Jul 312014

Book Short: Best Book Ever

Book Short:  Best Book Ever

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz, is the best business book I’ve ever read.  Or at least the best book on management and leadership that I’ve ever read.  Period.

It’s certainly the best CEO book on the market.  It’s about 1000 times better than my book although my book is intended to be different in several ways.  I suppose they’re complementary, but if you only had time left on this planet for one book, read Ben’s first.

I’m not even going to get into specifics on it, other than that Ben does a great job of telling the LoudCloud/Opsware story in a way that shows the grit, psychology, and pain of being an entrepreneur in a way that, for me, has previously only existed in my head.

Just go buy and read the book.

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Jul 012014

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Joy, Inc.:  How We Built a Workplace People Love, by Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, was a really good read. Like Remote  which I reviewed a few weeks ago, Joy, Inc. is ostensibly a book about one thing — culture — but is also full of good general advice for CEOs and senior managers.

Also like Remote, the book was written by the founder and CEO of a relatively small firm that is predominately software engineers, so there are some limitations to its specific lessons unless you adapt them to your own environment. Unlike Remote, though, it’s neither preachy nor ranty, so it’s a more pleasant read.  And I suppose fitting of its title, a more joyful read as well. (Interestingly on this comparison, Sheridan has a simple and elegant argument against working remotely in the middle of the book around innovation and collaboration.)

Some of the people-related practices at Sheridan’s company are fascinating and great to read about. In particular, the way the company interviews candidates for development roles is really interesting — more of an audition than an interview, with candidates actually writing code with a development partner, the way the company writes code. Different teams at Return Path interview in different ways, including me for both the exec team and the Board, but one thing I know is that when an interview includes something that is audition-like, the result is much stronger. There are half a dozen more rich examples in the book.

Some of the other quotable lines or concepts in the book include:

  • the linkage between scalability with human sustainability (you can’t grow by brute force, you can only grow when people are rested and ready to bring their brain to work)
  • “Showcasing your work is accountability in action” (for a million reasons, starting with pride and ending with pride)
  • “Trust, accountability, and results — these get you to joy” (whether or not you are a Myers-Briggs J, people do get a bit of a rush out of a job well done)
  • “…the fun and frivolity of our whimsically irreverent workplace…” (who doesn’t want to work for THAT company?)
  • “When even your vendors want to align with your culture, you know you’re on the right path” (how you treat people is how you treat PEOPLE, not just clients, not just colleagues)
  • “One of the key elements of a joyful culture is having team members who trust one another enough to argue” (if you and I agree on everything, one of us is not needed)
  • “The reward is in the attempt” (do you encourage people to fail fast often enough?)
  • “Good problems are good problems for the first five minutes. Then they just feel like regular problems until you solve them” (Amen, Brother Sheridan)

The benefits of a joyful culture (at Return Path, we call it a People-First culture) have long been clear to me. As Sheridan says, we try to “create a culture where people want to come to work every day.” Cultures like ours look soft and squishy from the outside, or to people who have grown up in tough, more traditional corporate environments. And to be fair, the challenge with a culture like ours is keeping the right balance of freedom and flexibility on one side and high performance and accountability on the other. But the reality is that most companies struggle with most of the same issues — the new hire that isn’t working out or the long-time employee who isn’t cutting it any more, the critical path project that doesn’t get done on time, the missed quarter or lost client.  As Sheridan notes though, one key benefit of working at a joyful company is that problems get surfaced earlier when they are smaller…and they get solved collaboratively, which produces better results. Another key benefit, of course, is that if you’re going to have the same problems as everyone else, you might as well have fun while you’re dealing with them.

If you don’t love where you work and wish you did, read Joy, Inc. If you love where you work but see your company’s faults and want to improve them, read Joy, Inc. If you are not in either of the above camps, go find another job!

Jun 052014

Book short: Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

Book short:  Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

One of the best things I can say about Remote: Office Not Required,  by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, is that it was short.  That sounds a little harsh – part of what I mean is that business books are usually WAY TOO LONG to make their point, and this one was blessedly short.  But the book was also a little bit of an angry rant against bad management wrapped inside some otherwise good points about remote management.

The book was a particularly interesting read juxtaposed against Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last which I just finished recently and blogged about here, which stressed the importance of face-to-face and in-person contact in order for leaders to most effectively do their jobs and stay in touch with the needs of their organizations.

The authors of Remote, who run a relatively small (and really good) engineering-oriented company, have a bit of an extreme point of view that has worked really well for their company but which, at best, needs to be adapted for companies of other sizes, other employee types, and other cultures.  That said, the flip side of their views, which is the “everyone must be at their cubicle from 9 to 5 each day,” is even dumber for most businesses these days.  As usual with these things, the right answer is probably somewhere in between the extremes, and I was reminded of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go farm go together” when I read it.  Different target outcomes, different paths.

