Mar 092011

The Art of the Post-Mortem

The Art of the Post-Mortem

It has a bunch of names — the After-Action Review, the Critical Incident Review, the plain old Post-Mortem — but whatever you call it, it’s an absolute management best practice to follow when something has gone wrong. We just came out of one relating to last fall’s well document phishing attack, and boy was it productive and cathartic.

In this case, our general takeaway was that our response went reasonably well, but we could have been more prepared or done more up front to prevent it from happening in the first place.  We derived some fantastic learnings from the Post-Mortem, and true to our culture, it was full of finger-pointing at oneself, not at others, so it was not a contentious meeting.  Here are my best practices for Post-Mortems, for what it’s worth:

  • Timing:  the Post-Mortem should be held after the fire has stopped burning, by several weeks, so that members of the group have time to gather perspective on what happened…but not so far out that they forget what happened and why.  Set the stage for a Post-Mortem while in crisis (note publicly that you’ll do one) and encourage team members to record thoughts along the way for maximum impact
  • Length:  the Post-Mortem session has to be at least 90 minutes, maybe as much as 3 hours, to get everything out on the table
  • Agenda format:  ours includes the following sections…Common understanding of what happened and why…My role…What worked well…What could have been done better…What are my most important learnings
  • Participants:  err on the wide of including too many people.  Invite people who would learn from observing, even if they weren’t on the crisis response team
  • Use an outside facilitator:  a MUST.  Thanks to Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting, as always, for helping us facilitate this one and drive the agenda
  • Your role as leader:  set the tone by opening and closing the meeting and thanking the leaders of the response team.  Ask questions as needed, but be careful not to dominate the conversation
  • Publish notes:  we will publish our notes from this Post-Mortem not just to the team, but to the entire organization, with some kind of digestible executive summary and next actions

When done well, these kinds of meetings not only surface good learnings, they also help an organization maintain momentum on a project that is no longer in crisis mode, and therefore at risk of fading into the twilight before all its work is done.  Hopefully that happened for us today.

The origins of the Post-Mortem are with the military, who routinely use this kind of process to debrief people on the front lines.  But its management application is essential to any high performing, learning organization.

Jul 092013

Startup CEO (OnlyOnce- the book!), Part III – Pre-Order Now

Startup CEO (OnlyOnce – the book!), Part III – Pre-Order Now

My book, Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business, is now available for pre-order on Amazon in multiple formats (Print, Kindle), which is an exciting milestone in this project!  The book is due out right after Labor Day, but Brad Feld tells me that the more pre-orders I have, the better.  Please pardon the self-promotion, but click away if you’re interested!

Here are a few quick thoughts about the book, though I’ll post more about it and the process at some point:

  • I’ll be using the hashtag #startupceo more now to encourage discussion of topics related to startup CEOs – please join me!
  • The book has been described by a few CEOs who read it and commented early for me along the lines of “The Lean Startup movement is great, but this book starts where most of those books end and takes you through the ‘so you have a product that works in-market – now what?’ questions”
  • The book is part of the Startup Revolution series that Brad has been working on for a couple years now, including Do More (Even) Faster, Venture Deals, Startup Communities, and Startup Life (with two more to come, Startup Boards and Startup Metrics)
  • Writing a book is a LOT harder than I expected!

At this point, the best thing I can do to encourage you to read/buy is to share the full and final table of contents with you, sections/chapters/headings.  When I get closer in, I may publish some excerpts of new content here on Only Once.  Here’s the outline:

