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

Dec 052014

35 at 15

This was a big week for Return Path.  First we announced a $35mm financing led by Vista Equity Partners, an exceptional private equity firm that I’d never heard of before the middle of the fundraising process a few months ago.  We are happy to have them join our very strong board and syndicate and even happier to have additional investment capital to accelerate our growth, especially in newer businesses for us like Email Fraud Protection and our overall data and analytic capabilities.

But in some ways even more important, or at least more sentimentally important news this week is that tomorrow, December 6, marks the 15th anniversary of Return Path’s founding.  A decade and a half with probably over 800 employees in total over time in a dozen locations and several thousand clients worldwide.  We’ve “served” over 30 million consumers, including some of our legacy businesses like ECOA, Postmaster Direct, and Authentic Response, as well as our current panel.  Preparing for our annual year-end all-hands meetings over the next couple weeks was a fun exercise this week in pulling up, diving into lessons learned from this past year (and more), and trying to crisply articulate our vision for the next few years.

The next leg of our journey is going to be interesting and quite different from the past in many ways, though of course some things, like our values and spirit, won’t change.  Lots of aspects of our jobs will.  But that’s a good thing.  I’m not sure I could have ever done the same job for 15 years, and even though my title and company haven’t changed since 1999, the substance of my job has changed every few years.  I have loved every minute of every day of this journey (even the not-so-good ones) and am privileged to work with such an amazingly talented executive team, staff, and board.  I won’t say “here’s to the next 15,” because I can’t count that high, but here’s to Return Path!

And to celebrate #15, my colleague Tom Sather assembled this fun infographic that has some fun stats and is a bit of walk through history.

Return Path 15th Anniversary (lower res)

Nov 132014

Book Short: Continuing to make “sustainability” a mainstream business topic

Book Short:  Continuing to make “sustainability” a mainstream business topic

The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, by my friend Andrew Winston, is a great book.  It just got awarded one of the Top 10 business books of 2014 by Strategy+Business, which is a great honor.

Andrew builds nicely on his first book, Green to Gold:  How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage (post, book link) (and second book, which I didn’t review, Green Recovery), as I said in my review of Green to Gold, to bring:

the theoretical and scientific to the practical and treat sustainability as the corporate world must treat it in order to adopt it as a mainstream practice — as a driver of capitalistic profit and competitive advantage.

Andrew’s central thesis, with plenty of proof points in the book for our planet of 7 Billion people, rapidly heading to 9-10 Billion, is this:

Whether you take a purely fiscal view of these challenges or look through a human-focused lens, one thing is clear: we’ve passed the economic tipping point. A weakening of the pillars of our planetary infrastructure— a stable climate, clean air and water, healthy biodiversity, and abundant resources— is costing business real money. It’s not some futuristic scenario and model to debate, but reality now, and it threatens our ability to sustain an expanding global economy… If this hotter, scarcer, more transparent, and unpredictable world is the new normal, then how must companies act to ensure a prosperous future for all, including themselves?

Andrew’s writing is accessible and colorful.  The book is full of useful analogies and metaphors like this one:

Climate can also seem easy to write off because the warming numbers don’t sound scary. A couple degrees warmer may sound pleasant, but we’re not really talking about going from 75 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit on a nice spring day. As many others have pointed out, the right metaphor is a fever. Take your core body temperature up one degree, and you don’t feel so great. Five degrees, and you’re sick as a dog. Ten degrees, and you’re dead.

The book also does a really nice job of looking at the externalities of climate change in a different way.  Not the usual “I can pollute, because there’s no cost to me to doing so,” but more along the lines of “If I had to pay for all the natural resources my business consumes, I would treat them differently.”

Some of Andrew’s points are good but general and maybe better made elsewhere (like the problems of short-termism on Wall Street), but overall, this book is a great think piece for all business leaders, especially in businesses that consume a lot of natural resources, around how to make the challenge of climate change work for your business, not against it.

