Mar 292012

Book Short: Awesome Title, So-So Book

Book Short:  Awesome Title, So-So Book

Strategy and the Fat Smoker (book, Kindle), by David Maister, was a book that had me completely riveted in the first few chapters, then completely lost me for the rest.  That was a shame.  It might be worth reading it just for the beginning, though I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend the purchase just for that.

The concept (as well as the title) is fantastic.  As the author says in the first words of the introduction:

We often (or even usually) know what we should be doing in both personal and professional life.  We also know why we should be doing it and (often) how to do it.  Figuring all that out is not too difficult.  What is very hard is actually doing what you know to be good for you in the long-run, in spite of short-run temptations.  The same is true for organizations.

The diagnosis is clear, which is as true for organizations as it is for fat people, smokers, fat smokers, etc.  The hard work (pain) is near-term, and the rewards (gain) are off in the future, without an obvious or visible correlation.  As someone who has had major up and down swings in weight for decades, I totally relate to this.

But the concept that

the necessary outcome of strategic planning is not analytical insight but resolve,

while accurate, is the equivalent of an entire book dedicated to the principle of “oh just shut up and do it already.”  The closest the author comes to answering the critical question of how to get “it” done is when he says

A large part of really bringing about strategic change is designing some new action or new system that visibly, inescapably, and irreversibly commits top management to the strategy.

Right.  That’s the same thing as saying that in order to lose weight, not only do you need to go on a diet and weigh yourself once in a while, but you need to make some major public declaration and have other people help hold you accountable, if by no other means than causing you to be embarrassed if you fail in your quest.

So all that is true, but unfortunately, the last 80% of the book, while peppered with moderately useful insights on management and leadership, felt largely divorced from the topic.  It all just left me wanting inspirational stories of organizations doing the equivalent of losing weight and quitting smoking before their heart attacks, frameworks of how to get there, and the like.  But those were almost nonexistent.  Maybe Strategy and the Fat Smoker works really well for consulting firms – that’s where a lot of the examples came from.  I find frequently that books written by consultants are fitting for that industry but harder to extrapolate from there to any business.

Mar 222012

What Separates Good Teams from Bad Teams?

What Separates Good Teams from Bad Teams?

Every once in a while, I have a conversation that forces me to distill an idea to a sound bite – those frequently become blog posts.  Many happen with members of my team at Return Path, or my friend Matt on our Saturday morning runs, or my Dad or Mom, or Mariquita.  This one happened at dinner the other night with Mariquita and my in-laws Rick and Carmen.

The subject came up about managing a senior team, and different iterations of teams I’ve managed over the years.  And the specific question we posed was “What are the most significant characteristics that separate good teams from bad teams?”  Here’s where the conversation went…“I believe that 100% of the members of good teams can, 100% of the time”

  1. Get outside of themselves.  They have no personal agenda, only the best interests of the company, in mind.  They make every effort to see issues on which they disagree from the opposing point of view
  2. Understand the difference between fact and opinion.  As my friend Brad says, “The plural of anecdotes is not data.”  And as Winston Churchill said, “Facts are stubborn things.”  If everyone on a team not only understands what is a fact and what is not a fact, AND all team members are naturally curious to understand and root out all the relevant facts of an issue, that’s when the magic happens

Of course there are many other characteristics or checklists of characteristics that separate good teams from bad teams.  But these feel to me like pretty solid ones – at least a good starting point for a conversation around the conference room table.

Mar 152012

Canary in a Coal Mine

Canary in a Coal Mine

From Wiktionary:  An allusion to caged canaries mining workers would carry down into the tunnels with them. If dangerous gases such as methane or carbon monoxide leaked into the mine-shaft, the gases would kill the canary before killing the miners.

Perhaps not the best analogy in the world, but I had an observation recently as we took on a massive new client:  over the years, Return Path has had a handful of “bellwether” clients that I’ve jokingly referred to as the canaries in our proverbial coal mine.  In the really early days of the business, it was eBay.  When we first started working with Email Service Providers, it was the old DoubleClick.  A couple years ago, it was a giant social network.  Now, it’s a social commerce site.

These kinds of clients help us break new ground.  They stretch us and get us to do things we had either never done before, or things we didn’t even know we could do.  And they are canaries in the coal mine, not because either they or we die, but because they are the clients who have the most complex and high-volume email programs who run into problems months or years before the rest of the world does.  So we solve a given problem for them, and as painful as it might be at the time, we learn and iterate and then anticipate for the rest of our client base.

