Jan 282016

Ideas Matter Less Than Execution Which Matters Less Than Timing Which Matters Less Than Luck

Well, that’s a mouthful.  Let me break it down.

Ideas Matter Less Than Execution

Execution Matters Less Than Timing

Timing Matters Less Than Luck

There’s a persistent myth about entrepreneurs as heroes – the people with the brilliant ideas and Eureka moments that bring companies to life and create success.  I’ve never believed in that myth, or at least not in its universality, as I’ve always valued both ideation and execution in terms of business building.  But as I was thinking about that construct more the other day, it occurred to me that there’s actually a hierarchy of the two, and not just of the two, but of timing and luck as well.  The best businesses — the runaway successes — probably have all four of these things going, or at least three.  And in many cases, THE IDEA is the least important of the bunch.  Consider these examples:

Plaxo was launched a year or two before LinkedIn.

Friendster was launched a couple years before MySpace, which was launched before Facebook.  (You can go back even further and look at things like PlanetAll and Classmates.com).

Geocities predated blogging and Tumblr by more than a decade.

The Diamond Rio was launched three years before the first iPod.

Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Altavista, Yahoo, and lots of other search engines and web crawlers were started well before Google.  Goto.com (Overture) did paid search before Google.

The ideas were all pretty similar.  In most cases, if not all, execution won out.  In the case of the iPod vs the Rio, it’s not that the world wasn’t ready for portable music – my Sony Walkman from the early 1980s is testament to that.  It’s that the combination of iTunes and the iPod, combined with Apple’s phenomenal design and packaging — all elements of execution — won the day.

The role that timing plays is also key.  Sometimes the world isn’t ready for a great technology yet, or it may be ready, but not for sustained growth and usage.  Friendster and MySpace vs. Facebook is the best example of this.  Facebook isn’t necessarily a better service, better marketed.  Friendster and MySpace were similarly viral in adoption at the beginning.  But the world was still in the Visionary or Early Adopter stage (in the language of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm).  By the time Facebook came around, the world was ready to mass adopt a social network.  Geocities, for example, was a big financial success at the time (Yahoo acquired the business for $5B – they “only” acquired Tumblr for $1B, give or take), but then it disappeared from the scene, where Tumblr seems much more durable.

The role of luck is harder to explain, or at least harder to separate from that of timing, and there’s a good argument that luck can be at the bottom of this particular chain, not the top (as in, luck is hard to separate from ideas).  Sometimes luck means avoiding bad luck, as in the story about Southwest Airlines — a great idea with promising early execution and good timing — narrowly avoiding a major crash during its first week of operations in 1967.  Sometimes luck means being in the right place at the right time, or making an accidental discovery, as in the case of the Princeton University professor, Edward Taylor, who discovered a powerful cancer treatment a bit accidentally while studying the pigments that produce the colors on the wings of butterflies for a completely unrelated purpose.

Don’t get me wrong.  Ideas are still important.  They are the spark that starts the fire.  And ideas can be partly created by the luck of being in the right place at the right time, so maybe this whole construct is more of a virtual circle than a hierarchy.  But entrepreneurs need to remember that a spark only gets you so far.  As the old saying goes, I’d rather be lucky than good!

Jan 072016

The Illusion and (Mis)uses of Certainty

September’s Harvard Business Review had a really thought-provoking article for me called How Certainty Transforms Persuasion.  Seth Godin wrote a blog post around the same time called The Illusion of Control.  The two together make for an interesting think about using information to shape behavior as leaders.  I’ve often been accused of delivering too many mixed messages to the company at all-hands meetings, so I enjoyed the think, though not in the way I expected to.

Let’s start with Seth’s thesis, which is easier to get through.  Essentially he says that nothing is certain, at best we can influence events, we’re never actually in control of situations…but that we think we are:

When the illusion of control collides with the reality of influence, it highlights the fable the entire illusion is based on…You’re responsible for what you do, but you don’t have authority and control over the outcome. We can hide from that, or we can embrace it.

Moving onto the much longer HBR article, the key thesis there is that certainty shapes our behavior, as the more certain we are of a belief (whether it’s correct or incorrect), the more it influences us:

In short, certainty is the catalyst that turns attitudes into action, bringing beliefs to life and imbuing them with meaning and consequence.