Part I: Storytelling

  • Chapter 1: Dream the Possible Dream…Entrepreneurship and Creativity, “A Faster Horse,” Vetting Ideas
  • Chapter 2: Defining and Testing the Story…Start Out By Admitting You’re Wrong, A Lean Business Plan Template, Problem, Solution, Key Metrics, Unique Value Proposition and Unfair Advantages, Channels, Customer Segments, Cost Structure and Revenue Streams
  • Chapter 3: Telling the Story to Your Investors…The Business Plan is Dead. Long Live the Business Plan, The Investor Presentation, The Elevator Pitch, The Size of the Opportunity, Your Competitive Advantage, Current Status and Roadmap from Today, The Strength of Your Team, Summary Financials, Investor Presentations for Larger Startups
  • Chapter 4: Telling the Story to Your Team…Defining Your Mission, Vision and Values, The Top-down Approach, The Bottom-Up Approach, The Hybrid Approach, Design a Lofty Mission Statement
  • Chapter 5: Revising the Story…Workshopping, Knowing When It’s Time to Make a Change, Corporate Pivots: Telling the Story Differently, Consolidating, Diversifying, Focusing, Business Pivots: Telling a Different Story
  • Chapter 6: Bringing the Story to Life…Building Your Company Purposefully, The Critical Elements of Company-Building, Articulating Purpose:  The Moral of the Story, You Can Be a Force for Helping Others—Even If Indirectly

Part II: Building the Company’s Human Capital

  • Chapter 7: Fielding a Great Team…From Protozoa to Pancreas, The Best and the Brightest, What About HR?, What About Sales & Marketing?, Scaling Your Team Over Time
  • Chapter 8: The CEO as Functional Supervisor…Rules for General Managers
  • Chapter 9: Crafting Your Company’s Culture…, Introducing Fig Wasp #879, Six Legs and a Pair of Wings, Let People Be People, Build an Environment of Trust
  • Chapter 10: The Hiring Challenge…Unique Challenges for Startups, Recruiting Outstanding Talent, Staying “In-Market”, Recruitment Tools, The Interview: Filtering Potential Candidates, Two Ears One Mouth, Who Should You Interview?, Onboarding: The First 90 Days
  • Chapter 11: Every Day in Every Way, We Get a Little Better…The Feedback Matrix, 1:1 Check-ins, “Hallway” Feedback, Performance Reviews, The 360, Soliciting Feedback on Your Own Performance, Crafting and Meeting Development Plans      
  • Chapter 12: Compensation…General Guidelines for Determining Compensation, The Three Elements of Startup Compensation, Base Pay, Incentive Pay, Equity              
  • Chapter 13: Promoting                …Recruiting from Within, Applying the “Peter Principle” to Management, Scaling Horizontally, Promoting Responsibilities Rather than Swapping Titles               
  • Chapter 14: Rewarding: “It’s the Little Things” That Matter…It Never Goes Without Saying, Building a Culture of Appreciation
  • Chapter 15: Managing Remote Offices and Employees…Brick and Mortar Values in a Virtual World, Best Practices for Managing Remote Employees
  • Chapter 16: Firing: When It’s Not Working…No One Should Ever Be Surprised to Be Fired, Termination and the Limits of Transparency, Layoffs

Part III: Execution

  • Chapter 17: Creating a Company Operating System…Creating Company Rhythms, A Marathon? Or a Sprint?
  • Chapter 18: Creating Your Operating Plan and Setting Goals…Turning Strategic Plans into Operating Plans, Financial Planning, Bringing Your Team into Alignment with Your Plans, Guidelines for Setting Goals
  • Chapter 19: Making Sure There’s Enough Money in the Bank…Scaling Your Financial Instincts, Boiling the Frog, To Grow or to Profit? That Is the Question, First Perfect the Model, Choosing Growth, Choosing Profits, The Third Way
  • Chapter 20: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Financing…Equity Investors, Venture Capitalists, Angel Investors, Strategic Investors, Debt, Convertible Debt, Venture Debt, Bank Loans, Personal Debt, Bootstrapping, Customer Financing, Your Own Cash Flow
  • Chapter 21: When and How to Raise Money…When to Start Looking for VC Money, The Top 11 Takeaways for Financing Negotiations
  • Chapter 22: Forecasting and Budgeting…Rigorous Financial Modeling, Of Course You’re Wrong—But Wrong How?, Budgeting in a Context of Uncertainty, Forecast, Early and Often
  • Chapter 23: Collecting Data…External Data, Learning from Customers, Learning from (Un)Employees, Internal Data, Skip-Level Meetings, Subbing, Productive Eavesdropping
  • Chapter 24: Managing in Tough Times…Managing in an Economic Downturn, Hope Is Not a Strategy—But It’s Not a Bad Tactic, Look for Nickels and Dimes under the Sofa, Never Waste a Good Crisis, Managing in a Difficult Business Situation
  • Chapter 25: Meeting Routines…Lencioni’s Meeting Framework, Skip-Level Meetings, Running a Productive Offsite
  • Chapter 26: Driving Alignment…Five Keys to Startup Alignment, Aligning Individual Incentives with Global Goals
  • Chapter 27: Have You Learned Your Lesson?…The Value (and Limitations) of Benchmarking, The Art of the Post-Mortem
  • Chapter 28: Going Global…Should Your Business Go Global?, How to Establish a Global Presence, Overcoming the Challenges of Going Global, Best Practices for Managing International Offices and Employees
  • Chapter 29: The Role of M&A…Using Acquisitions as a Tool in Your Strategic Arsenal, The Mechanics of Financing and Closing Acquisitions, Stock, Cash, Earn Out, The Flipside of M&A: Divestiture, Odds and Ends, Integration (and Separation)
  • Chapter 30: Competition…Playing Hardball, Playing Offense vs. Playing Defense, Good and Bad Competitors
  • Chapter 31: Failure…Failure and the Startup Model, Failure Is Not an Orphan

