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.

Jul 172014

The Gift of Feedback, Part IV

The Gift of Feedback, Part IV

I wrote a few weeks ago about my live 360 – the first time I’ve ever been in the room for my own review discussion.  I now have a development plan drafted coming out of the session, and having cycled it through the contributors to the review, I’m ready to go with it.  As I did in 2008, 2009, and 2011, I’m posting it here publicly.  This time around, there are three development items:

  1. Continue to spend enough time in-market.  In particular, look for opportunities to spend more time with direct clients.  There was a lot of discussion about this at my review.  One director suggested I should spend at least 20% of my time in-market, thinking I was spending less than that.  We track my time to the minute each quarter, and I spend roughly 1/3 of my time in-market.  The problem is the definition of in-market.  We have a lot of large partners (ESPs, ISPs, etc.) with whom I spend a lot of time at senior levels.  Where I spend very little time is with direct clients, either as prospects or as existing clients.  Even though, given our ASP, there isn’t as much leverage in any individual client relationship, I will work harder to engage with both our sales team and a couple of larger accounts to more deeply understand our individual client experience.
  2. Strengthen the Executive Committee as a team as well as using the EC as the primary platform for driving accountability throughout the organization.  On the surface, this sounds like “duh,” isn’t that the CEO’s job in the first place?  But there are some important tactical items underneath this, especially given that we’ve changed over half of our executive team in the last 12 months.  I need to keep my foot on the accelerator in a few specific ways:  using our new goals and metrics process and our system of record (7Geese) rigorously with each team member every week or two; being more authoritative about the goals that end up in the system in the first place to make sure my top priorities for the organization are being met; finishing our new team development plan, which will have an emphasis on organizational accountability; and finding the next opportiunity for our EC to go through a management training program as a team.
  3. Help stakeholders connect with the inherent complexity of the business.  This is an interesting one.  It started out as “make the business less complex,” until I realized that much of the competitive advantage and inherent value from our business comes fom the fact that we’ve built a series of overlapping, complex, data machines that drive unique insights for clients.  So reducing complexity may not make sense.  But helping everyone in and around the business connect with, and understand the complexity, is key.  To execute this item, there are specifics for each major stakeholder.  For the Board, I am going to experiment with a radically simpler format of our Board Book.  For Investors, Customers, and Partners, we are hard at work revising our corporate positioning and messaging.  Internally, there are few things to work on — speaking at more team/department meetings, looking for other opportunities to streamline the organization, and contemplating a single theme or priority for 2015 instead of our usual 3-5 major priorities.

Again, I want to thank everyone who participated in my 360 this year – my board, my team, a few “lucky” skip-levels, and my coach Marc Maltz.  The feedback was rich, the experience of observing the conversation was very powerful, and I hope you like where the development plan came out!

Jun 052014

Book short: Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

Book short:  Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

One of the best things I can say about Remote: Office Not Required,  by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, is that it was short.  That sounds a little harsh – part of what I mean is that business books are usually WAY TOO LONG to make their point, and this one was blessedly short.  But the book was also a little bit of an angry rant against bad management wrapped inside some otherwise good points about remote management.

The book was a particularly interesting read juxtaposed against Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last which I just finished recently and blogged about here, which stressed the importance of face-to-face and in-person contact in order for leaders to most effectively do their jobs and stay in touch with the needs of their organizations.

The authors of Remote, who run a relatively small (and really good) engineering-oriented company, have a bit of an extreme point of view that has worked really well for their company but which, at best, needs to be adapted for companies of other sizes, other employee types, and other cultures.  That said, the flip side of their views, which is the “everyone must be at their cubicle from 9 to 5 each day,” is even dumber for most businesses these days.  As usual with these things, the right answer is probably somewhere in between the extremes, and I was reminded of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go farm go together” when I read it.  Different target outcomes, different paths.

I totally agree with the authors around their comments about trusting employees and “the work is what matters.”  And we have a ton of flexibility in our work at Return Path.  With 400 people in the company, I personally spend six weeks over the summer working largely remote, and I value that time quite a bit.  But I couldn’t do it all the time.  We humans learn from each other better and treat each other better when we look at each other face to face.  That’s why, with the amount of remote work we do, we strongly encourage the use of any form of video conferencing at all times.  The importance of what the authors dismiss as “the last 1 or 2% of high fidelity” quality to the conversation is critical.  Being in person is not just about firing and hiring and occasional sync up, it’s about managing performance and building relationships.

Remote might have been better if the authors had stressed the value that they get out of their approach more than ranting against the approaches of others.  While there are serious benefits of remote work in terms of cost and individual productivity (particularly in maker roles), there are serious penalties to too much of it as well in terms of travel, communication burden, misunderstandings, and isolation.  It’s not for everyone.

