Sep 212017

Book Shorts: Summer Reading

I read a ton of books.  I usually blog about business books, at least the good ones.  I almost never blog about fiction or non-business/non-fiction books, but I had a good “what did you read this summer” conversation the other night with my CEO Forum, so I thought I’d post super quick snippets about my summer reading list, none of which was business-related.

If you have kids, don’t read Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B:  Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy unless you’re prepared to cry or at least be choked up.  A lot.  It is a tough story to read, even if you already know the story.  But it does have a number of VERY good themes and thoughts about what creates resilience (spoiler alert – my favorite key to resilience is having hope) that are wonderful for personal as well as professional lives.

Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters, is a member of a genre I love – alternative historical fiction.  This book is set in contemporary America – except that its version of America never had a Civil War and therefore still has four slave states.  It’s a solid caper in its own right, but it’s a chillingly realistic portrayal of what slavery and slave states would be like today and what America would be like with them.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, is the story of Appalachia and white working class Americans as told by someone who “escaped” from there and became a marine, then a Yale-educated lawyer.  It explains a lot about the struggles of millions of Americans that are easy for so many of us to ignore or have a cartoonish view of.  It explains, indirectly, a lot about the 2016 presidential election.

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, was like a cross between Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise and Levitt & Dubner’s Freakonomics.  It’s full of interesting factoids derived from internet data.  Probably the most interesting thing about it is how even the most basic data (common search terms) are proving to be great grist for the big data mill.

P.J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen? was a lot like the rest of P.J. O’Rourke’s books, but this time his crusty sarcasm is pointed at the last election in a compilation of articles written at various points during the campaign and after.  It didn’t feel to me as funny as his older books.  But that could also be because the subject was so depressing.  The final chapter was much less funny and much more insightful, not that it provides us with a roadmap out of the mess we’re in.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Noah Harari, is a bit of a rambling history of our species.  It was a good read and lots of interesting nuggets about biology, evolution, and history, though it had a tendency to meander a bit.  It reminded me a bit of various Richard Dawkins books (I blogged a list of them and one related business topic here), so if you’re into that genre, this wouldn’t be bad to pick up…although it’s probably higher level and less scientific than Dawkins if that’s what you’re used to.

Finally, I finished up the fourth book in the massive Robert Caro quadrilogy biography of Lyndon Johnson (full series here).  I have written a couple times over the years about my long-term reading project on American presidential biographies, probably now in its 12th or 13th year.  I’m working my way forward from George Washington, and I usually read a couple on each president, as well as occasional other related books along the way.  I’ve probably read well over 100 meaty tomes as part of this journey, but none as meaty as what must have been 3000+ pages on LBJ.  The good news:  What a fascinating read.  LBJ was probably (with the possible exception of Jefferson) the most complex character to ever hold the office.  Also, I’d say that both Volumes 3 and 4 stand alone as interesting books on their own – Volume 3 as a braoder history of the Senate and Civil Rights; Volume 4 as a slice of time around Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s assumption of power.  The bad news:  I got to the end of Vol 4 and realized that there’s a Vol 5 that isn’t even published yet.

That’s it for summer reading…now back to school!

Filed under: Books, Uncategorized

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!

Jul 272017

Normal People, Doing Wonderful Things

 

All three of our kids were at sleep-away camp for the past month, which was a first for us.  A great, but weird, first!  Our time “off” was bracketed by the absolutely amazing story of Come From Away.  One of the first nights after the kids left, we saw the show on Broadway (Broadway show web site here, Wikipedia entry about the musical and story synopsis here).  Then the last night before they came home, we saw Tom Brokaw’s ~45 minute documentary, entitled Operation Yellow Ribbon, which you can get to here or below.

Come From Away is an amazing edge story to 9/11 that I’d never heard of before.  It’s hard to believe there’s a 9/11 story that is this positive, funny, and incredibly heart-warming that isn’t better known.  But thanks to the show, it is starting to be.  It’s the story of the small town Gander in Newfoundland to which a large number of US-bound flights were diverted after the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  It’s the story of how a town of 9,000 people warmly absorbed over 7,000 stranded and upset passengers for 4-5 days before North American air traffic was flowing again following the attacks.

