Sep 292011

Challenging Authority

Challenging Authority

My dad told me a joke once about a kid who as a teenager thought his father was the dumbest person he’d ever met. But then, as the punchline goes, “By the time I’d graduated college, it was amazing how much the old man had learned.”

The older we get as humans, the more we realize how little we know — and how fallible we are. One of our 13 core values at Return Path gets right to the heart of this one:

We challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense

I will note up front that this particular value statement is probably not as widely practiced as most of the others I’m writing about in this series of posts, but it’s as important as any of the others.

Very few things make me happier at work than when an employee challenges me or another leader — and quite frankly, the more junior and less well I know the employee, the better. No matter what the role, we hire smart, ambitious, and intellectually curious people to work at Return Path. Why let all that raw brainpower go to waste?  We thrive as a company in part because we are all trying to do a better job, and because we work with our eyes open to the things happening around us.

I have no doubt that some real percentage of the decisions that I or other leaders of the company make don’t make sense, either in full or in part. And I’m sure that from time to time we become complacent with things that are running smoothly or quietly, even if they’re not optimal or even moderately destructive.  That’s why I’m particularly grateful when someone calls me out on something. We have made great strides in and changes to the business over the years because someone on the team has challenged something. We’ve terminated employees who were poisonous to the organization, we’ve reversed course on strategic plans, we’ve even sold a business unit.

One of the things we do well is blend this value with one I wrote about a few weeks ago about being kind and respectful to each other.  The two play together very nicely in our culture.  People are generally constructive when they have feedback to give or are challenging authority, and people who receive feedback or challenges assume positive intent and nothing personal.  We specifically train people around these delicate balances both via the Action/Design framework and a specific course we teach called Giving and Receiving Feedback.

It takes courage to challenge authority. But then again, nothing great is ever accomplished in life without courage (and enthusiasm, so the old adage goes).

Sep 222011

Who Are Your CPO and COO?

Who Are Your CPO and COO?

Every senior management team needs a CPO and a COO.  No, I’m not talking about Privacy and Operations.  I’m talking about Paranoia and Optimism.  On my leadership team at Return Path, many of us are Paranoid and many of us are Optimistic, and many of us can play both roles.  But I’m fortunate to have two business partners who are the Chiefs – George Bilbrey is our Chief Paranoia Officer, and Anita Absey is our Chief Optimism Officer.  Those monikers fit their respective roles (product and sales) as well as their personalities.

My view is simple – both traits are critical to have around the management table, and they’re best when they’re in some kind of equilibrium.  Optimism keeps you running forward in a straight line.  The belief that you can successfully execute on your plan, with a spring in your step and a smile on your face, is very motivating.  Paranoia keeps you looking around corners.  It may also keep you awake at night, but it’s the driving force for seeing potential threats to the business that aren’t necessarily obvious and keeping you on your toes.  I wrote about the benefits and limits of paranoia (with an extreme example) years ago here.

Too much of either trait would be a disaster for a team’s psyche.  But both are critical points of view that need a loud voice in any management discussion.  It’s a little bit like making sure your management team knows its actual and target location along the Fear/Greed Continuum.

Sep 152011

Why We Occasionally Celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Why We Occasionally Celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day

No kidding – next Monday is September 19, and that is, among other things, International Talk Like a Pirate Day. We’ve done a variety of things to celebrate it over the years, not the least of which was a series of appropriately-themed singing telegrams we sent to interrupt all-hands meetings.  I can’t remember why we ever started this particular thing, but it’s one of many for us.  Why do we care?  Because

We are serious and passionate about our job and positive and light-hearted about our day

This is another one of Return Path’s philosophies I’m documenting in my series on our 13 core values.

I’m not sure I’d describe our work environment as a classic work hard/play hard environment. We’re not an investment bank. We don’t have all 20something employees in New York City. We’re not a homogeneous workforce with all of the same outside interests. So while we do work hard and care a lot about our company’s success, our community of fellow employees, solving our clients’ problems, and making a big impact on our industry and on end users’ lives, we also recognize that “playing hard” for us means having fun on the job.

