May 262011

You Have to Throw a Stone to Get the Pond to Ripple

You Have to Throw a Stone to Get the Pond to Ripple

This is a post about productive disruption.  The title comes from one of my favorite lines from a song by Squeeze, Slap & Tickle.  But the concept is an important one for leaders at all levels, especially as businesses mature.

Founders and CEOs of early stage companies don’t disrupt the flow of the business.  Most of the time, they ARE the flow of the business.  They dominate the way everything works by definition — product development, major prospect calls, client dialog, strategy, and changes in strategy.  But as businesses get out of the startup phase and into the “growth” phase (I’m still trying to figure out what to call the phase Return Path is in right now), the founders and CEO should become less dominant.  The best way to scale a business is by not being Command Central any longer – to build an organization capable of running without you in many cases.

Organizations that get larger seek stability, and to some extent, they thrive on it.  The kinds of people you hire into a larger company aren’t accustomed to or prepared for the radical swings you get in startups.  And the business itself has needs specifically around a lack of change.  Core systems have to work flawlessly.  Changes to those systems have to go off without a hitch.  Clients need to be served and prospects need to be sold on existing products.  The world needs to understand your company’s positioning and value proposition clearly — and that can’t be the case if it’s changing all of the time.  Of course innovation is required, both within the core and outside of it, but the tensions there can be balanced out with the strengths of having a stable and profitable core (see my colleague George Bilbrey’s guest post on OnlyOnce a couple months back for more discussion on this point).

Despite all of this required stability, I think the art of being a leader in a growth organization is knowing when and how to throw that stone and get the pond to ripple — that is, when to be not just disruptive, but productively disruptive.

If done the right way, disruption from the top can be incredibly helpful and energizing to a company.  If done the wrong way, it can be distracting and demotivating.  I’ve been in environments where the latter is true, and it’s not fun.  I think the trick is to figure out how to blaze a new trail without torching what’s in place, which means forcing yourself to exercise a lot of judgment about who you disrupt, and when, and how (specifically, how you communicate what it is you’re doing and saying — see this recent post entitled “Try It On For Size” for a series of related thoughts).

Here are a few ideas for things that I’d consider productive disruption.  We’ve done some or shades of some of them at Return Path over the years.

  • Challenge everyone in the organization or everyone on your team to make a “stop doing” list, which forces people to critically evaluate all their ordinary processes and tasks and meetings and understand which ones are outdated, and therefore a waste of time
  • With the knowledge and buy-in of the group head, kick off an offsite meeting for a team other than the executive team by presenting them with your vision for the company three years down the road and ask them to come back to you in a week with four ideas of how they can help achieve that vision over time
  • If you see something going on in the organization that rubs you the wrong way, stop it and challenge it.  Do it politely (e.g., pull key people aside if need be), but ask why it’s going on, how it relates to the company’s mission or values as the case may be.  It’s ok to put people on the defensive periodically, as long as you’re asking them questions more than advocating your own position

I’m not saying we have it all figured out.  I have no doubt that my disruption is a major annoyance sometimes to people in the organization, and especially to people to report to me.  And I’ll try to perfect the art of being productive in my disruption.  But I won’t stop doing it — I believe it’s one of the engines of forward progress in the organization.

May 192011

Be Ruthless With Your Time

Be Ruthless With Your Time

I have historically been very open with my calendar.  For most of my career, people who want to meet with me, both internally or externally (with the exception of random vendor solicitation), generally have gotten to meet with me.  Some of this is generosity, but I’m also a compulsive networker and have always made time proactively to meet with people just to meet them, learn more about different pockets of the industry or finance, meet other entrepreneurs and find out what they’re up to or help them, and connect more broadly from there.  I’ve also routinely been on multiple boards at the same time, as I’ve found that’s a very helpful part of my management routine.