We were both on the edge of our seats for the entire 2 hour (with no intermission) show and were incredibly choked up the whole time…and had a hard time talking for a few minutes after.  I’m sure for us, some of that is wrapped up in personal connection to 9/11, as our apartment was only 7 blocks north of the World Trade Center with a clear, 35th floor view of the site, and all that came with that.  We didn’t lose anyone close to us in the attacks, but we knew dozens of second degree people lost; I had worked in one of the smaller World Trade Center buildings for a couple years earlier in my career; our neighborhood felt a bit like a military zone for a few weeks after the attacks; and we saw and smelled the smoke emanating from the site through Christmas of that year.

After seeing the show, we researched it a bit and found out just how close to real the portrayal was.  So we watched the documentary.  I always have a great association with Brokaw’s voice as the calm voice of objective but empathic journalism.  He does such a great job of, to paraphrase him from the documentary, showing the juxtaposition of humanity at its darkest moment and its opposite.

Both the show and the documentary are worth watching, and I’m not sure the order of the two matters.  But whatever order you take them in, put both on your list, even if you weren’t a New Yorker on 9/11.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Jul 132017

The Gift of Feedback, Part V

I’ve posted a lot over the years about feedback in all forms, but in particular how much I benefit from my 360 reviews and any form of “upward” feedback.  I’ve also posted about running a 360 process for/with your Board, modeled on Bill Campbell’s formula from Intuit.

I have a lot of institutional investors in our cap table at Return Path.  I was struck this week by two emails that landed in my inbox literally adjacent to each other.  One was from one of our institutional investors, sharing guidelines and timetables for doing CEO reviews across its portfolio.  The other was from one of our other institutional investors, and it invited me to participate in a feedback process to evaluate how well our investor performs for us as a Board member and strategic advisor.  It even had the Net Promoter Score question of would I recommend this investor to another entrepreneur!

The juxtaposition gave me a minute to reflect on the fact that over the 18 years of Return Path’s life, I’ve been asked to participate in feedback processes for Board members a few times, but not often.  Then I went to the thought that all of my reviews over the years have been self-initiated as well.  Just as it can be easy for a CEO to skip his or her review even when the rest of the company is going through a review cycle, it can be easy for investors to never even think about getting a review unless they get one internally at their firms.  I suspect many CEOs are reviewed by their Board, if not formally, then informally at every quarterly Board meeting.

It’s unfortunately a rare best practice for a venture capitalist or any other institutional investor to ask for CEO feedback.  I bet the ones who ask for it are probably the best ones in the first place, even though they probably still benefit from the feedback.  But regardless, it is good to set the tone for a portfolio that feedback is a gift, in all directions.

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Jun 152017

Don’t Confuse Sucking Down with Servant Leadership

I love the concept of Servant Leadership.  From the source, the definition is:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

This is a very broad societal definition, but it’s fairly easy to apply to a more narrow corporate, or even startup environment.  Are you as a CEO oriented primarily towards your people, or towards other stakeholders like customers or shareholders?  By the way, trying to do right by all three stakeholders is NOT a problem in a world of being oriented towards one.  It’s just a philosophy around which comes first, and why.  Our People First philosophy at Return Path is fair clear that at the end of the day, all three stakeholders win IF you do right by employees, so they do the best possible work for customers, so you build a healthy and profitable and growing business.

CEOs who practice Servant Leadership aren’t necessarily focused on power dynamics, or on helping those least privileged in society (at least not as part of their job)…but they are focused on making sure that their employees most important needs are met — both in the moment, as in making sure employees are empowered and not blocked or bottlenecked, and over the long haul, as in making sure employees have opportunities to learn, grow, advance their careers, make an impact, and have the ability to live a well balanced life.

I was in a meeting a couple weeks back with another leader and a few people on his team.  He *seemed* to practice Servant Leadership the way he was speaking to his team members.  But he wasn’t, really.  He was doing something I refer to as Sucking Down.  He was telling them things they clearly wanted to hear.  He was lavishing praise on them for minor accomplishments.  He was smiling and saying yes, when what he really meant was no.  He was practicing the art of Sucking Up, only to people on his team, not to a boss.  I got a sense that something wasn’t right during the meeting, and then post meeting, he actually fessed up to me — even bragged about it — that he was being disingenuous to get what he wanted out of his people.

There’s a clear difference between Servant Leadership and Sucking Down in the long run.  The danger comes in the moment.  Just as managers need to build good detection skills to sniff out evidence of someone on their team Sucking Up, employees need to be able to understand that clear difference in their managers’ behavior as they think about how to manage their careers, and even where to work.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Jun 012017

Company of Origin

Most psychologists, and lots of executive coaches, end up talking to their clients about their “Family of Origin” as a means of more deeply understanding the origins of their clients’ motivations, fears, hopes, and dreams.  Presumably they do this in service of helping their clients gain self-awareness around those things to be more effective in their personal or professional lives.