It’s not as if we run an improv comedy troop in the lunch room or play incessant practical jokes on each other (though I have pulled off a couple sweet April Fool’s pranks over the years). But as the value is worded, we try to set a lighthearted and positive atmosphere. This one is a little harder to produce concrete examples of than some of our other core values that I’ve written up, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

Whether it’s talking like a pirate, paying quiet homage to our unofficial mascot – the monkey, stopping for a few minutes to play a game of ping pong, or just making a silly face or poking fun of a close colleague in a meeting, I’m so happy that our company and Board have this value hard-wired in.  Life’s just too short not to have fun at every available opportunity!

Sep 092011

9/11’s 10th

9/11’s 10th

I wasn’t yet writing this blog on 9/11 (no one was writing blogs yet), and if I had had one, I’m not sure what I would have written.  The neighborhood immediately surrounding the World Trade Center had been my home for more than seven years before the twin towers fell, and it continued to be my home for more than seven years after they fell.  That same neighborhood was Return Path‘s home for its first 18 months or so, across two different offices.  Like all Americans, the attack felt personal.  Like all New Yorkers, it was in our face.  But it hit home in a different way for those of us who lived and worked in Lower Manhattan.

For the seven years after the attacks, I stopped by Ground Zero on the morning of 9/11 to reflect and memorialize the event.  I won’t be doing that this year — between living outside the city, the kids, and the likely overwhelming crowds, it doesn’t make sense.  So this post will have to suffice as this year’s reflection on the 10th anniversary of that awful day.

My memories from that day and the weeks that followed are a little jumbled now, as memories often are.  The things I remember most vividly, both personal and professional, are:

  • The smell and the smoke.  Up until the New Year, over 3 months after the attacks, a plume of smoke was rising from Ground Zero, and the air had a putrid smell of burning everything — building materials, fuel, fragments of life
  • I had left the city that morning to drive to a meeting in Danbury, Connecticut at Pittney-Bowes with our then head of sales, Dave Paulus.  We both received calls on our cell phones at the same instant from Mariquita and Pam telling us to turn on the news, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  For a while, everyone assumed it was an accident.  We continued with our meeting, although it kept getting interrupted with more bad news coming in via our senior contact’s assistant, until she wheeled a TV into the conference room so we could watch for ourselves
  • I couldn’t get back into the city that night, so Dave and I crashed at my Grandma Hazel’s house in Westchester.  When I finally did get home, Mariquita and I met up and stayed with our friends Christine and Andrew on the upper west side and listened all night to the fighter planes cruising up and down the Hudson River, sentries on patrol
  • When we finally could go back to our apartment, we had to go on foot from Canal Street south, and we had to show proof of residence (in our case, a copy of our lease) to get past the military guards.  With no traffic allowed and no subways running in Lower Manhattan for a week or two, the streets had an eerie emptiness about them.  The prevalence of national guardsmen and NYPD patrols toting machine guns made it feel like a war zone
  • At work, where the Internet 1.0 meltdown was still in process, we were in the middle of negotiating a life-saving financing and acquisition of Veripost with Eric Kirby and George.  We hit the pause button on everything, but we picked back up and dusted ourselves off within a day and got those deals done within a few weeks and saved the company
  • We had one junior employee in our New York office who got into his car on the afternoon of 9/11, drove to New Hampshire, and never contacted us again.  Just completely blew a fuse and dropped out.  It wasn’t until we tracked down his parents a few days later that we even knew he was safe and sound
  • I was fortunate not to lose anyone close in the attacks, but my friend Morten lost over a dozen close friends who were all traders from his town in New Jersey.  He attended every single funeral.  How he got through that (and how others got through their many losses) remains beyond my comprehension, even today

The only thing I have really blogged about over the years related to 9/11 was my post Morning in Tribeca in 2004 when the skeleton of WTC7, the first rebuilt building, was going up.  Now that the Freedom Tower is rising, it finally feels like the Ground Zero site has great forward momentum and will in fact be fully renewed in a few years once the bulk of this construction is done and the tenants have moved in.  That will be a great day for New York, and for America.