Two things occurred to me during my read of The Big Pivot that I think are worth sharing for the people in my life who still don’t believe climate change is real or threatening.  The first is Y2K.  Remember the potentially cataclysmic circumstance where mission critical systems all around the world were going to go haywire at midnight at the turn of the millennium?  The conventional wisdom on why nothing major went wrong is that society did enough work ahead of time to prevent it, even though the outcomes weren’t clear and no one system problem alone would have been an issue.  I was thinking about this during the book…and then Andrew mentioned it explicitly towards the end.

The second is something I read several years ago in my personal news bible, The Economist.  I couldn’t find the exact quote online just now, but it was something to the effect of “Even if you don’t believe man created climate change, or that climate change is real and imperiling to humanity and can be fixed by man, the risks of climate change are so great, the potential consequences so dire, and the path to solve the problem so lengthy and complex and global…it’s worth investing in that solution now.”

Let’s all pivot towards that, shall we?  If you want to download the introduction to the book for free, you can find it on Andrew’s web site.  Or for a three-minute version of the story, you can watch this whiteboard animation on YouTube.

Nov 062014

Sources of Urgency

Sources of Urgency

Sometimes I wish we were in the hardware business.  Why?  It’s not the margins, that’s for sure.  It’s because hardware businesses usually have externally-imposed deadlines that create urgency in an organization around deliverables.

If you are making a chip that Dell is putting in all of its boxes, and your contract with Dell stipulates that the chip will be ready for testing on X Date and for shipping on Y Date, you darn well better hit the deadline.  If you are making software that gets installed or pre-loaded on all Samsung TVs, same thing.  Maybe it’s not the hardware business per se, but you certainly don’t see this kind of mentality in SaaS businesses very often, either because of the lack of true OEM and ship dates, or because of the now fluid nature of agile software development.

Without that kind of externally-imposed deadline, instilling true urgency gets a lot harder for a leader.  Sure, you can stick an arbitrary deadline out there and rally people to work towards it, but it’s much harder to define the consequences of missing the deadline.  Since there are in many cases no tangible and immediate business consequences, it feels a little more hollow for a leader to say “Why?  Because I said so.”  Yes, you have firing as the ultimate accountability tool in your toolkit, but again, it’s hard to feel good about using that tool when the deadline is arbitrary.

Probably the default method most companies like ours have settled on over the years is around quarterly goals.  That kind of cadence removes the arbitrary part of the problem, but it doesn’t remove the tangible business consequences part of the problem – and often, it doesn’t align with actual project deadlines.  Public companies probably can use quarterly financial results as something more tangible, but those often don’t align with deliverables quarter for quarter.  Customer conferences or marketing events can be other deadlines as well, which are less arbitrary.

I realize my blog is usually more about sharing stories than asking questions, but in this case, I’d love to hear from any reader who has a good answer to this very important management challenge.  If I get a great response, I will reblog it!

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Oct 232014

Does size matter?

Does size matter?

It is the age-old question — are you a more important person at your company if you have more people reporting into you?  Most people, unfortunately, say yes.

I’m going to assume the origins of this are political and military. The kingdom with more subjects takes over the smaller kingdom. The general has more stars on his lapel than the colonel. And it may be true for some of those same reasons in more traditional companies. If you have a large team or department, you have control over more of the business and potentially more of the opportunities. The CEO will want to hear from you, maybe even the Board.

In smaller organizations, and in more contemporary organization structures that are flatter (either structurally or culturally) or more dynamic/fluid, I’m not sure this rule holds any more. Yes, sure, a 50-person team is going to get some attention, and the ability to lead that team effectively is incredibly important and not easy to come by. But that doesn’t mean that in order to be important, or get recognized, or be well-compensated, you must lead that large team.

Consider the superstar enterprise sales rep or BD person. This person is likely an individual contributor. But this person might well be the most highly paid person in the company. And becoming a sales manager might be a mistake — the qualities that make for a great rep are quite different from those that make a great sales manager. We have lost a few great sales reps over the years for this very reason. They begged for the promotion to manager, we couldn’t say no (or we would lose them), then they bombed as sales managers and refused as a matter of pride to go back to being a sales rep.