A smattering of highly-ranked search results on the term yields snippets like these for its definition:

  • One’s family of origin—the family one grew up in, as opposed to the people one currently lives with—is the place that people typically learn to become who they are
  • From the family of origin a person learns how to communicate, process emotions, and get needs met
  • People also learn many of their values and beliefs from their families

…and these for its impact:

  • As a worker, your experiences in your family of origin are likely to impact on the way you work
  • Families always involve negative and positive dynamics, which may lead to members gaining strengths and abilities or experiencing difficulties
  • Differentiation from family is a significant concept. Well-differentiated people function better
  • Greater awareness of the impact of your family of origin on you will benefit your work

I’m no shrink, nor am I an executive coach, but this makes sense to me, and I’ve seen it in action many times in both my personal and professional life.

The concept I want to introduce today is a related and in some ways parallel one, and one that I think may be equally if not more important to how someone behaves professionally.  That concept is the Company of Origin.  I’ll define one’s Company of Origin is the first place or places one has meaningful work experience.  For most working professionals, that is probably the first full-time job we held for at least a couple of years after college or graduate school.  For others, it may be a couple of long-held part-time jobs during school.  There are probably other cases, but hopefully you get the point.  A couple of my trusted colleagues in the HR/OD profession suggested that this could also be labeled Profession of Origin or Manager of Origin or “When I came into my own as a professional.”  I think the same concepts apply.

Going back to the definition above of Family of Origin and modifying it (only slightly) to define Company of Origin would look something like this:

  • One’s Company of Origin – the first place or places one has a meaningful work experience, as opposed to the place one currently works – is the place that people typically learn to become who they are professionally
  • From one’s Company of Origin, a person learns how to communicate at work, how to experience success and failure, what accountability means, what reward and recognition mean, what good and bad management and leadership look like, etc. etc.
  • People also learn many of their professionals values and beliefs from their Companies of Origin

I know this rings true for me in my own life.  My first job as a management consultant still has a profound influence over my work today.  My first few jobs before I started Return Path all had a profound influence over how I decided to set a culture and make decisions (and still do, though a bit less with each passing year).  Some of those influences were positive – “let’s do more of that!” – and some were negative – “if I ever become the boss, I’ll never…” – but you’d expect that from a Company of Origin, just as you would a Family of Origin.

It also rings true for countless other people I’ve worked with over the years.  Think about people you’ve worked with.  Have you ever said or thought anything like this before?

  • Bob used to work at GE.  That’s why he has such strong leadership skills
  • Why is Jane so concerned with expenses?  Her first job was at a family-run business where every dollar spent was a dollar out of the CEO’s pocket
  • Wow is Harry political at work.  I guess it’s because he used to work at XYZ Corp where people stab each other in the back to get promoted
  • Oh, Sally is ex-military.  That’s why she’s so hierarchical
  • Doesn’t Doug understand that part of being an employee here is doing XYZ?  That’s not how he was conditioned to think at work when he worked at PDQ Corp.  He’s just hard wired that way
  • Frank just loves standing up in front of a room and drawing things on a whiteboard.  I guess that’s because he started his career as a teacher

Of course, unlike a Family of Origin, you don’t have to live in some way with your Company of Origin forever, and unlike family configurations, where the average person will have a few in a lifetime, the average person will have many places of work.  All of those workplaces will shape one’s behaviors in the workplace.  But there’s something about the Company of Origin that sticks with professionals more than other workplaces.

Again, going back to those “impact” comments about Family of Origin and modifying them only slightly for Company of Origin, you get this:

  • As a worker, your experiences in your Company of Origin are likely to impact on the way you work
  • Companies always involve negative and positive dynamics, which may lead to employees gaining different strengths and abilities or experiencing difficulties or experiencing the workplace differently
  • Differentiation from Company of Origin is a significant concept. Well-differentiated people function better as they move from job to job
  • Greater awareness of the impact of your Company of Origin on you will benefit your work

As I wrote several years ago, People Should Come with an Instruction Manual.  Understanding your potential employees’ and actual employees’ Companies of Origin would go a LONG way towards fleshing out their strengths, weaknesses, likely behaviors, likely fits with your culture and organization, and on and on.  Whether during the interview process for candidates or the development planning/360 process for employees, I hope this concept is something useful to consider.

