Apr 192018

There’s a word or two missing from the English language

In my personal life, I have acquaintances, I have friends, and I have good/close friends.

In my work life, I have colleagues – the professional equivalent of acquaintances.

But what comes after that professionally?  We spend over half our waking life at work.  Of course we are going to build important relationships.  Some of them will cross over to personal and become legitimate “friends” or “good friends.” I always feel some sense of honor when a colleague introduces me to someone as a true friend.

But for those that don’t cross that chasm – for those who are truly just professional relationships but ones with increasing closeness – what are we supposed to call them?

I guess in a pinch we could call the next level up “work friends,” although that sounds odd and a bit impersonal.  But what about the level after that?  What is a “work good friend” or even a “good work friend”?  Those sound even weirder.  And yet, “work good friends” abound!  I can probably think of 5 or 10 “work friends” or “work good friends” for every true friend or good friend in the workplace.

Has anyone found a good word or phrase for this yet?

 

Feb 162017

Reboot – Where do a company’s Values come from, and where do they go?

I’ve written a lot over the years about Return Path’s Core Values (summary post with lots of links to other posts here).  And I’ve also written and believe strongly that there’s a big difference between values, which are pretty unchanging, and culture, which can evolve a lot over time.  But I had a couple conversations recently that led me to think more philosophically about a company’s values.

The first conversation was at a recent dinner for a group of us working on fundraising for my upcoming 25th reunion from Princeton.  Our guest speaker was a fellow alumnus who I’ve gotten to know and respect tremendously over the years as one of the school’s most senior and influential volunteer leaders.  He was speaking about the touchstones in his life and in all people’s lives — things like their families, their faith, the causes they’re passionate about, and the institutions they’ve been a part of.  I remember this speaker giving a similar set of remarks right after the financial crisis hit in early 2009.  And it got me thinking about the origins of Return Path’s values, which I didn’t create on my own, but which I obviously had a tremendous amount of influence over as founder.  Where did they come from?  Certainly, some came from my parents and grandparents.  Some came from my primary and secondary education and teachers.  Some came from other influences like coaches, mentors, and favorite books.  Although I’m not overly observant, some certainly came from Hebrew school and even more so from a deep reading of the Bible that I undertook about 15 years ago for fun (it was much more fun than I expected!).  Some came from other professional experiences before I started Return Path.  But many of them either came from, or were strongly reinforced by my experience at Princeton.  Of the 15 values we currently articulate, I can directly tie at least seven to Princeton:  helpful, thankful, data-driven, collaborative, results-oriented, people first, and equal in opportunity.  I can also tie some other principles that aren’t stated values at Return Path, but which are clearly part of our culture, such as intellectually curious, appreciative of other people’s points of view, and valuing an interdisciplinary approach to work.

As part of my professional Reboot project, this was a good reminder of some of the values I know I’ve gotten from my college experience as a student and as an alumni, which was helpful both to reinforce their importance in my mind but also to remember some of the specifics around their origins – when and why they became important to me.  I could make a similar list and trade and antecedents of all or at least most of our Company’s values back to one of those primary influences in my life.  Part of Reboot will be thinking through all of these and renewing and refreshing their importance to me.

The second conversation was with a former employee who has gone on to lead another organization.  It led me to the observation I’ve never really thought through before, that as a company, we ourselves have become one of those institutions that imprints its values into the minds of at least some of its employees…and that those values will continue to be perpetuated, incorporated, and improved upon over time in any organization that our employees go on to join, manage part of, or lead.

That’s a powerful construct to keep in mind if you’re a new CEO working on designing and articulating your company’s values for the first time.  You’re not just creating a framework to guide your own organization.  You’re creating the beginning of a legacy that could potentially influence hundreds or thousands of other organizations in the future.

Sep 172015

The Playbook

As Return Path gets older, we are having more and more alums go on to be successful senior executives at other companies – some in our space, some not.  It’s a great thing, and something I’m really proud of.  I was wondering the other day if there’s effectively some kind of “RP Playbook” that these people have taken with them.  Here’s what I learned from asking five of them.

People-related practices are all prominent as part of the Playbook, not surprising for a People First company.  Our Peer Recognition program, which is almost as old as the company and has evolved over time, was on almost everyone’s list.  Open Vacation is also part of the mix, as was a focus on getting Onboarding right so new employees start off on the right foot.  Live 360s were on multiple lists, too, as were Skip-Level 1:1s.

