Jun 282018

Feedback Overload and Confusion – a Guide for Commenting on Employee Surveys

We run a massive employee survey every year or so called The Loop, which is powered by Culture Amp.  We are big fans of Culture Amp, as they provide not only a great survey tool but benchmarks of relevant peer companies so our results can be placed in external context as well as internal context.

The survey is anonymous and only really rolled up to large employee groups (big teams, departments, offices, etc.), and we take the results very seriously.  Every year we run it, we create an Organization Development Plan out of the results that steers a lot of the work of our Leadership team and People team for the coming year.

I just read every single comment that employees took the time to write out in addition to their checkbox or rating responses.  This year, that amounted to over 1,200 verbatim comments.  I am struggling to process all of them, for a bunch of reasons you’d expect.  Next year we may give employees some examples of comments that are hard to process so they understand what it’s like to read all of them…and we may reduce the number of places where employees can make comments so we try to get only the most important (and more detailed) comments from people to keep the volume a little more manageable.

But I thought it might be useful to give some general advice to people who write comments on anonymous surveys.  Your company may have every good intention of following up on every last comment in an employee survey (we do!), but it’s difficult to do so when:

  • The comment is not actionable.  For example, “The best thing about working at Return Path is…’I can afford to live nearby.'”  That doesn’t do much for us!
  • The comment is too vague.  For example, “I’m not the engineer I was a year ago” – we have no idea what that means.  Is it a plus or a minus?  What is behind it?
  • The comment is likely to be in conflict with other comments and doesn’t give enough detail to help resolve conflicts.  40 positive comments about the lunch program in an office and 40 negative comments about the lunch program in the same office kind of get washed out, but “Lunches are good, but please have more gluten-free options” is super helpful.
  • The comment lacks context.  When the answer to the question “What would be the one thing we could do right away to make RP a better place to work?” is “Investing in some systems,” that doesn’t give us a starting point for a next step.
  • The commenter disqualifies him or herself.  Things like “Take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt…I’m just an engineer and have no real idea of what I’m doing” that punctuate a comment are challenging to process.
  • The commenter forgets that the comments are anonymous.  “I have serious problems with my manager and often think of leaving the company” is a total bummer to hear, but there’s not a lot we can do with it.  I hope with something like this that you are also having a discussion with someone on the People team or your manager’s manager!

We’re doing everything employees would expect us to do – reading the ratings and comments, looking at trends over time, breaking them down by office and department, and creating a solid Organizational Development Plan that we’ll present publicly and follow up on…but hopefully this is useful for our company and others in the future as a guide to more actionable commenting in employee surveys.

Dec 012017

Knowing When to Ask for Help in Your Startup

I had a great networking meeting yesterday along with Tami Forman, the CEO of our non-profit affiliate Path Forward, and Joanne Wilson, my board co-chair.  It was a meeting that Joanne set up that the three of us had been talking about for over a year.  Joanne made a great comment as we were debriefing in the elevator after the meeting that is the foundation of this post.  Tami and I shaped her comment into this metaphor:

Finding wood to help start a fire is different from pouring gasoline on a fire

As an entrepreneur, you need to constantly be asking for help and networking.  Those meetings will shape your business in ways that you can never predict.  They’ll shape your thinking, add ideas to the mix, kill bad ideas, and connect you to others who can help you in your journey.

But you need to have a good sense of who to meet with, and when, along the way.  Some people, you can only meet once, unless they become core to your business, so you have to choose carefully when to fire that one bullet.  Others will meet with you regularly and are happy to see longitudinal progress.  Regardless, being clear on your ask is critical, and then backing up from that to figure out whether this is the one bullet you can fire with someone or whether it’s one ask of many will help you figure out if you should push for that networking meeting or not.

Why?

Because asking someone to help you find wood to start a fire (the early stages of your business) is different from pouring gasoline on an existing fire (once you’re up and running).  If you’re in the super early stages of your business and looking for product-market fit, you won’t want to meet with people who aren’t conceptual thinkers, who aren’t deep in your space, or who might only see you once.  Maybe they can help you brainstorm, but you’ll find better partners for that.  They might be able to provide concrete help or introductions, but you’re probably not ready for those yet.  It’s a waste of time.  You need wood to start your fire, and people like this aren’t helpful scouring the forest floor with you to find it.

However, those people can be fantastic to meet with once you have product-market fit and are deep in the revenue cycle.  You have clear demonstration of value, customer success stories, you know what works and what doesn’t and why.  You can have short, crisp asks that are easy for the person to follow-up on.  They will be willing to lend your their name and their network.  You have a fire, they have a cup of spare gasoline, and you can get them to pour that cup on your fire.

