Jun 252015

The Difference Between Culture and Values

The Difference Between Culture and Values

This topic has been bugging me for a while, so I am going to use the writing of this post as a means of working through it. We have a great set of core values here at Return Path. And we also have a great corporate culture, as evidenced by our winning multiple employer of choice awards, including being Fortune Magazine’s #2 best medium-sized workplace in America.

But the two things are different, and they’re often confused. I hear statements all the time, both here and at other companies, like “you can’t do that — it’s not part of our culture,” “I like working there, because the culture is so great,” and “I hope our culture never changes.”  And those statements reveal the disconnect.

Here’s my stab at a definition.  Values guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right.  Culture is the collection of business practices, processes, and interactions that make up the work environment.

A company’s values should never really change. They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there 10 or 100 years from now.  They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game. To pick one value, if you believe in Transparency one day, there’s no way the next day you decide that being Transparent is unimportant. Can a value be changed?  I guess, either a very little bit at a time, slowly like tectonic plates move, or in a sharp blow as if you deliberately took a jackhammer to stone and destroyed something permanently.  One example that comes to mind is that we added a value a couple years back called Think Global, Act Local, when we opened our first couple of international offices.  Or a startup that quickly becomes a huge company might need to modify a value around Scrappiness to make it about Efficiency.  Value changes are few and far between.

If a company’s values are its bedrock, then a company’s culture is the shifting landscape on top of it. Culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate. Landscapes change over time — sometimes temporarily due to a change in seasons, sometimes permanently due to a storm or a landslide, sometimes even due to human events like commercial development or at the hand of a good gardener.

So what does it mean that culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate?  Let’s go back to the value of Transparency. 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.

Or here’s another example.  Take Collaboration as a value.  I think most people would agree that collaboration managed well means that the right people in the organization are involved in producing a piece of work or making a decision, but that collaboration managed poorly means you’re constantly trying to seek consensus.  The culture needs to shift over time in order to make sure the proper safeguards are in place to prevent collaboration from turning into a big pot of consensus goo – and the safeguards required change as organizations scale.  In a small, founder-driven company, it often doesn’t matter as much if the boss makes the decisions.  The value of collaboration can feel like consensus, as they get to air their views and feel like they’re shaping a decision, even though in reality they might not be.  In a larger organization with a wider range of functional specialists managing their own pieces of the organization, the boss doesn’t usually make every major decision, though guys like Ellison, Benioff, Jobs, etc. would disagree with that.  But in order for collaboration to be effective, decisions need to be delegated and appropriate working groups need to be established to be clear on WHO is best equipped to collaborate, and to what extent.  Making these pronouncements could come as feeling very counter-cultural to someone used to having input, when in fact they’re just a new expression of the same value.

I believe that a business whose culture never evolves slowly dies.  Many companies are very dynamic by virtue of growth or scaling, or by being in very dynamic markets even if the company itself is stable in people or product. Even a stable company — think the local hardware store or barber shop — will die if it doesn’t adapt its way of doing business to match the changing norms and consumption patterns in society.

This doesn’t mean that a company’s culture can’t evolve to a point where some employees won’t feel comfortable there any longer. We lost our first employee on the grounds that we had “become too corporate” when we reached the robust size of 25 employees. I think we were the same company in principles that day as we had been when we were 10 people (and today when we are approaching 500), but I understood what that person meant.

My advice to leaders: Don’t cling to every aspect of the way your business works as you scale up. Stick to your core values, but recognize that you need to lead (or at least be ok with) the evolution of your culture, just as you would lead (or be ok with) the evolution of your product. But be sure you’re sticking to your values, and not compromising them just because the organization scales and work patterns need to change.  A leader’s job is to embody the values.  That impacts/produces/guides culture.  But only the foolhardy leaders think they can control culture.

My advice to employees: Distinguish between values and culture if you don’t like something you see going on at work. If it’s a breach of values, you should feel very free to wave your arms and cry foul. But if it’s a shifting of the way work gets done within the company’s values system, give a second thought to how you complain about it before you do so, though note that people can always interpret the same value in different ways.  If you believe in your company’s values, that may be a harder fit to find and therefore more important than getting comfortable with the way those values show up.

