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.

Mar 092011

The Art of the Post-Mortem

The Art of the Post-Mortem

It has a bunch of names — the After-Action Review, the Critical Incident Review, the plain old Post-Mortem — but whatever you call it, it’s an absolute management best practice to follow when something has gone wrong. We just came out of one relating to last fall’s well document phishing attack, and boy was it productive and cathartic.

In this case, our general takeaway was that our response went reasonably well, but we could have been more prepared or done more up front to prevent it from happening in the first place.  We derived some fantastic learnings from the Post-Mortem, and true to our culture, it was full of finger-pointing at oneself, not at others, so it was not a contentious meeting.  Here are my best practices for Post-Mortems, for what it’s worth:

  • Timing:  the Post-Mortem should be held after the fire has stopped burning, by several weeks, so that members of the group have time to gather perspective on what happened…but not so far out that they forget what happened and why.  Set the stage for a Post-Mortem while in crisis (note publicly that you’ll do one) and encourage team members to record thoughts along the way for maximum impact
  • Length:  the Post-Mortem session has to be at least 90 minutes, maybe as much as 3 hours, to get everything out on the table
  • Agenda format:  ours includes the following sections…Common understanding of what happened and why…My role…What worked well…What could have been done better…What are my most important learnings
  • Participants:  err on the wide of including too many people.  Invite people who would learn from observing, even if they weren’t on the crisis response team
  • Use an outside facilitator:  a MUST.  Thanks to Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting, as always, for helping us facilitate this one and drive the agenda
  • Your role as leader:  set the tone by opening and closing the meeting and thanking the leaders of the response team.  Ask questions as needed, but be careful not to dominate the conversation
  • Publish notes:  we will publish our notes from this Post-Mortem not just to the team, but to the entire organization, with some kind of digestible executive summary and next actions

When done well, these kinds of meetings not only surface good learnings, they also help an organization maintain momentum on a project that is no longer in crisis mode, and therefore at risk of fading into the twilight before all its work is done.  Hopefully that happened for us today.

The origins of the Post-Mortem are with the military, who routinely use this kind of process to debrief people on the front lines.  But its management application is essential to any high performing, learning organization.

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