Nov 122015

You Have To Be All In, Until You’re Not

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that as the organization scales, you have to be all-in, until you’re not.  What the heck does that mean?

It means that, other than confiding your indecision to a very small number of trusted advisors on a given issue, indecision is poison to the people around you and to the organization in general.  So even if you’re thinking of doing something new or different or making a tough call on something, you generally need to project confidence until you’ve made the call.

One example of this is around a decision to fire someone on the team, especially a senior executive.  Public indecision about this reminds me of years ago when George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees.  Every time he contemplated firing a manager, which was often, he was very public about it.  It turned the manager into a lame duck, ignored by players and mocked by the press.  No good for the manager or for the players, unhelpful for the team as a whole.  It’s the same in business.  Again, other than a small group of trusted advisors, your people have to have your full backing until the moment you decide to remove them.

Another example of this is a shift in strategy.  Strategy drives execution – meaning the course you chart translates into the goals and activities of all the other people in your organization.  Mobilizing the troops is hard enough in the first place, and it requires a tremendous amount of leadership expressing commitment.  If you’re contemplating a shift in strategy, which of course happens a lot in dynamic businesses, and you share your thinking and qualms broadly, you risk paralyzing the organization or redirecting activities and goals without intending to or without even knowing it.

Some people might look at this concept and cry “foul – what about Transparency?”  I don’t buy that.  As I wrote recently in The Difference Between Culture and Values, “When you are 10 people in a room, Transparency means you as CEO may feel compelled to share that you’re thinking about pivoting the product, collect everyone’s point of view on the subject, and make a decision together. When you are 100 people, you probably wouldn’t want to share that thinking with ALL until it’s more baked, you have more of a concrete direction in mind, and you’ve stress tested it with a smaller group, or you risk sending people off in a bunch of different directions without intending to do so. When you are 1,000 employees and public, you might not make that announcement to ALL until it’s orchestrated with your earnings call, but there may be hundreds of employees who know by then. A commitment to Transparency doesn’t mean always sharing everything in your head with everyone the minute it appears as a protean thought.  At 10 people, you can tell everyone why you had to fire Pat – they probably all know, anyway.  At 100 people, that’s unkind to Pat.  At 1,000, it invites a lawsuit.”

Oct 082015

The Problem with Titles

The Problem with Titles

This will no doubt be a controversial post, and it’s more of a rant than I usually write. I’ll also admit up front that I always try to present solutions alongside problems…but this is one problem that doesn’t have an obvious and practical solution.  I hate titles. My old boss from years ago at MovieFone used to say that nothing good could come from either Titles or Org Charts – both were “the gift that keeps on giving…and not in a good way.”

I hate titles because they are impossible to get right and frequently cause trouble inside a company. Here are some of the typical problems caused by titles:

  • External-facing people may benefit from a Big Title when dealing with clients or the outside world in general. I was struck at MovieFone that people at Hollywood studios had titles like Chairman of Marketing (really?), but that creates inequity inside a company or rampant title inflation
  • Different managers and different departments, and quite frankly, different professions, can have different standards and scales for titles that are hard to reconcile.  Is a Controller a VP or a Senior Director?  And does it really matter?
  • Some employees care about titles more than others and either ask or demand title changes that others don’t care about.  Titles are easy (free) to give, so organizations frequently hand out big titles that create internal strife or envy or lead to title inflation
  • Titles don’t always align with comp, especially across departments. Would you rather be a director making $X, or a senior manager making $X+10?
  • Merger integrations often focus on titles as a way of placating people or sending a signal to “the other side” — but the title lasts forever, where the need that a big title is fulfilling is more likely short term
  • Internal equity of titles but an external mismatch can cause a lot of heartache both in hiring and in noting who is in a management role
  • Promotions as a concept associated with titles are challenging.  Promotions should be about responsibility, ownership and commensurate compensation.  Titles are inappropriately used as a promotion indicator because it inherently makes other people feel like they have been demoted when keeping the same title
  • Why do heads of finance carry a C-level title but heads of sales usually carry an EVP or SVP title, with usually more people and at least equal responsibility?  And does it sound silly when everyone senior has a C level title?  What about C-levels who don’t report to the CEO or aren’t even on the executive team?
  • Ever try to recalibrate titles, or move even a single title, downward?  Good luck

What good comes from titles?  People who have external-facing roles can get a boost from a big title. Titles may be helpful to people when they go look for a new job, and while you can argue that it’s not your organization’s job to help your people find their next job, you also have to acknowledge that your company isn’t the only company in the world.

