May 182017

Being a CEO is Like Playing a Game of Hearts

Hearts was one of my favorite card games in college.  I remember staying up deep into the night regularly with my roommates playing it.  I recently taught our kids how to play and have been playing with them more regularly of late…and I was reminded how much I enjoy the game.  No metaphor or simile is perfect, and this one isn’t either, but it occurred to me the other night that being a CEO is a little bit like playing a game of Hearts.

First and foremost, you have to play the hand that you’re dealt.  No matter how proactive you want to be about running your own agenda, things happen around you — with your people, your customers, your competitors, and you have to figure out how to react to situations.

Second, you usually get to pass 3 cards to another player, but sometimes you have a “hold” hand.  Even within a situation you have to react to, sometimes you can mute the edges of it before you actually react (but occasionally, you can’t change the situation at all).  Consider the difference between a customer telling you they are about to churn (maybe you can still save them on price, terms, feature sets) vs. sending you a termination notice after they have signed with a competitor.

Next, when playing the hand, there are times when you want to get the lead so you can control the flow of the game, and there are times when you want to avoid getting the lead so you just hand out point cards to others.

Also in the course of the play of a hand, you want to keep close track of what the other players have and don’t have in their hands, particularly so you can avoid the Queen of Spades and so you can try hard to capture the Jack of Diamonds.  Day in and day out at work, you need understand as deeply as possible what your competitors and partners are up to…and you always want to have an eye on the biggest opportunity in front of the company — a new prospect you’re trying to win over, for example — and the biggest risk point you’re trying to avoid.

Finally, you have to recognize that any given hand is one out of many in a game, just like every day, or week, or quarter, is just one piece of your overall stewardship of your company over the long haul.  And of course the simple act of being an entrepreneur is in and of itself analogous to Shooting the Moon.  It’s almost impossible to do, and you have to both have the right cards AND play the hand extremely well.  But when you do, the reward is spectacular!

(That wasn’t too much of a stretch, was it?)

Apr 172017

A Two Week Vacation is More Than Twice As Good As a One Week Vacation

I’ve said this for years, but as I sit on the train commuting into work after a week off relaxing with my family for my Dad’s 75th birthday (or as he prefers to call it, the 46th anniversary of his 29th birthday), I feel particularly inclined to write it up!

I love my job, so I almost never mind going to work. But I also love being on vacation and traveling with my family and try to do as much of it as I can. Years ago before we had kids and became tethered to school and sports schedules, we used to take at least one full two week vacation, completely unplugged, at least once a year. I miss that!

The problem with any vacation longer than a couple days off (which is NOT a vacation) is that it can take several days to unwind, decompress from work and the small stresses of every day life, and unplug, meaning not checking email, reading blogs or the newspaper every morning, and not fidgeting every time you’re more than 10 feet away from your smartphone. Then on the other end of the trip, trying to triage email the day before you go back to work and generally gearing up for reentry into the fast lane also consume a bunch of cycles — and for me, I’ve never been able to sleep well the night before the first day of anything, so it means starting back with diminished relaxation even before walking through the office door.

So all in, that means the true part of a week-long, meaning 9-day vacation (including two weekends), is about 4-5 days.

That’s not bad. But I think you have all that same overhead associated with a two week vacation as well…so a two week vacation of 16 days leaves you with 11-12 days. Mathematically, if not psychically, more than twice as good as the standard one-weeker.

I’m inclined to start doing that once a year again, schedules be damned!

As a side note, two things I also used to do on vacation, even a one-weeker, that I am regretting not doing this time are (a) actually turning my work email account off my phone and leaving it off until the Monday morning after vacation so there’s no cheating on a couple minutes of email here or there, and (b) making sure my schedule is almost completely open that first Monday back to catch up. Next time, those two features will return prominently…along with that full second week off.

Oh, and if anyone says a Startup CEO can’t take a long unplugged vacation…I call bullshit. You may not be able to do it any two weeks of the year with no notice, but plan ahead, leave things in good order, leave someone in charge (or don’t, but be deliberate about that), and let them know where to call you in case the building burns down. It will be fine when you get back, and healthy for tour team to have a break from you as well.

Jan 122017

Reboot – Back to Basics

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m rebooting my work self this year, and this quarter in particular.  One of the things I am doing is getting back to basics on a few fronts.