Filed under: Current Affairs, Politics, Return Path


Sep 082011

Book Short: Wellness Redefined

Book Short: Wellness Redefined

Well Being: The 5 Essential Elements, by Tom Rath and Jim Harter from the Gallup organization, is a solid read and incredibly short. It’s one of those books that’s really a long article stretched and bound. But it goes beyond the basics of what I expected, which was something like “having healthy employees cuts down on absenteeism” and has a couple great elements of food for thought for leaders looking to build cutting edge and uber-productive organizations. It comes out of the same general body of research as four other very strong books I’ve written about over time — First, Break all the Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths, 12: The Great Elements of Managing (book, review), and Go Put Your Strengths to Work (book, review).

The authors define well being as having five separate components:  career well being, social well being, physical well being, financial well being, and community well being. Ok, that makes sense, but the three most interesting points the book made from my perspective were:

  1. Well being isn’t just about one of these five elements – it’s about all five, and how they interact together, and how the workplace can support all of them
  2. Achieving long-term objectives around well being requires finding short-term incentives that drive the same behavior in more obvious and immediate ways, as most long-term well being drivers require short term sacrifice. So figure out how to make eating a salad better for you not just years from now but TODAY (you’ll have more energy after lunch than if you eat that cheeseburger), for example
  3. Financial well being isn’t something a lot of companies focus on, and maybe it should be. Particularly in our industry we hire knowledge workers and assume therefore that they’re smart and educated about everything…but maybe there are ways that the company can support financial well being that aren’t necessarily obvious

The book is full of stats from the underlying research, most of which show that most people are shockingly unhappy, and that most workplaces dont do enough to support employee wellness. The book also notes, as is the case with most things, that promoting well being among employees requires more than just setting up programs. Doing it right requires constant vigilance, measurement, and follow up. At Return Path, we do a bunch of programs along the lines suggested by the book (but can and should do more!), but we’ve never been rigorous with follow up. Good food for thought.

Note there is also a free whitepaper on the economics of well being that you can download here.  The white paper is ok…but not nearly as interesting as the book, and note that it does not substitute for the book.  Thanks to my colleague Cathy Hawley for this book!

Filed under: Books, Business, Culture


Sep 072011

Why I Love My Board, Part III

Why I Love My Board, Part III

My prophesy is starting to come true.  In Part I of this series four years ago, I asserted that

Fred may be the only one of my directors who has done something this dorky, this publicly, but quite frankly, I could see any of us in the same position.

Now, Brad Feld is no shrinking violet.  As far as I’m concerned, he made his film debut in the memorable “Munch on Your Bones” video (short, worth a watch if you’re a Feld groupie) something like 6 or 7 years ago for an all-hands meeting I ran.  But his newest short feature film, “I’m a VC,” made with his three partners, Jason, Ryan, and Seth, is a must-see for anyone in the entrepreneur-VC set and puts him up there with Fred in the pantheon of “this dorky, this publicly.”

Sep 012011

A Community of Employees

A Community of Employees

One of the most memorable moments in a valedictorian speech that I’ve heard or read was at my sister-in-law’s graduation from Northwestern about 10 years ago. The speaker’s closing line was something like “Most of all, when you go out into the world, remember to be kind to other people.  It’s one of the best things you can do for the world.”

It’s not as if people are generally trained or predisposed to be UNkind to each other. But respecting other people and being kind to them is sometimes elusive in our busy lives. I think one of the things that makes Return Path more of a community and less of just a “place of work” is this one of our 13 core values:

We are obsessively kind to and respectful of each other

Kindness and respect in the workplace start with the seemingly trivial.  Holding doors open for colleagues, cleaning the coffee machine, helping someone lug a big jug of water and lift it onto the dispenser, and saying a simple “thank you” or “well done” here and there are all acts of kindness and respect. These might seem trivial, but don’t discount the trivial in life.  Being vigilant about the small things sets the right tone for the big things, sort of like the “broken windows” theory of policing says about crime. An atmosphere where people seek out opportunities to help with things like the coffee machine is likely an atmosphere where people seek out opportunities to collaborate on solving problems or cover for a vacationing colleague.

The small things lead to the big things.  We take fit incredibly seriously here.  Fit doesn’t mean that we all have to be the same type of person, or that we all have to like the same kinds of food.  But it means that you have to be kind.  You can be totally frank and direct and challenge authority (more about that in a future post) and still be kind and respectful.  Being a Bull in a China Shop doesn’t work here.

And that’s the difference between a pace to work and a community.