Titles are also about role clarity and who does what and what you can expect from someone in a department.  You can do that with a job description and certainly within an organization, it is easy to learn these things through course of business after you join.  But especially when an organization gets big, it can serve more of a purpose.  I suppose titles also signal how senior a person is in an organization, as do org charts, but those feel more like useful tools for new employees to understand a company’s structure or roles than something that all employees need every day.

Could the world function without titles?  Or could a single organization do well without titles, in a world where everyone else has titles? There are some companies that don’t have titles. One, Morning Star, was profiled in a Harvard Business Review article, and I’ve spoken to the people there a bit. They acknowledge that lack of titles makes it a little hard to hire in from the outside, but that they train the recruiters they work with how to do without titles – noting that comp ranges for new positions, as well as really solid job descriptions, help.

All thoughts are welcome on this topic.  I’m not sure there’s a good answer.  And for Return Pathers reading this, it’s just a think piece, not a trial balloon or proposal, and it wasn’t prompted by any single act or person, just an accumulation of thoughts over the years.

Filed under: Human Resources, Management


Sep 172015

The Playbook

As Return Path gets older, we are having more and more alums go on to be successful senior executives at other companies – some in our space, some not.  It’s a great thing, and something I’m really proud of.  I was wondering the other day if there’s effectively some kind of “RP Playbook” that these people have taken with them.  Here’s what I learned from asking five of them.

People-related practices are all prominent as part of the Playbook, not surprising for a People First company.  Our Peer Recognition program, which is almost as old as the company and has evolved over time, was on almost everyone’s list.  Open Vacation is also part of the mix, as was a focus on getting Onboarding right so new employees start off on the right foot.  Live 360s were on multiple lists, too, as were Skip-Level 1:1s.

Beyond People-related programs, though, there was general agreement among the five that the mentality of trust in management was something they brought with them in this mythical Playbook.  Specific examples include fostering a culture of idea sharing, having difficult conversations, driving as much self-management as possible, focusing on managing high performers as opposed to spending all our cycles on managing low performers, balancing freedom and flexibility with performance and accountability, and going above and beyond and bending rules for sick employees and their families.

Connections and networking – both internal and external – made the cut as well.  A lot of those, especially external ones, are used to foster benchmarking, best practices sharing, and “leveling up” to help teams and organizations scale by learning from others.

Finally, there were some specific execution-related Playbook items from establishing a vision, to translating it into goals and fostering alignment across the organization, to instituting processes and systems instead of throwing bodies at problems.  One important element of execution cited is the importance of giving new and existing managers the tools to grow as the company grows.

This is hardly an exhaustive Playbook and unscientific in its construction, but I thought the “top of mind” answers from five senior people I respect was an interesting list and probably the beginning of something broader.

Thanks to the following friends for their contributions to this post:  Jack Sinclair, CFO of Stack Overflow; Angela Baldonero, SVP Human Resources for Kimpton Hotels; Tom Bartel, CEO of ThreatWave; Chad Malchow, CRO for Gitlab; and Dennis Malaspina, CRO for Parsley.

Aug 272015

The Joy of Coaching

I was the head coach of my two older kids’ little league team this past spring.  The whole thing was a little bit of an accident – I vaguely volunteered for something and ended up in charge.  The commitment was a little daunting, but I was ok with it since the season was only a couple months long, it was both Casey and Wilson, and both kids, especially Wilson, are really into baseball.  Other than helping out a bit here and there, I’d never coached a sports team before.

What started off as an unclear assignment ended up as one of the most fun and fulfilling things I’ve done in years.  I loved every minute of it, looked forward to our practices and games, was hugely bummed out when we got rained out, and never had a moment where I couldn’t make the time for it (though clearly the hours had to come from somewhere!).  Given some of the overlap between leading a sports team and leading a company, I thought I’d reflect on the experience a bit here.  There are some common themes between this post and something I wrote years ago, Parenting and Corporate Leadership, with the same caveat that no, I don’t think employees are children or children are employees.  But here are some things I take away from the experience and apply or compare to work.

