Jul 282011

Management by Chameleon

Management by Chameleon

When I first became a manager, back in the MovieFone days, I had the good fortune to have an extreme case of “first time manager”– I went from managing nobody to managing 1 person to managing something like 20 people inside 6 months.  As a result, I feel like I learned a couple lessons more quickly than I might otherwise have learned them.  One was around micromanagement and delegation.  When I went from 0 to 1 direct report, I micromanaged (I still feel bad about that, Alissa).  But when I went from 1 to 20, I just couldn’t micromanage any more, and I couldn’t do it all myself.  I had to learn how to delegate, though I’m sure I was clumsy at it at first.

The larger lesson I learned when I went from 1 direct report to 5 (each of whom had a team underneath her) is that different people and different teams require different management styles and approaches.  This is what I call management by chameleon.  As a chameleon has the same body but shows it differently as situations warrant, you can have a consistent management philosophy but show it differently when you are with different direct reports or teams.

On my original team at MovieFone, I had one person who was incredibly quantitative and detail/process oriented and who indirectly managed a lot of products and processes outside our group.  I had another who was a complete newbie to the company and to an operating role (she was a former management consultant) with a large number of entry level employees in the field.  I had another who was an insanely creative insomniac trying to blaze new trails and create editorial content inside a technology company.  A fourth was a very broad thinking generalist, one of those great corporate athletes, who managed whatever fell between the cracks.  And the last was a commercial banker turning herself into a relationship management specialist working with an unorthodox business model and partners who half the time felt threatened by us.

In short, I had five incredibly different people to manage with five incredibly different functions and team types/employees under them.

And I learned over time — I like to think I learned it in a hurry, but I’m sure it took a couple of years, and I’m probably still working on it — that trying to manage those people and the second-level identically was counterproductive.  A small example:  8 a.m. meetings for the insomniac never worked well.  A bigger example:  diving into strategic topics with the former consultant who just joined the team and had never managed anyone before was a little bit of focusing on the forest and forgetting about the trees.

At the end of the day, you are who you are as a manager.  You are hard-charging, you are great at developing individuals, you seek consensus.  But how you show these traits to your team, and how you get your team to do the work you need them to do, can differ greatly person by person.

Jul 212011

Solving Problems Together

Solving Problems Together

Last week, I started a series of new posts about our core values (a new tag in the tag cloud for this series) at Return Path.  Read the first one on Ownership here.

Another one of our core values is around problem solving, and ownership is intrinsically related.  We believe that all employees are responsible for owning solutions, not just surfacing problems.  The second core value I’ll write about in this series is written specifically as:

We solve problems together and always present problems with potential solutions or paths to solutions

In terms of how this value manifests itself in our daily existence, for one thing, I see people working across teams and departments regularly, at their own initiative, to solve problems here.  It happens in a very natural way.  Things don’t have to get escalated up and down management chains.  People at all levels seem to be very focused on solving problems, not just pointing them out, and they have good instincts for where, when, and how they can help on critical (and non-critical) items.

Another example, again relative to other workplaces I’ve either been at or seen, is that people complain a lot less here.  If they see something they don’t like, they do something about it, solve the problem themselves, or escalate quickly and professionally. The amount of finger pointing tends to be very low, and quite frankly, when fingers are pointed, they’re usually pointed inward to ask the question, “what could I have done differently?”

The danger of a highly collaborative culture like ours is teams getting stuck in consensus-seeking.  Beware!  The key is to balance collaboration on high value projects with authoritative leadership & direction.

A steady flow of problems are inherent in any business.  I’m thankful that my colleagues are generally quite strong at solving them!

Jul 182011

Book Short: I Wish This Existed 12 Years Ago

Book Short:  I Wish This Existed 12 Years Ago

Brad Feld has been on my board for over a decade now, and when he and his partner Jason Mendelson told me about a new book they were writing a bunch of months ago called Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, I took note.  I thought, “Hmmm.  I’d like to be smarter than my lawyer or venture capitalist.”

Then I read an advanced copy.  I loved it.  At first, I thought, I would really have benefited from this when I started Return Path way back when.  Then as I finished reading it, I realized it’s just a great reference book even now, all these years and financings later.  But as much as I enjoyed the early read, I felt like something was missing from the book, since its intended audience is entrepreneurs.

Brad and Jason took me up on my offer to participate in the book’s content a little bit, and they are including in the book a series of 50-75 sidebars called “The Entrepreneur’s Perspective” which I wrote and which they and others edited.  For almost every topic and sub-topic in the book, I chime in, either building on, or disagreeing, with Brad and Jason’s view on the subject.

The book is now out.  As Brad noted in his launch post, the book’s table of contents says a lot:

  1. The Players
  2. How to Raise Money
  3. Overview of the Term Sheet
  4. Economic Terms of the Term Sheet
  5. Control Terms of the Term Sheet
  6. Other Terms of the Term Sheet
  7. The Capitalization Table
  8. How Venture Capital Funds Work
  9. Negotiation Tactics
  10. Raising Money the Right Way
  11. Issues at Different Financing States
  12. Letters of Intent – The Other Term Sheet
  13. Legal Things Every Entrepreneur Should Know

Fred has posted his review of the book as well.

Bottom line:  if you are an aspiring or actual entrepreneur, buy this book.  Even if you’ve done a couple of financings, this is fantastic reference material, and Brad and Jason’s points of view on things are incredibly insightful beyond the facts.  And I hope my small contributions to the book are useful for entrepreneurs as well.