Over the holiday break, as I was contemplating a reboot, I emailed a handful of people with whom I’ve worked closely over the years, but for the most part people with whom I no longer work day in day out, to ask them a few questions.  The questions were fairly backward looking:

1.       When I was at my best, what were my personal habits or routines that stand out in your mind?

2.       When I was at my best, what were my work behaviors or routines that stand out in your mind?

3.       When our EC was at its best, what were the team dynamics that caused it to function so well?

I got some wonderful responses, including one which productively challenged the premise of asking backward-looking questions as I was trying to reboot for the future.  (The answer is that this was one of several things I was doing as part of Rebooting, not the only thing, and historical perspective is one of many useful tools.)

Although the question clearly led itself to this, the common theme across all the answers was “back to basics.”  Part of evolving myself as a CEO as the company has grown over the years has been stopping doing particular things and starting others intentionally.  I try to do that at least once a year.  But what this particular exercise taught me is that, like the proverbial boiled frog, there were a slew of small and medium-sized things that I’ve stopped doing over the years unintentionally that are positive and productive habits that I miss.  I have a long list of these items, and I probably won’t want or need to get to all of them.  But there are a few that I think are critical to my success for various reasons.  Some of the more noteworthy ones are:

  • Blogging, which I mentioned in last week’s post as an important way for me to reflect and crystallize my thinking on specific topics
  • Ensuring that I have enough open time on my calendar to breathe, think, keep current with things.  When every minute of every day is scheduled, I am working harder, but not smarter
  • Be more engaged with people at the office.  This relates to having open time on the calendar.  Yesterday I sat in our kitchen area and had a quick lunch with a handful of colleagues who I don’t normally interact with.  It was such a nice break from my routine of “sit at desk, order food in” or “important business lunch,” I got to clear my head a little bit, and I got to know a couple things about a couple people in the office that I didn’t previously know
  • Get closer to the front lines internally.  Although I’ve maintained good external contacts as the company has grown with key clients and partners, our multi-business-unit structure has had me too disconnected from Sales and Engineering/Product in particular.  This one may take a couple months to enact, but I need to get closer to the action internally to truly understand what’s going on in the business
  • Get back to a rigorous use of a single Operating System.  I’ve written a lot about this over the years, but having a David-Allen style, single place where I track all critical to do’s for me and for my team has always been bedrock for me.  I’ve been experimenting with some different ways of doing this over the last couple years, which has led to a breakdown in Allen’s main principle of “put it all in one place” – so I am going to work on fixing that
  • Reading – while I have been consistently and systematically working my way through American history and Presidential biographies books over the years, I’ve almost entirely stopped reading other books for lack of time.  A well-balanced reading diet is critical for me.  So I’m working in some other books now from the other genres I love – humor (Martini Wonderland is awesome), architecture (see last week’s post on The Fountainhead), current events (I’m in the middle of Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project and next up is Tom Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late), and business books (about to start Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency)
  • Like reading, doing something creative and unrelated to work has always been an important part of keeping my brain fresh.  Coaching little league has helped a lot.  But I need to add something that’s more purely creative.  I am still deciding between taking guitar lessons (I halfway know how to play) and sculpting lessons (I don’t know a thing about it)

That’s it for now.  There are other basics that I never let lapse (for example, exercise).  But the common theme of the above, I realize now that I am writing it all out, isn’t only “back to basics.”  It’s about creating time and space for me to be fresh and exercise different muscles instead of grinding it out all day, every day.  And that’s well worth the few minutes it took me and my friends to work up this list!

Hopefully I’ll have more to say on the general topic of rebooting in another week or two as January craziness sets in with our annual kickoff meetings around the world.

Jan 032017

Reboot – The Fountainhead

Reboot – The Fountainhead

Happy New Year!  Every few years or so, especially after a challenging stretch at work, I’ve needed to reboot myself.  This is one of those times, and I will try to write a handful of blog posts on different aspects of that.

The first one is about a great book.  I just read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for (I think) the 5th time.  It’s far and away my favorite book and has been extremely influential on my life.  I think of it (and any of my favorite books) as an old friend that I can turn to in order to help center myself when needed as an entrepreneur and as a human.  The last time I read it was over 10 years ago, which is too long to go without seeing one of your oldest friends, isn’t it?  While the characters in the book by definition are somewhat extreme, the book’s guiding principles are great.  I’ve always enjoyed this book far more than Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s more popular novel, which I think is too heavy-handed, and her much shorter works, Anthem and We The Living, which are both good but clearly not as evolved in her thinking.