Thanks to my colleague Hoon Park for recommending this to me.  When I asked Hoon what his main takeaway from the book was, he replied:

The importance of open communication that is archived (thus searchable), accessible (transparent and open to others) and asynchronous (doesn’t require people to be in the same place or even the same “timespace”).  I love the asynchronous communication that the teams in Austin have tried: chatrooms, email lists (that anyone can subscribe to or read the archives of), SaaS project management tools. Others I would love to try or take more advantage of include internal blogs (specifically the P2 and upcoming O2 WordPress themes; http://ma.tt/2009/05/how-p2-changed-automattic/), GitHub pull requests (even for non-code) and a simple wiki.

These are great points, and good examples of the kinds of systems and processes you need to have in place to facilitate high quality, high volume remote work.

May 222014

The 90-Day Reverse Review

The 90-Day Reverse Review

Like a lot of companies, Return Path does a 90-day review on all new employees to make sure they’re performing well, on track, and a good fit.  Sometimes those reviews are one-way from the manager, sometimes they are 360s.

But we have also done something for years now called the 90-Day Reverse Review, which is equally valuable.  Around the same 90-day mark, and unrelated to the regular review process, every new employee gets 30 minutes with a member of the Executive Committee (my direct reports, or me if the person is reporting to someone on my team) where the employee has a chance to give US feedback on how WE are doing.

These meetings are meant to be pretty informal, though the exec running the meeting takes notes and circulates them afterwards.  We have a series of questions we typically ask, and we send them out ahead of time so the employee can prepare.  They are things like:

-Was this a good career move?  Are you happy you’re here?

-How was your onboarding experience?

-How do you explain your job to people outside the company?

-What is the company’s mission, and how does your role contribute to it?

-How do you like your manager?  Your team?

-Do you feel connected to the company?  How is the company’s information flow?

-What has been your proudest moment/accomplishment so far?

-What do you like best about the company?

-If you could wave a wand and change something here, what would it be?

We do these for a few reasons:

-At the 90-day mark, new employees know enough about the company to give good input, and they are still fresh enough to see the company through the lens of other places they’ve worked

-These are a great opportunity for executives to have a “Moment of Truth” with new employees

-They give employees a chance to productively reflect on their time so far and potentially learn something or make some course correction coming out of it

-We always learn things, large or small, that are helpful for us as a management team, whether something needs to be modified with our Onboarding program, or whether we have a problem with a manager or a team or a process, or whether there’s something great we can steal from an employee’s past experiences

This is a great part of our Operating System at Return Path!

Apr 242014

Breaking New Ground on Transparency

Breaking New Ground on Transparency

I’ve written a lot over time about our Live 360 process for senior leaders in the business.  (This post is a good one, and it links to a couple earlier ones that are good, as well.)  We take a lot of pride in feedback and in transparency at Return Path, and after 15 years, even for an innovative business, it’s unusual that we do something big for the first time around people.  But we did today.

This image is of something never seen before at our company.  It’s my own handwritten notes about my own Live 360.

360 notes

It’s never been seen before, because no one has ever been physically present for his or her own review before.  In previous reviews, my Board, my exec team, and a few skip-levels gather in a room for 90 minutes with a facilitator to discuss my performance and behaviors.  Then the facilitator would go away and write up notes, and discuss them with me, then I’d produce a development plan.

Today, we decided to experiment with having me sit in my own review to add to the transparency and directness of the feedback.  My only role was to listen, ask (non-judgmental) clarifying questions, and take notes.  I left the room at the end in case someone wanted to say something without me hearing it directly, but although the conversation about the business continued, it didn’t sound like there was anything material about me that surfaced.

It was a little awkward at first, and it was interesting that some people addressed me directly while others spoke of me in the third person.  But once we got past that, the experience was incredibly powerful for me.  The first part — the “what do you appreciate about Matt” part — was humbling and embarrassing and gratifying all at the same time.

The meat of the review, though — the “how can we coach Matt on areas where he needs development” — was amazing.  I got great insights into a couple of major areas of work that I need to do, and that we need to do as a business.  I’m guessing I would have gotten them out of reading a summary of the review conversation, but hearing the texture of the conversation was much, much richer than reading a sanitized version of it on paper.  As always with reviews, there was the odd comment or two that annoyed me, but I felt like I handled them well without any defensive body language or facial expressions.

I will, as I’ve always done, post my development plan to my blog after I formulate it over the course of the next few weeks.  But for now, I just want to thank my Board and team for their awesomely constructive feedback and for helping us usher in a new era of increased transparency here.

