Nov 012012

Job 1

Job 1

The first “new” post in my series of posts about Return Path’s 14 Core Values is, fittingly,

Job 1:  We are all responsible for championing and extending our unique culture as a competitive advantage.

The single most frequently asked question I have gotten internally over the last few years since we grew quickly from 100 employees to 350 has been some variant of “Are you worried about our ability to scale our culture as we hire in so many new people?”  This value is the answer to that question, though the short answer is “no.”

I am not solely responsible for our culture at Return Path. I’m not sure I ever was, even when we were small.  Neither is Angela, our SVP of People.  That said, it was certainly true that I was the main architect and driver of our culture in the really early years of the company’s life.  And I’d add that even up to an employee base of about 100 people, I and a small group of senior or tenured people really shouldered most of the burden of defining and driving and enforcing our culture and values.

But as the business has grown, the amount of responsibility that I and those few others have for the culture has shrunk as a percentage of the total.  It had to, by definition.  And that’s the place where cultures either scale or fall apart.  Companies who are completely dependent on their founder or a small group of old-timers to drive their cultures can’t possibly scale their cultures as their businesses grow.  Five people can be hands on with 100.  Five people can’t be hands on with 500.  The way we’ve been able to scale is that everyone at the company has taken up the mantle of protecting, defending, championing, and extending the culture.  Now we all train new employees in “The RP Way.”  We all call each other out when we fail to live up to our values.  And the result is that we have done a great job of scaling our culture with our business.

I’d also note that there are elements of our culture which have changed or evolved over the last few years as we’ve grown.  That isn’t a bad thing, as I tell old-timers all the time.  If our products stayed the same, we’d be dead in the market.  If our messaging stayed the same, we’d never sell to a new cohort of clients.  If our values stayed the same, we’d be out of step with our own reality.

Finally, this value also folds in another important concept, which is Culture as Competitive Advantage.  In an intellectual capital business like ours (or any on the internet), your business is only as good as your people.  We believe that a great culture brings in the best people, fosters an environment where they can work at the top of their games even as they grow and broaden their skills, increases the productivity and creativity of the organization’s output through high levels of collaboration, and therefore drives the best performance on a sustained basis.  This doesn’t have to be Return Path’s culture or mean that you have to live by our values.  This could be your culture and your values.  You just have to believe that those things drive your success.

Not a believer yet?  Last year, we had voluntary turnover of less than 1%.  We promoted or gave new assignments to 15% of our employees.  And almost 50% of our new hires were referred by existing employees.  Those are some very, very healthy employee metrics that lead directly to competitive advantage.  As does our really exciting announcement last week of being #11 in the mid-sized company on Fortune Magazine’s list of the best companies to work for.

Oct 262012

Exciting News for Return Path

Exciting News for Return Path

If you’ll indulge me in a quick moment of company self-promotion, we are so excited at Return Path to announce that we have been included in Fortune Magazine’s annual list of the Best Places to Work — we are ranked #11 in the Medium Size Company category!  Our official blog post/press release are here.

This is really exciting and a testament to all 360+ of our talented team members at the company.  When we talk about one of our core values as being Job 1 — a shared responsibility for championing and extending our unique culture as a competitive advantage — this is one of those examples of where the theory becomes reality!

Of the many things I may have had in mind for the Return Path of the future on December 6, 1999, winning what is probably the most prestigious “employer of choice” award in the world certainly wasn’t one of them, but it was wonderful to receive the acknowledgment.  Congratulations to the whole team here on this great achievement!

Filed under: Culture, Return Path


Sep 062012

The Best Place to Work, Part 7: Create a Thankful Atmosphere

The Best Place to Work, Part 7: Create a Thankful Atmosphere

My final installment of this long series on Creating the best place to work (no hierarchy intended by the order) is about Creating a thankful atmosphere.

What does creating a thankful atmosphere get you?  It gets you great work, in the form of people doing their all to get the job done.  We humans – all of us, absolutely including CEOs – appreciate being recognized when they do good work.  Honestly, I love what I do and would do it without any feedback, but nothing resonates with me more than a moment of thanks from someone on my exec team or my Board.  Why should anyone else in the organization be any different?

This is not about giving everyone a nod in all-hands by doing shout-outs.  That’s not sustainable as the company grows.  And not everyone does great work every week or month!  And it’s not about remembering to thank people in staff meetings, either, although that’s never bad and easier to contain and equalize.