Beyond People-related programs, though, there was general agreement among the five that the mentality of trust in management was something they brought with them in this mythical Playbook.  Specific examples include fostering a culture of idea sharing, having difficult conversations, driving as much self-management as possible, focusing on managing high performers as opposed to spending all our cycles on managing low performers, balancing freedom and flexibility with performance and accountability, and going above and beyond and bending rules for sick employees and their families.

Connections and networking – both internal and external – made the cut as well.  A lot of those, especially external ones, are used to foster benchmarking, best practices sharing, and “leveling up” to help teams and organizations scale by learning from others.

Finally, there were some specific execution-related Playbook items from establishing a vision, to translating it into goals and fostering alignment across the organization, to instituting processes and systems instead of throwing bodies at problems.  One important element of execution cited is the importance of giving new and existing managers the tools to grow as the company grows.

This is hardly an exhaustive Playbook and unscientific in its construction, but I thought the “top of mind” answers from five senior people I respect was an interesting list and probably the beginning of something broader.

Thanks to the following friends for their contributions to this post:  Jack Sinclair, CFO of Stack Overflow; Angela Baldonero, SVP Human Resources for Kimpton Hotels; Tom Bartel, CEO of ThreatWave; Chad Malchow, CRO for Gitlab; and Dennis Malaspina, CRO for Parsley.

Jul 162015

Everything Is Data

Everything Is Data

As our former head of People, Angela used to say during the recruiting process, “Everything is Data.”  What she meant is that you can learn a lot about a candidate from things that happen along the way during an interview cycle, not just during the interviews themselves.  Does the candidate for the Communications role write a thank you note, and is it coherent?  Does the candidate for an outside sales role dribble food all over himself at a restaurant?  Here are two great examples of this that have happened here at Return Path over time:

Once we had a candidate in the office, waiting in our café/reception area before his first interview.  Our office manager came in and was struggling with some large boxes.  The candidate took off his suit jacket and immediately jumped to her assistance, carrying some of the boxes and helping to lift them up and put them away.  He is now an employee.

Another candidate once was waiting in a nearby Starbucks for an interview, was incredibly rude to the barista, and spent a few minutes on the phone with someone making self-important, then snide and condescending comments about the company.  Unfortunately for her, two of our employees were sitting at the next table at Starbucks and observed the whole thing.  She did not make it to the next round of interviews.

In both cases, the peripheral interactions were solid data points that the candidates would or would not likely be good fits from a Return Path Core Values perspective.  Everything is Data.

(After I finished writing this post, a little bell went off in my head that I had written it already, or Angela had…I found this post on Brad’s blog that she wrote four years ago.  It has some of this thinking in it, without the two examples, then makes several other excellent points.)

Jun 252015

The Difference Between Culture and Values

The Difference Between Culture and Values

This topic has been bugging me for a while, so I am going to use the writing of this post as a means of working through it. We have a great set of core values here at Return Path. And we also have a great corporate culture, as evidenced by our winning multiple employer of choice awards, including being Fortune Magazine’s #2 best medium-sized workplace in America.

But the two things are different, and they’re often confused. I hear statements all the time, both here and at other companies, like “you can’t do that — it’s not part of our culture,” “I like working there, because the culture is so great,” and “I hope our culture never changes.”  And those statements reveal the disconnect.

Here’s my stab at a definition.  Values guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right.  Culture is the collection of business practices, processes, and interactions that make up the work environment.

A company’s values should never really change. They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there 10 or 100 years from now.  They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game. To pick one value, if you believe in Transparency one day, there’s no way the next day you decide that being Transparent is unimportant. Can a value be changed?  I guess, either a very little bit at a time, slowly like tectonic plates move, or in a sharp blow as if you deliberately took a jackhammer to stone and destroyed something permanently.  One example that comes to mind is that we added a value a couple years back called Think Global, Act Local, when we opened our first couple of international offices.  Or a startup that quickly becomes a huge company might need to modify a value around Scrappiness to make it about Efficiency.  Value changes are few and far between.

If a company’s values are its bedrock, then a company’s culture is the shifting landscape on top of it. Culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate. Landscapes change over time — sometimes temporarily due to a change in seasons, sometimes permanently due to a storm or a landslide, sometimes even due to human events like commercial development or at the hand of a good gardener.