At first, it seems like these two positions might be at odds with each other, but there are other interesting nuggets in the HBR article as well that tie the two positions together.  First, that the packaging of information influences the certainty of the consumers of that information (for example, when a generally positive product reviews takes pains to admit the product’s deficiencies).  Second, that your own position in a given situation may influence your level of certainty (for example, when you are the most senior person in the room, as opposed to when you are the most junior person in the room).

The HBR article then goes on to talk about four ways companies can boost certainty in their employee population, since certainty is a driver of behavior:

  1. Consensus – showing your view is widely shared (or shaping your view to perceptions)
  2. Repetition – having people express their own opinions repeatedly (encourage customers, employees, etc. to express positive opinions or opinions aligned with corporate goals)
  3. Ease – how easily an idea comes to mind (making good, regular visual use of key concepts)
  4. Defense – people are more certain after defending a position (being a devil’s advocate in an argument to get employees to defend their position)

My initial reaction to reading both Seth’s post and the HBR article was that if Certainty is nothing but an illusion, and yet it’s a key driver of behavior, then using Certainty by definition a manipulative management technique.  Say something’s true enough, get people to believe it, hope it’s right.  Or worse, get people to say it themselves enough so they believe their own inner monologues, not just yours.  But then I thought about the feedback that I get — that I deliver too many mixed messages — and changed my view. Coming across as certain, even when certainty may or may not be real, isn’t any more manipulative than any other management or even sales technique.  Our job as leaders is to generate inspiration and activity in our teams, isn’t it?  Using certainty isn’t by definition disingenuous, even if it’s an illusion at times.  It’s one thing to be All In, Until You’re Not, for example, and another thing entirely to publicly support a position that you know is false.  All we can do as leaders is to do our best.

Having said that, I think using certainty as a management tool is something leaders need to do judiciously given how powerful it is, and also given its fragility.  If business results are mixed, you can’t stand up in front of a room full of people and say things are great (or terrible), even if your people are seeking a black and white answer.  However, you can (and should) communicate your certainty that the direction you choose to take your team or your company is the right one.  And you can use transparency to further bolster your position.  Share the details of HOW you reached your decision with the people on your team.  After all, if you’re not certain, or if the logic that drove your certainty is flawed, why would anyone follow you?

Dec 062015

Sweet Sixteen (Sixteen Candles?)

Today marks Return Path’s 16th anniversary.  I am incredibly proud of so many things we have accomplished here and am brimming with optimism about the road ahead. While we are still a bit of an awkward teenager as a company continuing to scale, 16 is much less of an awkward teen year than 13, both metaphorically and actually. Hey – we are going to head off for college in two short years!

In honor of 16 Candles, one of my favorite movies that came out when I was a teenager, I thought I’d mark this occasion by drawing the more obvious comparisons between us and some of the main characters from the movie.  My apologies to those who may have missed this movie along the way.

Why we are like Samantha (Molly Ringwald):  No, no one borrowed our underpants. But we can’t believe that people forgot our birthday either.

Why we are like Farmer Ted / The Geek (Anthony Michael Hall):  Meet my co-founder, George Bilbrey. I mean that with love.

Why we are like Jake (Michael Schoeffling):  Meet my other co-founder, Jack Sinclair. The shy, good looking one.

Why we are like Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe):  We have only been in our newest business, Consumer Insight, for five minutes, but we already have a whole bunch of dates.

Why we are like Grandpa Fred (Max Showalter):  We’ve been around long enough to know the ways of the world, not to mention all the good wisecracks in the book.

There you have it. Year 17, here we come!

Aug 062015

The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project:  a novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford  is a logical intellectual successor and regularly quotes Eli Goldratt’s seminal work The Goal and its good but less known sequel It’s Not Luck.

The more business books I read, the more I appreciate the novel or fable format. Most business books are a bit boring and way too long to make a single point. The Phoenix Project is a novel, though unlike Goldratt’s books (and even Lencioni’s), it takes it easy on the cheesy and personal side stories. It just uses storytelling techniques to make its points and give color and examples for more memorable learning.

If your organization still does software development through a waterfall process or has separate and distinct development, QA, and IT/Operations teams, I’d say you should run, not walk, to get this book. But even if you are agile, lean, and practice continuous deployment, it’s still a good read as it provides reminders of what the world used to be like and what the manufacturing-rooted theories are behind these “new” techniques in software development.

