Jul 042013

Best CEO/Entrepreneur Quote Ever, By a Mile

Best CEO/Entrepreneur Quote Ever, By a Mile

I’ve seen and heard a lot of these.  But perhaps it’s fitting that on Independence Day, I realized that this gem of a quote, not specifically about entrepreneurs or CEOs but very applicable to them, comes from President Theodore Roosevelt in his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, April 23, 1910:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Amen, Brother Teddy.  This quote is so good that it appears twice independently (once from me, once in a contributor’s sidebar) in my almost-ready-to-pre-order book, Startup CEO.  In fact, let me quietly take this opportunity to start a bit of a hashtag movement around the topic at #startupceo.  More to come on this next week!

May 302013

Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots

Although I still maintain that the three primary roles of a CEO are to set Strategy and communicate it, develop Talent, and ensure that the business has proper Resources to run (see post here), I am increasingly finding that I play a fourth role in the organization that’s probably somewhat important, which is Connecting the Dots.

What do I mean by Connecting the Dots?  I mean helping others network internally, or helping others connect their work to the work of others, or helping others connect their work to the mission of the company, or even to the outside world.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve done this kind of work recently:

 -          I joined an Engineering all-hands and stood up after each segment to talk about the business impact of that team’s work during the prior quarter

-          I met with a new senior employee and connected him to someone internally that he wouldn’t have otherwise met with…but with whom he had a common outside interest

-          I helped a team that’s a classic “support team” understand why their work was directly, but not obviously, contributing to one of the company’s strategic initiatives

-          I connected someone in one of our international offices who had expressed an interest to me in a new role with an operational leader in the US who was thinking of adding someone to his team outside the US

-          I talked to our professional services team about a customer visit I’d recently done where we got really good feedback on the next release of a product but which also pointed out some needs for services that we hadn’t focused on yet

As a business leader, you are in a really good position to help Connect the Dots in a growing organization because you have a pretty unique view across the organization – and you tend to spend time with people internally across different functions and teams and offices.

I am not going to change my position that there are three primary roles, because I’m not sure that a CEO is required to Connect the Dots – hopefully that role can be delegated and replicated.  It’s something to think about, for sure.  But in the meantime, I like doing that and find it useful for me as well as the organization.

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May 232013

Book Not-So-Short: Not Just for Women

Book Not-So-Short:  Not Just for Women

At the request of the women in our Professional Services team, I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and while it may seem like dancing the meringue in a minefield for a male CEO to blog about it, I think it’s an important enough topic to give it a shot.  So here goes.

First, given the minefield potential, let me issue a few caveats up front.  These are deep, ages old, complex, societal issues and behaviors we’re talking about here.  There is no quick answer to anything.  There is no universal answer to anything.  Men don’t have the same perspective as women and can come across as observers (which in some respects, they are).  Working moms don’t have the same perspective as stay-at-home moms, or as single women.  We try to be good about all these issues at Return Path, but I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface.  </caveats>

Perhaps most important, my overall take on the book is that it’s a very good business book that everyone should read – not just women.  I have a strong reaction to the reactions I’ve read and heard about the book – mostly from women dismissing the book because Sandberg has immense financial resources, so how could she possibly know the plight of the ordinary mom, and how could she understand what it is like to be a stay-at-home mom?  That reaction is to dismiss the dismissals!  I found the book to be very broadly applicable.  Of course things about life with a two-working parent family are easier if you have more money.  But that’s completely not the point of the book.  And Sandberg doesn’t once criticize stay-at-home moms for that choice – in fact, she acknowledges feelings of guilt and inferiority around them and admiration for the work they do that benefits all families and kids, not just their own.