I totally agree with the authors around their comments about trusting employees and “the work is what matters.”  And we have a ton of flexibility in our work at Return Path.  With 400 people in the company, I personally spend six weeks over the summer working largely remote, and I value that time quite a bit.  But I couldn’t do it all the time.  We humans learn from each other better and treat each other better when we look at each other face to face.  That’s why, with the amount of remote work we do, we strongly encourage the use of any form of video conferencing at all times.  The importance of what the authors dismiss as “the last 1 or 2% of high fidelity” quality to the conversation is critical.  Being in person is not just about firing and hiring and occasional sync up, it’s about managing performance and building relationships.

Remote might have been better if the authors had stressed the value that they get out of their approach more than ranting against the approaches of others.  While there are serious benefits of remote work in terms of cost and individual productivity (particularly in maker roles), there are serious penalties to too much of it as well in terms of travel, communication burden, misunderstandings, and isolation.  It’s not for everyone.

Thanks to my colleague Hoon Park for recommending this to me.  When I asked Hoon what his main takeaway from the book was, he replied:

The importance of open communication that is archived (thus searchable), accessible (transparent and open to others) and asynchronous (doesn’t require people to be in the same place or even the same “timespace”).  I love the asynchronous communication that the teams in Austin have tried: chatrooms, email lists (that anyone can subscribe to or read the archives of), SaaS project management tools. Others I would love to try or take more advantage of include internal blogs (specifically the P2 and upcoming O2 WordPress themes; http://ma.tt/2009/05/how-p2-changed-automattic/), GitHub pull requests (even for non-code) and a simple wiki.

These are great points, and good examples of the kinds of systems and processes you need to have in place to facilitate high quality, high volume remote work.

May 082014

Book Short: Like Reading a Good Speech

Book Short:  Like Reading a Good Speech

Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek, is a self-described “polemic” that reads like some of the author’s famous TED talks and other speeches in that it’s punchy, full of interesting stories, has some attempted basis in scientific fact like Gladwell, and wanders around a bit.  That said, I enjoyed the book, and it hit on a number of themes in which I am a big believer – and it extended and shaped my view on a couple of them.

Sinek’s central concept in the book is the Circle of Safety, which is his way of saying that when people feel safe, they are at their best and healthiest.  Applied to workplaces, this isn’t far off from Lencioni’s concept of the trust foundational layer in his outstanding book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  His stories and examples about the kinds of things that create a Circle of Safety at work (and the kinds of things that destroy them) were very poignant.  Some of his points about how leaders set the tone and “eat last,” both literally and figuratively, are solid.  But his most interesting vignettes are the ones about how spending time face-to-face in person with people as opposed to virtually are incredibly important aspects of creating trust and bringing humanity to leadership.

My favorite one-liner from the book, which builds on the above point and extends it to a corporate philosophy of people first, customer second, shareholders third (which I have espoused at Return Path for almost 15 years now) is

Customers will never love a company unless employees love it first.

A couple of Sinek’s speeches that are worth watching are the one based on this book, also called Leaders Eat Last, and a much shorter one called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

Bottom line:  this is a rambly book, but the nuggets of wisdom in it are probably worth the exercise of having to find them and figure out how to connect them (or not connect them).

Thanks to my fellow NYC CEO Seth Besmertnik for giving me this book as well as the links to Sinek’s speeches.

 

Mar 262014

Book Short: Internet Fiction

Book Short:  Internet Fiction

It’s been a long time since I read Tom Evslin’s Hackoff.com, which Tom called a “blook” since he released it serially as a blog, then when it was all done, as a bound book.  Mariquita and I read it together and loved every minute of it.  One post I wrote about it at the time was entitled Like Fingernails on a Chalkboard.

The essence of that post was “I liked it, but the truth of the parts of the Internet bubble that I lived through were painful to read,” applies to two “new” works of Internet fiction that I just plowed through this week, as well.

Uncommon Stock

Eliot Pepper’s brand new startup thriller, Uncommon Stock, was a breezy and quick read that I enjoyed tremendously. It’s got just the right mix of reality and fantasy in it. For anyone in the tech startup world, it’s a must read. But it would be equally fun and enjoyable for anyone who likes a good juicy thriller.

Like my memory of Hackoff, the book has all kinds of startup details in it, like co-founder struggles and a great presentation of the angel investor vs. VC dilemma. But it also has a great crime/murder intrigue that is interrupted with the book’s untimely ending.  I eagerly await the second installment, promised for early 2015.