Note:  I started writing this by talking about the foundation of a house vs. the house itself, or the house itself vs. the furniture inside it.  That may be a more useful analogy for you.  But hopefully you get the idea.

Filed under: Business, Culture, Uncategorized

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Dec 182014

Typing as Core Competency

Typing as Core Competency

We just had our annual typing tournament in the Return Path New York office, and it got me thinking on this topic.  Fits, hats off to my colleague Rosemary Girouard for her smashing victory this year, even with an injury, and to fellow finalists Caroline Pearl and Nicole Niemiec for excellent showings.

So this is going to sound silly, but I’m increasingly thinking that typing speed is a core competency for many jobs.  With special thanks to my 8th grade typing teacher, Mrs. Van Vranken, my typing training on an old-school typewriter has paid off.  I type 100 wpm+ on a full keyboard, about 75 wpm on a tablet, and 50 wpm on a phone.  That enables me to rip through my inbox as well as any long-form writing pretty quickly.

Does it matter?

On a spot check of my mailbox, it looks like I send about 200 emails per work day with an average of 75 words per email, or 15,000 words.  At 75 wpm (blend of devices), that means I’m spending 200 minutes typing emails, or about 3.5 hours, probably more time than that “doing email,” which includes reading and thinking.  That feels a little high, but it’s probably not too far off.  Let’s round down to 3 or even 2.5 hours.  Someone who types half as quickly, which by the way is still not bad in terms of wpm, is spending 2.5-3 hours more per day to process the same volume of email.  Someone who still does hunt-and-peck (and there are still plenty of those people out there in the business world) has to spend even more time.

That’s a pretty significant difference in terms of output capacity.  Whether it means slower typists have to clock more hours to get the same work done, they get the same work done at lower quality, or get less work done, it is an issue either for them or their companies.

Maybe someday dictation software will render the point moot, but then being a motor mouth will become a core competency!

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Nov 262014

Autocorrect for life

Autocorrect for life

I used to joke that life should have an undo button, the ultimate Control-Z for when something goes wrong. But lately, I’ve been more of the mind that life should work like an Apple device with a good Autocorrect function. Why just undo things when they can be fixed in the blink of an eye, before anyone even knows they went wrong?

Press reply-all when you are bcc’d on an email because you forgot to look at the header closely enough?  No problem, Autocorrect for Life(AFL) will change it to a simple reply.

Fender bender while parallel parking?  AFL is there to save the day and fit your car perfectly into the spot and right up against the curb. It might even find you a space where there is time left on the meter for you.

Did the boss overhear you complaining about her to a colleague?  Here comes AFL, changing your words to something nice and friendly.

Of course, as I write this I am reminded that in older versions of Microsoft Office and the first version of iOS, the system kept trying to correct my wife Mariquita’s name to be Marijuana.  So, you’d probably want to make sure all the bugs are worked out of the AFL system before launch, unless you’re in Colorado or Washington.

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May 132013

Book Short: Getting to MVP

Book Short:  Getting to MVP

Usually, when we hear the term MVP, we think Most Valuable Player.  But in my line of work, that acronym has come to mean something entirely different:  Minimum Viable Product.  Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works, by Ash Maurya, is an incredibly useful, practical how-to guide for any entrepreneur with an idea from concept through to MVP, or the smallest bit of functionality that you can get customers to pay for. This is one of the best books I’ve read that encapsulates most of the contemporary thinking and writing about product development in the early stages of a startup’s life from thought leaders like Steven Gary Blank and Eric Ries.

I read the book recently, as I was writing Startup CEO (original outline here), and I quoted liberally from it, including using his Lean Canvas graphic:

Lean Canvas

The basic principle behind the Lean Canvas is that the old way of doing a business plan was a ton of up front planning work, assuming you’re right, then building to spec.  The new way of doing a business plan is a really short series of hypotheses on a single page, then the time is spent de-risking the plan by systematically testing each element of it out.  The book includes several lists of checklists that walk you through how to test each box on the Lean Canvas.  As I’ve written about before, checklists are a really powerful management tool.