Filed under: Uncategorized

May 042017

Why Our Executive Team Does Daily Standup Meetings

Another CEO with whom I trade notes on the craft of running a company asked me this question the other day, and I thought the answer would make a for a good blog post.  Any product team (or other kind of team) who has Agile practices, does some kind of a Daily Standup (DSU) meeting in which each team member reviews progress against goals for a given period and highlights issues where he or she is blocked and needs help.  I wrote about Return Path‘s journey to implement Agile across the whole company last year here.

My meeting routines have been shaped over the years but the current versions are largely influenced by Lencioni’s Death by Meeting, which is worth a read. My blog post isn’t all that helpful about this specific subject, but it’s here.  Anyway…here’s what I wrote to my friend:

I love our DSU. We do it at 11 eastern because we have people in Colorado and California on it. We just make the time. We block 15 minutes, but most people block the full :30 and sometimes a small sub group will need to stay late to cover something in more depth (we call that the after-party or the 16th minute). If I had everyone in the same time zone, I would do it at 8:30 or 9:00. 

We usually just “run the calendar” at the DSU. What’s everyone doing today, anything notable from yesterday, anything people need broader quick hit updates on, especially things that are cross-team. It’s great daily connectivity. We have tried to run the exec team like a true agile team in the past with cards and demos, etc., but that didn’t really work other than the occasional time when all of us were working on something together (e.g. Annual budgeting and planning), since a lot of our work as leaders is down, not across. 

We do the meeting Tuesday through Friday. We probably cancel 1 a week on average if too many people have to miss it. People know it’s a priority and not to schedule over it unless unavoidable, but sometimes travel, client conflicts, etc. invade. 

Mondays we still do our Weekly Tactical for an hour. I have a whole standing agenda format for that (as well as our Monthly Strategies for 2-3 hours and Quarterly Offsites for a couple days). I find that the Weekly Tactical actually goes much better with the four DSUs because we don’t have to spend time checking in on the basics…so we are much more effective in using that time on bigger items like sales forecast and recruiting review, progress against major initiatives and OKRs, having other people come in and present things to us, etc. 

Filed under: Uncategorized

Mar 022017

Stamina

Stamina

A couple years ago I had breakfast with Nick Mehta, my friend who runs the incredibly exciting Gainsight.  I think at the time I had been running Return Path for 15 years, and he was probably 5 years into his journey.  He said he wanted to run his company forever, and he asked me how I had developed the stamina to keep running Return Path as long as I had.  My off the cuff answer had three points, although writing them down afterwards yielded a couple more.  For entrepreneurs who love what they do, love running and building companies for the long haul, this is an important topic.  CEOs have to change their thinking as their businesses scale, or they will self implode!  What are five things you need to get comfortable with as your business scales in order to be in it for the long haul?

Get more comfortable with not every employee being a rock star.  When you have 5, 10, or even 100 employees, you need everyone to be firing on all cylinders at all times.  More than that, you want to hire “rock stars,” people you can see growing rapidly with their jobs.  As organizations get larger, though, not only is it impossible to staff them that way, it’s not desirable either.  One of the most influential books I’ve read on hiring over the years, Topgrading (review, buy), talks about only hiring A players, but hiring three kinds of A players:  people who are excellent at the job you’re hiring them for and may never grow into a new role; people who are excellent at the job you’re hiring them for and who are likely promotable over time; and people who are excellent at the job you’re hiring them for and are executive material.  Startup CEOs tend to focus on the third kind of hire for everyone.  Scaling CEOs recognize that you need a balance of all three once you stop growing 100% year over year, or even 50%.

Get more comfortable with people quitting.  This has been a tough one for me over the years, although I developed it out of necessity first (there’s only so much you can take personally!), with a philosophy to follow.  I used to take every single employee departure personally.  You are leaving MY company?  What’s wrong with you?  What’s wrong with me or the company?  Can I make a diving catch to save you from leaving?  The reality here about why people leave companies may be 10% about how competitive the war for talent has gotten in technology.  But it’s also 40% from each of two other factors.  First, it’s 40% that, as your organization grows and scales, it may not be the right environment for any given employee any more. Our first employee resigned because we had “gotten too big” when we had about 25 employees.  That happens a bit more these days!  But different people find a sweet spot in different sizes of company.  Second, it’s 40% that sometimes the right next step for someone to take in their career isn’t on offer at your company.  You may not have the right job for the person’s career trajectory if it’s already filled, with the incumbent unlikely to leave.  You may not have the right job for the person’s career trajectory at all if it’s highly specialized.  Or for employees earlier in their careers, it may just be valuable for them to work at another company so they can see the differences between two different types of workplace.