The Circle

While not quite as new, The Circle  has been on my list since it came out a few months back and since Brad’s enticing review of it noted that:

The Circle  was brilliant. I went back and read a little of the tech criticism and all I could think was things like “wow – hubris” or “that person could benefit from a little reflection on the word irony”… We’ve taken Peter Drucker’s famous quote “‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” to an absurd extreme in the tech business. We believe we’ve mastered operant conditioning through the use of visible metrics associated with actions individual users take. We’ve somehow elevated social media metrics to the same level as money in the context of self-worth.

So here’s the scoop on this book.  Picture Google, Twitter, Facebook, and a few other companies all rolled up into a single company.  Then picture everything that could go wrong with that company in terms of how it measures things, dominates information flow, and promotes social transparency in the name of a new world order.  This is Internet dystopia at its best – and it’s not more than a couple steps removed from where we are.  So fiction…but hardly science fiction.

The Circle  is a lot longer than Uncommon Stock and quite different, but both are enticing reads if you’re up for some internet fiction.

 

Jan 072014

Startup CEO: The Online Course

As most of you know by now, I wrote a book that was published last fall called Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.  I’m excited to announce that, starting on January 20th, the book has now been turned into Kauffman Fellows Academy (KFA) online course called Startup CEO.  Similarly, Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson’s highly successful Venture Deals is also going to launch as Venture Deals KFA online course on February 24th. Both will be offered initially on the NovoEd platform.

The parties involved in getting it off the ground (besides me) were the team at Kauffman Fellows Academy and NovoEd.  Clint Korver, a serial entrepreneur and Stanford adjunct professor, spearheaded the project, and between filming the course and now, he switched jobs from KFA to be the COO at NovoEd, so he has been on all sides of this.   NovoEd is a very unique online educational platform that gives students the ability internationally to work together in teams and collaborate on assignments and peer review one another’s work.  So far over 1,300 people have signed up for Startup CEO from countries as far-flung as the China, Brasil, Iran, the U.K., Australia and, of course, Silicon valley..  This is an exciting extension of the book for me to watch unfold.

The class itself is a very unique format, a bit of “the entrepreneur’s studio” model.  For each chapter of the book (there are 48), I filmed a 5-10 minute Q&A with Clint in front of a live audience of a dozen startup CEOs in New York.  This was a serious production – much more than I expected – with a three-person former CNN production team of Kevin Rockwell, Chuck Afflerbach, and led by former Emmy Award winning CNN Correspondent Rusty Dornin.  Preparing for the class this way was fun and gave me a good opportunity to further crystallize the main point or theme of each chapter.  Having a live audience was super helpful to see what worked and what didn’t work.

Nov 262013

Book Short: Triumph over Adversity

Book Short:  Triumph over Adversity

In truth, Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, was a bit of a disappointment.  I thought his first three books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, were fantastic, and I routinely refer to them in business.  David and Goliath isn’t bad, it’s just a little light and hangs together a lot less than Gladwell’s other books.

I just read a scathing review of it in The New Republic, which I won’t bother linking to, mostly because the reviewer was on a total rant about Gladwell in general and was particularly insulting to people who read Gladwell (an interesting approach to a book review), essentially calling us self-help seekers who aren’t interested in reality or wisdom.  Nice.

Two seminal quotes from the book that get at its essence are:

To play by David’s rules you have to be desperate. You have to be so bad that you have no choice.

and

He was an underdog and a misfit, and that gave him the freedom to try things no one else ever dreamt of.

Those things are probably generally true in life, but also applicable to business.  A business book I read years ago called The Underdog Advantage: Using the Power of Insurgent Strategy to Put Your Business on Top, by David Morey and Scott Miller, brings this principle to life for work.

I also liked the concept Gladwell talked about a few times in the book about being a big fish in a small pond, and how that can sometimes be a better place to be than a small fish in a big pond in terms of building self-confidence.  That’s certainly been true for me in my life.

If you go back the premise of Gladwell’s books in general, as I heard him say on The Daily Show the other night — “to get people to look at the world a little differently” — then David and Goliath does that on some level.  And for that alone, it’s probably worth a quick read.

Filed under: Books, Business

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Nov 142013

Startup CEO “Bibliography”

Startup CEO “Bibliography”

A couple people who read Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business asked me if I would publish a list of all the other business books I refer to over the course of the book.  Here it is — I guess in some respects an all-time favorite list for me of business books.

