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?

 

Aug 312017

Agile Everywhere, Part II

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the Agile methodology on this blog. For those of you who are regular readers, you may remember a post I wrote about our Agile Everywhere initiative— where all Return Path teams were tasked with implementing agile practices. A little over a year later, I want to update you on our agile journey–where we are now and how we got there.  My colleague Cathy Hawley (our head of People) will write a more detailed series of guest posts  for those of you who want to get more details of our transformation process.

Before we started our Agile Everywhere initiative, only our product and engineering teams were using agile. The rest of the organization (a few hundred people!) weren’t at all familiar with agile practices. Despite this, there were a few things that helped accelerate our transformation:

  1. Strong executive buy-in
  2. A clear vision
  3. Agile-friendly company culture and values
  4. A passionate project team
  5. Resident agile experts

These 5 initial ingredients proved to be essential and enabled us to hit the ground running in Q1 2016. We started out by experimenting with non-technical pilot teams from all different offices, functions, and levels. After a couple months of experimentation, early qualitative results from pilot team members suggested that implementing agile principles was enhancing team communication and productivity. So we embarked on our next step, implementing agile practices across all non-technical teams at Return Path.

We are now 18 months into our transformation and the data shows us that the transformation is helping with our productivity:  we track a  metric that is comprised of many different measures of business performance that fall into 3 main themes–operating efficiency, planning effectiveness, and business success. So far we have already seen a 51% increase in the metric from Q4 2015 (before our Agile Everywhere initiative) to Q1 2017. We are emboldened by these promising results, but still have a lot of work to do to ensure that all teams at RP are taking full advantage of agile and reaping its benefits. Keep an eye out for Cathy Hawley’s posts for more information about our agile adventure, soon to be published the RP blog.

When the series is over, I’ll publish a summary with all the specific post links here as well.

Aug 102017

The Value and Limitations of Pattern Recognition

My father-in-law, who is a doctor by training but now a health care executive, was recently talking about an unusual medical condition that someone in the family was fighting.  He had a wonderful expression he said docs use from time to time:

When you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses. But you never know when it might be a zebra.

With experience (and presumably some mental wiring) comes the ability to recognize patterns.  It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen, no matter how smart you are, without the passage of time and seeing different scenarios play out in the wild.  It’s one of the big things that I’ve found that VC investors as Board members, and independent directors, bring to the Board room.  Good CEOs and senior executives will bring it to their jobs.  Good lawyers, doctors, and accountants will bring it to their professions.  If X, Y, and Z, then I am fairly certain of P, D, and Q.  Good pattern recognition allows you to make better decisions, short circuit lengthy processes, avoid mistakes, and much better understand risks.  The value of it is literally priceless.  Good pattern recognition in our business has accelerated all kinds of operational things and sparked game changing strategic thinking; it has also saved us over the years from making bad hires, making bad acquisitions, and executing poorly on everything from system implementations to process design.  Lack of pattern recognition has also cost us on a few things as well, where something seemed like a good idea but turned out not to be – but it was something no one around the Board table had any specific experience with.

But there’s a limitation, and even a downside to good pattern recognition as well.  And that is simple – pattern recognition of things in the past is not a guarantee that those same things will be true in the future.  Just because a big client’s legal or procurement team is negotiating something just like they did last time around doesn’t mean they want the same outcome this time around.  Just because you acquired a company in a new location and couldn’t manage the team remotely doesn’t mean you won’t be able to be successful doing that with another company.

The area where I worry the most about pattern recognition producing flawed results is in the area of hiring.  Unconscious bias is hard to fight, and stripping out markers that trigger unconscious bias is something everyone should try to do when interviewing/hiring – our People team is very focused on this and does a great job steering all of us around it.  But if you’re good at pattern recognition, it can cause a level of confidence that can trigger unconscious biases.  “The last person I hired out of XYZ company was terrible, so I’m inclined not to hire the next person who worked there.”  “Every time we promote someone from front-line sales into sales management, it doesn’t work out.”  You get the idea.

Because when you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses.  But you never know when it might be a zebra!

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.

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.

Apr 072016

Managing Up

(The following post was written by one of Return Path’s long-time senior managers, Chris Borgia, who runs one of our data science teams and has run other support organizations in the past, both at Return Path and at AOL.  I don’t usually run guest posts, but I loved the topic with Chris suggested it, and it’s a topic that I’d only have a limited perspective on!)

Managing Up in a Growing, Global Workplace

For many years, I thought “managing up” was a cheap way of getting ahead. I thought someone who managed up was skilled at deceiving their boss into thinking they were more accomplished than they really were.

I have since learned that managing up, or managing your boss, is not devious, but is actually a valuable discipline. When you learn to manage up successfully, you empower your boss to better represent your interests to influencers in the organization.