This is an essential read for entrepreneurs just starting a business.  But it’s also an excellent read for anyone running a growth company.  We have adopted more and more agile/lean methodologies over time at Return Path, and all of our product teams use the Lean Canvas with any major new features and projects.

(Side note – I’m writing this post on Friday, May 10, which is the 9th anniversary of my publishing this blog – 760 posts and one draft book later, it’s still an integral part of my business life!)

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Jan 312013

A Little Quieter Than Usual, For Now

A Little Quieter Than Usual, For Now

As many of you know, I’m writing a book called Startup CEO:  a Field Guide to Building and Running Your Company, which is due to the publisher in a few weeks.  I’d originally thought the book would be an easy project since the idea was to “turn my blog into a book.”  But then it turned out that for the book I wanted to write, I’d only written about 1/3 of the content on the blog already!

So the past few weeks I’ve been writing my brains out.  I now have a nearly 100,000 word draft, which needs to be edited down quite a bit, charts and tables inserted, outside contributors added in.

For the next handful of weeks, I’m going to post a bit less frequently than usual – probably every other week – as a result.  But once I get through this period, I’ll come roaring back with TONS of new content written for the book!

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Jan 172013

How to Wow Your Employees

How to Wow Your Employees

Here at Return Path we like to promote a culture of WOW and a culture of hospitality.  Some of you may be asking, Why Wow your employees?   The answer is, there is nothing more inspirational than showing an employee that you care about him or her as an individual.  The impact a WOW has is tremendous.  Being a manger is like being in a fishbowl.  Everything you do is scrutinized by your team.  You lead by example whether you want to or not and showing your own vulnerability/humanity has an amazing bonding effect.

Why do you want to foster Wow moments with your team?  High performing teams have a lot of Wow going on.  If all members of a team see Wow regularly, they are all inspired to do more sooner and better.

Here are 15 ways to Wow your employees

  1. Take them or her to lunch/breakfast/drinks/dinner quarterly individually, one nice one per year
  2. Learn their hobbies and special interests; when you have a spiff to give, give one that is in line with these
  3. Remember the names of their spouse/significant other/kids/pets
  4. Share your development plan with them and ask for input against it at least quarterly
  5. Respond to every email from your staff by the end of the day; sooner if you are on the TO line
  6. Ask them what they think of a piece of work you’re doing
  7. Ask them what they think of the direction the company is going, or a specific project
  8. Periodically take something off each one’s plate, even if it’s clearly theirs to do
  9. Periodically tell them to take a day off to recharge, ideally around something important in their lives
  10. End every meaningful interaction by asking how they are doing and feeling about work
  11. End every interaction by asking what you can be doing to help them do a better job and advance their career
  12. Read all job openings and highlight ones that match their interests for future positions
  13. Read the weekly award list and call out those FROM and TO your team in staff meetings
  14. Send a handwritten note to their home when you have a moment of appreciation for them
  15. (If your employee has a team he/she manages) Ask for input before every skip-level interaction and summarize each one after the fact in an email or in person

I try to have Wow moments regularly with people at all levels in the organization.  Here’s one that sticks with me.  At the Colorado summer party several years ago, I went up to someone who was a few layers down in the organization and said hi to her husband and dog by name.  I had met them before, and I work at remembering these things.  The husband was blown away – I hadn’t talked to him in probably two years.  In front of the employee, he gushed – “this is exactly why my wife loves working here – we are totally committed to being part of the RP family.”

There are as many ways to be a great manager and WOW your employees as there are stars in the sky…hopefully these ideas give you a framework to make these your own!

Oct 042012

Scaling Horizontally

Scaling Horizontally

Other CEOs ask me from time to time how we develop people at Return Path, how we scale our organization, how we make sure that we aren’t just hiring in new senior people as we grow larger.  And there are good answers to those questions – some of which I’ve written about before, some of which I’ll do in the future.

But one thing that occurred to me in a conversation with another CEO recently was that, equally important to the task of helping people scale by promoting them whenever possible is the task of recognizing when that can’t work, and figuring out another solution to retain and grow those people.  A couple other things I’ve written on this specific topic recently include:

The Peter Principle Applied to Management, which focuses on keeping people as individual contributors when they’re not able to move vertically into a management role within their function or department, and

You Can’t Teach a Cat How to Bark, But you Might be able to Teach it How to Walk on its Hind Legs, which talks about understanding people’s limitations.