Jul 142011

Retail, No Longer

Retail, No Longer

I’ve evolved my operating system as a CEO many times over the years as our business at Return Path has changed and as the company has scaled up.  I’ve changed my meeting routines, I’ve delegated more things, and I’ve gotten less in the details of the business.

But there’s one specific thing where I’ve remained very “retail,” or on the front lines, and that is the interview process.  I still interview every new hire, usually on the phone or Skype and in most cases only for 15-30 minutes, and then I also do an in-person 15-30 minute check-in when someone is around the 90-day mark as an employee.  For me, these have both been great mechanisms for collecting data about the organization, for making a personal impression on the culture, and for continuing to get to know all employees, at least a little bit.

But the system is starting to break as we scale.  Last year, we hired 82 people.  In the first six months of this year, we hired 80 more.  My calendar is groaning under the strain — and I assume, though they’ve never uttered a complaint about it, that my assistant and our recruiters feel like they’re playing a game of Sudoku with invisible ink trying to make it all work.

So today I changed the policy.  I’ll still do interviews and 90-day check-ins for all manager hires, but otherwise I’m delegating it to my staff.  We all feel that it’s critical for executives to stay as close as possible to the front lines, so we’ll share in the responsibilities.

It’s definitely a bittersweet moment.  It’s great that we’re big and growing fast, and it’s important for us to evolve.  But I will miss the personal connections with everyone, and I’ll have to work harder just to remember names as I walk through the hallways, particularly of our Colorado office, which has the majority of our staff but which I only visit 6-8 times/year.

Jul 072011

The Value of Ownership

The Value of Ownership

We believe in ownership at Return Path.  One of our 13 core values, as I noted in my prior post, which kicks off a series of 13 posts, is:

We are all owners in the business and think of our employment at the company as a two-way street

We give stock options to every employee, and we regularly give additional grants to employees as well, as their initial grants vest, as they get promoted into more senior roles, and as they earn them through outstanding performance.  But beyond giving those grants out, we regularly remind people that they are part owners of the business, and we encourage them to act that way.  Among other mechanisms for this is an award we allow employees to give out to one another (through a regular mechanism we have for this, which I’ve written about in the past here), the Think Like an Owner award.

One great example of how this value appears in the workplace is that, more often than not, our people think about how to invest money rather than how to spend it.  I wish this happened 100% of the time, and we’re working towards that, but for the most part, people here don’t talk about things like “budget,” “headcount,” and “spend” the way they do at other companies.

Another example is around the “two-way street” concept written into the value statement.  We trust our employees to make every effort to do right by the company, and we make every effort to right by employees in return.  Among other things, we don’t have a formal vacation policy. People are encouraged to take as much vacation as they can, at least 3-4 weeks per year.  We track the days just to make sure people are in fact taking time off, but we don’t have a limit, and we also don’t let people accumulate compensation if they don’t take the time off.  We decided at some point – we don’t count how many hours people work, why should we count the hours they don’t?  We trust that people will get their jobs done, and if they don’t, they will suffer other consequences.  The result of this policy is that people are basically taking the same amount of vacation time they took before, maybe slightly more, but they are liberated from fretting over their time if they want or need extra days or half days here or there.

Two other examples are things we started more recently.  One is called OTB Day, which stands for “On The Business.”  Having a full day set aside each month that is meeting-free and travel-free is a way of carving time out for people to take a step back from their day-to-day jobs of working IN the business so every single employee can spend a relatively distraction-free day being thoughtful about working ON the business and figuring out how we can reinvent and reimagine things as opposed to just doing them.  The other is the concept of a Hack-a-thon.  A lot has been written about this topic on lots of other blogs, but fundamentally, this is about trusting that our whole employee population (these are open to everyone, not just engineers) can figure out how to spend two days’ time wisely working on “outside” projects.

The dividends just keep accumulating as we get larger and as the culture of ownership becomes more and more ingrained.  How owner-like do your employees feel about your company?

Jul 072011

Return Path Core Values

Return Path Core Values

At Return Path, we have a list of 13 core values that was carefully cultivated and written by a committee of the whole (literally, every employee was involved) about 3 years ago.

I love our values, and I think they serve us incredibly well — both for what they are, and for documenting them and discussing them publicly.  So I’ve decided to publish a blog post about each one (not in order, and not to the exclusion of other blog posts) over the next few months.  I’ll probably do one every other week through the end of the year.  The first one will come in a few minutes.

To whet your appetite, here’s the full list of values:

  1. We believe that people come first
  2. We believe in doing the right thing
  3. We solve problems together and always present problems with potential solutions or paths to solutions
  4. We believe in keeping the commitments we make, and communicate obsessively when we can’t
  5. We don’t want you to be embarrassed if you make a mistake; communicate about them and learn from them
  6. We believe in being transparent and direct
  7. We challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense
  8. We value execution and results, not effort on its own
  9. We are serious and passionate about our job and positive and light-hearted about our day
  10. We are obsessively kind to and respectful of each other
  11. We realize that people work to live, not live to work
  12. We are all owners in the business and think of our employment at the company as a two-way street
  13. We believe inboxes should only contain messages that are relevant, trusted, and safe

Do these sound like Motherhood and Apple Pie?  Yes.  Do I worry when I publish them like this that people will remind me that Enron’s number one value was Integrity?  Totally.  But am I proud of my company, and do I feel like we live these every day…and that that’s one of the things that gives us massive competitive advantage in life?  Absolutely!  In truth, some of these are more aspirational than others, but they’re written as strong action verbs, not with “we will try to” mushiness.

I will start a tag for my tag cloud today called Return Path core values.  There won’t be much in it today, but there will be soon!