It is about informal, regular pats on the back.  To some extent inspired by the great Ken Blanchard book Whale Done, and as I’ve written about before here, it’s about enabling the organization to be thankful, and optimizing your own thankfulness.

Years ago we created a peer award system on our company Intranet/Wiki at Return Path.  We enable Peer Recognition through this.  As of late, with about 350 employees, we probably have 30-40 of these every week.  They typically carry a $25 gift card award, although most employees tell me that they don’t care about the gift card as much as the public recognition.  Anyone can nominate anyone for one of the following awards, which are unique to us and relevant to our culture:

  • EE (Everyday Excellence) -is designed for us to recognize those who demonstrate excellence and pride in their daily work.
  • ABCD (Above and Beyond the Call of Duty) -is designed for us to recognize the outstanding work of our colleagues who go Above and Beyond their duties and exemplify exactly what Return Path is about
  • WOOT (Working Out Of Title) -is designed for us to recognize those who offer assistance that is not part of their job responsibilities.
  • OTB (On The Business)-is about pulling ourselves out of day-to-day tasks and ensuring we are continually aligned with the long-term, strategic direction of the business.  We make sure we’re not just optimizing our current tasks and processes but that we’re also thinking about whether or not we should even be doing those things.  We stop to think outside of the “box” and about the interrelationship between what we are doing and everything else in the organization.  In doing so, we connect the leaves, the branches, the trunk, the roots and soil of the tree to the hundreds of other trees in the forest.  We step back to look at the big picture
  • TLAO ( Think Like An Owner)-means that every one of us holds a piece of the Company’s future and is empowered to use good judgment and act on behalf of Return Path.  In our day-to-day jobs we take personal responsibility for our products, services and interactions.  We spend like it’s our own money and we think ahead.  We are trusted to handle situations like we own the business because we are smart people who do the right thing.  We notice the things happening around us that aren’t in our day-to-day and take action as needed even if we’re not directly responsible
  • Blue Light Special  is designed for us to recognize anyone who comes up with a clever way to save the company money)
  • Coy Joy Award is in memory of Jen Coy who was positive, optimistic and able to persevere through the most difficult of circumstances.  This award is designed to recognize individuals who exemplify the RP values and spread joy through the workplace.  This can be by going above and beyond to welcome new employees, by showing a high degree of care and consideration for another person at RP, by being a positive and uplifting influence, and/or making another person laugh-out-loud.
  • Human Firewall is awarded if you catch a colleague taking extra care around security or privacy in some way, maybe a suggestion in a meeting, a feature in a product, a suggestion around policy or practice in the office.

In the early days, we read these out each week at All-Hands meetings.  Today at our scale, we announce these awards each week on the Wiki and via email.  And I and other leaders of the business regularly read the awards list to see who is doing what good work and needs to be separately thanked on top of the peer award.

Beyond institutionalizing thanks…in terms of you as an individual person, there are lots of ways to give thanks that are meaningful.  Some are about maximizing Moments of Truth.  Another thing I do from time to time is write handwritten thank you notes to people and mail them to their homes, not to work.  But there are lots of ways to spend the time and mental energy to appreciate individuals in your company in ways that are genuine and will be noticed and appreciated.  To some extent, this paragraph (maybe this whole post) could be labeled “It’s the little things.”

That’s it for this series…again, the final roundup for the full series of Creating the Best Place to Work is here and individual posts are here:

  1. Surround yourself with the best and brightest
  2. Create an environment of trust
  3. Manage yourself very, very well
  4. Be the consummate host
  5. Be the ultimate enabler
  6. Let people be people
  7. Create a thankful atmosphere

Anyone have any other techniques I should write about for Creating the Best Place to Work?

Aug 302012

The Best Place to Work, Part 6: Let People Be People

The Best Place to Work, Part 6: Let People Be People

Last week, in this continuing series on creating the best place to work, I talked about being a great enabler of people, meaning you do your best to let people do their best work.  This week, I want to talk about Letting People Be People.

I wrote about topic a bit this last year when I wrote my series on Return Path’s Core Values, in particular the post on our value People Work to Live, Not Live to Work .