I’m not sure I have a lot of advice on how to handle these clients.  The relationship can be tricky.  The best thing I’ve found over the years is to let them know that they are stretching the organization, but that you are working hard for them and will hit certain deadlines or milestones.  There’s no reason to overpromise and underdeliver when you can do the reverse.  Then of course you do have to rally the troops internally and deliver.  And of course produce regular post-mortems to institutionalize learnings for the future.

Mar 082012

People Should Come with an Instruction Manual

People Should Come with an Instruction Manual

Almost any time we humans buy or rent a big-ticket item, the item comes with an instruction manual.  Why are people any different?

No one is perfect.  We all have faults and issues.  We all have personal and professional development plans.  And most of those things are LONG-TERM and surface in one form or another in every single performance review or 360 we receive over the years.  So shouldn’t we, when we enter into a long-term personal or professional employment relationship, just present our development plans as instruction manuals on how to best work with, live with, manage, us?

The traditional interview process, and even reference check questions around weaknesses tend to be focused on the wrong things, and asked in the wrong ways.  They usually lead to lame answers like “my greatest weakness is that I work too hard and care too much,” or “No comment.”

The traditional onboarding process also doesn’t get into this.  It’s much more about orientation — here’s a pile of stuff you need to know to be successful here — as opposed to true onboarding — here’s how we’re going to get you ramped up, productive, integrated, and successful working here.

It’s quite disarming to insist that a candidate, or even a new employee, write out their instruction manual, but I can’t recommend it highly enough as part of one or both of the above two processes.  Since everyone at Return Path has a 360/Development Plan, I ask candidates in final interviews what theirs looks like in that context (so it’s clear that I’m not trying to pull a gotcha on them).  Failure to give an intellectually honest answer is a HUGE RED FLAG that this person either lacks self-confidence or self-awareness.  And in the onboarding process, I literally make new employees write out a development plan in the format we use and present it to the rest of my staff, while the rest of my staff shares their plans with the new employee.

As I’ve written in the past, hiring  new senior people into an organization is a little like doing an organ transplant.  Sometimes you just have to wait a while to see if the body rejects the organ or not.  As we get better at asking this “where’s your instruction manual?” question in the interview process, we are mitigating this risk considerably.  I’m sure there’s a whole parallel track on this same topic about personal relationships as opposed to professional ones, but I’ll leave that to someone else to write up!

Mar 012012

Book Short (and great concept): Moments of Truth

Book Short (and great concept): Moments of Truth

TouchPoints:  Creating Powerdul Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, by Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup Corporation, and Mette Norgaard (book, kindle), is a very good nugget of an idea wrapped in lots of other good, though only loosely connected management advice around self awareness and communication — something I’m increasingly finding in business books these days.

It’s a very short book. I read it on the Kindle, so I don’t know how many pages it is or the size of the font, but it was only 2900 kindles (or whatever you call a unit on the device) and only took a few Metro North train rides to finish.  It’s probably worth a read just to get your head around the core concept a bit more, though it’s far from a great business book.

I won’t spend a lot of time on the book itself, but the concept echoes something I’ve been referring to a while here at Return Path as “Moments of Truth.”  Moments of Truth are very short interactions between you and an employee that are high impact and, once you get the hang of them, low effort.  At least, they’re low effort relative to long form meetings.

Here are a few thoughts about Moments of Truth:

  • They are critical opportunities to get things both very right and very wrong with an employee
  • They are more powerful than meets the eye – both for what they are and because they get amplified as employees mention them to other employees
  • They can come to you (people popping into your office and the like), you can seek them out (management by walking around), and you can institutionalize them (for example, one of the things I do is call every employee on their Return Path anniversary to congratulate them on the milestone)
  • They are no different than any other kind of interaction you have, just a lot shorter and therefore can be more intense (and numerous)
  • Their use cases are as broad as any management interaction — coaching, positive or negative feedback, input, support, etc.

What can you as a manager or leader do to perfect your handling of Moments of Truth?

First, learn how to spot them when they come to you, and think about a typical employee’s day/week/month/year to think about when you can find opportunities to seek them out.  Their first day on the job.  When they get a promotion.  When they get a great performance review, or new stock options.  Maybe when they get a poor performance review or denied a promotion they were seeking.

Second, learn to appreciate them and leave space for them.  If you have zero free minutes in every single day, you not only won’t have time to create or seek out Moments of Truth, you’ll be rushed or blow them off when they come to you.

Finally, like everything else, you have to develop a formula for handling them and then practice that formula.  The book does talk about a formula of “head, heart, hand” (e.g., being logical, authentic, and competent) that’s not bad.  Although I’d never thought about it systematically before writing this post, I have a few different kinds of Moments of Truth, and each one has its own rhythm to it, and its own regular ending.

But regardless of how you handle them, once you think about your day through this lens, you’ll start seeing them all over the place.  Recognize their power, and dive in!