Nov 012012

Job 1

Job 1

The first “new” post in my series of posts about Return Path’s 14 Core Values is, fittingly,

Job 1:  We are all responsible for championing and extending our unique culture as a competitive advantage.

The single most frequently asked question I have gotten internally over the last few years since we grew quickly from 100 employees to 350 has been some variant of “Are you worried about our ability to scale our culture as we hire in so many new people?”  This value is the answer to that question, though the short answer is “no.”

I am not solely responsible for our culture at Return Path. I’m not sure I ever was, even when we were small.  Neither is Angela, our SVP of People.  That said, it was certainly true that I was the main architect and driver of our culture in the really early years of the company’s life.  And I’d add that even up to an employee base of about 100 people, I and a small group of senior or tenured people really shouldered most of the burden of defining and driving and enforcing our culture and values.

But as the business has grown, the amount of responsibility that I and those few others have for the culture has shrunk as a percentage of the total.  It had to, by definition.  And that’s the place where cultures either scale or fall apart.  Companies who are completely dependent on their founder or a small group of old-timers to drive their cultures can’t possibly scale their cultures as their businesses grow.  Five people can be hands on with 100.  Five people can’t be hands on with 500.  The way we’ve been able to scale is that everyone at the company has taken up the mantle of protecting, defending, championing, and extending the culture.  Now we all train new employees in “The RP Way.”  We all call each other out when we fail to live up to our values.  And the result is that we have done a great job of scaling our culture with our business.

I’d also note that there are elements of our culture which have changed or evolved over the last few years as we’ve grown.  That isn’t a bad thing, as I tell old-timers all the time.  If our products stayed the same, we’d be dead in the market.  If our messaging stayed the same, we’d never sell to a new cohort of clients.  If our values stayed the same, we’d be out of step with our own reality.

Finally, this value also folds in another important concept, which is Culture as Competitive Advantage.  In an intellectual capital business like ours (or any on the internet), your business is only as good as your people.  We believe that a great culture brings in the best people, fosters an environment where they can work at the top of their games even as they grow and broaden their skills, increases the productivity and creativity of the organization’s output through high levels of collaboration, and therefore drives the best performance on a sustained basis.  This doesn’t have to be Return Path’s culture or mean that you have to live by our values.  This could be your culture and your values.  You just have to believe that those things drive your success.

Not a believer yet?  Last year, we had voluntary turnover of less than 1%.  We promoted or gave new assignments to 15% of our employees.  And almost 50% of our new hires were referred by existing employees.  Those are some very, very healthy employee metrics that lead directly to competitive advantage.  As does our really exciting announcement last week of being #11 in the mid-sized company on Fortune Magazine’s list of the best companies to work for.

Aug 182011

People First

People First

I do not think it’s telling that my fourth post in this series of posts on Return Path’s core values (kickoff post, tag cloud) is something called People First.  Ok, it probably should have been the first post in the series.  To be fair, it is the first value on our list, but for whatever reason, the value about Ownership was top of mind when I decided to create this series.

Anyway, at Return Path,

We believe that people come first

And we aren’t shy about saying it publicly, either.  This came up in a lengthy interview I did with Inc. Magazine last year when we were profiled for winning an award as one of the top 20 small- and mid-sized businesses to work for in America.  After re-reading that article, I went back and tried to find the slide from our investor presentations that I referred to.  I have a few versions of this slide from different points in time, including one that’s simpler (it only has employees, clients, and shareholder on it) but here’s a sample of it:

That pretty much says it all.  We believe that if we have the best and most engaged workforce, we will do the best job at solving our clients’ problems, and if we do that well, our shareholders will win, too.

How does this “people first” mentality influence my/our day-to-day activities?  Here are a few examples:

  • We treat all employees well, regardless of level or department.  All employees are important to us achieving our mission – otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.  So we don’t do a lot of things that other companies do like send our top performing sales reps on a boondogle together while the engineers and accountants slave away in the office as second-class citizens.  That would be something you might see in a “sales first” or “customer first” culture
  • We fiercely defend the human capital of our organization.  There are two examples I can think of around this point.  First, we do not tolerate abusive clients. Fortunately, they are rare, but more than once over the years either I or a member of my senior team has had to get on the phone with a client and reprimand them, or even terminate their contract with us, for treating one of our employees poorly and unprofessionally. And along the same lines, when all economic hell broke loose in the fall of 2008, we immediately told employees that while we’d be in for a rough ride, our three top priorities were to keep everyone’s job, keep everyone’s compensation, and keep everyone’s health benefits. Fortunately, our business withstood the financial challenges and we were able to get through the financial crisis with those three things intact.
  • We walk the walk with regard to employee feedback.  Everyone does employee satisfaction surveys, but we are very rigorous about understanding what areas are making people relatively unhappy (for us, even our poor ratings are pretty good, but they’re poor relative to other ratings), and where in the employee population (office, department, level) those issues lie.  We highlight them in an all-hands meeting or communication, we develop specific action plans around them, and we measure those same questions and responses the next time we do a survey to see how we’ve improved
  • We invest in our people.  We pay them fairly well, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  We invest in their learning and growth, which is the lifeblood of knowledge workers.  We do an enormous amount of internal training.  We encourage, support, and pay for outside training and education.  We are very generous with the things that allow our employees to be happy and healthy, from food to fitness to insurance to time off to a flexible environment to allowing them to work from another office, or even remotely, if their lives require them to move somewhere else
  • I spend as little time as I possibly can managing my shareholders and as much time as I can with employees and prospective employees.  That doesn’t mean I don’t interact with my Board members – I do that quite a bit.  But it does mean that when I do interact with them, it’s more about what they can do for Return Path and less about reporting information to them.  I do send them a lot of information, but the information flow works well for them and simultaneously minimizes my time commitment to the process:  (1) reporting comes in a very consistent format so that investors know WHAT to expect and what they’re looking at, (2) reporting comes out with a consistently long lead time prior to a meeting so investors know WHEN to expect the information, (3) the format of the information is co-developed with investors so they are getting the material they WANT, and (4) we automate as much of the information production as possible and delegate it out across the organization as much as possible so there’s not a heavy burden on any one employee to produce it
  • When we do spend time with customers (which is hopefully a lot as well), we try to spread that time out across a broad base of employees, not just salespeople and account managers, so that as many of our employees can develop a deep enough understanding of what our customers’ lives are like and how we impact them

There are plenty of companies out there who have a “shareholder first” or “customer first” philosophy.  I’m not saying those are necessarily wrong – but at least in our industry, I’ll bet companies like that end up with significantly higher recruiting costs (we source almost half our new hires from existing employee referrals), higher employee churn, and therefore lower revenue and profit per employee metrics at a minimum.  Those things must lead to less happy customers, especially in this day and age of transparency.  And all of those things probably degrade shareholder value, at least over the long haul.

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