Work-life balance is critical.  I’ve worked in a grind-it-out 100-hour/week environment as an analyst before.  Quite frankly, it sucks.  One week I actually filled in 121 on my hourly time sheet as a consultant.  If you’ve never calculated the denominator, it’s only 168.  Even being well paid as a first-year analyst out of college, the hourly rate sucked.  Thinking about 121 gives me the shivers today…and it certainly puts into perspective that whether you work 40, 45, 50, 55, or 60 hours in a given week can pale by comparison, and all still let you have a life.  An average week of 40 hours probably doesn’t make sense for a high-growth company of relatively well-paid knowledge workers.  But at 121 you barely get to shower and sleep.

While you may get a lot done working like a dog, you don’t get a lot more done hour for hour relative to productive people do in a 50-week environment.  Certainly not 2x.  People who say they thrive on that kind of pressure are simply lying – or to be fair, they’re not lying, but they are pretending they wouldn’t prefer a different environment, which is likely disingenuous and a result of rationalizing their time spent at work.  Your productivity simply diminishes after some number of hours.  So as a CEO, even a hard-charging one, I think it’s better to focus on creating a productive environment than an environment of sustained long hours.

Work has ebbs and flows just like life has ebbs and flows.  As long as the work generally gets done well and when you need it, you have to assume that sometimes, people will work long hours in bursts and sometimes, people will work fewer hours.  Work-life balance is not measured in days or even weeks, but over the long term.  So to that end, We Let People Be People as a means of trading off freedom and flexibility for high levels of performance and accountability.  At Return Path, we create an environment where people can be people by:

  • Giving generous maternity leave and even paternity leave, at least relative to norms in the US
  • Having a flexible “work from home” policy, as people do have personal things to do during the business day from time to time
  • Allowing even more flexible work conditions for anyone (especially new parents) – 3 or 4 days/week if we can make it work
  • Letting people take a 6-week paid sabbatical after 7 years, then after every 5 years after that
  • Having an “open vacation” policy where people can take as much vacation as they want, as long as they get their jobs done

As with all the posts in this series, this is meant to be general, not specific.  But these are a few of the things we’ve done to Let People Be People, which has created an incredibly productive environment here where people have fun, lead their lives, and still get their jobs done well and on time.

Aug 232012

The Best Place to Work, Part 5: Be the ultimate enabler

Fifth in my series on creating the best place to work – Being the best enabler.  As any management guru will tell you, as you have a larger and larger team, your job is much less about getting good work done than it is enabling others to get good work done.  What does that mean?

First, don’t be a bottleneck.  You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut (but feel free if you’d like), but you do need to make sure you don’t have people in the company chronically waiting on you before they can take their next actions on projects.  Otherwise, you lose all the leverage you have in hiring a team.  Don’t let approvals or requests pile up!

Second, run great meetings.  Meetings are a company’s most expensive endeavor.  Sometime in a senior staff meeting, calculate the cost in salary of everyone sitting there for an hour or two!  Run good meetings yourself and don’t enable bad behavior…and in the course of doing that, role model the same for your senior staff members who do their own staff or team meetings.  Make sure your meetings are as short as possible, as actionable as possible, and as interesting as possible.  Don’t hold a meeting when an email or 5-minute recorded message will suffice.  Don’t hold a weekly standing meeting when it can be biweekly.  Cancel meetings if there’s nothing to cover.  End them early if you can’t fill the time productively.  Vary the tempo of your meetings to match their purpose – the same staff group can have a weekly with one agenda, a monthly with a different agenda, and a quarterly with a different agenda.

Finally, don’t run a hub-and-spoke system of communications.  Some managers who are a bit command-and-control like hoarding information or forcing all communication to go through them or surface in staff meetings.  No need for that!  Almost everyone on your team, if you are a senior manager, should have individual bilateral relationships and regular 1:1 meetings without you there.  The same goes for your Board and your staff, if you are the CEO.  They should have individual relationships that don’t go through you.  if you are a choke point for communication, it’s just as bad as being a bottleneck for approvals.

Enabling your team to give it their all is a gift to yourself and your organization as much as it is a gift to your team – give that gift early and often.


Aug 162012

The Best Place to Work, Part 4: Be the Consummate Host

The Best Place to Work, Part 4: Be the Consummate Host

Besides Surrounding yourself with the best and brightest , Creating an environment of trust,  and Managing yourself very, very well, it’s important for you as a creator of The Best Place to Work to Be the Consummate Host.

What does that mean?  This is how I approach my job every day.  I think of the company as a party, where I’m the host.  I want everyone to have a good time.  To get along with the other guests.  To be excited to come back the next time I have a party (e.g., every day).