Here are a few of the biggest areas of thinking, AHA, or questioning, that the book gave me:

  • One of Sandberg’s underlying points is that the world would be a better place with more women in leadership positions, so that’s an important goal.  It’s interesting that few enough of our leaders are women, that it’s hard for me to draw that same conclusion, but it makes sense to me on the surface, and there’s some research about management teams and boards to back it up.  As far as I can tell, the world has yet to see a brutal female dictator.  Or a fair share of political or corporate scandals caused by women.  There are definitely some horror stories of “tough boss” women, but probably no more than “tough boss” men.  It’s interesting to note that in our society, leadership roles seem to be prized for their power and monetary reward, so even if the world wouldn’t be a better place with more female leaders, it would certainly be a more fair place along those two dimensions
  • I felt that a bunch of Sandberg’s points about women were more generalizations about certain personality types which can be inherent in men and women.  Maybe they’re more prevalent in women, even much more, but some are issues for some men as well.  For example, her general point about women not speaking up even if they have something to say.  I have seen this trait in women as well as more introverted men.  As a leader, I work hard to draw comments out of people who look like they have something to say in a meeting but aren’t speaking up.  This is something that leaders need to pay close attention to across the board so that they hear all the voices around their tables.  Same goes for some of the fears she enumerates.  Many male leaders I know, myself included at times, have the “fear of being found out as a fraud” thought.  Same goes for the “desire to be liked by everyone” holding people back – that’s not gender specific, either.  All that said, if these traits are much more prevalent in women, and they are traits that drive attainment of leadership roles, well, you get the point
  • The fact that women earn 77 cents on the dollar in equivalent jobs for men is appalling.  I’ve asked our People Team to do a study of this by level, factoring in experience and tenure, to make sure we don’t have that bias at Return Path.  I know for sure we don’t at the leadership level.  And I sure as heck hope we don’t anywhere in the organization.  We are also about to launch an Unconscious Bias training program, which should be interesting
  • Sandberg made a really interesting point that most of the women who don’t work are either on the low end or high end of the income spectrum.  Her point about the low end really resonated with me – that women who don’t earn a lot stop working if their salaries only barely cover childcare costs.  However, she argues that that’s a very short term view, and that staying in the workforce means your salary will escalate over time, while childcare costs stay relatively flat.  This is compounded by the fact that women who lean back early in their careers simply because they are anticipating someday having children are earning less than they should be earning when they do finally have children.
  • The other end of the income spectrum also made sense once I parsed through it – why do women whose husbands make a lot of money (most of whom make a lot of money as well) decide to off-ramp?  Sandberg’s point about the “Leadership ambition gap” is interesting, and her example of running a marathon with the spectators screaming “you know you don’t have to do this” as opposed to “you’ve got this” is really vivid.  See two bullets down for more on this one.  But it might not be straight-up Leadership Ambition Gap so much as a recognition that some of the high-earning jobs out there are so demanding that having two of them in the household would be a nightmare (noting that Dave and Sheryl seem to have figured some of that out), or that moms don’t want to miss out on that much of their children’s lives.  They want to be there…and they can afford to.  Another related topic that I wish Sandberg had covered in more depth is the path of moms who off-ramp, then re-on-ramp once their youngest children are in school, whether into the career they left or a different one.  That would be an interesting topic on many fronts
  • Societal influences must matter.  The facts that, in 2011 – Gymboree manufactured onesies that say “smart like Daddy” and “pretty like Mommy,” and that JC Penney teenage girl t-shirts say “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me” are more than a little troublesome on the surface (unless Gymboree also produces “handsome like Daddy” and “wicked smart like Mommy,” which somehow I doubt).  The fact that women do worse on math and science tests when they have to identify their gender at the top of the test is surprising and shocking
  • I am really fortunate that Mariquita only works part time, and it’s unclear to me how our lives would work if we both worked full time, especially given my extremely heavy travel schedule, though I am sure we’d figure it out.  And there’s no way that I carry 50% of the burden of household responsibilities.  Maybe 20-25% at best.  But I was struck by Sandberg’s comments (I am sure true) that in two-working-parent families, women still carry the preponderance of household responsibilities on their shoulders.  I totally don’t get this.  If you both work, how can you not be equal partners at home?  A quick mental survey of a couple of the two-working-parent families we know would indicate that the parents split household responsibilities somewhat evenly, though you can never know this from the outside.  This should be a no brainer.  Sandberg’s point that men need to “lean into their families” is spot on in these cases for sure
  • On a related note, Sandberg’s comment that “as women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home…moms can be controlling and critical…if he’s forced to do things her way, pretty soon she’ll be doing them herself” made me smile.  I have definitely seen this “learned helplessness” on the home front with dads quite a bit over the years
  • One really good point Sandberg makes is that younger employees who don’t have kids should be allowed to have a life outside of work just as much as women who do have kids.  And that she pays people for the quality and quantity of their output, not their hours.  These are principles that match our values and philosophy at Return Path 100%
  • Probably the most startling moment in the book for me – and I suspect many other men – was Sandberg’s vignette about the young woman at Facebook who was starting to “lean back” because she might someday have a family – before she was even dating anyone!  This really gave me a lot of pause.  If widespread (and I assume it is), there are clearly societal forces at work that we need to do more to help women early in their careers overcome, if they want to overcome them
  • Sandberg’s point that a rich and fulfilling career “is a Jungle Gym, not a Ladder” is spot on, but this is true for men as well as women.  It matches our philosophy of Scaling Horizontally perfectly
  • Another very poignant moment in the book was when Sandberg talked about how she herself had shown bias against women in terms of who she called on in meetings or lectures during Q&A.  Again, lots of pause for me.  If female leaders have the same societal bias against women, that’s a sign that we all have real work in front of us to help level the playing field around giving women air time.  Similarly, her example of the Heidi/Howard study was fascinating around how women with the same characteristics are perceived differently by both male and female co-workers gives me pause (for the record, I know the Heidi in question, and I like her!).  Likewise, the fact that female leaders are often given unflattering nicknames like “The Iron Lady” – you’d never see something like that for a man in the same position.  At least Thatcher wore the name as a badge of honor