If you are a manager, you should realize that in addition to managing your boss, you can help your employees effectively manage you. When our employees help us to be successful, we are further enabled to invest in their success. This symbiosis is seen in any relationship – the more you help the other person, the more they will be able to – and want to – help you. If you are a manager, it’s important to realize that your employees should be managing up, and you can encourage them to do so by being vulnerable, admitting ignorance, and asking for support.

There are many books and articles on managing up or managing one’s boss. The essentials are fairly consistent:

  • Understand your boss’s goals, priorities, and needs
  • Know your boss’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Set mutual expectations to build trust
  • Communicate and keep your boss informed

You’ll need to be intentional about the essentials no matter where you work, but there are additional challenges of managing up in a growing, global workplace like Return Path. In a growing company, you’re likely to work for a boss who is new to their role, the company or the industry. In a global company, you may report to a boss who works in another office, or even in another country. The fundamental aspects of managing up are the same, but these situations can require a tailored approach.

When your boss is new to their role, the company, or the industry

In a growing company, you’re likely to report to someone who is new to their role in the company, new to the company itself, or even new to the industry. You can be invaluable to your boss in closing the knowledge gap and enabling them to make the best decisions for you and your team.

  • Process Help your boss understand how the department operates. How are goals and priorities determined? How do people communicate? What does the team expect from the boss?
  • People If your boss doesn’t know the people, they may lack the appropriate empathy in a given situation. Help them understand your team’s needs and how their decisions impact the people.
  • Decision Making Your boss will likely need additional data to help them make decisions. Providing your boss with this data up front, saving them from admitting ignorance, will go a long way to developing a strong relationship.
  • Context Sometimes your boss won’t know what they don’t know, so providing your boss the context around issues, decisions, and goals will enable them to make the best decisions for your team.

When your boss works in another office or country

In a global workplace, it’s likely that at some point you will have a boss who works in another office or even in another country. Having a remote boss offers many opportunities for managing up.

  • Visibility Your boss doesn’t see you – or possibly others on the team – every day, so you might want to communicate more about the day-to-day operations of the team. At times, it will feel like you are sharing minutia, but it’s likely your boss will find this valuable in developing a complete understanding of what is going on.
  • Insight If you work in a core office, you have a tremendous opportunity to be your boss’s eyes and ears.  What are you seeing or hearing locally that might change your boss’s plans or perspective? What are people worried about? Are there any rumors your boss should be aware of?
  • Culture If your boss is in a different country, you will need to develop a relationship that considers any cultural differences. Cultural differences are seen in office attire, working hours, email habits, vacation schedules, and more. Bosses in some cultures may expect more deference, while in others they may expect more direct honesty. Understanding your boss’s culture, and helping her understand yours, will develop mutual respect and expectations to make each other successful.

Your relationship with your boss is a symbiotic one. Your boss can’t be successful unless you are, so they are your champion.  Learning to effectively manage up, especially in a growing, global workplace, is not nefarious business. Your boss will represent and support you to the best of their abilities. The more you enable your boss, the better they can support you, and everybody wins.

Oct 082015

The Problem with Titles

The Problem with Titles

This will no doubt be a controversial post, and it’s more of a rant than I usually write. I’ll also admit up front that I always try to present solutions alongside problems…but this is one problem that doesn’t have an obvious and practical solution.  I hate titles. My old boss from years ago at MovieFone used to say that nothing good could come from either Titles or Org Charts – both were “the gift that keeps on giving…and not in a good way.”

I hate titles because they are impossible to get right and frequently cause trouble inside a company. Here are some of the typical problems caused by titles:

  • External-facing people may benefit from a Big Title when dealing with clients or the outside world in general. I was struck at MovieFone that people at Hollywood studios had titles like Chairman of Marketing (really?), but that creates inequity inside a company or rampant title inflation
  • Different managers and different departments, and quite frankly, different professions, can have different standards and scales for titles that are hard to reconcile.  Is a Controller a VP or a Senior Director?  And does it really matter?
  • Some employees care about titles more than others and either ask or demand title changes that others don’t care about.  Titles are easy (free) to give, so organizations frequently hand out big titles that create internal strife or envy or lead to title inflation
  • Titles don’t always align with comp, especially across departments. Would you rather be a director making $X, or a senior manager making $X+10?
  • Merger integrations often focus on titles as a way of placating people or sending a signal to “the other side” — but the title lasts forever, where the need that a big title is fulfilling is more likely short term
  • Internal equity of titles but an external mismatch can cause a lot of heartache both in hiring and in noting who is in a management role
  • Promotions as a concept associated with titles are challenging.  Promotions should be about responsibility, ownership and commensurate compensation.  Titles are inappropriately used as a promotion indicator because it inherently makes other people feel like they have been demoted when keeping the same title
  • Why do heads of finance carry a C-level title but heads of sales usually carry an EVP or SVP title, with usually more people and at least equal responsibility?  And does it sound silly when everyone senior has a C level title?  What about C-levels who don’t report to the CEO or aren’t even on the executive team?
  • Ever try to recalibrate titles, or move even a single title, downward?  Good luck

What good comes from titles?  People who have external-facing roles can get a boost from a big title. Titles may be helpful to people when they go look for a new job, and while you can argue that it’s not your organization’s job to help your people find their next job, you also have to acknowledge that your company isn’t the only company in the world.