As an entrepreneur, how does The Fountainhead influence me?  Here are a few examples.

  • When I think about The Fountainhead, the first phrase that pops into my head is “the courage of your convictions.”  Well, there’s no such thing as being a successful entrepreneur without having the courage of your convictions.  If entrepreneurs took “no” for an answer the first 25 times they heard it, there would be no Apple, no Facebook, no Google, but there’d also be no Ford, no GE, and no AT&T
  • One great line from the book is that “the essence of man is his creative capacity.”  Our whole culture at Return Path, and one that I’m intensely proud of, is founded on trust and transparency.  We believe that if we trust employees with their time and resources, and they know everything going on in the company, that they will unleash their immense creative capacity on the problems to be solved for the business and for customers
  • Another central point of influence for me from the book is that while learning from others is important, conventional wisdom only gets you far in entrepreneurship.  A poignant moment in the book is when the main character, Howard Roark, responds to a question from another character along the lines of “What do you think of me?”  The response is “I don’t think of you.”  Leading a values-driven life, and running a values-driven existence, where the objective isn’t to pander to the opinion of others but to fill my life (and hopefully the company’s life) with things that make me/us happy and successful is more important to me than simply following conventional wisdom at every turn.  Simply put, we like to do our work, our way, noting that there are many basics where reinventing the wheel is just dumb
  • Related, the book talks about the struggle between first-handers and second-handers.  “First-handers use their own minds.  They do not copy or obey, although they do learn from others.”  All innovators, inventors, and discoverers of new knowledge are first-handers.  Roark’s speech at the Cortland Homes trial is a pivotal moment in the book, when he says, “Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision.  The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time.  Every great new thought was opposed.”  In other words, first-handers, critical thinkers, are responsible for human progress.  Second-handers abdicate the responsibility of independent judgment, allowing the thinking of others to dominate their lives.  They are not thinkers, they are not focused on reality, they cannot and do not build
  • The “virtue of selfishness” is probably the essence of Rand’s philosophy.  And it sounds horrible.  Who likes to be around selfish people?  The definition of selfish is key, though.  It doesn’t inherently mean that one is self-centered or lacks empathy for others.  It just means one stays true to one’s values and purpose and potentially that one’s actions start with oneself.  I’d argue that selfishness on its own has nothing to do with whether someone is a good person or a good friend.  For example, most of us like to receive gifts.  But people give gifts for many different reasons – some people like to give gifts because they like to curry favor with others, other people like to give gifts because it makes them feel good.  That’s inherently selfish.  But it’s not a bad thing at all
  • Finally, I’d say another area where The Fountainhead inspires me as a CEO is in making me want to be closer to the action.  Howard Roark isn’t an ivory tower designer of an architect.  He’s an architect who wants to create structures that suit their purpose, their location, and their materials.  He only achieves that purpose by having as much primary data on all three of those things as possible.  He has skills in many of the basic construction trades that are involved in the realization of his designs – that makes him a better designer.  Similarly, the more time I spend on the front lines of our business and closer to customers, the better job I can do steering the ship

One area where I struggle a little bit to reconcile the brilliance of The Fountainhead with the practice of running a company is around collaboration.  It’s one thing to talk about artistic design being the product of one man’s creativity, and that such creativity can’t come from collaboration or compromise.  It’s another thing to talk about that in the context of work that inherently requires many people working on the same thing at the same time in a generalized way.  Someday, I hope to really understand how to apply this point not to entrepreneurship, but to the collaborative work of a larger organization.  I know firsthand and have also read that many, many entrepreneurs have cited Ayn Rand as a major influence on them over the years, so I’m happy to have other entrepreneurs comment here and let me know how they think about this particular point.

It feels a little shallow to try to apply a brilliant 700 page book to my life’s work in 1,000 words.  But if I have to pick one small point to illustrate the connection at the end, it’s this.  I realize I haven’t blogged much of late, and part of my current reboot is that I want to start back on a steady diet of blogging weekly.  Why?  I get a lot out of writing blog posts, and I do them much more for myself than for those who reads them.  That’s a small example of the virtue of selfishness at work.

Jan 282016

Ideas Matter Less Than Execution Which Matters Less Than Timing Which Matters Less Than Luck

Well, that’s a mouthful.  Let me break it down.

