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

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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.

Mar 192015

Corporate Sniglets

Corporate Sniglets

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

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

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

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

Mar 092015

The Value of a Break

The Value of a Break

I’ve written before about our sabbatical policy as well as my experience with my first sabbatical five years ago.

I just got back from another sabbatical. This one wasn’t 100% work-free, which breaks our rule, but after a few false starts with it, when I realized a few weeks before it started in January that I either needed to postpone it again or work on a couple of things while I was on a break, I opted for the latter.  The time off was great. Nothing special or too exotic. A couple short trips, and lots of quality time with Mariquita and the kids.

Re-reading my post from my last sabbatical now, I realize I have re-learned those same three lessons again — that I love my job, my colleagues, and what we are working on.

But I also recognized, in three different ways, the value of a break this time around maybe more than last time.  Maybe it’s that I’m five years older or that I’ve been doing the job for five more years.  Maybe it’s because the last couple of years at work have been incredibly intense and both physically and mentally taxing.  But regardless of cause, the outcome is the same — I return to work today rested, healthy, a little tanner, a few pounds lighter, and with more clarity, resolve, and ideas for work than I’ve had in a long time.

Not only did I recognize this with Return Path on my sabbatical, but during my sabbatical, I also reengaged with two organizations (Princeton and the Direct Marketing Association) where I sit on boards and used to be extremely active but have been pretty dormant for a couple of years. The perspective I gained from that dormant time not only gave me new energy for both, but I think very focused and creative energy that I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

Even with a little work sprinkled in, 6 weeks off and disconnected from emails, the office, and regular meetings is a blessing that I hope everyone gets to experience at some point in his or her career.

Filed under: Return Path

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Feb 192015

Option Grants over Time

Option Grants Over Time

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

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

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

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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Jan 212015

ReturnShip Program

ReturnShip Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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Dec 052014

35 at 15

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

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

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

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

Return Path 15th Anniversary (lower res)

Sep 252014

PTJD

Post Traumatic Job Disorder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 112014

The 2×4

The 2×4

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

Aug 142014

How to Manage Your Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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