And here’s the list of books in Brad Feld’s Startup Revolution series other than Startup CEO:

Oct 172013

Lean In, Part II

Lean In, Part II

My post about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In a couple months ago created some great dialog internally at Return Path.  It also yielded a personal email from Sheryl the day after it went up encouraging me to continue “talking about it,” as the book says, especially as a male leader.  Along those lines, since I wrote that initial post, we’ve had a few things happen here that are relevant to comment on, so here goes.

We partnered  with the National Center for Women & IT to provide training to our entire organization on unconscious bias.  We had almost 90% of the organization attend an interactive 90 minute training session to explore how these biases work and how to discuss these issues with others.   The goals were to identify what unconscious bias is and how it affects the workplace, identify ways to address these barriers and foster innovation, and provide practice tools for reducing unconscious biases.   While the topic of unconscious bias in the workplace isn’t only about gender, that’s one major vector of discussion.  We had great feedback from across the organization that people value this type of dialog and training.  It’s now going to be incorporated into our onboarding program for new employees.

Second, as I committed to in my original post, we ran a thorough gender-based comp study.  As I suspected, we don’t have a real issue with men being paid more than women for doing the same job, or with men and women being promoted at different rates.    That’s the good news.  However, the study and the conversations that we had around it yielded two other interesting conclusions.  One is that that we have fewer women in senior positions than men, though not too far off our overall male:female ratio of 60:40.  On our Board, we have no women.  On our Executive Committee, we have 1 of 10 (more on this below).  On our Operating Committee, we have 8 of 25.  Of all Managers at the company, we have 32 of 88.  So women skew to more junior roles.

The other is that while we do a good job on compensation equity for the same position, it takes a lot of deliberate back and forth to get to that place.  In other words, if all we did was rely on people’s starting salaries, their performance review data, and our standard raise percentages, we would have some level of gender-based inequality.  Digging deeper into this, it’s all about the starting point.  Since we have far more junior/entry level women than men, the compensation curve for women ends up needing to be steeper than that of men in order to level things out.  So we get to the right place, but it takes work and unconventional thinking.

Finally, I had an enlightening process of recruiting two new senior executives to join the business in the past couple of months.   I knew I wanted to try and diversify my executive team, which was 25% female, so I made a deliberate effort to focus on hiring senior women into both positions.  I intended to hire the best candidate, and knew I’d only see male candidates unless I intentionally sourced female candidates.  For both positions, sourcing with an emphasis on women was VERY DIFFICULT, as the candidate pools are very lopsided in favor of men for all the reasons Sheryl noted in her book.  But in both cases, great female candidates made it through as finalists, and the first candidate to whom I offered each job was female – both superbly qualified.  In both cases, for different reasons I can’t go into here, the candidates didn’t end up making it across the finish line.  And then in both cases, when we opened up the search for a second round, the rest of the candidate pool was male, and I ended up hiring men into both roles.  Now my resulting exec team is even more heavily male, which was the opposite of my intention.  It’s very frustrating, and it leaves us with more work to do on the women-in-leadership topic, for sure.

So…some positives and some challenges the last few months on this topic at Return Path.  I’ll post more as relevant things develop or occur.  We are going to be doing some real thinking, and probably some program development, around this important topic.

Oct 032013

Book Short: Alignment Well Defined, Part II

Book Short:  Alignment Well Defined, Part II

Getting the Right Things Done:  A Leader’s Guide to Planning and Execution, by Pascal Dennis, is an excellent and extraordinarily practical book to read if you’re trying to create or reengineer your company’s planning, goal setting, and accountability processes. It’s very similar to the framework that we have generally adapted our planning and goals process off of at Return Path for the last few years, Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage (book, post/Part I of this series).  My guess is that we will borrow from this and adapt our process even further for 2014.

The book’s history is in Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing system, and given the Lean meme floating around the land of tech startups these days, my guess is that its concepts will resonate with most of the readers of this blog.  The book’s language — True North and Mother Strategies and A3s and Baby A3s — is a little funky, but the principles of simplicity, having a clear target, building a few major initiatives to drive to the target, linking all the plans, and measuring progress are universal.  The “Plan-Do-Check-Adjust” cycle is smart and one of those things that is, to quote an old friend of mine, “common sense that turns out is not so common.”

One interesting thing that the book touches on a bit is the connection between planning/goals and performance management/reviews.  This is something we’ve done fairly well but somewhat piecemeal over the years that we’re increasingly trying to link together more formally.

All in, this is a good read.  It’s not a great fable like Lencioni’s books or Goldratt’s classic The Goal (reminiscent since its example is a manufacturing company).  But it’s approachable, and it comes with a slew of sample processes and reports that make the theory come to life.  If you’re in plan-to-plan mode, I’d recommend Getting the Right Things Done as well as The Advantage.

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