complete a number of other big initiatives

So happy Labor Day, which Wikipedia notes was created in 1882 and federalized in 1894 as “a day off for its working citizens.”

Filed under: Leadership, New York