I hope this post doesn’t end up as a no-win piece of writing where all I do is touch a few nerves and inspire no ongoing dialog.  “Let’s start talking about it,” the ending theme of the book, is a great way to end this post as well.  As with all tough issues, articulating the problem is the first step toward solving it.  Women need to allow men (as long as the men are open-minded, of course!) to think what they think, say what they think in a safe space, and blunder through their own learnings without feeling threatened.  And men need to be comfortable having conversations about topics like these if the paradigmatic relationship between women and leadership is going to continue to shift instead of avoiding the topic or just calling in HR.

Hopefully this blog post is one step towards that at my company.  Return Path colleagues – feel free to comment on the blog or via email and share stories of how we’ve either helped you or held you back!  But overall, I’m glad I read this book, and I’d encourage anyone and everyone to read it.

May 032013

Firsts, Still

Firsts, Still

After more than 13 years in the job, I run into “firsts” less and less often these days.  But in the past week, I’ve had three of them. They’re incredibly different, and it’s awkward to write about them in the same post, but the “firsts” theme holds them together.

One was incredibly tragic — one of our colleagues at Return Path died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Even though we’ve lost two other employees in the last 18 months to cancer, there was something different about this one.  While there’s no good way to die, the suddenness of Joel’s passing was a real shock to me and to the organization, and of course more importantly, to his wife.

The second was that I came face to face with a judge in the state of Delaware for the first time around some litigation we’re in the middle of now.  While I can’t comment on this for obvious reasons, you never think when you decide to incorporate in Delaware that a trip to a courthouse in Wilmington is in your future.

