Jun 212012

Running a Productive Offsite

Running a Productive Offsite

A couple OnlyOnce readers asked me to do a post on how I run senior team offsites.  It’s a great part of our management meeting routine at Return Path, and one that Patrick Lencioni talks about extensively in Death by Meeting (review, book) – a book worth reading if you care about this topic.

My senior team has four offsites per year.  I love them.  They are, along with my Board meetings, my favorite times of the year at work.  Here’s my formula for these meetings:

–          WHY:  There are a few purposes to our offsites.  One for us is that our senior team is geographically distributed across 4 geographies at the executive level and 6 or 7 at the broader management team level.  So for us, these are the only times of the year that we are actually in the same place.  But even if we were all in one place, we’d still do them.  The main purpose of the offsite is to pull up from the day-to-day and tackle strategic issues or things that just require more uninterrupted time.  The secondary purpose is to continue to build and develop the team, both personal relationships and team dynamics.  It’s critically important to build and sustain deep relationships across the Executive Team.  We need this time in order to be a coordinated, cohesive, high trust, aligned leadership team for the company.  As the company has expanded (particularly to diverse geographies), our senior team development has become increasingly critical

–          WHO:  Every offsite includes what we call our Executive Committee, which is for the most part, my direct reports, though that group also includes a couple C/SVP titled people who don’t report directly to me but who run significant parts of the company (7-8 people total).  Two of the four offsites we also invite the broader leadership team, which is for the most part all of the people reporting into the Executive Committee (another 20 people).  That part is new as we’ve gotten bigger.  In the earlier days, it was just my staff, and maybe one or two other people as needed for specific topics

–          WHERE:  Offsites aren’t always offsite for us.  We vary location to make geography work for people.  And we try to contain costs across all of them.  So every year, probably 2 of them are actually in one of our offices or at an inexpensive nearby hotel.  Then the other 2 are at somewhat nicer places, usually one at a conference-oriented hotel and then one at a more fun resort kind of place.  Even when we are in one of our offices, we really treat it like an offsite – no other meetings, etc., and we make sure we are out together at dinner every night

–          WHEN:  4x/year at roughly equal intervals.  We used to do them right before Board meetings as partial prep for those meetings, but that got too crowded.  Now we basically do them between Board meetings.  The only timing that’s critical is the end of year session which is all about budgeting and planning for the following year.  Our general formula when it’s the smaller group is two days and at least one, maybe two dinners.  When it’s the larger group, it’s three days and at least two dinners.  For longer meetings, we try to do at least a few hours of fun activity built into the schedule so it’s not all work.

–          WHAT:  Our offsites are super rigorous.  We put our heads together to wrestle with (sometimes solve) tough business problems – from how we’re running the company, to what’s happening with our culture, to strategic problems with our products, services and operations.  The agenda for these offsites varies widely, but the format is usually pretty consistent.  I usually open every offsite with some remarks and overall themes – a mini-state-of-the-union.  Then we do some kind of “check-in” exercise either about what people want to get out of the offsite, or something more fun like an envisioning exercise, something on a whiteboard or with post-its, etc.  We always try to spend half a day on team and individual development.  Each of us reads out our key development plan items from our most recent individual 360, does a self-assessment, then the rest of the team piles on with other data and opinions, so we keep each other honest and keep the feedback flowing.  Then we have a team development plan check-in that’s the same, but about how the team is interacting.  We always have one or two major topics to discuss coming in, and each of those has an owner and materials or a discussion paper sent out a few days ahead of time.  Then we usually have a laundry list of smaller items ranging from dumb/tactical to brain-teasing that we work in between topics or over meals (every meal has an agenda!).  There’s also time at breaks for sub-group meetings and ad hoc conversations.  We do try to come up for air, but the together time is so valuable that we squeeze every drop out of it.  Some of our best “meetings” over the years have happened side-by-side on elliptical trainers in the hotel gym at 6 a.m.  We usually have a closing check-out, next steps recap type of exercise as well.

–          HOW:  Lots of our time together is just the team, but we usually have our long-time executive coach Marc Maltz from Triad Consulting  facilitate the development plan section of the meeting.

I’m sure I missed some key things here.  Team, feel free to comment and add.  Others with other experiences, please do the same!

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.