We established a clear philosophy and stuck to it.  That’s a step that lots of coaches – and managers in the workplace – miss.  The other coaches and I discussed this before the first practice, agreed on it, and shared it directly with the kids.  For this age group in particular, we felt that we were there first and foremost to have fun; second to learn the game; and third, to play hard and fair.  Note there was nothing in this about winning, and that we were really specific about the order of the three objectives.  Even 7 and 8 year olds know the difference between “win at all costs” and “have fun and play ball.”  We reinforced this at every practice and at every game.  Being intentional about a philosophy and communicating it (and of course sticking to it) are key for any leadership situation.

We got lucky.  As I repeatedly said to the parents on the team, we had a group of awesome kids – happy and generally paying attention, and not one troublemaker in the bunch; and we had a group of awesome parents – responsive, supportive, and not a single complaint about what position a kid was playing or where someone was in the batting order.  I’d heard horror stories about both kids and parents from other coaches ahead of time.  It’s possible that the other coaches and I did such a good job that both kids and parents were great all the time…but I think you have to chalk most of that up to the luck of the draw.  Work isn’t all that different.  Having stakeholders who are consistently positive forces is something that sometimes you can shape (you can fire problematic employees) but often you can’t, in the case of customers or even Board members.  Luck matters.

Stakeholder alignment was a critical success factor.  Having said that, I do think the coaches and I did a good job of keeping our stakeholders aligned and focusing on their needs, not ours.  We put extra effort into a regular cadence of communication with the parents in the form of weekly emails and a current web site.  We used those emails to highlight kids’ performance and also let parents know what we’d be working on in practice that week.  We made sure that we rotated kids in the batting order so that everyone got to bad leadoff once and cleanup once.  We rotated kids so that almost every kid played half of each game in the infield and half in the outfield.  We took any and all requests from kids who wanted to play a specific position for a few innings.  Many of these basic principles – communicating well, a clear operating system, listening to stakeholders, a People First approach – are lessons learned from work as a CEO.

Proper expectations and a large dose of patience helped.  After the first couple games, we were 0-2, and I was very frustrated.  But I reminded myself that 7 and 8 year olds are just kids, and my frustration wasn’t going to help us achieve our objectives of having fun and learning the game.  So I recalibrated my expectations and took much more of a laid-back attitude.  For example, any time I saw one kid goofing off a little bit in practice, I gently got him or her back in line.  But when I saw multiple kids’ attention fading, I took it as a sign that whatever I was doing as a coach wasn’t working, called a break, and did something else.  This kind of “look in the mirror” approach is always helpful at work, too.

Reward and recognition were key.  We definitely adopted a Whale Done! approach with the kids.  We got the kids in the dugout fired up to cheer on batters.  First base coaches did big high fives, smiles, and literal pats on the back for every hit.  Post-game huddles and emails to parents focused on highlights and what went right for the kids.  One of my favorite moments of the season was when one player, who only had one hit all year and struck out almost every time at bat, had two hits, an RBI, and a run scored in our final game.  Not just the coaches, but the other kids and all the parents went absolutely BANANAS cheering for this player, and it brought huge smiles to all our faces.  I am 100% certain that the focus on the positive encouraged the kids to try their hardest all season, much as I believe that same philosophy encourages people to take risks and work hard at the office.

The biggest thing I take back to the workplace with me from the experience.  I was reminded about how powerful achieving a state of “flow,” or “relaxed concentration” is.  I recounted these principles in this blog post from a couple different books I’ve read over the years – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Tim Gallway’s Inner Game books – Golf, Tennis, and Work.  The gist of achieving a state of flow is to set clear goals that are stretch but achievable, become immersed in the activity, pay attention to what’s happening, and learn to enjoy immediate experience.  All leaders – in sports, business, or any walk of life – can benefit from this way of living and leading.

I loved every minute of coaching.  It helped that we ended up with a really strong record.  But more than that, building relationships with a bunch of great kids and great parents was fun and fulfilling and incredibly thankful and rewarding.  The “thank you ball” that all the kids autographed for me is now a cherished possession.  Working and getting extra time with my own two kids was the icing on the cake.  All I want to know is…is it time for next season yet?  I am ready!