I am so glad our technology team at Return Path, led by my colleagues Andy Sautins and David Sieh, had the wisdom to be early adopters of agile and lean processes, continuous deployment many years ago, and now dockers. Our DevOps process is pretty well grooved, and while I’m sure there are always things to be done to improve it…it’s almost never a source of panic or friction internally the way more traditional shops function (like the one in the book). I can’t imagine operating a business any other way.

Thanks to my long time friend and Board member Greg Sands of Costanoa Venture Capital for suggesting this excellent read.

Jun 252015

The Difference Between Culture and Values

The Difference Between Culture and Values

This topic has been bugging me for a while, so I am going to use the writing of this post as a means of working through it. We have a great set of core values here at Return Path. And we also have a great corporate culture, as evidenced by our winning multiple employer of choice awards, including being Fortune Magazine’s #2 best medium-sized workplace in America.

But the two things are different, and they’re often confused. I hear statements all the time, both here and at other companies, like “you can’t do that — it’s not part of our culture,” “I like working there, because the culture is so great,” and “I hope our culture never changes.”  And those statements reveal the disconnect.

Here’s my stab at a definition.  Values guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right.  Culture is the collection of business practices, processes, and interactions that make up the work environment.

A company’s values should never really change. They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there 10 or 100 years from now.  They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game. To pick one value, if you believe in Transparency one day, there’s no way the next day you decide that being Transparent is unimportant. Can a value be changed?  I guess, either a very little bit at a time, slowly like tectonic plates move, or in a sharp blow as if you deliberately took a jackhammer to stone and destroyed something permanently.  One example that comes to mind is that we added a value a couple years back called Think Global, Act Local, when we opened our first couple of international offices.  Or a startup that quickly becomes a huge company might need to modify a value around Scrappiness to make it about Efficiency.  Value changes are few and far between.

If a company’s values are its bedrock, then a company’s culture is the shifting landscape on top of it. Culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate. Landscapes change over time — sometimes temporarily due to a change in seasons, sometimes permanently due to a storm or a landslide, sometimes even due to human events like commercial development or at the hand of a good gardener.

So what does it mean that culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate?  Let’s go back to the value of Transparency. When you are 10 people in a room, Transparency means you as CEO may feel compelled to share that you’re thinking about pivoting the product, collect everyone’s point of view on the subject, and make a decision together. When you are 100 people, you probably wouldn’t want to share that thinking with ALL until it’s more baked, you have more of a concrete direction in mind, and you’ve stress tested it with a smaller group, or you risk sending people off in a bunch of different directions without intending to do so. When you are 1,000 employees and public, you might not make that announcement to ALL until it’s orchestrated with your earnings call, but there may be hundreds of employees who know by then. A commitment to Transparency doesn’t mean always sharing everything in your head with everyone the minute it appears as a protean thought.  At 10 people, you can tell everyone why you had to fire Pat – they probably all know, anyway.  At 100 people, that’s unkind to Pat.  At 1,000, it invites a lawsuit.

Or here’s another example.  Take Collaboration as a value.  I think most people would agree that collaboration managed well means that the right people in the organization are involved in producing a piece of work or making a decision, but that collaboration managed poorly means you’re constantly trying to seek consensus.  The culture needs to shift over time in order to make sure the proper safeguards are in place to prevent collaboration from turning into a big pot of consensus goo – and the safeguards required change as organizations scale.  In a small, founder-driven company, it often doesn’t matter as much if the boss makes the decisions.  The value of collaboration can feel like consensus, as they get to air their views and feel like they’re shaping a decision, even though in reality they might not be.  In a larger organization with a wider range of functional specialists managing their own pieces of the organization, the boss doesn’t usually make every major decision, though guys like Ellison, Benioff, Jobs, etc. would disagree with that.  But in order for collaboration to be effective, decisions need to be delegated and appropriate working groups need to be established to be clear on WHO is best equipped to collaborate, and to what extent.  Making these pronouncements could come as feeling very counter-cultural to someone used to having input, when in fact they’re just a new expression of the same value.

I believe that a business whose culture never evolves slowly dies.  Many companies are very dynamic by virtue of growth or scaling, or by being in very dynamic markets even if the company itself is stable in people or product. Even a stable company — think the local hardware store or barber shop — will die if it doesn’t adapt its way of doing business to match the changing norms and consumption patterns in society.

