Oct 172013

Lean In, Part II

Lean In, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 192013

The Boomerang Club, or How to Quit Your Job, Part II

The Boomerang Club, or How to Quit Your Job, Part II

My post last week on How to Quit Your Job has generated about two dozen comments as well as a really lengthy thread on Y Combinator’s Hacker News.  My various replies to comments are worth summarizing here – this is a reprint of my comment on Hacker News:

First, my post was not intended to be general advice to employees of all companies on how to handle a situation where they’re starting to look for jobs.  Of course, many environments would not respond well to that approach.  My point was just that that’s how we encourage employees to handle the situation at Return Path, and we have created a safe environment to do so.  By the way, it doesn’t happen here 100% of the time either, by any stretch of the imagination.  But I wish it did.  When it happens, it’s better for everyone — the company as well as the employee, who either (a) ends up staying because we resolve some issue we weren’t aware of, or (b) has a less stressful and more graceful transition out.

Second, the way we run our business is around a bit of a social contract — that is to say, a two-way street.  And just as we ask employees to start a dialog with us when they are thinking of leaving, we absolutely, 100% of the time, are open and transparent with employees when they are in danger of being fired (other than the occasional urgent “for cause” situation).  We give people ample opportunity to correct performance and even fit issues.  In terms of someone’s question below about lay-offs, we fortunately haven’t had to do those since 2001, but if I recall, even then, we were extremely transparent about our financial position and that we might need to cut jobs in 30 days.

But I wanted to take this post to emphasize a related, second point.  If it’s a given that you are going to quit your job, then HOW you quit your job becomes super important.  And this is general advice, not something specific to Return Path.  Even if you’re unhappy – even if you feel totally wronged or burned in some way – there is never a good reason to burn bridges on the way out the door.  In fact, the opposite is what I would consider best practice:  make the transition as easy as possible for your company.

Document your job really well, including specifics of all open projects.  Work with your manager and teammates to hand off all responsibilities.  Be frank and constructive in your exit interview.  Make the extra effort to leave things in good working order.

We have a long history of hiring back former employees here.  We proudly call it The Boomerang Club, and there have been a dozen or so members over the years.  We try to make it easy to come back if you leave.  First, we celebrate the return of a former employee pretty widely, and we obviously modify our usual extensive interview process.  If you come back in less than a year, we pretend that you never left in terms of giving you credit for continuous service.  If your gap is more than a year, we don’t give you credit for the time you were gone, but we do give you full credit for the time you’d been here before you left.

But you can’t really be a member of The Boomerang Club if you leave your job in the wrong way.  HOW you do that says a lot about you, and everyone at your company will take note and remember it.

Sep 132013

How to Quit Your Job

How to Quit Your Job

I sent an email out to ALL at Return Path a few years ago with that as the subject line.  A couple people suggested it would make a good blog post in and of itself.  So here’s the full text of it:

ALL –

This may be one of the weirdest emails you’ll see me (or any CEO write)…but it’s an important message that I want to make sure everyone hears consistently.  If nothing else, the subject line will probably generate a high open rate.  :-)

First off, I hope no one here wants to leave Return Path.  I am realistic enough to know that’s not possible, but as you know, employee engagement, retention, and growth & development are incredibly important to us.

But alas, there will be times when for whatever reason, some of you may decide it’s time to move on.  I have always maintained that there’s more than a Right Way and a Wrong Way to leave a job.  For me, there’s a Return Path Way.

I suppose the Right Way is the standard out there in the world of two weeks’ notice and an orderly documentation and transition of responsibilities.  The Wrong Way is anything less.

So what’s the Return Path Way?

It starts with open dialog.  If you are contemplating looking around for something else, you should let someone know at the thinking stage.  Ideally that would be your manager, but if you’re not comfortable starting the conversation there, find someone else — your department head, someone in HR, me.  Let someone who is in a position to do something about it know that you’re considering other options and why.  The worst thing that will happen is that the company isn’t able to come up with a solution to whatever issues you have.  I PROMISE you that no one here in any management position will ever think less of you or treat you differently or serve up any kind of retribution for this kind of conversation.

