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!

Apr 052012

Scaling Me

Scaling Me

Two things have come up over the last couple years for me that are frustrations for me as a CEO of a high growth company.  These are both people related — an area that’s always been the cornerstone of my leadership patterns.  That probably makes them even more frustrating.

Frustration 1:  Not knowing if I can completely trust the feedback I get from deep in the organization.  I’ve always relied on direct interactions with junior staff and personal observation and data collection in order to get a feel for what’s going on.  But a couple times lately, people had been admonishing me (for the first time) when I’ve relayed feedback with comments like, “of course you heard that — you’re the CEO.”

So now the paranoid Matt kicks in a bit.  Can I actually trust the feedback I’m getting?  I think I can.  I think I’m a good judge of character and am able to read between the lines and filter comments and input and responses to questions I ask.  But maybe this gets harder as the organization grows and as personal connections to me are necessarily fewer and farther between.

Frustration 2:  Needing to be increasingly careful with what I say and how I say it.  This comes up in two different ways.  First, I want to make sure that while I’m still providing as transparent leadership as I can, that I’m not saying something that’s going to freak out a more junior staff member because they’re missing context or might misinterpret what I’m saying.  Ok, this one I can manage.

But the tougher angle on this is having unintended impact on people.  Throwing out a casual idea in a conversation with someone in the company can easily lead to a chain reaction of “Matt said” and “I need to redo my goals” conversations that aren’t what I meant.  So I’ve done some work to formalize feedback and communication loops when I have skip-level check-ins, but it’s creating more process and thought overhead for me than I’m used to.

Nothing is bad here – just signs of a growing organization – but some definite changes in how I need to behave in order to keep being a strong and successful leader.

Dec 202011

Transparency Rules

Transparency Rules

I think each and every one of our 13 core values at Return Path is important to our culture and to our success.  And I generally don’t rank them.  But if I did, People First is a leading contender to be at the top of the list. The other leading contender would be this last one in the series:

We believe in being transparent and direct

The big Inc. Magazine story about us last year talked a lot about our commitment to transparency and some of the challenges that come with being transparent and direct with people. I’d like to highlight here some of the benefits of being transparent, and the benefits of being direct (sometimes those two things are the same, sometimes they are different).

Transparency’s benefits are so numerous that it’s hard to pick just one or two themes to write about, but my favorite benefit is empowerment.  Especially in a world where information is increasingly available and free, hoarding it comes at a high cost.

  • If everyone in the company knows that you’re short of plan and disappointed about that, the majority of people will exercise hawkish judgment about expenses.  The opposite is true as well.  If people know you’re running ahead of plan, they will be more willing to take risks and make investments. Without transparency of financials, people are just more in the dark and looking for all answers and judgment to come from above
  • If everyone on your staff understands the process you went through to make a tough call about an element of your strategy, they are not only more likely to understand and support the decision, but they learn from you how to make decisions in the first place
  • If your Board knows you’re having a tough quarter from the get go, they’re not surprised at the quarterly meeting and don’t force you to spend painful and precious minutes in the meeting On the firing line reporting on the details. Instead, they can spend time leading up to the meeting thinking about the details of the problems and how they can help or what insights they can bring to bear

Transparency does have some limits, even today.  There are three main limits we run into. One is compensation — still too touchy and wrapped up in people’s self esteem to post on the wall (though I have heard about a couple companies that do that, believe it or not). Another is terminations. Although you might want to tell the company that you fired Sally because she wasn’t carrying her weight, the long term value you derive from dignity and kindness trump any short term value you might derive from such a statement (plus, people know when Sally isn’t carrying her weight, anyway). The third limit to transparency is around half-baked ideas. Although you might sometimes want to try ideas on for size publicly, you have to be careful not to send people scurrying off in the wrong direction just because you blurted something out in a meeting.

The second half of this value statement is about being direct.  Being direct mostly has benefits in terms of efficiency. You can be direct and still be polite and kind.  But being direct means not beating around the bush, being political, or being conflict avoidant.  It means nipping problems in the bud and saving yourself time or money in the long run.