But of late, I’m struggling more and more with calendar management.  There are more and more demands on my time internally as Return Path gets bigger.  There are more asks from people with whom I really don’t want to meet.  More travel, which sucks up a lot time.  A longer commute and more people who I want to see at home who have early bedtimes.  So I’ve taken to being more ruthless with my time.  I could probably do an even better job at it than I am now.

The main shifts I’m trying to make are to be proactive instead of so reactive; to cut meetings, shrink them, or group them when appropriate internally; to use videoconferencing instead of travel where possible; and honestly to just be a little more selfish and guarded with my time.  If the meeting doesn’t have something in it for me or Return Path — some promise of learning something or meeting someone either directly or indirectly helpful — I’m unlikely to do it any more as I once would, or I’m pickier about it (it has to be in my office so I don’t have to travel…it can only be 30 minutes long, etc.).

The two main tools I’m trying to use to manage my calendar proactively, mostly driven my brilliant executive assistant Andrea, might be useful to others, so I thought I’d share them here.

The first one is a networking list.  Andrea and I created a simple spreadsheet of everyone externally that I like to keep in touch with, and we prioritized it.  Every time I meet with someone on it, we mark the date.  Then when we meet to review my calendar periodically, we look at the list and figure out who I should reach out to in order to set up the next wave of meetings.  (I have one for internal check-in meetings with people other than my direct reports as well.)

The second is a time allocation model.  I am sure I got this idea from David Allen or Jim Collins or some other author that I read along the way.  First, we are religious about keeping an accurate calendar, including travel time, and we even go back and clean up meetings after they’ve happened to make the calendar an accurate reflection of what transpired.  At the end of each quarter, we download the prior three months’ worth of meetings, we categorize them, and we see where my time went.  Then we make changes to the upcoming quarter’s calendar to match my targets based on what I’m trying to accomplish.  For what it’s worth, my categories have changed over time, but currently, they are Free, Travel, Non-Return Path, Internal, Board, Client/External.  Pretty high level.  This exercise has been really helpful in keeping me proactive and on track.

I miss some of the more random networking that I used to do.  I am at least a moderate believer in serendipity, and the likelihood of serendipity goes down as I clamp down on my calendar.  And I will miss being on some outside Boards or helping new entrepreneurs figure out how to be first time CEOs.  But hopefully my combination of being selectively proactive and exercising good judgment about what inbound things to jump on will keep the machine humming.

Filed under: Management

Tags: , ,

May 162011

Pret a Manager

Pret a Manager

My friend James is the GM of the Pret a Manger (a chain of about 250 “everyday luxury” quick service restaurants in the UK and US) at 36th and 5th in Manhattan.  James recently won the President’s Award at Pret for doing an outstanding job opening up a new restaurant.  As part of my ongoing effort to learn and grow as a manager, I thought it would be interesting to spend a day shadowing James and seeing what his operation and management style looked like for a team of two dozen colleagues in a completely different environment than Return Path.  That day was today.  I’ll try to write up the day as combination of observations and learnings applied to our business.  This will be a much longer post than usual.  The title of this post is not a typo – James is “ready to manage.”

1. Team meeting.  The day started at 6:45 a.m. pre-opening with a “team brief” meeting.  The meeting only included half a dozen colleagues who were on hand for the opening, it was a mix of fun and serious, and it ended with three succinct points to remember for the day.  I haven’t done a daily huddle with my team in years, but we do daily stand-ups all across the company in different teams.  The interesting learning, though, is that James leaves the meeting and writes the three points on a whiteboard downstairs near the staff room.  All staff members who come in after the meeting are expected to read the board and internalize the three points (even though they missed the meeting) and are quizzed on them spontaneously during the day.  Key learning:  missing a meeting doesn’t have to mean missing the content of the meeting.