This doesn’t mean that a company’s culture can’t evolve to a point where some employees won’t feel comfortable there any longer. We lost our first employee on the grounds that we had “become too corporate” when we reached the robust size of 25 employees. I think we were the same company in principles that day as we had been when we were 10 people (and today when we are approaching 500), but I understood what that person meant.

My advice to leaders: Don’t cling to every aspect of the way your business works as you scale up. Stick to your core values, but recognize that you need to lead (or at least be ok with) the evolution of your culture, just as you would lead (or be ok with) the evolution of your product. But be sure you’re sticking to your values, and not compromising them just because the organization scales and work patterns need to change.  A leader’s job is to embody the values.  That impacts/produces/guides culture.  But only the foolhardy leaders think they can control culture.

My advice to employees: Distinguish between values and culture if you don’t like something you see going on at work. If it’s a breach of values, you should feel very free to wave your arms and cry foul. But if it’s a shifting of the way work gets done within the company’s values system, give a second thought to how you complain about it before you do so, though note that people can always interpret the same value in different ways.  If you believe in your company’s values, that may be a harder fit to find and therefore more important than getting comfortable with the way those values show up.

Note:  I started writing this by talking about the foundation of a house vs. the house itself, or the house itself vs. the furniture inside it.  That may be a more useful analogy for you.  But hopefully you get the idea.

Filed under: Business, Culture, Uncategorized

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Jun 042015

Book Short: Blink Part II

Book Short:  Blink Part II

Years ago I wrote a post about Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Blink (post, buy).  While my post has lots of specifics in it for entrepreneurs, for VCs, and for marketers, my quick summary was this:

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

I recently finished another book, Thinking Fast, and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which was very similar.  I’d call it the academic version of Blink, or that Blink is the journalistic version of it.  Kahneman breaks down our ability to think and process information into what he calls System 1 (quick and intuitive) and System 2 (slower, rational and logical).  As he puts it:

In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The book is rich in examples, and while it’s a bit long and sometimes slow going, it is an excellent read if you want to learn more about how the brain works.  The work applications are many – we do a lot of work at Return Path on understanding and avoiding Unconscious Bias at work – and this book gave me a bunch of good ideas around that.  It’s clear that it’s impossible to become a true master of your intuition vs. logic, but you can design some systems, or at least insert some checks and balances into other systems, to blunt the impact of faulty intuition or lazy logic.  The book also has an overwhelming number of labels it applies to common situations – great, but hard to keep them all straight (the priming effect, anchors, endowment effect, etc.).

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to ponder as an entrepreneur, though, was the section on Loss Aversion (another great label).  It turns out we humans are motivated more by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain.  A poignant example in the book is that professional golfers make a higher percentage of putts (I forget the actual number, but a real one, like 3-5%) for par than for birdie, when the putts are like-for-like in terms of distance and difficulty.  Saving par is more of a motivator than being under par.  The application for work is interesting.  As companies get larger, it can be difficult for founders and management teams to maintain the same level of bold risk-taking they did as smaller organizations.  Having something to lose is harder than having nothing to lose.  And yet, as they say, fortune favors the bold.  Growth stage companies need to figure out how to institutionalize risk taking and experimentation, including putting enough resources into those activities that will generate future growth, rather than simply protecting what’s already running.  (Of course, what’s already running needs investment, too.)

Thanks to my colleagues Dragana and Richard for recommending this book, and to Jamie for facilitating our office book club around it this month!

 

Mar 192015

Corporate Sniglets

Corporate Sniglets

This might be showing my age, but those who may have watched Not Necessarily the News in the 80s might remember the Sniglets segment that Rich Hall pioneered which spawned a series of short, fun books. Sniglets are words which are not in the dictionary, but which should be. I can remember a couple of examples from years ago that make the point — aquadexterity is the ability to operate bathtub dials with one’s feet; cheedle is the orange residue left on one’s fingers after eating a bag of Cheetos.