So what does it mean that culture is the current embodiment of the values as the needs of the business dictate?  Let’s go back to the value of Transparency. When you are 10 people in a room, Transparency means you as CEO may feel compelled to share that you’re thinking about pivoting the product, collect everyone’s point of view on the subject, and make a decision together. When you are 100 people, you probably wouldn’t want to share that thinking with ALL until it’s more baked, you have more of a concrete direction in mind, and you’ve stress tested it with a smaller group, or you risk sending people off in a bunch of different directions without intending to do so. When you are 1,000 employees and public, you might not make that announcement to ALL until it’s orchestrated with your earnings call, but there may be hundreds of employees who know by then. A commitment to Transparency doesn’t mean always sharing everything in your head with everyone the minute it appears as a protean thought.  At 10 people, you can tell everyone why you had to fire Pat – they probably all know, anyway.  At 100 people, that’s unkind to Pat.  At 1,000, it invites a lawsuit.

Or here’s another example.  Take Collaboration as a value.  I think most people would agree that collaboration managed well means that the right people in the organization are involved in producing a piece of work or making a decision, but that collaboration managed poorly means you’re constantly trying to seek consensus.  The culture needs to shift over time in order to make sure the proper safeguards are in place to prevent collaboration from turning into a big pot of consensus goo – and the safeguards required change as organizations scale.  In a small, founder-driven company, it often doesn’t matter as much if the boss makes the decisions.  The value of collaboration can feel like consensus, as they get to air their views and feel like they’re shaping a decision, even though in reality they might not be.  In a larger organization with a wider range of functional specialists managing their own pieces of the organization, the boss doesn’t usually make every major decision, though guys like Ellison, Benioff, Jobs, etc. would disagree with that.  But in order for collaboration to be effective, decisions need to be delegated and appropriate working groups need to be established to be clear on WHO is best equipped to collaborate, and to what extent.  Making these pronouncements could come as feeling very counter-cultural to someone used to having input, when in fact they’re just a new expression of the same value.

I believe that a business whose culture never evolves slowly dies.  Many companies are very dynamic by virtue of growth or scaling, or by being in very dynamic markets even if the company itself is stable in people or product. Even a stable company — think the local hardware store or barber shop — will die if it doesn’t adapt its way of doing business to match the changing norms and consumption patterns in society.

This doesn’t mean that a company’s culture can’t evolve to a point where some employees won’t feel comfortable there any longer. We lost our first employee on the grounds that we had “become too corporate” when we reached the robust size of 25 employees. I think we were the same company in principles that day as we had been when we were 10 people (and today when we are approaching 500), but I understood what that person meant.

My advice to leaders: Don’t cling to every aspect of the way your business works as you scale up. Stick to your core values, but recognize that you need to lead (or at least be ok with) the evolution of your culture, just as you would lead (or be ok with) the evolution of your product. But be sure you’re sticking to your values, and not compromising them just because the organization scales and work patterns need to change.  A leader’s job is to embody the values.  That impacts/produces/guides culture.  But only the foolhardy leaders think they can control culture.

My advice to employees: Distinguish between values and culture if you don’t like something you see going on at work. If it’s a breach of values, you should feel very free to wave your arms and cry foul. But if it’s a shifting of the way work gets done within the company’s values system, give a second thought to how you complain about it before you do so, though note that people can always interpret the same value in different ways.  If you believe in your company’s values, that may be a harder fit to find and therefore more important than getting comfortable with the way those values show up.

Note:  I started writing this by talking about the foundation of a house vs. the house itself, or the house itself vs. the furniture inside it.  That may be a more useful analogy for you.  But hopefully you get the idea.

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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!

Jul 012014

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Joy, Inc.:  How We Built a Workplace People Love, by Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, was a really good read. Like Remote  which I reviewed a few weeks ago, Joy, Inc. is ostensibly a book about one thing — culture — but is also full of good general advice for CEOs and senior managers.

Also like Remote, the book was written by the founder and CEO of a relatively small firm that is predominately software engineers, so there are some limitations to its specific lessons unless you adapt them to your own environment. Unlike Remote, though, it’s neither preachy nor ranty, so it’s a more pleasant read.  And I suppose fitting of its title, a more joyful read as well. (Interestingly on this comparison, Sheridan has a simple and elegant argument against working remotely in the middle of the book around innovation and collaboration.)