Or consider a superstar engineer, also often an individual contributor. This person may be able to write code at 10x the rate and quality of the rest of the engineering organization and can create a massive amount of value that way. But everything I wrote above about sales reps moving into management holds for engineers as well.  The main difference we’ve seen over the years is that on average, successful engineers don’t want to move into management roles at the same rate as successful sales reps.

It’s certainly true that you can’t build a company consisting of only individual contributors. But that isn’t my point. My point is that you can add as much value to your organization, and have as much financial or psychic reward, by being a rock star individual contributor as you can by being the leader of a large team.

Filed under: Business, Management

Sep 252014

PTJD

Post Traumatic Job Disorder.

As we have been scaling up Return Path, we have been increasingly hiring senior people in from the outside. We believe in promoting from within and do it all the time, but sometimes you need an experienced leader who has operated at or ahead of the scale you’re at.  Someone with deep functional expertise and a “been there, done that” playbook. When you get a hire like this right, it’s amazing how much that kind of person gets done, how quickly.

One of the pitfalls of those hires, though, is cultural fit. Many of the larger organizations in the world don’t have the kind of supportive, employee-centric cultures that we have here, or that startups tend to have in general. They tend to be much more hierarchical, political, command-and-control. There is a real risk that hiring a senior person who has been trained in environments like that will blow up on you — that, as I’ve written before, the body will reject the organ transplant.

I’ve taken to calling the problem PTJD, or Post-Traumatic Job Disorder. Some of the stories I’ve heard from senior people about their experiences with their bosses or even CEOs at prior companies include such things as:  being screamed at regularly, having had a gun pulled on you, having had a knife pulled on you, having been ignored and only spoken to once or twice a year, being the victim of sexual harassment. Nice.

Just like PTSD, many people can recover from PTJD by being placed in a different environment with some up-front reprogramming and ongoing coaching. But also like PTSD, there are times where people can’t recover from PTJD. The bad habits are too engrained. They are (virtually) shell shocked.

Assuming you do the same reprogramming and coaching work on any PTJD employee, the difference between an employee who recovers and one who does not recover is really hard to smoke out in an interview process. Almost all candidates like this (a) are very polished and now how to interview well, and (b) genuinely think they want to work in a more relaxed, contemporary environment.

Here are five things I’ve learned over the years that can help identify a PTJD candidate who is unlikely to recover, before you make the hire:

  1. Look for candidates who have bigger company experience, but who also have startup and growth/scaling experience.  As I’ve written before, stage experience is important because the person is more likely to really understand what he or she is getting into — and what their playbook of action is.
  2. Try to understand, if a candidate has been in a workplace that breeds PTJD, whether that person was just in the machine, or if the person actually ran the machine. In other words, a senior manager might be a better fit to recover from PTJD than a senior executive.
  3. Note that not all big companies are dysfunctional or lead to PTJD, so try to understand the reputation of the person’s employer. For example, in New York, it’s a pretty safe bet that someone coming from American Express has not only been well trained, but well cared for.
  4. Do reference checks differently. Do them yourself. Do them as if you were doing a 360 on the person (manager, peer, subordinate, even a junior person from another department). Do reference checks on the references (seriously – ask the references about each other) so you understand the biases each of them brings to the conversation with you.
  5. Focus on the first 90 days. Be relentless about how you onboard a potential PTJD victim. Give them more care, structure, praise, guidance, and criticism than you might otherwise give. Use an outside coach to augment your work, and assign a good executive buddy internally. And listen carefully to the feedback from the organization about the person, doing a deep 360 after a few months to see if the person is recovering, can recover, or can’t recover. If the latter, time to cut your losses early.

Thanks to some of my new executive colleagues here for inspiring this post, and I hope none of my friends who have served in the military take offense at this post. I am drawing an analogy, but I’m not truly suggesting that PTJD compares in any way, shape, or form to the horrors of war.