Part IV: Building and Leading a Board of Directors

  • Chapter 32: The Value of a Good Board…Why Have a Board?, Everybody Needs a Boss, The Board as Forcing Function, Pattern Matching, Forests, Trees, Honest Discussion and Debate
  • Chapter 33: Building Your Board…What Makes a Great Board Member?, Recruiting a Board Member, Compensating Your Board, Boards as Teams, Structuring Your Board, Board Size, Board Committees, Chairing the Board, Running a Board Feedback Process, Building an Advisory Board
  • Chapter 34: Board Meeting Materials…“The Board Book”, Sample Return Path Board Book, The Value of Preparing for Board Meetings
  • Chapter 35: Running Effective Board Meetings…Scheduling Board Meetings, Building a Forward-Looking Agenda, In-Meeting Materials, Protocol, Attendance and Seating, Device-Free Meetings, Executive and Closed Sessions
  • Chapter 36: Non-Board Meeting Time…Ad Hoc Meetings, Pre-Meetings, Social Outings
  • Chapter 37: Decision-Making and the Board…The Buck Stops—Where?, Making Difficult Decisions in Concert, Managing Conflict with Your Board
  • Chapter 38: Working with the Board on Your Compensation and Review…The CEO’s Performance Review, Your Compensation, Incentive Pay, Equity, Expenses
  • Chapter 39: Serving on Other Boards…The Basics of Serving on Other Boards, Substance, or Style?

Part V: Managing Yourself So You Can Manage Others

  • Chapter 40: Creating a Personal Operating System…Managing Your Agenda, Managing Your Calendar, Managing Your Time, Feedback Loops
  • Chapter 41: Working with an Executive Assistant…Finding an Executive Assistant, What an Executive Assistant Does
  • Chapter 42: Working with a Coach…The Value of Executive Coaches, Areas Where an Executive Coach Can Help
  • Chapter 43: The Importance of Peer Groups…The Gang of Six, Problem-Solving in Tandem
  • Chapter 44: Staying Fresh…Managing the Highs and Lows, Staying Mentally Fresh, At Your Company, Out and About, Staying Healthy, Me Time
  • Chapter 45: Your Family…Making Room for Home Life, Involving Family in Work, Bringing Work Principles Home
  • Chapter 46: Traveling…Sealing the Deal with a Handshake, Making the Most of Travel Time, Staying Disciplined on the Road
  • Chapter 47: Taking Stock of the Year…Celebrating “Yes”; Addressing “No”, Are You Having Fun?, Are You Learning and Growing as a Professional?, Is It Financially Rewarding?, Are You Making an Impact?
  • Chapter 48:  A Note on Exits…Five Rules of Thumb for Successfully Selling Your Company

 If you’re still with me and interested, again here are the links to pre-order (Print, Kindle).