Some of the people-related practices at Sheridan’s company are fascinating and great to read about. In particular, the way the company interviews candidates for development roles is really interesting — more of an audition than an interview, with candidates actually writing code with a development partner, the way the company writes code. Different teams at Return Path interview in different ways, including me for both the exec team and the Board, but one thing I know is that when an interview includes something that is audition-like, the result is much stronger. There are half a dozen more rich examples in the book.

Some of the other quotable lines or concepts in the book include:

  • the linkage between scalability with human sustainability (you can’t grow by brute force, you can only grow when people are rested and ready to bring their brain to work)
  • “Showcasing your work is accountability in action” (for a million reasons, starting with pride and ending with pride)
  • “Trust, accountability, and results — these get you to joy” (whether or not you are a Myers-Briggs J, people do get a bit of a rush out of a job well done)
  • “…the fun and frivolity of our whimsically irreverent workplace…” (who doesn’t want to work for THAT company?)
  • “When even your vendors want to align with your culture, you know you’re on the right path” (how you treat people is how you treat PEOPLE, not just clients, not just colleagues)
  • “One of the key elements of a joyful culture is having team members who trust one another enough to argue” (if you and I agree on everything, one of us is not needed)
  • “The reward is in the attempt” (do you encourage people to fail fast often enough?)
  • “Good problems are good problems for the first five minutes. Then they just feel like regular problems until you solve them” (Amen, Brother Sheridan)

The benefits of a joyful culture (at Return Path, we call it a People-First culture) have long been clear to me. As Sheridan says, we try to “create a culture where people want to come to work every day.” Cultures like ours look soft and squishy from the outside, or to people who have grown up in tough, more traditional corporate environments. And to be fair, the challenge with a culture like ours is keeping the right balance of freedom and flexibility on one side and high performance and accountability on the other. But the reality is that most companies struggle with most of the same issues — the new hire that isn’t working out or the long-time employee who isn’t cutting it any more, the critical path project that doesn’t get done on time, the missed quarter or lost client.  As Sheridan notes though, one key benefit of working at a joyful company is that problems get surfaced earlier when they are smaller…and they get solved collaboratively, which produces better results. Another key benefit, of course, is that if you’re going to have the same problems as everyone else, you might as well have fun while you’re dealing with them.

If you don’t love where you work and wish you did, read Joy, Inc. If you love where you work but see your company’s faults and want to improve them, read Joy, Inc. If you are not in either of the above camps, go find another job!

Mar 202014

Secrets to Yawn-Free Board Meetings

Secrets to Yawn-Free Board Meetings

[This post first appeared as an article in Entrepreneur Magazine as part of a new series I’m publishing there in conjunction with my book, Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business]

The objective of board meetings should always be to have great conversations that help you and your executive team think clearly about the issues in front of you, as well as making sure your directors have a clear and transparent view of the state of the business. These conversations come from a team dynamic that encourages productive conflict. There’s no sure-fire formula for achieving this level of engagement, but here are three few guidelines you can follow to increase your chances.

Schedule board meetings in advance, and forge a schedule that works. Nothing is more disruptive – or more likely to drive low turnout – than last minute scheduling. Make sure you, or your executive assistant, knows board members’ general schedules and travel requirements, and whether they manage their own calendar or have their own executive assistant. Set your board meeting schedule for the year in the early fall, which is typically when people are mapping out most of their year’s major activities. If you know that one of your board members has to travel for your meetings, work with the CEOs of the other companies to coordinate meeting dates. Vary the location of meetings if you have directors in multiple geographies so travel is a shared sacrifice.

In the startup stage of our business at Return Path, we ran monthly meetings for an hour, mostly call-in. In the revenue stage, we moved to six to eight meetings per year, two hours in length, perhaps supplemented with two longer-form and in-person meetings. As a growth stage company, we run quarterly meetings. They’re all in-person, meaning every director is expected to travel to every meeting. We probably lose one director each time to a call-in or a no-show for some unavoidable conflict, but, for the most part, everyone is present. We leave four hours for every meeting (it’s almost impossible to get everything done in less time than that) and sometimes we need longer.

Many years, we also hold a board offsite, which is a meeting that runs across 24 hours, usually an afternoon, a dinner, and a morning, and is geared to recapping the prior year and planning out the next year together. It’s especially exhausting to do these meetings, and I’m sure it’s especially exhausting to attend them, but they’re well worth it. The intensity of the sessions, discussion, and even social time in between meetings is great for everyone to get on the same page and remember what’s working, what’s not, and what the world around us looks like as we dive into the deep end for another year.