Apr 102014

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Understanding the Drivers of Success

Although generally business is great at Return Path  and by almost any standard in the world has been consistently strong over the years, as everyone internally knows, the second part of 2012 and most of 2013 were not our finest years/quarters.  We had a number of challenges scaling our business, many of which have since been addressed and improved significantly.

When I step back and reflect on “what went wrong” in the quarters where we came up short of our own expectations, I can come up with lots of specific answers around finer points of execution, and even a few abstracted ones around our industry, solutions, team, and processes.  But one interesting answer I came up with recently was that the reason we faltered a bit was that we didn’t clearly understand the drivers of success in our business in the 1-2 years prior to things getting tough.  And when I reflect back on our entire 14+ year history, I think that pattern has repeated itself a few times, so I’m going to conclude there’s something to it.

What does that mean?  Well, a rising tide — success in your company — papers over a lot of challenges in the business, things that probably aren’t working well that you ignore because the general trend, numbers, and success are there.  Similarly, a falling tide — when the going gets a little tough for you — quickly reveals the cracks in the foundation.

In our case, I think that while some of our success in 2010 and 2011 was due to our product, service, team, etc. — there were two other key drivers.  One was the massive growth in social media and daily deal sites (huge users of email), which led to more rapid customer acquisition and more rapid customer expansion coupled with less customer churn.  The second was the fact that the email filtering environment was undergoing a change, especially at Gmail and Yahoo, which caused more problems and disruption for our clients’ email programs than usual — the sweet spot of our solution.

While of course you always want to make hay while the sun shines, in both of these cases, a more careful analysis, even WHILE WE WERE MAKING HAY, would have led us to the conclusion that both of those trends were not only potentially short-term, but that the end of the trend could be a double negative — both the end of a specific positive (lots of new customers, lots more market need), and the beginning of a BROADER negative (more customer churn, reduced market need).

What are we going to do about this?  I am going to more consistently apply one of our learning principles, the Post-Mortem  -THE ART OF THE POST-MORTEM, to more general business performance issues instead of specific activities or incidents.  But more important, I am going to make sure we do that when things are going well…not just when the going gets tough.

What are the drivers of success in your business?  What would happen if they shifted tomorrow?

Filed under: Business, Return Path

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Mar 062014

Open Vacation

At Return Path, we’ve had an “open vacation” policy for years, meaning that we don’t regulate the amount of time off people take, and we don’t accrue for it or pay out “unused” vacation if someone leaves the company.  I get asked about this all the time, so I thought I’d post our policy here and also answer a couple follow-up questions I usually get about it.

First, here’s the language of our policy:

Paid Time Off

You’re encouraged to take as much time off as you can while maintaining high performance and achieving your goals. We don’t count the hours you work, so why should we count the hours you don’t? (Unless you’re a non-exempt employee, and only then because we have to!) Take what you need, when you can, and make sure to arrange coverage with your team. If you haven’t had a vacation in a while, you can expect to get a friendly nudge from your manager to get away from the office!

Use your Paid Time Off (PTO) for planned vacations, days off for appointments, religious, or personal holidays that are not offered in your country, community service days, or if you need an unanticipated, last-minute day off to care for a sick child or family member. Statutory or legally protected leaves of absence, such as medical leave, maternity/parental leave, family medical leave or unpaid leave, are governed by separate regulations that will not be affected by our PTO policy. See the Regional section for a list of statutory leaves of absence in your country.

Paid Time Off scheduling is subject to approval by your manager, who has sole discretion to approve or deny requests under this policy. Requests of greater than two consecutive weeks or more than two weeks in one three-month period require approval of your Executive Committee member.

The first question I always get is, “Wow – does that really work?  What issues have you had with it?  My response:

No issues with it at all, other than it’s a little weird to apply internationally, where we have 50 people across 7 countries, since most of those countries have significantly more generous vacation policies/customs than the US.  But we generally make it work.

The second question I get is whether people abuse it or not:

In all the years we’ve done it, we only ever had one person attempt to abuse the policy, one time.  People do still have to ask their managers if it’s ok to take time off, and they do still have to get their jobs done.

Finally, people ask me for general advice on implementing this kind of policy:

Continue to track days off and generate reports for managers every quarter so they at least know whether their people are taking not enough or too much – generally people will take not enough, and you will need to encourage them to take more.  Also, our managers were *really* worried about launching this, so we had to do some hand-holding along the way. 

The results of this policy for us have generally been great.  People take about the same amount of true vacation they used to take, maybe a little more.  They definitely take more half-days and quarter-days where they probably still get a full day worth of work done, without worrying about counting the hours.  Best of all, there’s a strong signal sent and received with this kind of policy that we trust our team members to do what they need to do in order to live their lives AND get their jobs done.

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