As is the case with many companies, we have made up some of our own words over the years at Return Path - think of them as Corporate Sniglets. I’m sure we have more than these, but here are a few that we use internally:

  • Underlap is the opposite of Overlap. My colleague Tom Bartel coined this gem years ago when he was leading the integration work on an acquisition we did, as in “let’s look for areas of Overlap as well as areas of Underlap (things that neither companies does, but which we should as a combined company).”
  • Pre-Mortem or Mid-Mortem are the timing opposites of Post-Mortem. We do Post-Mortems religiously, but sometimes you want to do one ahead of a project to think about what COULD go wrong and how to head those things off at the pass, or in the middle of a project to course-correct on it. I believe my colleague George Bilbrey gets credit for the Pre-Mortem, and I think I might have come up with Mid-Mortem.
  • Frontfill is the opposite of Backfill. While you Backfill a position after an employee leaves, you can Frontfill it if you know someone is going to leave to get ahead of the curve and make sure you don’t have a big gap without a role being filled. Credit to Mike Mills for this one

RPers, are there others I’m missing?  Anyone else have any other gems from other companies?

Feb 192015

Option Grants over Time

Option Grants Over Time

Several people have asked me over the years how we think about subsequent option grants (e.g., not the employee’s initial grant when hired), so I thought I would just share my standard answer here.  We give the following kinds of grants other than new employee grants:

  • promotion grants – employees get the incremental grant between their existing grant and what someone being hired into the new position would get
  • performance grants – once a year we give the top 10-15% of performers a grant that is equal to approximately 25% of their initial grant (so if they are a consistent superstar, they get twice as many options over the four years)
  • refresh grants – we only give these when someone is fully vested (though there are plenty of companies who have overlapping grants) – the new grant is whatever someone being hired in at that level would get as of today, which is usually less than the person’s initial grant

I hope this is useful…fire away with any follow up questions in the comments

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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Jan 212015

ReturnShip Program

ReturnShip Program

Today is a very exciting day for Return Path as we launch a new program we have been cooking for more than a year called the ReturnShip program. (Sometimes the name of our company comes in handy.)

Return Path has always had a significant commitment to building a strong and diverse organization as well as supporting and encouraging women to pursue careers in technical environments.  To this end, I’m very excited to share progress on our ReturnShip program: after a small pilot last year, our inaugural group of six female returnees will join Return Path in a variety of roles across the company as of today.

The ReturnShip is designed for women who have been out of the workforce for more than 1 year to re-enter and  build credible and relevant experience, and to feed our funnel of prospective employees.

The ReturnShip is 14-weeks long, during which each Returnee will own a project deliverable, learn about Return Path and get support from us in how to navigate today’s work environment.  We’re planning to hire 2-3 as employees at the end of the program (though as a practical matter, we will hire anyone who is great!), and for those who aren’t a match here, we plan to assist with connections and resume/interview reviews to find help them find a role externally.

We had an amazing response from applicants who hadn’t seen anything like this before.  We hope this program enables us to help the community and also find some hidden talent.  It will be a great learning experience for us, and we are very excited to get started.

On a personal note, although I cannot in any way take credit for dreaming up this program, I have felt the need for something like this a lot in the past 10-12 years in particular since getting married, having kids, and having a lot of friends and employees have kids for the first time. The number of immensely talented women who drop out of the workforce, or who struggle greatly with balancing work and home, is huge. Hopefully this program scales up and becomes a role model for other companies to make it easier for women who do take time off the work treadmill with their families to return to work either full time or part time. Reducing the hurdle of “I’ve been out of the workforce, so how do I get back into it?” feels like an important step.

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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Jan 082015

How to Ask For a Raise

How to Ask For a Raise

I’m guessing this topic will get some good play, both internally at Return Path and externally.  It’s an important topic for many reasons, although one of the best ones I can think of is that most people aren’t comfortable asking for raises (especially women and more introverted people, according to lots of research as well as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In).

My whole point in writing this is to make compensation part of normal conversations between a manager and a team member.  This requires the manager making it comfortable (without negative stigma), and the employee approaching it maturely.

My guess is that the two most common ways most people ask for raises when they bother to do so are (1) they get another job offer and try to get their current employer to match, or (2) they come to their boss with a very emotional appeal about how hard they are working, or that they heard Sally down the hall makes more money than they do, and that’s not fair.  Although either one may work (particularly the first one), there’s a better way to think about the whole process that removes the emotion and produces a better outcome for both employer and company.

Compensation is fundamentally a data-driven process for companies.  The high-level data inputs are the size of payroll, the amount of aggregate increase the company can afford, and the framework for distributing that aggregate increase by department or by level of performance.  A second set of position- or person-specific data looks at performance within a level, promotions, and internal leveling, and external comparables.  Fundamentally, smart companies will approach compensation by paying people fairly (both internally and externally) to do their jobs so they keep their best people from looking for new jobs because of compensation.

