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.

Aug 092012

The Best Place to Work, Part 3: Manage yourself very, very well

Part of creating the best place to work  is learning how to self manage – very, very well.  This is an essential part of Creating an environment of trust , but only one part.  What does self-management mean?  First, and most important, it means realizing that you are in a fishbowl.  You are always on display.  You are a role model in everything you do, from how you dress, to how you talk on the phone, to the way you treat others, to when you show up to work. 

But what are some specifics to think about while you swim around in your tank?

  1. Don’t send mixed signals to the team.  You can’t tell people to do one thing, then do something different yourself
  2. Remember the French Fry Theory of being a CEO.  My friend Seth has the French Fry theory of life, which is simply that you can always eat one more French fry.  You’re never too full for one more fry.  You might not order another plate of them, but one more?  No problem.  Ever.  As a CEO, you can always do one more thing.  Send one more email.  Read one more document.  Sometimes you just need to draw the line and go home and stop working!  (See my earlier post  here  on how Marketing is like French Fries for another example.)
  3. Regularly solicit feedback, then internalize it and act on it.  Do reviews for the company.  Do anonymous 360s (I’ve written about these regularly here). Get people a review that has ratings and comments from their boss, their peers, and their staff.  Do them once a year at a minimum.  And do one for yourself.  They’re phenomenal.  Everyone needs to improve, always.  Our head of sales Anita always says “Feedback is a gift, whether you want it or not.”  Make sure you do them for yourself as well.  Include your Board.  If you don’t agree with the feedback you are being given that is likely a data point that you have a BLIND SPOT.  Being defensive about feedback is dangerous.  If you don’t get it/don’t like then do some more work to better understand it.  Otherwise you will forever be defensive and never develop in this area
  4. Maintain your sense of humor.  It’s not only the best medicine, it’s the best way to stay sane and have fun.  Who doesn’t want to have fun at work?
  5. Keep yourself fresh:  Join a CEO peer group.  Work with an executive coach.  Read business literature (blogs, books, magazines) like mad and apply your learnings.  Exercise regularly.  Don’t neglect your family or your hobbies.  Keep the bulk of your weekends, and at least one two-week vacation each year, sacrosanct and unplugged.  As Covey would say, Sharpen the Saw

You set the tone at your company.  You can’t let people see you sweat too much – especially as you get bigger.  You can’t come out of your office after bad news and say “we’re dead!”  You can make a huge difference by being a great role model, swimming around in your fishbowl.

Jan 232012

Scaling the Team

Scaling the Team

(This post was requested by my long-time Board member Fred Wilson and is also running concurrently on his blog today.  I’ll be back with the third and fourth installments of “The Best Laid Plans” next Thursday and the following Thursday)

When Return Path reached 100 employees a few years back, I had a dinner with my Board one night at which they basically told me, “Management teams never scale intact as you grow the business.  Someone always breaks.”  I’m sure they were right based on their own experience; I, of course, took this as a challenge.  And ever since then, my senior management team and I have become obsessed with scaling ourselves as managers.  So far, so good.  We are over 300 employees now and rapidly headed to 400 in the coming year, and the core senior management team is still in place and doing well.  Below are five reasons why that’s the case.

  1. We appreciate the criticality of excellent management and recognize that it is a completely different skill set from everything else we have learned in our careers.  This is like Step 1 in a typical “12-step program.”  First, admit you have a problem.  If you put together (a) management is important, (b) management is a different skill set, and (c) you might not be great at it, with the standard (d) you are an overachiever who likes to excel in everything, then you are setting the stage for yourself to learn and work hard at improving at management as a practice, which is the next item on the list.
  2. We consistently work at improving our management skills.  We have a strong culture of 360 feedback, development plans, coaching, and post mortems on major incidents, both as individuals and as a senior team.  Most of us have engaged on and off over the years with an executive coach, for the most part Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting.  In fact, the team holds each other accountable for individual performance against our development plans at our quarterly offsites.  But learning on the inside is only part of the process.
  3. We learn from the successes and failures of others whenever possible.  My team regularly engages as individuals in rigorous external benchmarking to understand how peers at other companies – preferably ones either like us or larger – operate.  We methodically pick benchmarking candidates.  We ask for their time and get on their calendars.  We share knowledge and best practices back with them.  We pay this forward to smaller companies when they ask us for help.  And we incorporate the relevant learnings back into our own day to day work.
  4. We build the strongest possible second-level management bench we can to make sure we have a broad base of leadership and management in the company that complements our own skills.  A while back I wrote about the Peter Principle, Applied to Management that it’s quite easy to accumulate mediocre managers over the years because you feel like you have to promote your top performers into roles that are viewed as higher profile, are probably higher comp – and for which they may be completely unprepared and unsuited.  Angela Baldonero, my SVP People, and I have done a lot here to ensure that we are preparing people for management and leadership roles, and pushing them as much as we push ourselves.  We have developed and executed comprehensive Management Training and Leadership Development programs in conjunction with Mark Frein at Refinery Leadership Partners.  Make no mistake about it – this is a huge investment of time and money.  But it’s well worth it.  Training someone who knows your business well and knows his job well how to be a great manager is worth 100x the expense of the training relative to having an employee blow up and needing to replace them from the outside.
  5. We are hawkish about hiring in from the outside.  Sometimes you have to bolster your team, or your second-level team.  Expanding companies require more executives and managers, even if everyone on the team is scaling well.  But there are significant perils with hiring in from the outside, which I’ve written about twice with the same metaphor (sometimes I forget what I have posted in the past) – Like an Organ Transplant and Rejected by the Body.  You get the idea.  Your culture is important.  Your people are important.  New managers at any level instantly become stewards of both.  If they are failing as managers, then they need to leave.  Now.

I’m sure there are other things we do to scale ourselves as a management team – and more than that, I’m sure there are many things we could and should be doing but aren’t.  But so far, these things have been the mainstays of happily (they would agree) proving our Board wrong and remaining intact as a team as the business grows.

Jan 132011

What a View, Part III

What a View, Part III

We are in the middle of our not-quite-annual senior team 360 review process this week at Return Path.  It’s particularly grueling for me and Angela, our SVP of People, to sit in, facilitate, and participate in 15 of them in such a short period of time, but boy is it worth it!  I’ve written about this process before — here are two of the main posts (overall process, process for my review in particular, and a later year’s update on a process change and unintended consequences of that process change). I’ve also posted my development plans publicly, which I’ll do next month when I finalize it.

This year, I’ve noticed two consistent themes in my direct reports’ review sessions (we do the live 360 format for any VP, not just people who report directly to me), which I think both speak very well of our team overall, and the culture we have here at Return Path.

First, almost every review of an executive had multiple people saying the phrase, “Person X is not your typical head of X department, she really is as much of a general business person and great business partner and leader as she is a great head of X.”  To me, that’s the hallmark of a great executive team.  You want people who are functional experts, but you also need to field the best overall team and a team that puts the business first with understandings of people, the market, internal dependencies, and the broader implications of any and all decisions.  Go Team!

Second, almost every review featured one or more of my staff member’s direct reports saying something like “Maybe this should be in my own development plan, but…”  This mentality of “It’s not you, it’s me,” or in the language of Jim Collins, looking into the mirror and not out the window to solve a problem, is a great part of any company’s operating system.  Love that as well.

Ok.  Ten down, five to go.  Off to the next one…

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