The judgment call around this isn’t easy.  Entrepreneurial zeal makes it abnormally comfortable to call on any stranger at any time and ask for help.  But developing this sense is critical to optimizing your extended network in the early years.

Oct 052017

When in Doubt, Apply a Framework (but be sure to keep them fresh!)

I’ve always been a big believer in the consistent application frameworks for business thinking and decision-making.  Frameworks are just a great starting point to spark conversation and organize thinking, especially when you’re faced with a new situation.  Last year, I read Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, and he had this great line that reminded me of the power of frameworks and that it extends far beyond business decision-making:

When you put your value set together with your analysis of how the Machine works and your understanding of how it is affecting people and culture in different contexts, you have a worldview that you can then apply to all kinds of situations to produce your opinions. Just as a data scientist needs an algorithm to cut through all the unstructured data and all the noise to see the relevant patterns, an opinion writer needs a worldview to create heat and light. 

In Startup CEO, I wrote about a bunch of different frameworks we have used over the years at Return Path, from vetting new business ideas to selecting a type of capital and investor for a capital raise.  I blogged about a new one that I learned from my dad a few months ago on delegation.  One of my favorite business authors, Geoffrey Moore, has developed more frameworks than I can count and remember about product and product-market fit.

But all frameworks can go stale over time, and they can also get bogged down and confused with pattern recognition, which has limitations.  To that end, Friedman also addressed this point:

But to keep that worldview fresh and relevant…you have to be constantly reporting and learning—more so today than ever. Anyone who falls back on tried-and-true formulae or dogmatisms in a world changing this fast is asking for trouble. Indeed, as the world becomes more interdependent and complex, it becomes more vital than ever to widen your aperture and to synthesize more perspectives.

Again, although Friedman talks about this in relation to journalism, the same can be applied to business.  Take even the most basic framework, the infamous BCG “Growth/Share Matrix” that compares Market Growth and Market Share and divides your businesses into Dogs, Cash Cows, Question Marks, and Stars.  Digital Marketing has disrupted some of the core economics of firms, so there are a number of businesses that you might previously have said were in the Dog quadrant but due to improved economics of customer acquisition can either be moved into Cash Cow or at least Question Mark.  Or maybe the 2×2 isn’t absolute any more, and it now needs to be a 2×3.

The business world is dynamic, and frameworks, ever important, need to keep pace as well.

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!

Jun 292017

Delegating Decision-Making

My dad (one of my main CEO/entrepreneur role models) and I team-teach a business school class in entrepreneurial leadership every year at USD where a friend of his is the professor.  Sometimes I go in person, usually I just do it by video.  We did this a few weeks ago, and my dad talked through a decision-making framework that I’d never heard him mention before.

I sketched it out and really like it and am already using it internally, so I thought I would share it here as well:

To walk through it, delegating decision-making to someone on your team can be as simple as understanding where a decision falls along two different spectrums.  On the vertical axis is “How familiar is the person with this type of decision?” – meaning, has the person seen and made this kind of decision before?  This could be something like firing an employee, signing a contract, negotiating a vendor agreement.  On the horizontal axis is “What are the consequences of getting the decision wrong?” – which is really self explanatory…how big a deal is this?

The primary, upper right quadrant of “The person has made this decision before, and it’s not a huge deal” is an easy one – delegate the decision-making authority.  The two middle quadrants of “big deal, but familiar with the decision” and “never seen this before, but not a big deal” are ripe for the old adage of ask forgiveness later, not permission first, meaning it’s ok to delegate decision-making authority, but hold the person accountable for letting you know about decisions like that so you can be on the lookout for potential required clean-up.

But what I love most is the way my dad framed the final quadrant (lower left here), which is “high stakes decision, never seen this situation before.”  It can be tempting for a senior manager or CEO to just take this quadrant over and remove decision-making authority from a team member.  But it’s also a perfect teaching/coaching moment.  So the rule of thumb for this quadrant is “make the decision with me, but please come to me with a proposal on it.”

And that’s why my dad is such a great business mentor!

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.

Apr 062017

What kind of team do you run? Of Generalists and Specialists…

A friend of mine just left his job as CEO of a growth stage company to become CFO of a Fortune 500 company.  That’s a big deal…and also a big change.  When I was talking to him about the move, he said the following to me:

Some executive teams are like baseball teams.  You play shortstop, and you bat 8th.  That’s just what you do.  The team needs one of those because the sport is structured that way.  The CEO of my new company likes to run his executive team as a basketball team.  Everyone has a position, but everyone also has to be capable of doing everything on the court well – shooting, blocking, rebounding, passing – and is expected to go after the ball any time it’s nearby.