The third, which can only be described as bittersweet, is that we had our first long-time employee retire!  Now THAT’S something you never think about when you run a startup.  But Sophie Miller Audette, one of our first 20 employees going back to 2000 and the sixth longest tenured person at the company today, has decided to retire and move on to other adventures in her already rich life.  A quick search on my blog reveals that I’ve blogged about Sophie three times since I started OnlyOnce 9 years ago (as of next week).  The first time was in 2004 when I quoted her memorable line, “In my next life, I want to come back as a client.”  The second and third times were in 2005 and were about the company’s commitment to helping to find a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, which Sophie was diagnosed with almost 10 years ago now.  Sophie has been an inspiration to many of us for a long time, and while we’ll miss her day-to-day, she’ll always be part of the Return Path family.  Picture of her, me, and Anita at her “retirement dinner” earlier this week below.

Sophie retirement dinner

I always say that one of the best parts about being in this job for this long is that there are always new challenges and new opportunities to learn and grow.  The last couple weeks, full of firsts, proved the point!

Apr 252013

The People Who Go to the Trainer the Most Are the Ones Who Were in the Best Shape to Begin With

The People Who Go the the Trainer the Most Are the Onese Who Were int eh Best Shape to Begin With

Have you ever noticed this?  That the people working out with trainers in the gym are usually in great shape?  So why do they keep working with the trainer?  So they maintain their awesome level of fitness, of course!

The lesson for business is the same.  Just because you have a strong suit doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore it and rest on your laurels (at least not for very long).  This is true in good times, and in bad times. 

When things are going well, it can feel like it’s the right time to turn your focus to new things, or to fixing broken things.  And that is true to some extent, but it can’t come at the expense of continuing to develop what’s working.

And the temptation to “cut and coast” in the areas of the business that are working well is especially strong when times get tough and resources are stretched.  In fact, the situation is the opposite.  When times get tough and resources are stretched, it’s even more important to double down on the parts of the business that work well. 

Why is all of this true? 

-Your strong suits have a disproportionate impact on business results.  Are you a product-first organization?  Then great product is what makes your organization successful.  Keep producing more of it.  Are you a sales-dominant organization?  Sell more.   Are you a people-first organization?  Your people don’t become less important over time.  Why would you – in any business environment – do less of what makes you successful?

Your strong suits are bellwethers for employee insight into the organization.  The things that your company does that are best in class are the things that employees take their cues from, and that employees have the most pride in.  Let those things go – and you risk alienating your most enthusiastic employees.  This isn’t to say that companies should have “third rails,” things that are the equivalent of Social Security or the Pentagon, where the minute someone talks about a budget cut, hysteria ensues.  And it’s not about silly perks (you can be a people-first organization whether or not you have “bring your pet to work day”).  But whatever is important to you one day can’t suddenly be unimportant the next day without risking a high degree of employee whiplash.

Your strong suits compensate for your weaknesses.  The last two points are all about strong suits being out in front.  But I’d argue that your strong suits do more than that.  They protect you from your weaknesses.  Think about it metaphorically, and relating back to the title of this post, think about the body.  When you have a broken leg, your arms get stronger because you need to use them to crutch yourself around.  If you also broke your arms, you’d have a real problem!  In business, it’s the same.  Strong sales teams tend to compensate for weak marketing teams – invest less in sales, it actually hurts marketing, too.  Strong product can compensate for weak sales teams – so more stagnant product hits twice as hard.

All this may sound obvious.  There are other comparable axioms like “put your best people on your biggest opportunities,” and “manage to your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.”  And yet, the temptations to coast are real.  So get going to that gym and see your trainer for your weekly appointment.  Even if you’re in great shape.

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Feb 212013

Book Short: Plain Talk

Book Short: Plain Talk

An HR rock star I met with recently told me that “You can say anything you want to your people, as long as it’s true,” which of course is great advice.  Plain Talk: Lessons from a Business Maverick (book, kindle), by Ken Iverson, the long-time CEO of Nucor, pretty much embodies that.  If you’re not familiar with Nucor, it’s a steel company – right, steel – and the most successful one of the last 50-75 years, at that.  You may think an industrial company like this offers no lessons for you.  If so, you are wrong.