After the open dialog and any next steps that come out of it, if you are still convinced that leaving is the right thing for you, tell your manager and whoever you spoke to at the beginning of your search process, not at the end of it.  That hopefully gives the company enough lead time to find a replacement and provide for enough overlap between you and the new hire so that you can train your replacement and hand things off.

Why do we feel so strongly about this?

We invest heavily in our people.  I know we’re not perfect — no company is — but we do our best to take good care with everyone who works here.  Hopefully you know that.  And hiring great people is difficult, as you also know.  Losing a well trained employee is VERY PAINFUL for the company.  It slows our momentum and causes at least a minor level of chaos in the system.  And as shareholders or future shareholders (even if you leave – you can exercise your vested stock options), I’d hope that’s something none of you want to do.

I realize the Return Path Way that I am outlining here is unconventional (and potentially uncomfortable).  But Return Path is an unconventional place to work in a lot of ways.

As I said up front, I hope none of you wants to leave…but if you do, please take this request and advice to heart.

Thank you!

-Matt

Now…I sent this out when the company was a lot smaller, when losing a single employee was losing a real percentage of our workforce!  But I stand by every word in the email, even at a larger size.  This kind of dialog is, as I note in the email, both unconventional and uncomfortable.  But just as one of my management mantras here is “no one should ever be surprised to be fired,” another is “we should never be surprised when someone resigns.”  Ultimately, it’s up to each individual manager to set the right tone with his or her team, and also be in tune enough with each of his or her team members, to foster this.

Aug 222013

Unknown Unknowns

Unknown Unknowns

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”   –Donald Rumsfeld

Say what you will about Rumsfeld or the Iraq war, but this is actually a great and extensible quote.  And more to the point, I’d say that one of the main informal jobs of a CEO, sort of like Connecting the Dots in that it’s not one of the three main roles of a CEO) is to understand and navigate known unknowns and unknown unknowns for your organization (hopefully you already understand and navigate the known knowns!).  Here’s what I mean:

  • An example of a known unknown is that a new competitor could pop up and disrupt your business from below (e.g., the low end) at any minute.  Or let’s say your biggest partner buys one of your competitors.  These are the kinds of things you and your team should be cognizant of as possibilities and always thinking about how to defeat
  • While I suppose unknown unknowns are by definition hard to pin down, an example of an unknown unknown is something like a foreign leader deciding to nationalize the industry you’re in including your local subsidiary, or a young and healthy leader in your organization dying unexpectedly, or September 11.  I suppose these are “black swan” events that Nassim Nicholas Taleb made famous in his book.

Helping your team identify potential known unknowns and think three steps ahead is critical.  But helping your team turn unknown unknowns into known unknowns is, while much harder, probably one of the best things you can do as CEO of your organization.  And there are probably two ways you can do this, noting that by definition, you’ll never be able to know all the unknowns.  As you might expect, the way to do that comes down to increasing your pool of close-at-hand knowledge.

First, you and your executive team can have as broad a view of your industry and corporate ecosystem, and of the economy at large, as possible.  It’s critical for business leaders to read diverse publications, to share insights with teammates, and to network with experts both inside and outside your space.
Second, you can design a culture so that information flows freely up, down, and sideways — so that people in your organization want to share information instead of hoard it.  That’s easier said than done, and there’s more than a blog post worth of what has to go into making that a reality.  But think about the CIA and all the flak they got about failure to connect the dots around September 11.  To close this post where I opened it, you can be the chief connector inside your organization…but you need to get your organization connecting the dots itself.

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.

Filed under: Leadership, Management, Return Path

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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.

Filed under: Business, Leadership, Management

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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.

 

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