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.

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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 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!

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.

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Jun 122017

Why You Won’t See Us Trash Talk Our Competition

We’ve been in business at Return Path for almost 18 years now.  We’ve seen a number of competitors come and go across a bunch of different related businesses that we’ve been in.  One of the things I’ve noticed and never quite understood is that many of our competitors expend a lot of time and energy publicly trash talking us in the market.  Sometimes this takes the form of calling us or our products out by name in a presentation at a conference; other times it takes the form of a blog post; other times it’s just in sales calls.  It’s weird.  You don’t see that all that often in other industries, even when people take aim at market leaders.

During the normal course of business, one of sales reps might engage in selling against specific competitors — often times, they have to when asked specific questions by specific prospects — but one thing you’ll never see us do is publicly trash talk a single competitor by name as a company.  I’m sure there are a couple people at Return Path who would like us to have “sharper elbows” when it comes to this, but it’s just not who we are.  Our culture is definitely one that values kindness and a softer approach.  But good business sense also tells me that it’s just not smart for four reasons:

  • We’re very focused and disciplined in our outbound communications — and there’s only so much air time you get as a company in your industry, even among your customers — on thought leadership, on showcasing the value of our data and our solutions, and on doing anything we can do to make our customers more successful.  Pieces like my colleague Dennis Dayman’s recent blog post on the evolution of the data-driven economy, or my colleague Guy Hanson’s amazingly accurate prediction of the UK’s “unpredictable” election results both represent the kind of writing that we think is productive to promote our company
  • We’re fiercely protective of our brand (both our employer brand and our market-facing brand), and we’ve built a brand based on trust, reputation, longevity, and being helpful, in a business that depends on reputation and trust as its lifeblood — as I think about all the data we handle for clients and strategic partners, and all the trust mailbox providers place in us around our Certification program.  Clients and partners will only place trust in — and will ultimately only associate themselves with — good people.  To quote my long time friend and Board member Fred Wilson (who himself is quoting a long time friend and former colleague Bliss McCrum), if you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas.  If we suddenly turned into the kind of company that talked trash about competition, I bet we’d find that we had diminished our brand and our reputation among the people who matter most to us.  Our simple messaging and positioning showcases our people, our expertise, and our detailed knowledge of how email marketing works, with a collective 2,000 years of industry experience across our team
  • Trash talking your competition can unwittingly expose your own weaknesses.  Think about Donald Trump’s memorable line from one of the debates against Hillary Clinton – “I’m not the puppet, you’re the puppet” – when talking about Russia.  That hasn’t turned out so well for him.  It’s actually a routine tactic of Trump, beyond that one example.  Accuse someone else of something to focus attention away from your own issues or weaknesses.  Don’t like the fact that your inauguration crowd was demonstrably smaller than your predecessor’s?  Just lie about it, and accuse the media of creating Fake News while you’re at it.  Disappointed that you lost the popular vote?  Accuse the other side of harvesting millions of illegal votes, even though it doesn’t matter since you won the electoral college!  Think about all these examples, regardless of your politics.  All of them draw attention to Trump’s weaknesses, even as he’s lashing out at others (and even if you think he’s right).  We don’t need to lash out at others because we have so much confidence in our company, our products, and our services.  We are an innovative, happy, stable, profitable, and growing vendor in our space, and that’s where our attention goes
  • Publicly trash talking your competition just gives your competition extra air time.  As PT Barnum famously said, “You can say anything you want about me, just make sure you spell my name right!”

Don’t get me wrong.  Competition is healthy.  It makes businesses stronger and can serve as a good focal point for them to rally.  It can even be healthy sometimes to demonize a competitor *internally* to serve as that rallying cry.  But I am not a fan of doing that *externally.*  I think it makes you look weak and just gives your competitor free advertising.

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.

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May 182017

Being a CEO is Like Playing a Game of Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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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.