The reason Nucor has been so successful, if you believe their long time leader, is that they run the people side of their business differently than most companies like them.  Reading this book from the perspective of a knowledge worker business CEO was particularly interesting, since I had to transform my frame of reference a bit (and do a little mental time travel as well) in order to understand just how revolutionary Nucor’s practices were at the time.

But then I realized – they’re still revolutionary today.  How many companies – even the most progressive ones – don’t have performance reviews because they don’t need them in order to create a high performing environment?  Companies that spend a good percentage of their time and energies thinking about how to get their employees to do their best work, as opposed to focusing only on the goals of the business, do better than those who don’t.  It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in.  As Patrick Lencioni would say, you can outbehave the competition.

Plain Talk is a really short book, and a good, authentic read if you’re a leader who cares about your people and wants to learn a few nuggets here and there from one of the 20th century masters of that discipline.  Anyone that can link a high degree of delegation to authority has a story worth telling.

 

Jan 242013

How to Wow Your Manager

How to Wow Your Manager

Last week, I talked about how to Wow your employees.  Now I am going to discuss the converse of that – How to Wow your Manager.  Why Wow your manager?  Even if you are senior leader in an organization, the Wow factor is still important.

What impact does a Wow have?  It sends the signal that you are on top of things.  Symbolism is important.  It also advances the cause further and faster.  Why do you want to foster Wow moments with your team?  High performing teams have a lot of Wow going on.  If all members of a team see Wow regularly, they are all inspired to do more sooner, better.

Here are my top 10 examples on how to WOW your manager, along with the intended impact:

  1. Show up for every check-in with the full agenda – send it a day or more ahead (Give your manager time and space to prepare)
  2.  When you are asking your manager to communicate something (an email to the team, a reference letter, etc.), draft it for him or her (Editing is much easier than creating)
  3.  Do a start-stop-continue analysis once a year on all of your key activities (Make yourself as efficient and effective as possible – that’s your responsibility as much as your manager’s)
  4.  Own your own development plan and check in on it at least quarterly (Those who own their own career paths progress more quickly down them)
  5. Read a relevant business book and ask your manager to discuss insights with you (Staying current with best practices in your field – books, articles, blog posts, videos, mentors, lectures –  is key in a learning organization)
  6.  Dress for success – even casual can be neat and “client ready” (Your presence has an impact on those around you.  There’s no reason anyone should ever have to comment on your clothes, your hair, or any aspect of your personal hygiene)
  7. Respond to every email where you are on the TO line within a day, even if it’s to say you will respond longer form later (At Return Path,  you have to be in the jet stream of communications. Otherwise, you find yourself in the exhaust of the jet stream)
  8. End every meaningful interaction by asking for informal feedback on how you’re doing and what else you can be doing (Again, part of being in a learning organization…and taking more tasks on is always a sign that you are ready for more responsibility)
  9. Do something that’s not required but that you feel is a best practice (This shows you’re on top of your game.  One example:  I send the Board a summary, the details, and the YoY trending of all of my expenses every year.  I don’t have to, but enough CEOs out there have high profile expense problems that I decided it’s a good practice.  They all LOVE it)
  10.  (If you have staff reporting into you) Show up for every check-in with  your manager with a list of all staff issues and highlights (You need to bubble things up, both good and bad, so your manager is on top of his or her overall team and (a) is never surprised by events, (b) knows how best to handle skip-level communications, and (c) can think more broadly about resource deployment across the organization)

 

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Jan 172013

How to Wow Your Employees

How to Wow Your Employees

Here at Return Path we like to promote a culture of WOW and a culture of hospitality.  Some of you may be asking, Why Wow your employees?   The answer is, there is nothing more inspirational than showing an employee that you care about him or her as an individual.  The impact a WOW has is tremendous.  Being a manger is like being in a fishbowl.  Everything you do is scrutinized by your team.  You lead by example whether you want to or not and showing your own vulnerability/humanity has an amazing bonding effect.

