Aug 302012

The Best Place to Work, Part 6: Let People Be People

The Best Place to Work, Part 6: Let People Be People

Last week, in this continuing series on creating the best place to work, I talked about being a great enabler of people, meaning you do your best to let people do their best work.  This week, I want to talk about Letting People Be People.

I wrote about topic a bit this last year when I wrote my series on Return Path’s Core Values, in particular the post on our value People Work to Live, Not Live to Work .

Work-life balance is critical.  I’ve worked in a grind-it-out 100-hour/week environment as an analyst before.  Quite frankly, it sucks.  One week I actually filled in 121 on my hourly time sheet as a consultant.  If you’ve never calculated the denominator, it’s only 168.  Even being well paid as a first-year analyst out of college, the hourly rate sucked.  Thinking about 121 gives me the shivers today…and it certainly puts into perspective that whether you work 40, 45, 50, 55, or 60 hours in a given week can pale by comparison, and all still let you have a life.  An average week of 40 hours probably doesn’t make sense for a high-growth company of relatively well-paid knowledge workers.  But at 121 you barely get to shower and sleep.

While you may get a lot done working like a dog, you don’t get a lot more done hour for hour relative to productive people do in a 50-week environment.  Certainly not 2x.  People who say they thrive on that kind of pressure are simply lying – or to be fair, they’re not lying, but they are pretending they wouldn’t prefer a different environment, which is likely disingenuous and a result of rationalizing their time spent at work.  Your productivity simply diminishes after some number of hours.  So as a CEO, even a hard-charging one, I think it’s better to focus on creating a productive environment than an environment of sustained long hours.

Work has ebbs and flows just like life has ebbs and flows.  As long as the work generally gets done well and when you need it, you have to assume that sometimes, people will work long hours in bursts and sometimes, people will work fewer hours.  Work-life balance is not measured in days or even weeks, but over the long term.  So to that end, We Let People Be People as a means of trading off freedom and flexibility for high levels of performance and accountability.  At Return Path, we create an environment where people can be people by:

  • Giving generous maternity leave and even paternity leave, at least relative to norms in the US
  • Having a flexible “work from home” policy, as people do have personal things to do during the business day from time to time
  • Allowing even more flexible work conditions for anyone (especially new parents) – 3 or 4 days/week if we can make it work
  • Letting people take a 6-week paid sabbatical after 7 years, then after every 5 years after that
  • Having an “open vacation” policy where people can take as much vacation as they want, as long as they get their jobs done

As with all the posts in this series, this is meant to be general, not specific.  But these are a few of the things we’ve done to Let People Be People, which has created an incredibly productive environment here where people have fun, lead their lives, and still get their jobs done well and on time.

Aug 232012

The Best Place to Work, Part 5: Be the ultimate enabler

Fifth in my series on creating the best place to work – Being the best enabler.  As any management guru will tell you, as you have a larger and larger team, your job is much less about getting good work done than it is enabling others to get good work done.  What does that mean?

First, don’t be a bottleneck.  You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut (but feel free if you’d like), but you do need to make sure you don’t have people in the company chronically waiting on you before they can take their next actions on projects.  Otherwise, you lose all the leverage you have in hiring a team.  Don’t let approvals or requests pile up!

Second, run great meetings.  Meetings are a company’s most expensive endeavor.  Sometime in a senior staff meeting, calculate the cost in salary of everyone sitting there for an hour or two!  Run good meetings yourself and don’t enable bad behavior…and in the course of doing that, role model the same for your senior staff members who do their own staff or team meetings.  Make sure your meetings are as short as possible, as actionable as possible, and as interesting as possible.  Don’t hold a meeting when an email or 5-minute recorded message will suffice.  Don’t hold a weekly standing meeting when it can be biweekly.  Cancel meetings if there’s nothing to cover.  End them early if you can’t fill the time productively.  Vary the tempo of your meetings to match their purpose – the same staff group can have a weekly with one agenda, a monthly with a different agenda, and a quarterly with a different agenda.

Finally, don’t run a hub-and-spoke system of communications.  Some managers who are a bit command-and-control like hoarding information or forcing all communication to go through them or surface in staff meetings.  No need for that!  Almost everyone on your team, if you are a senior manager, should have individual bilateral relationships and regular 1:1 meetings without you there.  The same goes for your Board and your staff, if you are the CEO.  They should have individual relationships that don’t go through you.  if you are a choke point for communication, it’s just as bad as being a bottleneck for approvals.

Enabling your team to give it their all is a gift to yourself and your organization as much as it is a gift to your team – give that gift early and often.


Aug 162012

The Best Place to Work, Part 4: Be the Consummate Host

The Best Place to Work, Part 4: Be the Consummate Host

Besides Surrounding yourself with the best and brightest , Creating an environment of trust,  and Managing yourself very, very well, it’s important for you as a creator of The Best Place to Work to Be the Consummate Host.

What does that mean?  This is how I approach my job every day.  I think of the company as a party, where I’m the host.  I want everyone to have a good time.  To get along with the other guests.  To be excited to come back the next time I have a party (e.g., every day).

By the way, I always have co-hosts, as well – anyone who manages anyone in the company.  If I can’t do something specific below, someone on my executive team does it.  Sometimes, two of us do it!  Examples include:

  • I interview people like I’m a bouncer at an exclusive club.  We do very personal new employee orientations.  We do personal check-ins after 30 and 90 days to make sure new employees are on track
  • I attend every company function that I can and work the room as a host, even if it’s not “my” event – sometimes it means sacrificing long conversations and conversations with friends for smaller ones and meeting new people
  • I call every employee (voicemail ok) and write a note and/or send a gift every anniversary of their employment with the company
  • I write notes to people when they do something great or get a promotion

Full series of posts here.