Another important point to make here, though, is thinking about how to help employees scale horizontally instead of vertically (e.g., to more senior/management roles within their existing function or department).  Horizontally scaling is allowing employees to continue to grow and develop, and overtime, become more senior and more valuable to the organization, by moving into different roles on different teams.

We’ve had instances over the years of engineering managers becoming product managers; account managers becoming product managers; product managers becoming sales leaders; client operations people moving into marketing; account managers moving into sales; I could go on and on. We’ve even had executives switch departments or add completely new functions to their portfolio.

Moves like this don’t always work. You do have to make sure people have the aptitude for their new role. But when moves like this do work, they’re fantastic. You give people new challenges, keep them fresh and energized, bring new perspective to teams, and retain talent and knowledge.  And when you let someone scale horizontally, make sure to celebrate the move publicly so others know that kind of thing can be available… and be sure to reward the person for their knowledge and performance to date, even if they’re moving laterally within your org chart.

Sep 062012

The Best Place to Work, Part 7: Create a Thankful Atmosphere

The Best Place to Work, Part 7: Create a Thankful Atmosphere

My final installment of this long series on Creating the best place to work (no hierarchy intended by the order) is about Creating a thankful atmosphere.

What does creating a thankful atmosphere get you?  It gets you great work, in the form of people doing their all to get the job done.  We humans – all of us, absolutely including CEOs – appreciate being recognized when they do good work.  Honestly, I love what I do and would do it without any feedback, but nothing resonates with me more than a moment of thanks from someone on my exec team or my Board.  Why should anyone else in the organization be any different?

This is not about giving everyone a nod in all-hands by doing shout-outs.  That’s not sustainable as the company grows.  And not everyone does great work every week or month!  And it’s not about remembering to thank people in staff meetings, either, although that’s never bad and easier to contain and equalize.

It is about informal, regular pats on the back.  To some extent inspired by the great Ken Blanchard book Whale Done, and as I’ve written about before here, it’s about enabling the organization to be thankful, and optimizing your own thankfulness.

Years ago we created a peer award system on our company Intranet/Wiki at Return Path.  We enable Peer Recognition through this.  As of late, with about 350 employees, we probably have 30-40 of these every week.  They typically carry a $25 gift card award, although most employees tell me that they don’t care about the gift card as much as the public recognition.  Anyone can nominate anyone for one of the following awards, which are unique to us and relevant to our culture:

  • EE (Everyday Excellence) -is designed for us to recognize those who demonstrate excellence and pride in their daily work.
  • ABCD (Above and Beyond the Call of Duty) -is designed for us to recognize the outstanding work of our colleagues who go Above and Beyond their duties and exemplify exactly what Return Path is about
  • WOOT (Working Out Of Title) -is designed for us to recognize those who offer assistance that is not part of their job responsibilities.
  • OTB (On The Business)-is about pulling ourselves out of day-to-day tasks and ensuring we are continually aligned with the long-term, strategic direction of the business.  We make sure we’re not just optimizing our current tasks and processes but that we’re also thinking about whether or not we should even be doing those things.  We stop to think outside of the “box” and about the interrelationship between what we are doing and everything else in the organization.  In doing so, we connect the leaves, the branches, the trunk, the roots and soil of the tree to the hundreds of other trees in the forest.  We step back to look at the big picture
  • TLAO ( Think Like An Owner)-means that every one of us holds a piece of the Company’s future and is empowered to use good judgment and act on behalf of Return Path.  In our day-to-day jobs we take personal responsibility for our products, services and interactions.  We spend like it’s our own money and we think ahead.  We are trusted to handle situations like we own the business because we are smart people who do the right thing.  We notice the things happening around us that aren’t in our day-to-day and take action as needed even if we’re not directly responsible
  • Blue Light Special  is designed for us to recognize anyone who comes up with a clever way to save the company money)
  • Coy Joy Award is in memory of Jen Coy who was positive, optimistic and able to persevere through the most difficult of circumstances.  This award is designed to recognize individuals who exemplify the RP values and spread joy through the workplace.  This can be by going above and beyond to welcome new employees, by showing a high degree of care and consideration for another person at RP, by being a positive and uplifting influence, and/or making another person laugh-out-loud.
  • Human Firewall is awarded if you catch a colleague taking extra care around security or privacy in some way, maybe a suggestion in a meeting, a feature in a product, a suggestion around policy or practice in the office.