2. Individual 1:1 meeting.  I saw one of these, and it was a mix of a performance review and a development planning session.  It was a little more one-way in communication than ours are, but it did end up having a bunch of back-and-forth.  James’s approach to management is a lot of informal feedback “in the moment,” so this formal check-in contained no surprises for the employee.  The environment was a little challenging for the meeting, since it was in the restaurant (there’s no closed office, and all meetings are done on-site).  The centerpiece of the meeting was a “Start-Stop-Continue” form.  Key learning:  Start-Stop-Continue is a good succinct check-in format.

3. Importance of values.  There were two forms of this that I saw today.  One was a list of 13 key behaviors with an explanation next to each of specific good and bad examples of the behavior.  The behaviors were very clear and were “escalating,” meaning Team Members were expected to practice the first 5-6 of them, Team Leads the first 7-8, Managers the first 10, Head Office staff the first 12, Executives all 13 (roughly).  The second was this “Pret Recipe,” as posted on the public message board (see picture below).  Note – just like our values at Return Path, it all starts with the employee.  One interesting nugget I got from speaking to a relatively new employee who had just joined at the entry level after being recruited from a prominent fast food chain where he had been a store general manager was “Pret really believes this stuff — no lip service.”

I saw the values in action in two different ways.  The first was on the message board, where each element of the Pret Recipe was broken out with a list of supporting documents below it, per the below photo.  Very visual, very clear.

The second was that in James’s team meeting and in his 1:1 meeting, he consistently referenced the behaviors.  Key learning:  having values is great, making them come to life and be relevant for a team day-in, day-out is a lot harder but quite powerful when you get it right.

4. Managing by checklist.  I wrote about this topic a while ago here, but there is nothing like food service retail to demand this kind of attention to detail.  Wow.  They have checklists and standards for everything.  Adherence to standards is what keeps the place humming.  Key learning:  it feels like we have ~1% of the documentation of job processes that Pret does, and I’m thinking that as we get bigger and have people in more and more locations doing the same job, a little more documentation is probably in order to ensure consistency of delivery.

5. Extreme team-based and individual incentive compensation.  Team members start at $9/hour (22% above minimum wage that most competitors offer).  However, any week in which any individual store passes a Mystery Shopper test, the entire staff receives an incremental $2/hour for the whole week.  Any particular employee who is called out for outstanding service during a Mystery Shop receives a $100 bonus, or a $200 bonus if the store also passes the test.  The way the math works out, an entry level employee who gets the maximum bonus earns a 100% bonus for that week.  But the extra $2/hour per team member for a week seemed to be a powerful incentive across the board.  Key learning: team-based incentive comp is something we use here for executives, but maybe it’s worth considering for other teams as well.

6. Integrated systems.  Pret has basically one single software system that runs the whole business from inventory to labor scheduling to finances.  All data flows through it directly from point of sale or via manager single-entry.  All reports are available on demand.  The system is pretty slick.  There doesn’t seem to be much use of side systems and side spreadsheets, though I’m sure there are some.  Key learning: there’s a lot to be said for having a little more information standardized across the business, though the flip side is that this system is a single point of failure and also much less flexible than what we have.

7. Think time.  I’ve written a little about working “on the business, not in the business,” or what I call OTB time, once before, and I have another post queued up for later this summer about the same.  Brad Feld also very kindly wrote about it in reference to Return Path last week.  Working in retail means that time to work on IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT issues is extremely hard to come by and fragmented.  I suspect that it comes more at the end of the day for James, and it probably comes a lot more when he doesn’t have someone like me observing him and asking him questions.  But his “office” (below), exposed to the loud music and sounds and smells of the kitchen, certainly doesn’t lend itself to think time!  Key learning:  of course customers come first, but boy is it critical to make space to work OTB, not just ITB.  Oh, and James needs a new chair that’s more ergonomically compatible with his high countertop desk.

Years ago, I spent a few weekends working in my cousin Michael’s wine store in Hudson, NY, and I wrote up the experience in two different posts on this blog, the first one about the similarities between running a 2-person company and a 200-person company, and the second one about how in a small business, you have to wear one of every kind of hat there is.  My conclusion then was that there are more similarities than differences when it comes to running businesses of different types.  My conclusion from today is exactly the same, though the focus on management made for a very different experience.

