Jan 242012

Is It Normal?

A friend who is a newly promoted CEO just wrote me and asked me this:

I’m having a sort of guilt complex.  Let me explain.

I’ve set up a bunch of positions, which people are grooving into.  We just completed our budget for our new fiscal year, probably faster and easier than ever before.  Sales are going really, really well.

BUT, despite all of this, I feel more relaxed than I have in years.  And I am struggling with that.

I’m relaxed because we seem out in front of stuff, I’ve reduced my span of control from a dozen direct reports to four.  Things are progressing in good ways.  I also have time now that I’ve not had in ages to pop my head up and out and do some long-term thinking and planning.

I still have a bunch of management to do with the senior team, some key problem areas to work on … but I’m not racing breathlessly feeling like I’d rather shoot myself than do my job.

Of course, we are doing well.  That helps. 

Is this honeymoon?  Should I feel guilty?  Should I figure out ways to race breathlessly?

My gut tells me I should feel good and not guilty but this is a sense-check request.

 My response:

I have gone through many stretches here over the years of not being overly busy.  Just means you have a great team and have delegated well.  And that the business has a nice tailwind behind it.

You should feel good.  And not guilty.  But you should also feel a bit paranoid about what you might be missing.

Filed under: Business, Management


Jan 232012

Scaling the Team

Scaling the Team

(This post was requested by my long-time Board member Fred Wilson and is also running concurrently on his blog today.  I’ll be back with the third and fourth installments of “The Best Laid Plans” next Thursday and the following Thursday)

When Return Path reached 100 employees a few years back, I had a dinner with my Board one night at which they basically told me, “Management teams never scale intact as you grow the business.  Someone always breaks.”  I’m sure they were right based on their own experience; I, of course, took this as a challenge.  And ever since then, my senior management team and I have become obsessed with scaling ourselves as managers.  So far, so good.  We are over 300 employees now and rapidly headed to 400 in the coming year, and the core senior management team is still in place and doing well.  Below are five reasons why that’s the case.

  1. We appreciate the criticality of excellent management and recognize that it is a completely different skill set from everything else we have learned in our careers.  This is like Step 1 in a typical “12-step program.”  First, admit you have a problem.  If you put together (a) management is important, (b) management is a different skill set, and (c) you might not be great at it, with the standard (d) you are an overachiever who likes to excel in everything, then you are setting the stage for yourself to learn and work hard at improving at management as a practice, which is the next item on the list.
  2. We consistently work at improving our management skills.  We have a strong culture of 360 feedback, development plans, coaching, and post mortems on major incidents, both as individuals and as a senior team.  Most of us have engaged on and off over the years with an executive coach, for the most part Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting.  In fact, the team holds each other accountable for individual performance against our development plans at our quarterly offsites.  But learning on the inside is only part of the process.
  3. We learn from the successes and failures of others whenever possible.  My team regularly engages as individuals in rigorous external benchmarking to understand how peers at other companies – preferably ones either like us or larger – operate.  We methodically pick benchmarking candidates.  We ask for their time and get on their calendars.  We share knowledge and best practices back with them.  We pay this forward to smaller companies when they ask us for help.  And we incorporate the relevant learnings back into our own day to day work.
  4. We build the strongest possible second-level management bench we can to make sure we have a broad base of leadership and management in the company that complements our own skills.  A while back I wrote about the Peter Principle, Applied to Management that it’s quite easy to accumulate mediocre managers over the years because you feel like you have to promote your top performers into roles that are viewed as higher profile, are probably higher comp – and for which they may be completely unprepared and unsuited.  Angela Baldonero, my SVP People, and I have done a lot here to ensure that we are preparing people for management and leadership roles, and pushing them as much as we push ourselves.  We have developed and executed comprehensive Management Training and Leadership Development programs in conjunction with Mark Frein at Refinery Leadership Partners.  Make no mistake about it – this is a huge investment of time and money.  But it’s well worth it.  Training someone who knows your business well and knows his job well how to be a great manager is worth 100x the expense of the training relative to having an employee blow up and needing to replace them from the outside.
  5. We are hawkish about hiring in from the outside.  Sometimes you have to bolster your team, or your second-level team.  Expanding companies require more executives and managers, even if everyone on the team is scaling well.  But there are significant perils with hiring in from the outside, which I’ve written about twice with the same metaphor (sometimes I forget what I have posted in the past) – Like an Organ Transplant and Rejected by the Body.  You get the idea.  Your culture is important.  Your people are important.  New managers at any level instantly become stewards of both.  If they are failing as managers, then they need to leave.  Now.