Get more comfortable with a whole bunch of entry level, younger employees who may be great people but won’t necessarily be your friends.  I started Return Path in my late 20s, and I was right at our average age.  It felt like everyone in the company was a peer in that sense, and that I could be friends with all of them.  Now I’m in my (still) mid-40s and am well beyond our average age, despite my high level of energy and of course my youthful appearance.  There was a time several years ago where I’d say things to myself or to someone on my team like “how come no one wants to hang out with me after work any more,” or “wow do I feel out of place at this happy hour – it’s really loud here.”  That’s all ok and normal.  Participate in office social events whenever you want to and as much as you can, but don’t expect to be the last man or woman standing at the end of the evening, and don’t expect that everyone in the room will want to have a drink with you.  No matter how approachable and informal you are, you’re still the CEO, and that office and title are bound to intimidate some people.

Get more comfortable with shifts in culture and differentiate them in your mind from shifts in values.  I wrote a lot about this a couple years ago in The Difference Between Culture and Values . To paraphrase from that post, an organization’s values shouldn’t change over time, but its culture – the expression of those values – necessarily changes with the passage of time and the growth of the company.  The most clear example I can come up with is about the value of transparency and the use case of firing someone.  When you have 10 employees, you can probably just explain to everyone why you fired Joe.  When you have 100 employees, it’s not a great idea to tell everyone why you fired Joe, although you might be ok if everyone finds out.  When you have 1,000 employees, telling everyone why you fired Joe invites a lawsuit from Joe and an expensive settlement on your part, although it’s probably ok and important if Joe’s team or key stakeholders comes to understand what happened.  Does that evolution mean you aren’t being true to your value of transparency?  No.  It just means that WHERE and HOW you are transparent needs to evolve as the company evolves.

  • Get more comfortable with process.  This doesn’t mean you have to turn your nimble startup into a bureaucracy.  But a certain amount of process (more over time as the company scales) is a critical enabler of larger groups of people not only getting things done but getting the right things done, and it’s a critical enabler of the company’s financial health.  At some point, you and your CFO can’t go into a room for a day and do the annual budget by yourselves any more.  But you also can’t let each executive set a budget and just add them together.  At some point, you can’t approve every hire yourself.  But you also can’t let people hire whoever they want, and you can’t let some other single person approve all new hires either, since no one really has the cross-company view that you and maybe a couple of other senior executives has.  At some point, the expense policy of “use your best judgment and spend the company’s money as if it was your own” has to fit inside department T&E budgets, or it’s possible that everyone’s individual best judgments won’t be globally optimal and will cause you to miss your numbers.  Allow process to develop organically.  Be appropriately skeptical of things that smell like bureaucracy and challenge them, but don’t disallow them categorically.  Hire people who understand more sophisticated business process, but don’t let them run amok and make sure they are thoughtful about how and where they introduce process to the organization.

I bet there are 50 things that should be on this list, not 5.  Any others out there to share?

Filed under: Uncategorized

Jan 192017

Reboot – Founders’ Dinner

Brad wrote a fun post a couple years ago about rituals, including one about The Annual Dinner that he and Amy, Fred and Joanne Wilson, and Mariquita and I have been having not quite annually for almost 15 years now.  His most poignant comment (other than that apparently he and I are both getting larger and greyer in sync with each other) is about the power of marking the passage of time together with the same group of people.  We have a similar tradition at Return Path that’s worth noting in the context of my reboot program since it happened a few weeks ago and was part of the reboot cycle.

On the first anniversary of Return Path’s founding, I took my co-founder Jack Sinclair and our first two colleagues, Matt Spielman and Alexis Katzowitz, our to lunch where we shared lessons learned from the past year at the company and predictions for the company in the coming year with each other.  Jack, George Bilbrey, and I continued doing an end-of-year meal tradition with those two conversation topics for over a decade.  The last three years, since Jack left to join Stack Overflow, George and I have continued the tradition on our own.  Although some of our conversation every year isn’t really for public consumption, I’ve always regretted not blogging some highlights of it.  The tradition is a very powerful one of reflection and retrospective, which is deeply ingrained in Return Path’s culture, as a means of continuous improvement through renewal and refreshing.