Dec 202012

Startup CEO (OnlyOnce- the book!), Part II – Crowdsourcing the Outline

Startup CEO (OnlyOnce- the book!), Part II – Crowdsourcing the Outline

As I mentioned a few weeks ago here, I’m excited to be writing a book called Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Building and Running Your Company, to be published by Wiley & Sons next summer.  Since many readers of OnlyOnce are my target audience for the book, I thought I’d post my current outline and ask for input and feedback on it.  So here it is, still a bit of a work in progress.  Please comment away and let me know what you think, what’s missing, what’s not interesting!

1           Part One: Vision and Strategy (Defining the Company)
1.1          Setting the Company’s Agenda
1.2          NIHITO! (or, “Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office”)
1.3          Setting the Business Direction
1.4          Strategic Planning, Part I: Turning Concepts Into Strategy
1.5          Strategic Planning, Part II: Creating the Plan
1.6          Defining Mission, Vision and Values
1.7          Communicating Vision and Strategy
1.8          The Role of M&A
1.9          The Art of the Pivot
1.10       How Vision and Strategy Change over Time

2           Part Two: Talent (Building the Company’s Human Capital)
2.1          Building a Team
2.2          Scaling the Team
2.3          Culture
2.4          Interviewing
2.5          Recruiting
2.6          Onboarding
2.7          Setting Goals
2.8          Feedback
2.9          Development
2.10       Compensation
2.11       Promoting
2.12       Rewarding
2.13       Managing Remote Offices and Employees
2.14       Firing: When It’s Not Working
2.15       How Talent Changes over Time

3           Part Three: Execution (Aligning Resources with Strategy)
3.1          Making Sure There’s Enough Money in the Bank
3.2          Types of Financing
3.3          Fundraising Basics
3.4          Negotiating Deals
3.5          Pros and Cons of Outside Financing
3.6          Forecasting and Budgeting
3.7          Creating a Company Operating System
3.8          Meeting Routines
3.9          Driving Alignment
3.10       A Metrics-Driven Approach to Running a Business
3.11       Learning
3.12       Post-Mortems
3.13       Thinking About Exits
3.14       How Execution Changes over Time
3.14.1      Finance
3.14.2      Execution

4           Part Four: Management And Leadership (The How of Being a CEO)
4.1          Leading an Executive Team
4.2          Critical Personal Traits
4.3          Being Collaborative
4.4          Being Decisive: Balancing Authority and Consensus
4.5          The Value of Symbolism
4.6          Getting the Most out of People
4.7          Diving Deep without Being Disruptive
4.8          Articulating Purpose
4.9          Collecting Data from the Organization
4.10       Managing in an Economic Downturn
4.11       Managing in Good Times vs. Bad Times
4.12       Communication
4.12.1      Macro (to Your Company and Customers)
4.12.2      Micro (One-on-One)
4.13       How Management and Leadership Change over Time

5           Part Five: Boards (A Unique Aspect of the CEO’s Job)
5.1          Building Your Board
5.2          Meeting Materials
5.3          Meetings
5.4          Between Meetings
5.5          Making Decisions and Maximizing Effectiveness
5.6          The Social Aspects of Running a Board
5.7          Working with the Board on Compensation
5.8          Evaluating the Board
5.9          Serving on Other Boards
5.10       How Boards Change over Time

6           Part Six: Managing Yourself So You Can Manage Others
6.1          Creating a Personal Operating System
6.2          Working with an Executive Assistant
6.3          Working with a Coach
6.4          Finding Your Voice
6.5          The Importance of Peer Groups
6.6          Your Family
6.7          Taking Stock
6.8          Staying Fresh
6.9          Staying Healthy
6.10       Traveling

Apr 102014

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Although generally business is great at Return Path  and by almost any standard in the world has been consistently strong over the years, as everyone internally knows, the second part of 2012 and most of 2013 were not our finest years/quarters.  We had a number of challenges scaling our business, many of which have since been addressed and improved significantly.

When I step back and reflect on “what went wrong” in the quarters where we came up short of our own expectations, I can come up with lots of specific answers around finer points of execution, and even a few abstracted ones around our industry, solutions, team, and processes.  But one interesting answer I came up with recently was that the reason we faltered a bit was that we didn’t clearly understand the drivers of success in our business in the 1-2 years prior to things getting tough.  And when I reflect back on our entire 14+ year history, I think that pattern has repeated itself a few times, so I’m going to conclude there’s something to it.