Ideas Matter Less Than Execution

Execution Matters Less Than Timing

Timing Matters Less Than Luck

There’s a persistent myth about entrepreneurs as heroes – the people with the brilliant ideas and Eureka moments that bring companies to life and create success.  I’ve never believed in that myth, or at least not in its universality, as I’ve always valued both ideation and execution in terms of business building.  But as I was thinking about that construct more the other day, it occurred to me that there’s actually a hierarchy of the two, and not just of the two, but of timing and luck as well.  The best businesses — the runaway successes — probably have all four of these things going, or at least three.  And in many cases, THE IDEA is the least important of the bunch.  Consider these examples:

Plaxo was launched a year or two before LinkedIn.

Friendster was launched a couple years before MySpace, which was launched before Facebook.  (You can go back even further and look at things like PlanetAll and Classmates.com).

Geocities predated blogging and Tumblr by more than a decade.

The Diamond Rio was launched three years before the first iPod.

Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Altavista, Yahoo, and lots of other search engines and web crawlers were started well before Google.  Goto.com (Overture) did paid search before Google.

The ideas were all pretty similar.  In most cases, if not all, execution won out.  In the case of the iPod vs the Rio, it’s not that the world wasn’t ready for portable music – my Sony Walkman from the early 1980s is testament to that.  It’s that the combination of iTunes and the iPod, combined with Apple’s phenomenal design and packaging — all elements of execution — won the day.

The role that timing plays is also key.  Sometimes the world isn’t ready for a great technology yet, or it may be ready, but not for sustained growth and usage.  Friendster and MySpace vs. Facebook is the best example of this.  Facebook isn’t necessarily a better service, better marketed.  Friendster and MySpace were similarly viral in adoption at the beginning.  But the world was still in the Visionary or Early Adopter stage (in the language of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm).  By the time Facebook came around, the world was ready to mass adopt a social network.  Geocities, for example, was a big financial success at the time (Yahoo acquired the business for $5B – they “only” acquired Tumblr for $1B, give or take), but then it disappeared from the scene, where Tumblr seems much more durable.

The role of luck is harder to explain, or at least harder to separate from that of timing, and there’s a good argument that luck can be at the bottom of this particular chain, not the top (as in, luck is hard to separate from ideas).  Sometimes luck means avoiding bad luck, as in the story about Southwest Airlines — a great idea with promising early execution and good timing — narrowly avoiding a major crash during its first week of operations in 1967.  Sometimes luck means being in the right place at the right time, or making an accidental discovery, as in the case of the Princeton University professor, Edward Taylor, who discovered a powerful cancer treatment a bit accidentally while studying the pigments that produce the colors on the wings of butterflies for a completely unrelated purpose.

Don’t get me wrong.  Ideas are still important.  They are the spark that starts the fire.  And ideas can be partly created by the luck of being in the right place at the right time, so maybe this whole construct is more of a virtual circle than a hierarchy.  But entrepreneurs need to remember that a spark only gets you so far.  As the old saying goes, I’d rather be lucky than good!

Nov 122015

You Have To Be All In, Until You’re Not

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that as the organization scales, you have to be all-in, until you’re not.  What the heck does that mean?

It means that, other than confiding your indecision to a very small number of trusted advisors on a given issue, indecision is poison to the people around you and to the organization in general.  So even if you’re thinking of doing something new or different or making a tough call on something, you generally need to project confidence until you’ve made the call.

One example of this is around a decision to fire someone on the team, especially a senior executive.  Public indecision about this reminds me of years ago when George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees.  Every time he contemplated firing a manager, which was often, he was very public about it.  It turned the manager into a lame duck, ignored by players and mocked by the press.  No good for the manager or for the players, unhelpful for the team as a whole.  It’s the same in business.  Again, other than a small group of trusted advisors, your people have to have your full backing until the moment you decide to remove them.

Another example of this is a shift in strategy.  Strategy drives execution – meaning the course you chart translates into the goals and activities of all the other people in your organization.  Mobilizing the troops is hard enough in the first place, and it requires a tremendous amount of leadership expressing commitment.  If you’re contemplating a shift in strategy, which of course happens a lot in dynamic businesses, and you share your thinking and qualms broadly, you risk paralyzing the organization or redirecting activities and goals without intending to or without even knowing it.

Some people might look at this concept and cry “foul – what about Transparency?”  I don’t buy that.  As I wrote recently in The Difference Between Culture and Values, “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.”