This post is really for Coaches Mike, Paul, and Oliver; and players Emily, Casey, Lauryn, Mike, Josh, Holden, Hudson, Wilson, Drew, Kevin, Matthew, and Christian.

Aug 192015

ReturnShip Program, Part III

I’ve written a couple times this past year about our ReturnShip program, which is a 4-month paid internship program designed for women who have been out of the workforce for more than 3 year to re-enter and  build credible and relevant experience, and to expand the talent pool for our organization.  I wrote about the initial concept when we launched v2 of the program, and then again when v2 concluded with the hiring of four of the six participants.

I’m immensely proud of our organization for inventing the program (Andy Sautins, our CTO, gets credit) and for managing it so well during the last cycle (Cathy Hawley, our VP People, and Miranda Reeves, VP Solution Management, get lead credit, but lots of other people had a hand in its success).

Yesterday, we officially launched v3 of the program and are very excited about how it is scaling.  The launch was coincident with a visit to our office by Congressman Jared Polis, who represents our district in Colorado, as part of his Startup Day Across America visit to the district, which was exciting for us.

v3 of the program is poised to take the concept to the next level.  We will have almost 40 Returnees in the program – but we’ve taken the program beyond Return Path and beyond our Colorado office.  We are going to place Returnees in five locations – Broomfield, Colorado, New York City, Austin, Indianapolis, and London – and we recruited five like-minded partner companies to join the program as well.  SendGrid, ReadyTalk, MWH Global, and SpotXchange will participate in the program in the Denver area, and Seattle-based Moz will participate as well.  We are still going to administer the program out of Return Path, with Andy and Cathy being joined by Katie Green from our People team as well as Laura Harrison, one of our v2 Returnees, as program manager (among others).

We are starting the recruiting cycle now for the program, which starts mid-October.  While we are getting a centralized web site up and running, in the meantime, you can see the available openings on the respective company web sites:

Here are a couple pictures from our time with Congressman Polis yesterday – one of him and Laura Harrison, Karen Brockwell, and Lisa Stephens (three of our v2 Returnees), and one of me along with representatives of the other participating companies.

ReturnShip with Jared Polis ReturnShip with partner companies


May 142015

Give the Gift of a 360 to Your Board of Directors

Give the Gift of a 360 to Your Board of Directors

I recently ran our biennial Board 360, and I thought it would be interesting to share the details.  Attached are a few pages from, my book, Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business  which describe the process as well as share the survey I developed, which I adapted from one that the legendary Bill Campbell uses at larger public companies like Intuit.

If you’ve read this blog a lot over the years, you know that we are big on 360s for staff at all levels at Return Path , and at some point a few years ago, I thought, “hmmm, shouldn’t we do this for the Board as well?”

Most of our directors had never been part of one before as Board members, and they reacted to it with varying levels of interest and trepidation.  But all of them loved the output and the discussion we had afterwards.  Extending the level of transparency we have internally to the Board was a great thing and a great use of time, and I think making the Board members review themselves and their peers critically and then seeing the results sharpened overall Board performance.

The document also shares the survey we use, which we have each director take anonymously and compile the results to share in Executive Session at a Board meeting.  We also ask a few members of the senior management team to fill out the survey as well so the Board gets feedback from them, too.

Filed under: Boards, Management, Return Path


Apr 292015

ReturnShip Program, Part II

Today marks the graduation for the six women who participated in our inaugural ReturnShip program, which I wrote about here and which was written up at least twice, in Harvard Business Review and in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The ReturnShip was a 14-week paid internship program 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.

While there are still a couple things in the air, my guess is that at least three, and as many as five, of the program’s six participants, will continue their work at Return Path, either full time, part time, or as a contractor.  For many people who are returning to the workforce but still have full-time jobs at home, flexibility is the key.

The program was a huge success for us as a company, for the teams who worked with our six returnees, and I believe for the returnees as well.  We are already in the planning stages of the next wave of the program, potentially as early as this fall, where we’d like to expand the scope of the program in terms of departments covered, number of returnees, and geographies.  We learned a huge amount about, well, lots of things, from the last 14 weeks, and we’ll apply those learnings to the next wave.

I hope this work inspires other companies to do something similar, and we’d be happy to inspire anyone who wants to talk about it with us.  Most of all, I want to thank our six returnees, the managers who worked with them, and our People Team for being part of a bold and successful experiment.

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

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


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.