Titles are also about role clarity and who does what and what you can expect from someone in a department.  You can do that with a job description and certainly within an organization, it is easy to learn these things through course of business after you join.  But especially when an organization gets big, it can serve more of a purpose.  I suppose titles also signal how senior a person is in an organization, as do org charts, but those feel more like useful tools for new employees to understand a company’s structure or roles than something that all employees need every day.

Could the world function without titles?  Or could a single organization do well without titles, in a world where everyone else has titles? There are some companies that don’t have titles. One, Morning Star, was profiled in a Harvard Business Review article, and I’ve spoken to the people there a bit. They acknowledge that lack of titles makes it a little hard to hire in from the outside, but that they train the recruiters they work with how to do without titles – noting that comp ranges for new positions, as well as really solid job descriptions, help.

All thoughts are welcome on this topic.  I’m not sure there’s a good answer.  And for Return Pathers reading this, it’s just a think piece, not a trial balloon or proposal, and it wasn’t prompted by any single act or person, just an accumulation of thoughts over the years.

Filed under: Human Resources, Management

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Aug 192015

ReturnShip Program, Part III

I’ve written a couple times this past year about our ReturnShip program, which is a 4-month paid internship program designed for women who have been out of the workforce for more than 3 year to re-enter and  build credible and relevant experience, and to expand the talent pool for our organization.  I wrote about the initial concept when we launched v2 of the program, and then again when v2 concluded with the hiring of four of the six participants.

I’m immensely proud of our organization for inventing the program (Andy Sautins, our CTO, gets credit) and for managing it so well during the last cycle (Cathy Hawley, our VP People, and Miranda Reeves, VP Solution Management, get lead credit, but lots of other people had a hand in its success).

Yesterday, we officially launched v3 of the program and are very excited about how it is scaling.  The launch was coincident with a visit to our office by Congressman Jared Polis, who represents our district in Colorado, as part of his Startup Day Across America visit to the district, which was exciting for us.

v3 of the program is poised to take the concept to the next level.  We will have almost 40 Returnees in the program – but we’ve taken the program beyond Return Path and beyond our Colorado office.  We are going to place Returnees in five locations – Broomfield, Colorado, New York City, Austin, Indianapolis, and London – and we recruited five like-minded partner companies to join the program as well.  SendGrid, ReadyTalk, MWH Global, and SpotXchange will participate in the program in the Denver area, and Seattle-based Moz will participate as well.  We are still going to administer the program out of Return Path, with Andy and Cathy being joined by Katie Green from our People team as well as Laura Harrison, one of our v2 Returnees, as program manager (among others).

We are starting the recruiting cycle now for the program, which starts mid-October.  While we are getting a centralized web site up and running, in the meantime, you can see the available openings on the respective company web sites:

Here are a couple pictures from our time with Congressman Polis yesterday – one of him and Laura Harrison, Karen Brockwell, and Lisa Stephens (three of our v2 Returnees), and one of me along with representatives of the other participating companies.

ReturnShip with Jared Polis ReturnShip with partner companies

 

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.)

Apr 292015

ReturnShip Program, Part II

Today marks the graduation for the six women who participated in our inaugural ReturnShip program, which I wrote about here and which was written up at least twice, in Harvard Business Review and in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The ReturnShip was a 14-week paid internship program designed for women who have been out of the workforce for more than 1 year to re-enter and  build credible and relevant experience, and to feed our funnel of prospective employees.

While there are still a couple things in the air, my guess is that at least three, and as many as five, of the program’s six participants, will continue their work at Return Path, either full time, part time, or as a contractor.  For many people who are returning to the workforce but still have full-time jobs at home, flexibility is the key.

The program was a huge success for us as a company, for the teams who worked with our six returnees, and I believe for the returnees as well.  We are already in the planning stages of the next wave of the program, potentially as early as this fall, where we’d like to expand the scope of the program in terms of departments covered, number of returnees, and geographies.  We learned a huge amount about, well, lots of things, from the last 14 weeks, and we’ll apply those learnings to the next wave.

I hope this work inspires other companies to do something similar, and we’d be happy to inspire anyone who wants to talk about it with us.  Most of all, I want to thank our six returnees, the managers who worked with them, and our People Team for being part of a bold and successful experiment.