Sep 112014

The 2×4

The 2×4

I took a Freshman Seminar in my first semester at Princeton in 1988 with a world-renowned professor of classical literature, Bob Hollander.  My good friend and next-door neighbor Peggy was in the seminar with me.  It was a small group — maybe a dozen of us — meeting for three hours each week for a roundtable with Professor Hollander, and then writing the occasional paper.  Peggy and I both thought we were pretty smart.  We had both been high school salutatorians from good private schools and had both gotten into Princeton, right?

Then the first paper came due, and we were both a bit cavalier about it.  We wrote them in full and delivered them on time, but we probably could have taken the exercise more seriously and upped our game.  This became evident when we got our grades back.  One of us got a C-, and the other got either a D or an F.  I can’t remember exactly, and I can’t remember which was which.  All I remember is that we were both stunned and furious.  So we dropped by to see Professor Hollander during his office hours, and he said the same thing to each of us:  “Matt, sometimes you need a 2×4 between the eyes.  This paper is adequate, but I can tell it’s not your best work, it’s decent for high school but not for college, and almost all the others in the class were much more thoughtful.”

Ouch.

Ever since then, Peggy and I have talked about the 2×4, and how it helped us snap out of our own reality and into a new one with a significantly higher bar for quality.  That phrase made it into Return Path‘s lexicon years ago, and it means an equivalent thing — sometimes we have to have hard conversations with employees about performance issues.  The hardest ones are with people who think they are doing really well, when in reality they’re failing or in danger of failing.  That disconnect requires a big wakeup call — the 2×4 between the eyes — before things spiral into a performance plan or a termination.

Delivering a 2×4 between the eyes to an employee can feel horrible.  But it’s the best gift you can give that employee if you want to shake them back onto a successful trajectory.

Aug 142014

How to Manage Your Career

I gave a presentation to a few hundred Return Path employees in January at an all-hands conference we did called “How to Manager Your Career.”

The presentation has three sections — The Three Phases of a Career, How to Get Promoted, and How to Wow Your Manager.

While it’s not as good without the voiceover and interactivity, I thought I’d post it here…see the presentation on Slideshare.

As I said to my audience, if there’s one thing to take away from the topic, it’s this:

Managing your career is up to one, and only one person – you. 

It doesn’t matter how great a corporate culture you have, or how supportive your manager is.  You’re the only person who cares 100% of the time about your career, and you’re the only person with a longitudinal view of what you love, what you’re great at, where you’ve been, and where you want to go.

May 222014

The 90-Day Reverse Review

The 90-Day Reverse Review

Like a lot of companies, Return Path does a 90-day review on all new employees to make sure they’re performing well, on track, and a good fit.  Sometimes those reviews are one-way from the manager, sometimes they are 360s.

But we have also done something for years now called the 90-Day Reverse Review, which is equally valuable.  Around the same 90-day mark, and unrelated to the regular review process, every new employee gets 30 minutes with a member of the Executive Committee (my direct reports, or me if the person is reporting to someone on my team) where the employee has a chance to give US feedback on how WE are doing.

These meetings are meant to be pretty informal, though the exec running the meeting takes notes and circulates them afterwards.  We have a series of questions we typically ask, and we send them out ahead of time so the employee can prepare.  They are things like:

-Was this a good career move?  Are you happy you’re here?

-How was your onboarding experience?

-How do you explain your job to people outside the company?

-What is the company’s mission, and how does your role contribute to it?

-How do you like your manager?  Your team?

-Do you feel connected to the company?  How is the company’s information flow?

-What has been your proudest moment/accomplishment so far?

-What do you like best about the company?

-If you could wave a wand and change something here, what would it be?

We do these for a few reasons:

-At the 90-day mark, new employees know enough about the company to give good input, and they are still fresh enough to see the company through the lens of other places they’ve worked

-These are a great opportunity for executives to have a “Moment of Truth” with new employees

-They give employees a chance to productively reflect on their time so far and potentially learn something or make some course correction coming out of it

-We always learn things, large or small, that are helpful for us as a management team, whether something needs to be modified with our Onboarding program, or whether we have a problem with a manager or a team or a process, or whether there’s something great we can steal from an employee’s past experiences

This is a great part of our Operating System at Return Path!

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