Feb 092017

Book Short: Why Wait?

A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter, is a solid book – not his best, but worth a read and happily short, as most business books should be.  I originally was going to hold off on writing this post until I had more time, but the subject matter alone made me think that was a mistake and that I should write it while it’s fresh in my mind.  <g>

The three tools to fight complacency are the organizing framework for the book — bring the outside in, behave with urgency every day, and turn crises into opportunities — are all good thoughts, and good reminders of basic management principles.  But there were a couple other themes worth calling out even more.

First up, the notion that there is a vicious cycle at play in that urgency begets success which creates complacency which then requires but does not beget urgency.  The theme is really that success can drive arrogance, stability, and scale that requires inward focus — not that success itself is bad, just that it requires an extra level of vigilance to make sure it doesn’t lead to complacency.  I’ve seen this cycle at different times over the years in lots of organizations, and it’s one of the reasons that if you look at the original companies on the Dow Jones Industrials index when it was expanded from 12 to 30 around 100 years ago, only one of them (GE) still exists.

Second, that busy-ness can masquerade as urgency but actually undermines urgency.  A full calendar doesn’t mean you’re behaving with urgency.  Kotter’s example of an Indian manager is great:

If you watch the Indian manager’s behavior carefully and contrast it with the hospital executive’s, you find that the former relentlessly eliminates low-priority items from his appointment diary. He eliminates clutter on the agenda of the meetings that do make it into his diary. The space that is freed up allows him to move faster. It allows him to follow up quickly on the action items that come out of meetings. The time freed up allows him to hold impromptu interactions that push along important projects faster. The open space allows him to talk more about issues he thinks are crucial, about what is happening with customers and competitors, and about the technological change affecting his business.

Finally, Kotter’s theme of “Urgent patience” is a wonderful turn of phrase.  As he says,

It means acting each day with a sense of urgency but having a realistic view of time. It means recognizing that five years may be needed to attain important and ambitious goals, and yet coming to work each day committed to finding every opportunity to make progress toward those goals.

How true is that?  It’s not just that big ships take a long time to turn…it’s that big opportunities take a long time to pursue and get right.  If they didn’t…everyone would do them!  Urgent patience is what allows you to install a bias for action in your team without causing panic and frenzy, which is never productive.

Thanks to my friend Chad Dickerson for recommending this book, a great read as part of Operation Reboot Matt.

Filed under: Books, Business, Leadership

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.

Oct 202016

You, Too, Can Take Six Weeks Off

You, Too, Can Take Six Weeks Off

Note:  I have been really quite on OnlyOnce for a few months, I realize.  It’s been a busy stretch at work and at home.  I keep a steady backlog of blog topics to write about, and finally today I’ve grabbed a couple minutes on a flight to knock one out.  We’ll see if this starts me back on a more steady diet of blogging – I miss it!

I’ve written in the past about our sabbatical policy at Return Path, from what it is (here) to how much I enjoyed my own (here), to how great it is when my direct reports have been on Sabbatical so I can walk a few miles in their shoes (here and here).

But recently, a fellow CEO asked me if there was a special set of rules or advice on taking a sabbatical as a CEO.  My quick answer to his specific question was:

Well, first, you and your co-founder can’t take them at the same time. 🙂

But I have a longer list of thoughts as well.  It’s not easy, but as I’ve said many times, it’s important and wonderful.  Some tips:

  • You have to make sure your balance sheet is strong and you’re not raising a round of financing
  • You’re best off doing it a week or two after a Board meeting (and obviously, don’t miss one)
  • You need everyone on your team to know about it and get excited for you!  They will rally/rise to the occasion more than you think
  • You have to do a total disconnect, otherwise it doesn’t count.  Literally turn off email.  But make sure the team knows they can call you if there’s a true emergency
  • Put someone in charge of keeping a running list of things that happened and be in charge of your “re-boarding”
  • Put one person clearly in charge while you’re out, or tell your senior team that they’re responsible for collectively being in charge – either can work as long as you’re clear about it
  • Be prepared to cancel or shift your plans if an emergency comes up before you leave

This last one is important.  I’ve postponed sabbaticals twice, and while it’s been a little tumultuous both at work and at home, it’s been better than going on a sabbatical and interrupting it with work, which I’ve also done.

