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 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


Aug 062015

The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project:  a novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford  is a logical intellectual successor and regularly quotes Eli Goldratt’s seminal work The Goal and its good but less known sequel It’s Not Luck.

The more business books I read, the more I appreciate the novel or fable format. Most business books are a bit boring and way too long to make a single point. The Phoenix Project is a novel, though unlike Goldratt’s books (and even Lencioni’s), it takes it easy on the cheesy and personal side stories. It just uses storytelling techniques to make its points and give color and examples for more memorable learning.

If your organization still does software development through a waterfall process or has separate and distinct development, QA, and IT/Operations teams, I’d say you should run, not walk, to get this book. But even if you are agile, lean, and practice continuous deployment, it’s still a good read as it provides reminders of what the world used to be like and what the manufacturing-rooted theories are behind these “new” techniques in software development.

I am so glad our technology team at Return Path, led by my colleagues Andy Sautins and David Sieh, had the wisdom to be early adopters of agile and lean processes, continuous deployment many years ago, and now dockers. Our DevOps process is pretty well grooved, and while I’m sure there are always things to be done to improve it…it’s almost never a source of panic or friction internally the way more traditional shops function (like the one in the book). I can’t imagine operating a business any other way.

Thanks to my long time friend and Board member Greg Sands of Costanoa Venture Capital for suggesting this excellent read.

Jul 162015

Everything Is Data

Everything Is Data

As our former head of People, Angela used to say during the recruiting process, “Everything is Data.”  What she meant is that you can learn a lot about a candidate from things that happen along the way during an interview cycle, not just during the interviews themselves.  Does the candidate for the Communications role write a thank you note, and is it coherent?  Does the candidate for an outside sales role dribble food all over himself at a restaurant?  Here are two great examples of this that have happened here at Return Path over time:

Once we had a candidate in the office, waiting in our café/reception area before his first interview.  Our office manager came in and was struggling with some large boxes.  The candidate took off his suit jacket and immediately jumped to her assistance, carrying some of the boxes and helping to lift them up and put them away.  He is now an employee.

Another candidate once was waiting in a nearby Starbucks for an interview, was incredibly rude to the barista, and spent a few minutes on the phone with someone making self-important, then snide and condescending comments about the company.  Unfortunately for her, two of our employees were sitting at the next table at Starbucks and observed the whole thing.  She did not make it to the next round of interviews.

In both cases, the peripheral interactions were solid data points that the candidates would or would not likely be good fits from a Return Path Core Values perspective.  Everything is Data.

(After I finished writing this post, a little bell went off in my head that I had written it already, or Angela had…I found this post on Brad’s blog that she wrote four years ago.  It has some of this thinking in it, without the two examples, then makes several other excellent points.)

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.

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


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