In the early days, we read these out each week at All-Hands meetings.  Today at our scale, we announce these awards each week on the Wiki and via email.  And I and other leaders of the business regularly read the awards list to see who is doing what good work and needs to be separately thanked on top of the peer award.

Beyond institutionalizing thanks…in terms of you as an individual person, there are lots of ways to give thanks that are meaningful.  Some are about maximizing Moments of Truth.  Another thing I do from time to time is write handwritten thank you notes to people and mail them to their homes, not to work.  But there are lots of ways to spend the time and mental energy to appreciate individuals in your company in ways that are genuine and will be noticed and appreciated.  To some extent, this paragraph (maybe this whole post) could be labeled “It’s the little things.”

That’s it for this series…again, the final roundup for the full series of Creating the Best Place to Work is here and individual posts are here:

  1. Surround yourself with the best and brightest
  2. Create an environment of trust
  3. Manage yourself very, very well
  4. Be the consummate host
  5. Be the ultimate enabler
  6. Let people be people
  7. Create a thankful atmosphere

Anyone have any other techniques I should write about for Creating the Best Place to Work?

Mar 082012

People Should Come with an Instruction Manual

People Should Come with an Instruction Manual

Almost any time we humans buy or rent a big-ticket item, the item comes with an instruction manual.  Why are people any different?

No one is perfect.  We all have faults and issues.  We all have personal and professional development plans.  And most of those things are LONG-TERM and surface in one form or another in every single performance review or 360 we receive over the years.  So shouldn’t we, when we enter into a long-term personal or professional employment relationship, just present our development plans as instruction manuals on how to best work with, live with, manage, us?

The traditional interview process, and even reference check questions around weaknesses tend to be focused on the wrong things, and asked in the wrong ways.  They usually lead to lame answers like “my greatest weakness is that I work too hard and care too much,” or “No comment.”

The traditional onboarding process also doesn’t get into this.  It’s much more about orientation — here’s a pile of stuff you need to know to be successful here — as opposed to true onboarding — here’s how we’re going to get you ramped up, productive, integrated, and successful working here.

It’s quite disarming to insist that a candidate, or even a new employee, write out their instruction manual, but I can’t recommend it highly enough as part of one or both of the above two processes.  Since everyone at Return Path has a 360/Development Plan, I ask candidates in final interviews what theirs looks like in that context (so it’s clear that I’m not trying to pull a gotcha on them).  Failure to give an intellectually honest answer is a HUGE RED FLAG that this person either lacks self-confidence or self-awareness.  And in the onboarding process, I literally make new employees write out a development plan in the format we use and present it to the rest of my staff, while the rest of my staff shares their plans with the new employee.

As I’ve written in the past, hiring  new senior people into an organization is a little like doing an organ transplant.  Sometimes you just have to wait a while to see if the body rejects the organ or not.  As we get better at asking this “where’s your instruction manual?” question in the interview process, we are mitigating this risk considerably.  I’m sure there’s a whole parallel track on this same topic about personal relationships as opposed to professional ones, but I’ll leave that to someone else to write up!

Jan 172012

Help Us, Help You

Before becoming Chairman of the Direct Marketing Association, one of the things I’d noticed over the years was that the association didn’t have a ton of primary market research on itself, sort of a classic case of the cobbler’s children having shoddy shoes.

Today we are launching a new survey to help us establish a baseline for awareness and perceptions of all aspects of the DMA on behalf of all members of the marketing community.  

Whether or not you are a DMA or EEC member – in some ways, it’s even more important for non-members to take this – I’d greatly appreciate you taking 10 minutes to fill out this survey. It will help us continue to reshape the association to meet the needs of the community, as this survey will serve as the foundation for our new strategic plan, membership outreach and communications, conference programming, councils, and everything else we do.

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