What does that mean?  Well, a rising tide — success in your company — papers over a lot of challenges in the business, things that probably aren’t working well that you ignore because the general trend, numbers, and success are there.  Similarly, a falling tide — when the going gets a little tough for you — quickly reveals the cracks in the foundation.

In our case, I think that while some of our success in 2010 and 2011 was due to our product, service, team, etc. — there were two other key drivers.  One was the massive growth in social media and daily deal sites (huge users of email), which led to more rapid customer acquisition and more rapid customer expansion coupled with less customer churn.  The second was the fact that the email filtering environment was undergoing a change, especially at Gmail and Yahoo, which caused more problems and disruption for our clients’ email programs than usual — the sweet spot of our solution.

While of course you always want to make hay while the sun shines, in both of these cases, a more careful analysis, even WHILE WE WERE MAKING HAY, would have led us to the conclusion that both of those trends were not only potentially short-term, but that the end of the trend could be a double negative — both the end of a specific positive (lots of new customers, lots more market need), and the beginning of a BROADER negative (more customer churn, reduced market need).

What are we going to do about this?  I am going to more consistently apply one of our learning principles, the Post-Mortem  -THE ART OF THE POST-MORTEM, to more general business performance issues instead of specific activities or incidents.  But more important, I am going to make sure we do that when things are going well…not just when the going gets tough.

What are the drivers of success in your business?  What would happen if they shifted tomorrow?

Filed under: Business, Return Path

Tags: ,

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.

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.

Dec 082011

To Err is Human, To Admit it is Divine

To Err is Human, To Admit it is Divine

Forget about forgiveness.  Admitting mistakes is much harder.  The second-to-last value that I’m writing up of our 13 core values at Return Path is

We don’t want you to be embarrassed if you make a mistake; communicate about it and learn from it

People don’t like to feel vulnerable.  And there’s no more vulnerable feeling in business than publicly acknowledging that you goofed, whether to your peers, your boss, or your team (hard to say which is worse — eating crow never tastes good no matter who is serving it). But wow is it a valuable trait for an organization to have. Here are the benefits that come from being good at admitting mistakes:

  • You’re not afraid to MAKE mistakes in the first place.  Taking risks, which is one of the things that vaults businesses forward with great speed, inherently involves making mistakes. If you’re afraid to shoot…you can’t score
  • You teach yourself not to make the same mistake twice.  Being public about mistakes you make really reinforces your leanings.  It’s sort of like taking notes in class.  If you write it down, you’re more likely to remember it, even if you’re a good listener to the teacher
  • You teach others not to make the same mistake you made.  Not everyone learns from the mistakes of others as opposed to the mistakes of self, but being public about mistakes and learnings at least gives other people a shot at learning

We’ve gotten good over the years at doing post-mortems (which I wrote about here) when a major snafu happens, which is institutional (large scale) admission and learning. But smaller scale post-mortems within a team and with less formal process around them are just as important if not more so, to make them commonplace.

We have also baked this thinking into our entire product development process.  We are as lean and agile as possible given that we are closing in on 300 employees now in 11 offices in 8 countries.  Our entire product development process is now geared around the concept of “fail fast” and killing projects or sending them back to the drawing board when they’re not meeting marketplace demand.  Embracing this posture has been one of the hallmarks of our success as we’ve scaled the business these past few years.

One trick here:  If this is something you are trying to institutionalize in your company — make sure you celebrate the admission of a mistake and the learnings from it, rather than the mistake itself. You do still value successful execution more than most things!

Sep 222008

Closure

Closure

This past weekend was a weekend of closure for me. As I prepare to leave the city after almost 17 years and the apartment I’ve lived in for almost 15, we had my two original roommates from this apartment in town for the weekend with their families for a bit of a farewell party. Times certainly have changed – from three single guys to three families and 7, almost 8 kids between us. Sitting around and noting that all three couples had either gotten engaged or first started dating within the confines of Apartment 35B, then saying goodbye as everyone left the apartment for the last time, was a little surreal. But overall, having everyone around was great fun and was a fitting way to mark the occasion.