If compensation is a data-driven process for companies, employees should treat asking for raises as a data-driven process, too.  How can you go about that?  What data can you bring to a compensation conversation with your manager to make it go as smoothly as possible?

  1. Let your manager know ahead of time that you’d like to discuss your compensation at your next 1:1, so he or she is prepared for that topic to come up.Blindsiding will never result in a calm and collected conversation.
  2. Be mindful of the company’s compensation cycle timing.  If the company has an annual process and you are just about to hit it (within 2-3 months), then consider carefully whether you want to ask for a raise off-cycle, or whether you just want to give your manager data to consider for the company’s normal cycle.  If you’re really off-cycle (e.g., 4-8 months away), then you should note to your manager that you’re specifically asking for off-cycle consideration
  3. Bring internal data:  your most recent performance review or ratings as well as any other specific feedback or praise you’ve received from your manager, colleagues, or senior people.  See below for one additional thought on internal data
  4. Bring external data:  bring in compensation and job requirement and scope data from multiple online sources, or even from recruiters if you’ve been called recently and asked about comp and scope of roles.  The most important parts here are the two I bolded – you can’t just bring in a single data point, and you also have to include detailed job scope and requirements to make your point.  If you only find one data point that supports a raise, expect your manager or HR team to counter with five that don’t.  If you bring in examples that aren’t truly comparable (the title is right, but the scope is way off, or the job requirements call for 10 years of experience when you have 5), then expect your manager to call you out on that
  5. Recognize that cash compensation is only one part of the mix.  Obviously an important part, but not the only part.  Incentive compensation, equity, perks (gym membership, healthcare, etc. – they all add up!), and even company environment and lifestyle are all important considerations and important levers to pull in terms of your total compensation
  6. Have the conversation in a non-emotional manner.  State your position clearly and unambiguously – you feel you deserve a raise of Q because of X, Y, and Z.  Tell your manager that you enjoy your job and the company and want to continue working there, fairly paid and amply motivated.  Don’t threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, leave the acrimony at the door, set a follow-up date for the next conversation to give your manager time to think about it and discuss it with HR, and be careful about citing your colleagues’ compensation (see next point)

The one piece of data that’s tricky to surface is internal comparables.  Even the most transparent organizations usually treat compensation data as confidential.  Now, most companies are also not idiots, and they realize that people probably talk about compensation at the water cooler.  But bringing up a specific point like “I know what Sally makes, and I make less, and that’s not fair” is likely to agitate a manager or executive because of the confidentiality of compensation.  However, as one point among many, simply asking your manager, “do you feel like my compensation is fair relative to internal comparables for both my position and performance?” and even asking questions like “which positions internally do you think are good comparables for my compensation?” are both fair game and will make your point in a less confrontational or compromising manner.

Managers, how can you best handle situations where employees come in to discuss their compensation with you?

  1. Most important are two things you can do proactively here.  First, be sure to set a tone with your team that they should always be comfortable talking to you about compensation openly and directly.  That you might or might not agree with them, but the conversation is safe – remove the stigma.  Second, be proactive yourself.  Make sure you’re in touch with market rates for the roles on your team.  Make sure you’re rewarding high performers with more responsibility and more money.  And make sure you don’t let “job scope creep” happen where you just load up your good people quietly with more responsibility and don’t officially change their scope/title/comp
  2. If the employee does not more or less follow the steps above and approach this in a planful, non-emotional way, I’d suggest stopping him before the conversation gets more than one or two sentences in.  Empathize with his concern, hand him a copy of this blog post, and tell him to come back in a week ready to talk.  That saves both of you from an unnecessarily uncomfortable conversation, and it gives you time to prepare as well (see next item)
  3. If the employee does more or less follow the steps above and approaches this rationally, then listen, empathize, take good notes, and agree to the follow-up meeting.  Then sit with your manager or department head or HR to review the data surfaced by the employee, develop your own data-driven perspective, and respond in the meeting with the employee with data, regardless of your response.  If you do give a raise, the data makes it less about “I like you.”  If you don’t, you can emphasize the employee’s importance to you and steer the discussion towards “how to make more money in the future” by expanding role scope or improving performance

I hope this advice is helpful for both managers and employees.  Compensation is a weird topic – one of the weirdest at companies, but it need not be so awkward for people to bring up.

Filed under: Business, Management

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