I’m sure there are other things we do to scale ourselves as a management team – and more than that, I’m sure there are many things we could and should be doing but aren’t.  But so far, these things have been the mainstays of happily (they would agree) proving our Board wrong and remaining intact as a team as the business grows.

Jan 192012

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

The Best Laid Plans, Part II

Once you’ve finished the Input Phase (see last week’s post) of producing your strategic plan, you’re ready for the Analysis Phase, which goes something like this:

Assemble the facts.  Keep notes along the way on the input phase items, assemble them into a coherent document with key thoughts and common themes highlighted.

Select/apply framework.  Go back to the reading and come up with one or more strategic frameworks.  Adapted them from the academic stuff to fit our situation.  Academic frameworks don’t solve problems on their own, but they do force you to think through problems in a structured way.

Step back.  Leave everything alone for two weeks and try not to think about it.  Come back to it with a fresher set of eyes immediately before starting on the final outputs.

Reality check.  Go back to one or two of the constituents you originally met with to begin laying out your thoughts to them – “try them on for size” – and get the unfiltered visceral reactions.

Next up:  the Output Phase.

Jan 172012

Help Us, Help You

Before becoming Chairman of the Direct Marketing Association, one of the things I’d noticed over the years was that the association didn’t have a ton of primary market research on itself, sort of a classic case of the cobbler’s children having shoddy shoes.

Today we are launching a new survey to help us establish a baseline for awareness and perceptions of all aspects of the DMA on behalf of all members of the marketing community.  

Whether or not you are a DMA or EEC member – in some ways, it’s even more important for non-members to take this – I’d greatly appreciate you taking 10 minutes to fill out this survey. It will help us continue to reshape the association to meet the needs of the community, as this survey will serve as the foundation for our new strategic plan, membership outreach and communications, conference programming, councils, and everything else we do.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Jan 122012

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

The Best Laid Plans, Part I

One of my readers asked me if I have a formula that I use to develop strategic plans.  While every year and every situation is different, I do have a general outline that I’ve followed that has been pretty successful over the years at Return Path.  There are three phases — input, analysis, and output.  I’ll break this up into three postings over the next three weeks.

The Input Phase goes something like this:

Conduct stakeholder interviews with a few top clients, resellers, suppliers; Board of directors; and junior staff roundtables.  Formal interviews set up in advance, with questions given ahead.  Goal for customers: find out their view of the business today, how we’re serving them, what they’d like to see us do differently, what other products we could provide them.  Goal for Board/staff: get their general take on the business and the market, current and future.

Conduct non-stakeholder interviews with a few industry experts who know the company at least a little bit.  Goal: learn what they think about how we were doing today…and what they would do if they were CEO to grow the business in the future.

Re-skim a handful of classic business books and articles.  Perennial favorite include Good to Great, Contrarian Thinking, and Crossing the Chasm.

Hold a solo visioning exercise.  Take a day off, wander around Central Park.  No phone, no email.  Nothing but thinking about business, your career, where you want everything to head from a high level.

Hold senior staff brainstorming.  Two-day off-site strategy session with senior team and maybe Board.

Next up:  the Analysis Phase.

Jan 102012

Articulating the Problem is the First Step Toward Solving It

A while back, we were having some specific challenges at Return Path that were *really* hard to diagnose.  It was like peeling the proverbial onion.  Every time we thought we had the answer to what was going on, we realized all we had was another symptom, not a root cause.  We’re a pretty analytical bunch, so we kept looking for more and more data to give us answers.  And we kept coming up with, well, not all that much, besides a lot of hand-wringing.

It wasn’t until I went into a bit of a cave (e.g., took half a day’s quiet time to myself) and started writing things down for myself that I started to get some clarity around the problem and potential solutions.  I literally opened up a blank Word document and started writing, and writing, and writing.  At first, the thoughts were random.  Then they started taking on some organization.  Eventually, I moved from descriptions of the problem to patterns, to reasons, to thoughts about solutions. 