Feb 222010

From Founder/Builder to Manager/Leader

From Founder/Builder to Manager/Leader

After I spoke at the Startup2Startup event last month, one of the people who sat with me at dinner emailed me and asked:

I was curious–how did you make the transition from CEO of a startup to manager of a medium-sized business? I’m great at just doing the work myself and interacting with clients, and it’s easy for me to delegate tasks, but it’s hard to have the vision and ability to develop my two employees into greater capacity…

I’d be interested in reading a blog post on what helped you make that transition from founder/builder to manager/leader

It feels like the answer to this question is about a mile long, but I thought I’d at least start with five suggestions.

  1. Hire Up!  The place where I see most founders fumble the transition is in not hiring the best people for the critical roles in the organization.  Sometimes this is for cash flow reasons, but more often it is either due to subconscious fear (“will I still be able to control the organization if this person is in it?”) or due to bravado (“I can do engineering way better than that guy”).  Lose that attitude and hire up for key positions.  Even if you COULD do every role better than anyone you’d ever hire, you only have so many hours in the day.
  2. Learn the magic of delegation and empowerment.  You can never get as much work done on your own as you can if you get work done THROUGH others.  Get comfortable delegating work by setting clear expectations up front in terms of timing and quality of deliverables and giving your high level input.  And never be a bottleneck.  If people are waiting on you for decisions or comments, that means they’re not working…or at least that they’re not working on the highest value or most urgent things they could be working on.
  3. Don’t fear some elements of larger organizations.  Larger organizations require some process so they don’t fall apart.  Make sure you pick your battles and accept that some changes, even if they feel bureaucratic, are critical to ensure success going forward.  I still get a queasy feeling in my stomach half of the times I see a new form or procedure or a suggestion from a lawyer, but as long as they are lightweight and constantly reviewed to make sure they’re having their intended impact AND ONLY their intended impact, some are inevitable.
  4. At the same time, don’t lose the founder/builder mentality.  Your company may have grown larger, but if you’re still running it, people will naturally look to you and other founders for much of the energy, vision, and drive in the business.  You will also likely be more inclined to be scrappy and entrepreneurial, which are good traits for any business.  Don’t lose those qualities, even as you modify them or add others.
  5. Look to the outside for help.  In my case, I’ve consistently done three things over the years to learn from others and to prevent myopia.  First, I have worked on and off with a fantastic executive coach, Marc Maltz from Triad Group. Second, I have always had one or two “CEO mentors,” e.g., guys who have built larger businesses than Return Path, on my Board, at all times, as resources.  Finally, I do a lot of CEO peer networking, some informal (breakfasts, drinks meetings), and some more formal (a CEO Forum group that I established) to make sure I’m consistently sharing information and best practices with others in comparable situations.

Any other entrepreneurs who have made the leap have other advice to offer?

Dec 072009

Book Short: Innovation and Discipline

Book Short:  Innovation and Discipline

The Puritan Gift, by Kenneth and William Hopper, is a bit of a mixed bag.  The authors have a wonderful point to make — that American businesses have thrived over the centuries due to a mix of innovation and discipline that descended from the country’s Puritan roots, and that when they lose their way, it’s because they diverge from those roots.  The book is also an interesting, if somewhat cursory, history of American industry.  And it playfully debunks some great myths of corporate American life over the last 50 years.  But the book has a few too many moments where assertions aren’t supported by data — where its theories overreach into explanations of other aspects of American life that may or may not be appropriate.

That said, it is a good read.  The main point is that there are five driving principles behind American business success over the years, the first four coming from the Puritans and the fifth from the French:

– the melding of the workplace with the search for a higher purpose in life
– an aptitude for the application of mechanical skills
– the subordination of the individual to the group
– the ability to assemble and galvanize forces to a single purpose on a massive scale
– a keen interest in and passion for technology

These things ring true as driving forces of successful businesses today.  The distillation (or abstraction) of these forces, though, is the most powerful lesson from the book as far as I’m concerned, which is that businesses, and organizations in general, succeed the most when they are led by people who really understand the substance of the business and not by professional managers or financial engineers, and when they practice integrated decision-making, which is to say that the same people make decisions, plan for execution, execute, and follow up.  You don’t have to look too far to see a lot of examples of how the absence of domain expertise and integrated decision-making has led to spectacular failures, from Enron to Wall Street’s meltdown to the Iraq War.

The Puritan Gift ends on a hopeful note about restoring America’s leadership in global industry by returning to our Puritan roots.  It’s way too early to assess whether or not this hypothesis will turn out to be correct, but the examples the authors give in the concluding chapter are certainly good food for thought for anyone who runs a business.  Thanks to my friend Marc Maltz of Triad Consulting for the book.

Filed under: Books, Business, Leadership

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