Last month, we came up with a few good lessons learned that are featuring in my reboot.  Here they are:

  • Growth covers up a lot of weaknesses.  While we still have a healthy growth rate as a company, it’s lower than is used to be – as is the case for all companies as they grow and face the law of large numbers.  What’s interesting, though, is how many weaknesses growth can cover up that start getting exposed as growth slows.  Think of it as an analogy to Technical Debt, call it Organizational Debt.  It’s the accumulation of small decisions over time to take an expedient path on a particular item.  It’s the “oh, we’ll throw a body at the problem now and automate the solution later” type thing that never gets automated, then gets compounded when the hired body needs to be replicated, then managed, then turned into a department.  You get the idea.
  • Executive playbooks must be applied flexibly.  As is true of many growing companies, we’ve hired a number of outside senior executives over the last few years.  Some have worked out and others haven’t.  One thing we’ve learned, though, is that there’s a bit of a myth sometimes around the “I have the playbook” claim, the same way there’s a myth around hiring sales people who claim “I have a Rolodex” (or whatever the current version of that is).  Every company is unique, even in the same space.  Every situation is unique.  What makes an executive great is the ability to take learnings and experiences from prior roles and companies, both good and bad, and apply them thoughtfully to new situations, not the ability to run the same play over and over again in exactly the same way.  Sure, there are core business processes or systems that can be applied consistently, but most of those don’t require senior executive expertise.
  • Know the job your customer is hiring you to do and what the alternatives are.  This is contemporary product management language, but it really rings true.  No matter who you are, no matter what job you do, you have a customer.  That customer is paying you something for a reason.  That money could go somewhere else.  Keeping that reason top of mind (and understanding when and why and how it shifts) is critical to developing the right solutions.

George, thanks for a decade and a half of reflections together (among other things!).

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Mar 032016

Agile Everywhere

I’ve written a bunch on this blog and in Startup CEO, about Agile Development and the Lean Canvas and Lean Startups in general (see a really old post on Agile Development from 10 years ago when we first adopted it here, and one on Agile Marketing here).  The basic premise of all of this is that there is an old way to build software products and businesses, and a new lighter way loosely based on Toyota’s lean manufacturing principles.  The old way is HEAVY — you spec out a product and build it and hope you got it right; you write a big business plan and start raising money and executing on it and hope your assumptions are correct.  The new way is LIGHTER — you co-create product with customers and develop a Minimum Viable Product so that by the time it’s ready to sell, some customers are already buying it; you create a business plan that is all about systematically testing the underlying assumptions first, then raising money and charging forward after you know what you’re dealing with.

As readers of this blog know, Return Path is a software/services company that cares about building a robust business, and we also have a lot of passion around building our organization and culture.  We’ve always been fairly progressive with our People practices and programs, and we’re also always trying to innovate to make those things more impactful, easier, and more fun.  And that brings us to the subject of this post.

Over the last 2 years, we have been working to make teams more effective (creatively, we called this work “Effective Teams”); we loosely used Patrick Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team as the framing for the work we do with teams.  We ensure they develop strong, trusting relationships, have the skills and courage to have healthy conflict, which means they can commit to the decisions they make; they then hold each other accountable and ultimately get better results.   In addition to regular team development activities, our teams now give each other regular feedback including team-based peer-to-peer feedback through a facilitated quarterly session.   We saw improvements in team development which were verified by an increase of 13% of positive results in team effectiveness surveys.

We are now working to ensure that teams are working in a more agile way, and that their stakeholders are involved in the creation and evaluation of team goals.   Through our “Agile Everywhere” initiative, our Effective Teams work is expanding to help teams develop more agile operating systems.  By June 30, teams will be using some of the agile methodologies to:

break work down into smaller pieces

check in frequently on progress

share feedback among team members and stakeholders

tune practices based on feedback

report results publicly and

establish a predictable operating system.

As with most of our People practices, we modeled this on the Executive Committee, and we’ve instituted  things like Daily Stand-ups and Trello Boards for a pretty disparate set of teams.  We’ve found some practices useful, and we’ve adapted some practices to meet our needs.  We are now in process of piloting these practices with 15 teams throughout the company.  Stay tuned!

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