Build a forward-looking agenda. The second step in having great board meetings is to set an agenda that will prompt the discussion that you want to have. With our current four-hour meetings, our time allocation is the following:

I. Welcomes and framing (5 minutes)

II. Official Business (no more than 15 minutes unless something big is going on)

III. Retrospective (45 minutes)

a. Target a short discussion on highlighted issues

b. Leave some time for Q&A

IV. On My Mind (2 hours)

a. You can spend this entire time on one topic, more than one, or all, as needed.

b. Format for discussions can vary—this is a good opportunity for breakout sessions, for example.

V. Executive Session (30 minutes)

This is your time with directors only, no observers or members of the management team (even if they are board members).

VI. Closed Session (30 minutes)

This is director-only time, without you or anyone else from the management team.

This agenda format focuses your meeting on the future, not the past. In the early years of the business, our board meetings were probably 75 percent “looking backwards” and 25 percent “looking forwards.” They were reporting meetings—reports which were largely in the hands of board members before the meetings anyway. They were dull as anything, and they were redundant: all of our board members were capable of processing historical information on their own. Today, our meetings are probably ten percent “looking backwards” and 90 percent “looking forwards”—and much more interesting as a result.

Separate background reading and presentation materials. Finally, focus on creating a more engaging dialogue during the meeting by separating background reading from presentation materials. In our early days, we created a huge Powerpoint deck as both a handout the week before the meeting and as the in-meeting deck. That didn’t create an engaging meeting.

There’s nothing more mind-numbing than a board meeting where the advance reading materials are lengthy Powerpoint presentations, than when the meeting itself is a series of team members standing up and going through the same slides, bullet by excruciating bullet—that attendees could read on their own.

When we separated the background and presentation materials, people were engaged by the Powerpoint—because it delivered fresh content. We started making the decks fun and engaging and colorful, as opposed to simple text and bullet slides. That was a step in the right direction, but the preparation consumed twice as much time for the management team, and we certainly didn’t get twice the value from it.

Now we send out a great set of comprehensive reading materials and reports ahead of the meeting, and then we have a completely Powerpoint-free meeting. No slides on the wall. This changes the paradigm away from a presentation—the whole concept of “management presenting to the board”—to an actual discussion. No checking email. No yawns. Nobody nodding off. Everyone—management and board—is highly engaged

Feb 132014

HR/People Lessons from Netflix

It feels as if almost everyone in our industry has read the famous Netflix culture deck on Slideshare, and with over 5mm views, that may not be too far off.  If you haven’t looked at it before, and if you care about your organization’s culture and how productive and happy employees are the best kind of employees, then take the time to flip through it.

As part of a benchmarking exercise we did on employers with unique and best HR/People practices a few years ago, a few of us did either site visits or at least live interviews with leaders at four companies, all of whom are pretty well known for progressive People practices that are also in-line with our company’s culture:  Morningstar, Gore, Nucor, and Netflix.  As part of this, we met in person with Patty McCord, Netflix’s long-time head of People.  It was a really informative meeting.

Now Patty has written a longform article in Harvard Business Review that shares a lot of what we learned from her in her office that day. It’s absolutely worth a read.  Netflix does have a pretty distinct culture and gets positive but mixed reviews on Glassdoor, so as with everything, I’m not advocating adopting everything they do lock, stock, and barrel.  But I can guarantee that some of the lessons that Patty shares are valuable no matter what your company is like.

Jan 302014

New New Employee Training

Years ago, my co-founder Jack and I developed a training presentation to give to new employees who were not just new to Return Path but also new to the workforce.  This is another one of those things, like my last post on our sabbatical policy, that people ask me for all the time.

Bringing new people into the workforce is different from just bringing new people into an organization.  I know I got a huge amount of value in my first job in management consulting from just learning how to go to work every day and how to be successful professionally.  The process you need to go through is like Onboarding, but on steroids.

Not everyone has parents or older siblings or role models who work in business — or for that matter, who focus on any kind of workplace mentoring.  It may sound dumb, but even things like showing up on time for work, what to wear, and how to meet with your manager aren’t necessarily obvious even to smart and well-intentioned 21-year olds.

So with the caveats that it’s a little dated as is, and that it’s more relevant to the kind of company we are at Return Path (e.g., we serve business clients), here’s a SlideShare version of the presentation.


Feel free to plagiarize, customize, and share it from here if you’re interested.