Aug 272015

The Joy of Coaching

I was the head coach of my two older kids’ little league team this past spring.  The whole thing was a little bit of an accident – I vaguely volunteered for something and ended up in charge.  The commitment was a little daunting, but I was ok with it since the season was only a couple months long, it was both Casey and Wilson, and both kids, especially Wilson, are really into baseball.  Other than helping out a bit here and there, I’d never coached a sports team before.

What started off as an unclear assignment ended up as one of the most fun and fulfilling things I’ve done in years.  I loved every minute of it, looked forward to our practices and games, was hugely bummed out when we got rained out, and never had a moment where I couldn’t make the time for it (though clearly the hours had to come from somewhere!).  Given some of the overlap between leading a sports team and leading a company, I thought I’d reflect on the experience a bit here.  There are some common themes between this post and something I wrote years ago, Parenting and Corporate Leadership, with the same caveat that no, I don’t think employees are children or children are employees.  But here are some things I take away from the experience and apply or compare to work.

We established a clear philosophy and stuck to it.  That’s a step that lots of coaches – and managers in the workplace – miss.  The other coaches and I discussed this before the first practice, agreed on it, and shared it directly with the kids.  For this age group in particular, we felt that we were there first and foremost to have fun; second to learn the game; and third, to play hard and fair.  Note there was nothing in this about winning, and that we were really specific about the order of the three objectives.  Even 7 and 8 year olds know the difference between “win at all costs” and “have fun and play ball.”  We reinforced this at every practice and at every game.  Being intentional about a philosophy and communicating it (and of course sticking to it) are key for any leadership situation.

We got lucky.  As I repeatedly said to the parents on the team, we had a group of awesome kids – happy and generally paying attention, and not one troublemaker in the bunch; and we had a group of awesome parents – responsive, supportive, and not a single complaint about what position a kid was playing or where someone was in the batting order.  I’d heard horror stories about both kids and parents from other coaches ahead of time.  It’s possible that the other coaches and I did such a good job that both kids and parents were great all the time…but I think you have to chalk most of that up to the luck of the draw.  Work isn’t all that different.  Having stakeholders who are consistently positive forces is something that sometimes you can shape (you can fire problematic employees) but often you can’t, in the case of customers or even Board members.  Luck matters.

Stakeholder alignment was a critical success factor.  Having said that, I do think the coaches and I did a good job of keeping our stakeholders aligned and focusing on their needs, not ours.  We put extra effort into a regular cadence of communication with the parents in the form of weekly emails and a current web site.  We used those emails to highlight kids’ performance and also let parents know what we’d be working on in practice that week.  We made sure that we rotated kids in the batting order so that everyone got to bad leadoff once and cleanup once.  We rotated kids so that almost every kid played half of each game in the infield and half in the outfield.  We took any and all requests from kids who wanted to play a specific position for a few innings.  Many of these basic principles – communicating well, a clear operating system, listening to stakeholders, a People First approach – are lessons learned from work as a CEO.

Proper expectations and a large dose of patience helped.  After the first couple games, we were 0-2, and I was very frustrated.  But I reminded myself that 7 and 8 year olds are just kids, and my frustration wasn’t going to help us achieve our objectives of having fun and learning the game.  So I recalibrated my expectations and took much more of a laid-back attitude.  For example, any time I saw one kid goofing off a little bit in practice, I gently got him or her back in line.  But when I saw multiple kids’ attention fading, I took it as a sign that whatever I was doing as a coach wasn’t working, called a break, and did something else.  This kind of “look in the mirror” approach is always helpful at work, too.

Reward and recognition were key.  We definitely adopted a Whale Done! approach with the kids.  We got the kids in the dugout fired up to cheer on batters.  First base coaches did big high fives, smiles, and literal pats on the back for every hit.  Post-game huddles and emails to parents focused on highlights and what went right for the kids.  One of my favorite moments of the season was when one player, who only had one hit all year and struck out almost every time at bat, had two hits, an RBI, and a run scored in our final game.  Not just the coaches, but the other kids and all the parents went absolutely BANANAS cheering for this player, and it brought huge smiles to all our faces.  I am 100% certain that the focus on the positive encouraged the kids to try their hardest all season, much as I believe that same philosophy encourages people to take risks and work hard at the office.

The biggest thing I take back to the workplace with me from the experience.  I was reminded about how powerful achieving a state of “flow,” or “relaxed concentration” is.  I recounted these principles in this blog post from a couple different books I’ve read over the years – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Tim Gallway’s Inner Game books – Golf, Tennis, and Work.  The gist of achieving a state of flow is to set clear goals that are stretch but achievable, become immersed in the activity, pay attention to what’s happening, and learn to enjoy immediate experience.  All leaders – in sports, business, or any walk of life – can benefit from this way of living and leading.