Why do you want to foster Wow moments with your team?  High performing teams have a lot of Wow going on.  If all members of a team see Wow regularly, they are all inspired to do more sooner and better.

Here are 15 ways to Wow your employees

  1. Take them or her to lunch/breakfast/drinks/dinner quarterly individually, one nice one per year
  2. Learn their hobbies and special interests; when you have a spiff to give, give one that is in line with these
  3. Remember the names of their spouse/significant other/kids/pets
  4. Share your development plan with them and ask for input against it at least quarterly
  5. Respond to every email from your staff by the end of the day; sooner if you are on the TO line
  6. Ask them what they think of a piece of work you’re doing
  7. Ask them what they think of the direction the company is going, or a specific project
  8. Periodically take something off each one’s plate, even if it’s clearly theirs to do
  9. Periodically tell them to take a day off to recharge, ideally around something important in their lives
  10. End every meaningful interaction by asking how they are doing and feeling about work
  11. End every interaction by asking what you can be doing to help them do a better job and advance their career
  12. Read all job openings and highlight ones that match their interests for future positions
  13. Read the weekly award list and call out those FROM and TO your team in staff meetings
  14. Send a handwritten note to their home when you have a moment of appreciation for them
  15. (If your employee has a team he/she manages) Ask for input before every skip-level interaction and summarize each one after the fact in an email or in person

I try to have Wow moments regularly with people at all levels in the organization.  Here’s one that sticks with me.  At the Colorado summer party several years ago, I went up to someone who was a few layers down in the organization and said hi to her husband and dog by name.  I had met them before, and I work at remembering these things.  The husband was blown away – I hadn’t talked to him in probably two years.  In front of the employee, he gushed – “this is exactly why my wife loves working here – we are totally committed to being part of the RP family.”

There are as many ways to be a great manager and WOW your employees as there are stars in the sky…hopefully these ideas give you a framework to make these your own!

Jan 102013

Book Short: Entrepreneurial Lessons

Book Short:  Entrepreneurial Lessons

The Startup Playbook: Secrets of the Fastest-Growing Startups from 42 Founders, by David Kidder, is the ultimate coffee table book for entrepreneurs and people who are interested in how they think about running their businesses.

David is the author of the Intellectual Devotional series (here’s a link to one of the five or six books in the series), he’s a good friend of mine and a member of a CEO Forum that I’m in, and my major disclosure about this blog post is that I’m one of the 42 entrepreneurs David interviewed for and profiles in the book.

The Startup Playbook is very different from my own book (in progress) on being a Startup CEO.  Where my book is going to go deep on different topics – think of it as a bit of a field guide – David’s book is extremely broad in its coverage of different entrepreneurs and their stories.  Taken together, the book paints a great picture of how CEOs think about the most important parts of the job.  It’s also a nice change of pace (for me, anyway) that David profiles some entrepreneurs who aren’t in the Internet/tech space.

It was an honor to be included in The Startup Playbook next to entrepreneurs like Reid Hoffman and Elon Musk.

Jan 032013

Taking Stock, Part II

Taking Stock, Part II

Last year, I wrote about the three questions I ask myself at the beginning of every year to make sure my career is still on track. [http://www.onlyonceblog.com/2012/01/taking-stock]   The questions are:

  1. Am I having fun at work?
  2. Am I learning and growing as a professional?
  3. Is my work financially rewarding enough, either in the short term or in the long term?

This year, I am adding a fourth suggestion following a great conversation I had a bunch of months back with Jerry Colonna, a great CEO coach, former VC, and all around great person.  Question four is:

Am I having the impact I want to have on the world?

This last question was probably always implicit in my first two questions – but I like calling it out separately.  All of us have purpose in our lives and impact on others, whether it’s family, friends, colleagues, clients, or some slice of broader humanity.  Asking whether that impact is present and enough is just another check and balance on my own operating system to make sure that I’m still on track with my own goals and values.

Happy New Year!

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