  • If you are direct with an employee who is not performing well with data to back it up, the employee has a much better shot at improving than if you delegate the feedback to HR, wait for the next annual performance review, or go passive and skip the feedback entirely
  • If you are direct with a boss who you think is treating you unfairly, your odds of fixing the situation go way up
  • If there’s bad news to deliver, be direct about it — look the other person in the eye, deliver the news crisply and succinctly, and as quickly as you can after finding it out or deciding on it yourself

Avoid euphemisms at all cost. Telling someone you “might have to rethink things” is not the same as saying “I will have to fire you if xyz don’t happen in the next 30 days.” Saying “xyz would be good for you to do” is not the same as saying “the way for you to get promoted is to consistently do xyz.”

Being transparent and direct are increasingly table stakes for successful companies full of knowledge workers who want to be empowered and clear on where they stand.

I’ve really enjoyed writing all of these values out in living color. I will do a wrap up post shortly.

May 052011

The Gift of Feedback, Part III

The Gift of Feedback, Part III

I’ve written about our 360 Review process at Return Path a few times in the past:

And the last two times around, I’ve also posted the output of my own review publicly here in the form of my development plan:

So here we are again.  I have my new development plan all spruced up and ready to go.  Many thanks to my team and Board for this valuable input, and to Angela Baldonero (my fantastic SVP People and in-house coach), and Marc Maltz of Triad Consulting for helping me interpret the data and draft this plan.  Here at a high level is what I’m going to be working on for the next 1-2 years:

  • Institutionalize impatience and lessen the dependency dynamic on me.  What does this mean?  Basically it means that I want to make others in the organization and on my team in particular as impatient as I am for progress, success, reinvention, streamlining and overcoming/minimizing operational realities.  I’ll talk more about something I’ve taken to calling “productive disruption” in a future blog post
  • Focus on making every staff interaction at all levels a coaching session.  Despite some efforts over the years, I still feel like I talk too much when I interact with people in the organization on a 1:1 or small group basis.  I should be asking many more questions and teaching people to fish, not fishing for them
  • Continue to foster deep and sustained engagement at all levels.  We’ve done a lot of this, really well, over the years.  But at nearly 250 people now and growing rapidly, it’s getting harder and harder.  I want to focus some real time and energy in the months to come on making sure we keep this critical element of our culture vibrant at our new size and stage
  • I have some other more tactical goals as well like improving at public speaking and getting more involved with leadership recruiting and management training, but the above items are more or less the nub of it

One thing I know I’ll have to do with some of these items and some of the tactical ones in particular is engage in some form of deliberate practice, as defined by Geoffrey Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated (blog post on the book here).  That will be interesting to figure out.

But that’s the story.  Everyone at Return Path and on my Board – please help me meet these important goals for my development over the next couple of years!

Mar 052008

The Gift of Feedback

The Gift of Feedback

My colleague Anita Absey always says that “feedback is a gift.”  I’ve written in the past about our extensive 360 review process at Return Path, and also about how I handle my review and bring the Board in on it.  But this past week, I finished delivering all of our senior staff 360 reviews, and I received the write-up and analysis of my own review.  And once again, I have to say, the process is incredibly valuable. 

For the first time in a long time this year, I got a resounding “much improved” on all of my prior year’s development items from my team and from the Board.  This was great to hear.  As usual, this year’s development items are similarly thoughtful and build on the prior ones, in the context of where the business is going.  Since one of my prior year’s items was “be as transparent as possible,” I thought I’d share my development plan for the coming 12-18 months here on my blog.  If you’re reading this and you report to me, you’ll get a longer form debrief at our next offsite.

1. Continue making the organization more of a Hedgehog, lending more focus to our mission and removing distractions wherever possible.

2. Move the organization’s leadership team from “pacesetting” to “authoritative” management styles by focusing more on :

    a. standards of excellence around employee behavior and performance: develop a more clear performance management system, raise the bar on accountability around leadership and management issues, shift management training from tools to values-based coaching

    b. clear communication loops: balance open door policy with manager empowerment by getting the executive in charge to fix issues (instead of fixing them myself) and/or facilitating stronger manager-employee communication

    c. constant translation of vision into execution: foster clearer context and deeper employee engagement by not just communicating vision, but communicating HOW the vision becomes reality at every opportunity

3. Sharpen elbows further around leadership team: identify key attributes of success, weed out underperformers, re-scope other roles, and clarify “partner for success” opportunities as part of core responsibilities. Make each individual’s development needs public in the senior team (I guess this is the first step towards that!)

4. Make the organization more nimble, inspiring a bias for action through shifts in priorities and cross-functional swat teams where required

So there you go.  If you work at Return Path, please feel free to hold my feet to the fire in the coming months on these points!

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