Thanks to James, Gustavo, Orlanda, Shawona, and the rest of the team at the 36th & 5th Pret for putting up with the distraction of me for the bulk of the day today — I learned a lot (and particularly enjoyed the NYC Meatball Hot Wrap) and now have to figure out how to return the favor to you!

May 122011



This is another gem that I picked up years ago from my boss at MovieFone — the “Great Employment Office In The Sky.”  It’s a simple but powerful concept:

  • the organization is grappling with a difficult employee situation, and
  • the likely path is that the employee needs to leave the organization either immediately or sometime in the future, and
  • it’s impossible for the organization to figure out how to get from A to B for whatever reason, then
  • the employee resigns of his or her own accord, or
  • the employee does something that leaves the organization no choice but to terminate him or her immediately with no gray area

This has come up time and again over the years for us, and it’s an incredible relief every time it happens.  I hate admitting that.  We try to be swift (and fair) in dealing with tough employee situations.  But the reality is that it’s quite difficult.  The easiest termination situation I have ever had as a manager — ironically the first one I ever did almost 15 years ago — was still hard, because (a) we’re all human, (b) difficult conversations are difficult, and (c) even the most clear-cut situations usually have some element of fuzziness or doubt lurking in the background.

I don’t know why the GEOITS happens.  It probably has a lot to do with employees being perceptive and also recognizing that things aren’t going well.  I am not sure I have a settled or consistent view of karma and larger forces at work in the workplace.  But I’m glad there is a GEOITS at work at least once in a while!

May 102011

Blogiversary, Part VII

Blogiversary, Part VII

Today marks the seventh anniversary of OnlyOnce.  I haven’t marked the date with a post in three years, but here was my last such post (with links to prior posts in it).  In sum up until now, my reasons for blogging have been written up as:

  • “Thinking” (writing short posts helps me crystallize my thinking)
  • “Employees” (one of our senior people once called reading OnlyOnce “getting a peek inside Matt’s head)
  • My book reviews help me crystallize my takeaways from books and serve as a bit of a personal reference library
  • I like writing and don’t get to do it often

After seven years, though, I’m going to add another important point of value for me for writing OnlyOnce:  now, at 672 posts (including 27 that are scheduled but not yet posted – easy a record for me), this blog now serves as a repository for me of my own lessons learned, best practices, anecdotes, and aphorisms.  Thanks to Lijit, it’s easy for me and others to search.  Thanks to the new WordPress format and design by my friends at Slice of Lime, the categories and tagging make it much easier to navigate.

I probably get one question a week from a fellow CEO or prospective entrepreneur or employee that, instead of typing out an answer or setting up a meeting, I can actually just send a link as a starting point.  Sometimes there are follow-up questions, sometimes there aren’t.  But the blog is proving to be a very efficient form of documentation.

May 052011

The Gift of Feedback, Part III

The Gift of Feedback, Part III

I’ve written about our 360 Review process at Return Path a few times in the past:

And the last two times around, I’ve also posted the output of my own review publicly here in the form of my development plan:

So here we are again.  I have my new development plan all spruced up and ready to go.  Many thanks to my team and Board for this valuable input, and to Angela Baldonero (my fantastic SVP People and in-house coach), and Marc Maltz of Triad Consulting for helping me interpret the data and draft this plan.  Here at a high level is what I’m going to be working on for the next 1-2 years:

  • Institutionalize impatience and lessen the dependency dynamic on me.  What does this mean?  Basically it means that I want to make others in the organization and on my team in particular as impatient as I am for progress, success, reinvention, streamlining and overcoming/minimizing operational realities.  I’ll talk more about something I’ve taken to calling “productive disruption” in a future blog post
  • Focus on making every staff interaction at all levels a coaching session.  Despite some efforts over the years, I still feel like I talk too much when I interact with people in the organization on a 1:1 or small group basis.  I should be asking many more questions and teaching people to fish, not fishing for them
  • Continue to foster deep and sustained engagement at all levels.  We’ve done a lot of this, really well, over the years.  But at nearly 250 people now and growing rapidly, it’s getting harder and harder.  I want to focus some real time and energy in the months to come on making sure we keep this critical element of our culture vibrant at our new size and stage
  • I have some other more tactical goals as well like improving at public speaking and getting more involved with leadership recruiting and management training, but the above items are more or less the nub of it

One thing I know I’ll have to do with some of these items and some of the tactical ones in particular is engage in some form of deliberate practice, as defined by Geoffrey Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated (blog post on the book here).  That will be interesting to figure out.

But that’s the story.  Everyone at Return Path and on my Board – please help me meet these important goals for my development over the next couple of years!

May 032011

Why Winning Matters (Especially When You’re Young)

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has long been a leading voice for direct marketing for nearly 100 years – back when direct marketing was really only about postal. It has evolved in that time to include phone, fax (for the nanosecond that was relevant), and then interactive tactics, including email. While the DMA has not always incorporated the new technologies in the most elegant way – the tendency has been to apply previous best practices, even when consumers have demanded a new way of thinking – the organization has made tremendous strides in recent years to re-shape itself into an organization that will be relevant for another 100 years.

And one way it is doing that is by supporting and recognizing achievements among start-ups and new ventures, they’ve announced a new award called the Early Stage Innovation Award.

As a DMA Board member and mentor of TechStars/SeedCamp companies, I am happy to see my two interests coming together in this way. Return Path’s own history of innovation and supporting new companies that are at the leading edge of the progress of direct marketing (including email) is well documented.

I’ve said that marketing is like eating French fries (and ice cream– I like snack-based analogies) and it’s hard to know when to stop grabbing for just one more. There’s always one more thing you can do to position your company and gain awareness. But I can give you a tip. This award? It’s a fry worth eating.

Awards don’t just make you feel you great; they can provide credibility in a crowded marketplace. What’s important about this Early Stage Innovation award is the exposure. Being industry-acknowledged as a company that makes new rules or changes the game? That’s the kind of ROI and opportunity that a growing company can really run with.

The other thing I love about awards and the shows where they are presented is the chance to learn about what’s new and interesting. Attending these shows helps link me to companies who may be creating tools that I didn’t even realize I was lacking and may not have heard about otherwise. I get the opportunity to learn more about problems other companies may be facing as well as seeing the solutions being proposed. For a smaller, new company, this chance to connect may lead to the support they need to grow and eventually be eligible for accolades in growth and long-term success.

If your young company is doing something new and innovative in direct marketing, consider submitting for an award. But hurry! Entries are due by May 15. Finalists will be selected and showcased during our ALL FOR ONE Marketing Summit June 20-21 in New York NY. I’m looking forward to hearing about these exciting new companies at the Summit.

May 022011



Once I stripped out the spam and the person:person emails from my inbox this morning, here were the five subject lines I was left with:

  • Wall Street Journal:  Osama Bin Laden is Dead
  • [eCommerce company]:  Final Hours to Shop Our Private Sale!
  • Wall Street Journal:  Bin Laden Was Killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan Official Says
  • [Travel site]:  Last minute deals from NYC and more!
  • Wall Street Journal:  Osama Bin Laden Buried at Sea
  • Return Path (yes, my own company):  Why Whitelisting is Important to Your Email Marketing Mix

The cynic in me says “wow, nice timing on the email marketing.”  I am guessing the attention and click-through on anything other than today’s big news will be greatly diminished.

But the realist in me says there’s no way anyone in a marketing department can figure out how to optimize around headlines delivered during a 24-hour global news cycle.

Does anyone have a theory about how to think about this?  Is it even a problem?