I loved every minute of coaching.  It helped that we ended up with a really strong record.  But more than that, building relationships with a bunch of great kids and great parents was fun and fulfilling and incredibly thankful and rewarding.  The “thank you ball” that all the kids autographed for me is now a cherished possession.  Working and getting extra time with my own two kids was the icing on the cake.  All I want to know is…is it time for next season yet?  I am ready!

This post is really for Coaches Mike, Paul, and Oliver; and players Emily, Casey, Lauryn, Mike, Josh, Holden, Hudson, Wilson, Drew, Kevin, Matthew, and Christian.

Oct 092014

Book Short: Way, Way Beyond Books

Book Short:  Way, Way Beyond Books

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone, was a great read.  Amazon is a fascinating, and phenomenally successful company, and Jeff is a legendary technology leader.  The Everything Store is a company and personal biography and totally delivers.

Forget about the fact that Amazon is now almost $100B in revenues and still growing like mad.  I find it even more amazing that a single company could be the largest ecommerce site on the planet while successfully pioneering both cloud computing services and e-readers.  The stories of all these things are in the book.

As a CEO, I enjoyed reading more of the vignettes behind the things that Amazon is reputationally known for in the tech world – doors as desks, their unique meeting formats, the toughness of the culture, the extensive risk taking of growth over profits, and what works and does not work about Bezos’ authoritative and domineering style.  And it’s always great to be reminded that even the biggest and best companies had to cheat death 10 times over before “arriving.”

This is good fun and learning for anyone in the business world.  It reminded me most of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs ,which I wrote about here, although it’s more of a company history and less of a biography than the Jobs book.

Filed under: Books, Entrepreneurship

Tags: ,

Sep 112014

The 2×4

The 2×4

I took a Freshman Seminar in my first semester at Princeton in 1988 with a world-renowned professor of classical literature, Bob Hollander.  My good friend and next-door neighbor Peggy was in the seminar with me.  It was a small group — maybe a dozen of us — meeting for three hours each week for a roundtable with Professor Hollander, and then writing the occasional paper.  Peggy and I both thought we were pretty smart.  We had both been high school salutatorians from good private schools and had both gotten into Princeton, right?

Then the first paper came due, and we were both a bit cavalier about it.  We wrote them in full and delivered them on time, but we probably could have taken the exercise more seriously and upped our game.  This became evident when we got our grades back.  One of us got a C-, and the other got either a D or an F.  I can’t remember exactly, and I can’t remember which was which.  All I remember is that we were both stunned and furious.  So we dropped by to see Professor Hollander during his office hours, and he said the same thing to each of us:  “Matt, sometimes you need a 2×4 between the eyes.  This paper is adequate, but I can tell it’s not your best work, it’s decent for high school but not for college, and almost all the others in the class were much more thoughtful.”

Ouch.

Ever since then, Peggy and I have talked about the 2×4, and how it helped us snap out of our own reality and into a new one with a significantly higher bar for quality.  That phrase made it into Return Path‘s lexicon years ago, and it means an equivalent thing — sometimes we have to have hard conversations with employees about performance issues.  The hardest ones are with people who think they are doing really well, when in reality they’re failing or in danger of failing.  That disconnect requires a big wakeup call — the 2×4 between the eyes — before things spiral into a performance plan or a termination.

Delivering a 2×4 between the eyes to an employee can feel horrible.  But it’s the best gift you can give that employee if you want to shake them back onto a successful trajectory.

Aug 142014

How to Manage Your Career

I gave a presentation to a few hundred Return Path employees in January at an all-hands conference we did called “How to Manager Your Career.”

The presentation has three sections — The Three Phases of a Career, How to Get Promoted, and How to Wow Your Manager.

While it’s not as good without the voiceover and interactivity, I thought I’d post it here…see the presentation on Slideshare.

As I said to my audience, if there’s one thing to take away from the topic, it’s this:

Managing your career is up to one, and only one person – you. 

It doesn’t matter how great a corporate culture you have, or how supportive your manager is.  You’re the only person who cares 100% of the time about your career, and you’re the only person with a longitudinal view of what you love, what you’re great at, where you’ve been, and where you want to go.