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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Nov 032011

Learning to Embrace Sizzle

Learning to Embrace Sizzle

One phrase I’ve heard a lot over the years is about “Selling the sizzle, not the steak.”  It suggests that in the world of marketing or product design, there is a divergence between elements of substance and what I call bright shiny objects, and that sometimes it’s the bright shiny objects that really move the needle on customer adoption.

At Return Path, we have always been about the steak and NOT the sizzle.  We’re incredibly fact-based and solution-oriented as a culture.  In fact, I can think of a lot of examples where we have turned our nose up at the sizzle over the years because it doesn’t contribute to core product functionality or might be a little off-point in terms of messaging.  How could we possibly spend money (or worse – our precious development resources) on something that doesn’t solve client problems?

Well, it turns out that if you’re trying to actually sell your product to customers of all shapes and sizes, sizzle counts for a lot in the grand scheme of things.  There are two different kinds of sizzle in my mind, product and marketing — and we are thinking about them differently.

Investing in product sizzle (e.g., functionality that doesn’t actually do much for clients but which sells well, or which they ask for in the sales process) is quite frustrating since (a) it by definition doesn’t create a lot of value for clients, and (b) it comes at the expense of building functionality that DOES create a lot of value.  The way we’re getting our heads around this seemingly irrational construct is to just think of these investments as marketing investments, even though they’re being made in the form of engineering time.  I suppose we could even budget them as such.

Marketing sizzle is in some ways easier to wrap our heads around, and in some ways tougher.  It’s easier because, well, it doesn’t cost much to message sizzle — it’s just using marketing as a way of convincing customers to buy the whole solution, knowing the ROI may come from the steak even as the PO is coming from the sizzle.  But it’s tough for us as well not to position the ROI front and center.  As our Marketing Department gets bigger, better, and more seasoned, we are finding this easier to come by, and more rooted in rational thought or analysis.

In the last year or two, we have done a better job of learning to embrace sizzle, and I expect we’ll continue to do that as we get larger and place a greater emphasis on sales and marketing — part of my larger theme of how we’ve built the business backwards.  Don’t most companies start with ONLY sizzle (vaporware) and then add the steak?

Jun 022011

Try It On For Size

Try It On For Size

I’ve always been a big fan of taking a decision or a change in direction I’m contemplating and trying it on for size.  Just as you never know how a pair of pants is really going to fit until you slip them on in a dressing room, I think you need to see how decisions feel once you’re closing in on them.

Here’s why:  decisions have consequences.  No matter how prescient leaders are, no matter if they’ve been trained in chess-like (three-moves-ahead) thinking, they can almost never perfectly foresee all the downstream reactions and effects of decisions.  Figuring out how to create “mental fittings” is a skill that I think is critical for CEOs and other leaders.

When I try something on for size, I’m usually trying to accomplish one of a few things.  Sometimes, I’m simply trying to see how words sound when they come out of my mouth.  As Homer Simpson periodically muses, “did I think that, or did I say that out loud?”  There’s no substitute for articulating a new phrase, or theory, out in the open and seeing if it sounds the way YOU expect it to.  Other times, I’m trying to see how different messages or stories play with different audiences.  Will employees think it’s exciting when we announce X, or scary, or confusing?  Will a customer understand the new positioning of our company when you include the new product?  Will investors understand the story in 9 words or less?  Finally, there are times when my objective in trying something on for size is to understand specific downstream effects of a decision.  Throwing something out into the open and taking copious notes as people give you their “blink” concerns and reactions are invaluable.

Of course, the main thing to avoid when trying decisions or changes in direction on for size is creating chaos!  There are a few ways to create chaos.  One is by having your “try it on for size” conversation with an employee turn into a de facto decision because the employee takes your words and then deliberately acts on them.

Alternatively, the same thing could happen inadvertently because even though the employee knows intellectually not to act on your comments, he or she starts to incorporate them subconsciously, thinking they are likely to become the law of the land.

Another is by creating false expectations and disappointment if you decide an idea doesn’t fit when you try it on, and then you scrap it, leaving behind a trail of the idea for others to see and discuss.  All the same can be said with customers or investors or any other stakeholder.  Your words as CEO or any kind of a leader can be quite powerful, and trying something on for size can have real unintended consequences if not done carefully.

In all cases, the best antidotes are communication and judgment.  Make sure if you are trying something on for size internally that you communicate early and often to your audience that all you are doing is just that – trying something on, and follow up with people afterwards to make sure your intent really sunk in.  But judgment is also critical.  Pick your target audience for a fitting on carefully, make sure to blend trusted internal AND external associates, and make sure to rotate who you talk to about new things so you don’t develop a consistent bias in your idea generation.

May 122011

GEOITS

GEOITS

This is another gem that I picked up years ago from my boss at MovieFone — the “Great Employment Office In The Sky.”  It’s a simple but powerful concept:

  • the organization is grappling with a difficult employee situation, and
  • the likely path is that the employee needs to leave the organization either immediately or sometime in the future, and
  • it’s impossible for the organization to figure out how to get from A to B for whatever reason, then
  • the employee resigns of his or her own accord, or
  • the employee does something that leaves the organization no choice but to terminate him or her immediately with no gray area

This has come up time and again over the years for us, and it’s an incredible relief every time it happens.  I hate admitting that.  We try to be swift (and fair) in dealing with tough employee situations.  But the reality is that it’s quite difficult.  The easiest termination situation I have ever had as a manager — ironically the first one I ever did almost 15 years ago — was still hard, because (a) we’re all human, (b) difficult conversations are difficult, and (c) even the most clear-cut situations usually have some element of fuzziness or doubt lurking in the background.

I don’t know why the GEOITS happens.  It probably has a lot to do with employees being perceptive and also recognizing that things aren’t going well.  I am not sure I have a settled or consistent view of karma and larger forces at work in the workplace.  But I’m glad there is a GEOITS at work at least once in a while!

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