It’s one thing to say that of a Fortune 200 company, because you have the luxury of doing anything you want in terms of staffing at those levels.  My friend, who is financially oriented for sure, can be CFO of a company of that size because they probably have a strong Chief Accounting Officer.  But how does that dialog apply to startups?  Should you run a baseball team?  A basketball team?  Does it matter?  Can you switch between the two?

My take is that early stage startups need to be more like basketball teams.  You just don’t have enough people to get everything done unless you all take things off each others’ plates.  And you certainly don’t want to be siloed early on in a company’s life as you’re trying to find product-market fit and get those first customers on board.  Your CTO needs to be in front of customers in sales pitches.  Your CFO needs to run customer service and other staff functions.  Everyone needs to pitch in on strategy.

As companies grow, I think they need to become more like baseball teams because larger organizations require levels of specialized knowledge that you don’t often find in startup leaders (though you certainly can, especially as the world becomes more startup-oriented) if they are to survive and scale.  You need a CFO capable of putting in place more complex systems and controls.  You need a head of Sales who knows how to manage a more disciplined pipeline and sales power-driven machine, not just someone who is a fantastic closer of big deals.

At the larger sizes (well below the Fortune 500 level), you can afford to have more of a basketball team again.  You want people with areas of specialization, but you also just want great athletes, and you can have some of the more technical expertise working at the next couple levels down.

There are two challenges this metaphor raises for scaling businesses.  The first one is making your baseball team AS MUCH LIKE A BASKETBALL TEAM AS POSSIBLE when you’re in that mode.  Why?  I love baseball more than most as a sport, but executive teams of companies at any size need strategic thinkers and interdisciplinary, cross-functional work as much as possible.

And that leads to my second challenge with the metaphor, which is that you don’t want to swap out your executive team multiple times in a rapidly scaling business if you don’t have to.  So this begs the question – can you turn a great specialist into a great generalist and vice versa?  We have gone through transitions this past few years at Return Path from a functional structure to a business unit structure and back (sort of).  My take in the end is that it’s easier to turn a specialist into a generalist than to turn a generalist into a specialist.  You can interview for this.  There are great specialists in every discipline who are capable of being generalist thinkers.  But it’s really tough to take someone without proper training and experience in some disciplines and make them a specialist.  Not impossible (although in some disciplines it actually is impossible – think about General Counsel), but difficult.

Filed under: Business, Leadership, Management

Mar 302017

Everything is Data, Part II – Get Those Expenses In

Everything is Data, Part II – Get Those Expenses In

My friend and former colleague Angela Baldonero (used to run our People Team at Return Path, now is COO of super cool startup Procurify), used to say about her job as head of HR, “Everything is Data.”  She guest blogged about that principle on OnlyOnce years ago here , and she particularly cited this theory when talking about the recruiting and hiring process.

I’ve thought about this principle a lot over the years, and I’ve occasionally come up with other examples where I think peripheral data can inform whether or not an employee will succeed, at least in my world.  I don’t know how many of these can be caught in an interview process, but that’s worth thinking about.  Here’s one for today’s post:  I’ve noticed a very high correlation over the years between poor performance and being late turning in expenses.

I know, it sounds silly.  But think about it.  Most of the work we do involves some level of being organized, being on time, prioritizing work and working efficiently, and caring about money (whether the company’s money or our own money).  Someone who can’t bother to fill out a quick expense report following a business trip is demonstrating an absence of all of those traits.  The most glaring example of it we ever had here involved a fairly senior sales executive years ago who was delinquent in his expenses to the tune of over $40,000.  That’s right, $40,000.  It was so bad that our auditors made us footnote it in our annual audit.  We begged him to turn in his expenses.  We even offered to have him send a pile of all the receipts to us and have someone in Accounting help him out.  But he was always too busy, made too many excuses for why he couldn’t get them done.  I think it ended up taking us firing him for him to actually clean them up and get paid back.  Why did we fire him?  He was ineffective in his role, unresponsive to colleagues, unable to prioritize his work, and sloppy in his deliverables.

By the way, the opposite is not true – someone who is incredibly punctual about getting expenses in is not guaranteed to be a high performer, although they are usually guaranteed to at least be organized (which for some roles may be a critical success factor).

I suppose ultimately this is just another example of Broken Windows, which I blogged about in two different places, here and here.

 

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.