But what really put me on a track to solutions (as opposed to just understanding the problem better) was starting to *talk* through the problems and potential solutions.  It didn’t take more than a couple conversations with trusted colleagues/advisors before I realized how dumb half of my thoughts were, both about the problems and the solutions, which helped narrow down and consolidate my options considerably.

Even better than solving the problems, or at least a driver of being able to solve them, is feeling more in control of a tough situation.  That’s probably the best thing I’ve learned over the years about the value of articulating problems and solutions.  For a leader, there is no worse feeling than being out of control…and no better feeling than the opposite.  Some level of control or confidence is required to get through tough times.

I suppose this post is not all that different from any 12-step program.  First, admit you have a problem.  Then you can go on to solve it.  But the point I am trying to make is more than that – it’s not just admitting you have a problem.  It’s actually diving in deep to the potential causes of the problem, and writing them down and (better) speaking them out loud a few times, that puts you on the road to solving those problems.

Filed under: Return Path, Strategy


Jan 052012

Book Short: Fixing America

Book Short:  Fixing America

I usually only blog about business books, but since I occasionally comment on politics, I thought I would also post on That Used to be Us:  How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (book, Kindle), which I just finished.

There is much that is good about America.  And yet, there is much that is broken and in need of serious repair.  I wrote about some thought on fixing our political system last year in The Beginnings of a Roadmap to Fix America’s Badly Broken Political System?, but fixing our political system can only do so much.  Tom Friedman, with whom I usually agree a lot, but only in part, nailed it in his latest book.  Instead of blaming one party or the other (he points the finger at both!), he blames our overall system, and our will as a people, for the country’s current problems.

The authors talk about the four challenges facing America today – globalization, the IT revolution, deficits and debt, and rising energy demand and climate change, and about how the interplay of those four challenges are more long term and less obvious than challenges we’ve faced as a country in the past, like World Wars or The Great Depression, or even The Great Recession.  The reason, according to the authors, that we have lost our way a bit in the last 20-40 years, is that we have strayed from the five-point formula that has made us successful for the bulk of our history:

  • Providing excellent public education for more and more Americans
  • Building and continually modernizing our infrastructure
  • Keeping America’s doors to immigration open
  • Government support for basic research and development
  • Implementation of necessary regulations on private economic activity

It’s hard not to be in violent agreement with the book as a normal person with common sense.  Even the last point of the five-point formula, which can rankle those on the right, makes sense when you read the specifics.  And the authors rail against excessive regulation enough in the book to give them credibility on this point.

The authors’ description of the labor market of the future and how we as a country can be competitive in it is quite well thought through.  And they have some other great arguments to make – for example, about how the prior decade of wars was, for the first time in American history, not accompanied by tax increases and non-essential program cuts; or about how we can’t let ourselves be held hostage to AARP and have “funding old age” trump “funding youth” at every turn.

The one thing I disagree with a bit is the authors’ assertion that “we cannot simply cut our way to fiscal sanity.”  I saw a table in the Wall Street Journal the same day I was reading this book that noted the federal budget has grown from $2.6T in 2007 to $3.6T today – 40% in four years!  Sure sounds to me like mostly a spending program, though I do support closing loopholes, eliminating subsidies, and potentially some kind of energy tax for other reasons.

I’ll save their solution for those who read the book.  It’s not as good as the meat of the book itself, but it’s solid, and it actually mirrors something my dad has been talking about for a while now.  If you care about where we are as a country and how we can do better, read this book!

Jan 032012

Taking Stock

Taking Stock

Every year around this time, I take a few minutes to reflect on how the business is doing, on my goals and development plans, and on what I want to accomplish in the coming year.  Although most of that work is focused on how to move the business forward, I also make sure to take stock of my own career trajectory.  I always ask myself three questions when I do this:

  1. Am I having fun at work?
  2. Am I learning and growing as a professional?
  3. Is my work financially rewarding enough, either in the short term or in the long term?

Of course, I always shoot for 3 YES responses.  Then I know my career is on track.  But as long as I get 2 YESses, then I feel like I’m in good shape, and I know which one to work on in the coming year.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had a situation in the dozen years of running Return Path where I’ve had 0 or 1 YESses.  If I did, I’d probably spend more time thinking about whether I was still in the right job for me.

I think these three questions can work for anyone, not just a CEO.  Hopefully everyone takes the time to take stock like this at least once a year.  It’s healthy for everyone’s career development.