If that wasn’t enough to drive the point home, we were lucky enough to get tickets to the Yankees game last night, which was the last home game the Yanks will play in their 85-year old stadium before moving across the street next season to their fancy new home. The ceremony before the game, which featured a bunch of prominent Yankee greats and their progeny (Babe Ruth’s daughter threw out the opening pitch!), was similarly surreal, but a fitting ending to a long-standing tradition.

Yankees_farewell_4

Why is closure important? I’m not a psychologist, but for me and my brain anyway, celebrating or formally noting the END of something helps move on to the BEGINNING of the next thing. It helps compartmentalize and define an experience. It provides time to reflect on a change and WHY it’s (inevitably) both good and bad. And I suppose it appeals to the sentimentalist in me.

I think it’s important to create these moments in business as well as in one’s personal life. We and I have done them sporadically at Return Path over the years. Moving offices as we expand. Post-mortems on projects gone well or badly. Retrospectives with employees who didn’t work out, sometimes months after the fact. Whether the moment is an event, a speech at an all-hands meeting, or even just an email to ALL, one of the main jobs of a leader in building and driving a corporate culture is to identify them and mark them.

May 102007

It Never Goes Without Saying

It Never Goes Without Saying

Remember that old adage, "It goes without saying…"?  That saying shouldn’t exist inside a well-run company.  Communication — real communication, not implied communication — is the foundation for a successful business.

We human beings live for "moments."  We mark time by observing regular occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.  While religions and cultures differ on the details, we mark the cycle of life with things like baby namings, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, first communions, weddings, and funerals. 

There’s no reason the workplace should be any different.  Think about these few examples where it could "go without saying," but where you’re so much better off creating that "moment" by:

- Publicly acknowledging a member of your team for reaching an employment anniversary (the bigger the number, the heartier the acknowledgment)

- Laying the groundwork for a new initiative by reminding the team in a meeting or email about the company’s mission and how this initiative fits into the big picture

- Marking the end of a project or a transition period with a celebration

- Meeting two weeks after the end of a project or a crisis to do a post-mortem analyzing what went well and defining lessons learned for the next time

- Publicly thanking a colleague for helping out on something — anything

- Giving an employee a quick reprimand or constructive feedback right after an incident (probably privately) instead of letting the issue fester and its details slip from short-term memory

Clear, simple communication is the cheapest and easiest way to create a fun, rewarding, accountable, and focused work environment.

Filed under: Leadership

Apr 152007

Calling for the Boss’s Head

Calling for the Boss’s Head

Maybe it’s just a heightened sense of awareness on my part, but I feel like our culture has really turned up the time-to-fire-the-boss-o-meter to a new level of late.  What is going on that has caused the media and vocal people among us feel this thirst for public lynchings over a single incident?  The list isn’t small — just in recent weeks or months, you have Rumsfeld, Dunn (HP), Gonzales, Imus, Wolfowitz, and even last week, Snyder (Vonage).  And I’m sure there are a dozen others, both corporate and political, that I’m not dredging up mentally here on a Sunday night.

Now I’m all for accountability, believe me, but sometimes it doesn’t help an organization for someone to resign at the top over a single incident.  Jarvis says it best when he says that he would have fired Imus a long time ago because he’s boring and because he’s always been a racist, not because of a few choice words last week.  Should chronic poor performers be dismissed regardless of level?  Absolutely.  Should a leader be forced to step down just to make a point?  I’m much less certain.  In some ways, to carry Jarvis’s theme forward, that kind of dismissal is just a sign to me of lackadaisical oversight along the way, finally coming to a head.

I’m no psychologist, but my guess is that in many cases, a flash dismissal of another otherwise competent leader can pretty bad and traumatic for the underlying organization (be it a company or country).  Consider the alternative — an honest apology, some kind of retribution, and a clear and conspicuous post-mortem — that leaves the ship with its captain and sends the message to the troops that honest mistakes are tolerated as long as they’re not repeated and amends are made.

This in no way is meant to defend the actions of any specifics of the above list.  For many of them, their actions may have prompted an unrecoverable crisis of confidence.  But for my part, I’d rather see regular accountability and transparency, not just at the peaks and troughs.

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