Speaking of which…I’m coming up on my 17th anniversary, which in our book means it’s time for another one!

Filed under: Business, Leadership, Return Path

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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.

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!

Jan 072016

The Illusion and (Mis)uses of Certainty

September’s Harvard Business Review had a really thought-provoking article for me called How Certainty Transforms Persuasion.  Seth Godin wrote a blog post around the same time called The Illusion of Control.  The two together make for an interesting think about using information to shape behavior as leaders.  I’ve often been accused of delivering too many mixed messages to the company at all-hands meetings, so I enjoyed the think, though not in the way I expected to.

Let’s start with Seth’s thesis, which is easier to get through.  Essentially he says that nothing is certain, at best we can influence events, we’re never actually in control of situations…but that we think we are:

When the illusion of control collides with the reality of influence, it highlights the fable the entire illusion is based on…You’re responsible for what you do, but you don’t have authority and control over the outcome. We can hide from that, or we can embrace it.

Moving onto the much longer HBR article, the key thesis there is that certainty shapes our behavior, as the more certain we are of a belief (whether it’s correct or incorrect), the more it influences us:

In short, certainty is the catalyst that turns attitudes into action, bringing beliefs to life and imbuing them with meaning and consequence.

At first, it seems like these two positions might be at odds with each other, but there are other interesting nuggets in the HBR article as well that tie the two positions together.  First, that the packaging of information influences the certainty of the consumers of that information (for example, when a generally positive product reviews takes pains to admit the product’s deficiencies).  Second, that your own position in a given situation may influence your level of certainty (for example, when you are the most senior person in the room, as opposed to when you are the most junior person in the room).

The HBR article then goes on to talk about four ways companies can boost certainty in their employee population, since certainty is a driver of behavior:

  1. Consensus – showing your view is widely shared (or shaping your view to perceptions)
  2. Repetition – having people express their own opinions repeatedly (encourage customers, employees, etc. to express positive opinions or opinions aligned with corporate goals)
  3. Ease – how easily an idea comes to mind (making good, regular visual use of key concepts)
  4. Defense – people are more certain after defending a position (being a devil’s advocate in an argument to get employees to defend their position)

My initial reaction to reading both Seth’s post and the HBR article was that if Certainty is nothing but an illusion, and yet it’s a key driver of behavior, then using Certainty by definition a manipulative management technique.  Say something’s true enough, get people to believe it, hope it’s right.  Or worse, get people to say it themselves enough so they believe their own inner monologues, not just yours.  But then I thought about the feedback that I get — that I deliver too many mixed messages — and changed my view. Coming across as certain, even when certainty may or may not be real, isn’t any more manipulative than any other management or even sales technique.  Our job as leaders is to generate inspiration and activity in our teams, isn’t it?  Using certainty isn’t by definition disingenuous, even if it’s an illusion at times.  It’s one thing to be All In, Until You’re Not, for example, and another thing entirely to publicly support a position that you know is false.  All we can do as leaders is to do our best.

Having said that, I think using certainty as a management tool is something leaders need to do judiciously given how powerful it is, and also given its fragility.  If business results are mixed, you can’t stand up in front of a room full of people and say things are great (or terrible), even if your people are seeking a black and white answer.  However, you can (and should) communicate your certainty that the direction you choose to take your team or your company is the right one.  And you can use transparency to further bolster your position.  Share the details of HOW you reached your decision with the people on your team.  After all, if you’re not certain, or if the logic that drove your certainty is flawed, why would anyone follow you?

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.”

Sep 172015

The Playbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.