Aug 092012

The Best Place to Work, Part 3: Manage yourself very, very well

Part of creating the best place to work  is learning how to self manage – very, very well.  This is an essential part of Creating an environment of trust , but only one part.  What does self-management mean?  First, and most important, it means realizing that you are in a fishbowl.  You are always on display.  You are a role model in everything you do, from how you dress, to how you talk on the phone, to the way you treat others, to when you show up to work. 

But what are some specifics to think about while you swim around in your tank?

  1. Don’t send mixed signals to the team.  You can’t tell people to do one thing, then do something different yourself
  2. Remember the French Fry Theory of being a CEO.  My friend Seth has the French Fry theory of life, which is simply that you can always eat one more French fry.  You’re never too full for one more fry.  You might not order another plate of them, but one more?  No problem.  Ever.  As a CEO, you can always do one more thing.  Send one more email.  Read one more document.  Sometimes you just need to draw the line and go home and stop working!  (See my earlier post  here  on how Marketing is like French Fries for another example.)
  3. Regularly solicit feedback, then internalize it and act on it.  Do reviews for the company.  Do anonymous 360s (I’ve written about these regularly here). Get people a review that has ratings and comments from their boss, their peers, and their staff.  Do them once a year at a minimum.  And do one for yourself.  They’re phenomenal.  Everyone needs to improve, always.  Our head of sales Anita always says “Feedback is a gift, whether you want it or not.”  Make sure you do them for yourself as well.  Include your Board.  If you don’t agree with the feedback you are being given that is likely a data point that you have a BLIND SPOT.  Being defensive about feedback is dangerous.  If you don’t get it/don’t like then do some more work to better understand it.  Otherwise you will forever be defensive and never develop in this area
  4. Maintain your sense of humor.  It’s not only the best medicine, it’s the best way to stay sane and have fun.  Who doesn’t want to have fun at work?
  5. Keep yourself fresh:  Join a CEO peer group.  Work with an executive coach.  Read business literature (blogs, books, magazines) like mad and apply your learnings.  Exercise regularly.  Don’t neglect your family or your hobbies.  Keep the bulk of your weekends, and at least one two-week vacation each year, sacrosanct and unplugged.  As Covey would say, Sharpen the Saw

You set the tone at your company.  You can’t let people see you sweat too much – especially as you get bigger.  You can’t come out of your office after bad news and say “we’re dead!”  You can make a huge difference by being a great role model, swimming around in your fishbowl.

Aug 062012

Hiring vs. Promoting – and a Must-Read Blog

Hiring vs. Promoting – and a Must-Read Blog

I have to admit that I have a bit of blog envy when it comes to Fred and Brad.  We all started blogging roughly at the same time over 8 years ago (Brad and I the same day, Fred a few month before), and both have hugely large audiences compared to mine.  I don’t care all that much — mostly I blog for me and for my company, not for any other reason.  But one of the things I admire about both their blogs, particularly Fred, is the size of their *active* audiences.  (Both of them tell me not to worry about it when it comes up in conversation — as they say, they write checks to people for a living, which makes them instantly interesting to many!)  When I write a guest post for Fred, as I do once in a while, I realize he must average 100+ comments per post.  Now that’s a community.

OnlyOnce has a good solid readership, and at least a handful of really active readers who are more or less like-minded entrepreneurs.  But alas, not more than a handful.  Of this handful, Daniel Clough (who I’ve never met in person – he is in the online gaming space in a UK-based company, I believe) is one of the more regular readers and commenters and also writes his own, very thoughtful blog.  Daniel wrote a great post last week on the topic of hiring from the outside vs. promoting from within.  As I commented on his blog, I couldn’t have written it better myself.  It’s an important topic, and Daniel’s parsing of it is excellent.

Aug 022012

The Best Place to Work, Part 2: Create an environment of trust

Last week, I wrote about surrounding yourself with the best and brightest.  Next in this series of posts  is all about Creating an environment of trust.  This is closely related to the blog post I wrote a while back in my series on Return Path’s Core Values on Transparency.  At the end of the day, transparency, authenticity, and caring create an environment of trust.

Some examples of that?

  • Go over the real board slides after every board meeting – let everyone in the company know what was discussed (no matter how large you are, but of course within reason)
  • Give bad news early and often internally.  People will be less freaked out, and the rumor mill won’t take over
  • Manage like a hawk – get rid of poor performers or cultural misfits early, even if it’s painful – you can never fire someone too soon
  • Follow the rules yourself – for example, fly coach if that’s the policy, park in the back lot and not in a “reserved for the big cheese” space if you’re not in Manhattan, have a relatively modest office, constantly demonstrate that no task or chore is beneath you like filling the coke machine, changing the water bottle, cleaning up after a group lunch, packing a box, carrying something heavy
  • When a team has to work a weekend , be there too (in person or virtually) – even if it’s just to show your appreciation
  • When something really goes wrong, you need to take all the blame
  • When something really goes right, you need to give all the credit away

Perhaps a bit more than the other posts in this series, this one needs to apply to all your senior managers, not just you.  Your job?  Manage everyone to these standards.