By the way, I always have co-hosts, as well – anyone who manages anyone in the company.  If I can’t do something specific below, someone on my executive team does it.  Sometimes, two of us do it!  Examples include:

  • I interview people like I’m a bouncer at an exclusive club.  We do very personal new employee orientations.  We do personal check-ins after 30 and 90 days to make sure new employees are on track
  • I attend every company function that I can and work the room as a host, even if it’s not “my” event – sometimes it means sacrificing long conversations and conversations with friends for smaller ones and meeting new people
  • I call every employee (voicemail ok) and write a note and/or send a gift every anniversary of their employment with the company
  • I write notes to people when they do something great or get a promotion

Full series of posts here.

Aug 092012

The Best Place to Work, Part 3: Manage yourself very, very well

Part of creating the best place to work  is learning how to self manage – very, very well.  This is an essential part of Creating an environment of trust , but only one part.  What does self-management mean?  First, and most important, it means realizing that you are in a fishbowl.  You are always on display.  You are a role model in everything you do, from how you dress, to how you talk on the phone, to the way you treat others, to when you show up to work. 

But what are some specifics to think about while you swim around in your tank?

  1. Don’t send mixed signals to the team.  You can’t tell people to do one thing, then do something different yourself
  2. Remember the French Fry Theory of being a CEO.  My friend Seth has the French Fry theory of life, which is simply that you can always eat one more French fry.  You’re never too full for one more fry.  You might not order another plate of them, but one more?  No problem.  Ever.  As a CEO, you can always do one more thing.  Send one more email.  Read one more document.  Sometimes you just need to draw the line and go home and stop working!  (See my earlier post  here  on how Marketing is like French Fries for another example.)
  3. Regularly solicit feedback, then internalize it and act on it.  Do reviews for the company.  Do anonymous 360s (I’ve written about these regularly here). Get people a review that has ratings and comments from their boss, their peers, and their staff.  Do them once a year at a minimum.  And do one for yourself.  They’re phenomenal.  Everyone needs to improve, always.  Our head of sales Anita always says “Feedback is a gift, whether you want it or not.”  Make sure you do them for yourself as well.  Include your Board.  If you don’t agree with the feedback you are being given that is likely a data point that you have a BLIND SPOT.  Being defensive about feedback is dangerous.  If you don’t get it/don’t like then do some more work to better understand it.  Otherwise you will forever be defensive and never develop in this area
  4. Maintain your sense of humor.  It’s not only the best medicine, it’s the best way to stay sane and have fun.  Who doesn’t want to have fun at work?
  5. Keep yourself fresh:  Join a CEO peer group.  Work with an executive coach.  Read business literature (blogs, books, magazines) like mad and apply your learnings.  Exercise regularly.  Don’t neglect your family or your hobbies.  Keep the bulk of your weekends, and at least one two-week vacation each year, sacrosanct and unplugged.  As Covey would say, Sharpen the Saw

You set the tone at your company.  You can’t let people see you sweat too much – especially as you get bigger.  You can’t come out of your office after bad news and say “we’re dead!”  You can make a huge difference by being a great role model, swimming around in your fishbowl.

Aug 022012

The Best Place to Work, Part 2: Create an environment of trust

Last week, I wrote about surrounding yourself with the best and brightest.  Next in this series of posts  is all about Creating an environment of trust.  This is closely related to the blog post I wrote a while back in my series on Return Path’s Core Values on Transparency.  At the end of the day, transparency, authenticity, and caring create an environment of trust.

Some examples of that?

  • Go over the real board slides after every board meeting – let everyone in the company know what was discussed (no matter how large you are, but of course within reason)
  • Give bad news early and often internally.  People will be less freaked out, and the rumor mill won’t take over
  • Manage like a hawk – get rid of poor performers or cultural misfits early, even if it’s painful – you can never fire someone too soon
  • Follow the rules yourself – for example, fly coach if that’s the policy, park in the back lot and not in a “reserved for the big cheese” space if you’re not in Manhattan, have a relatively modest office, constantly demonstrate that no task or chore is beneath you like filling the coke machine, changing the water bottle, cleaning up after a group lunch, packing a box, carrying something heavy
  • When a team has to work a weekend , be there too (in person or virtually) – even if it’s just to show your appreciation
  • When something really goes wrong, you need to take all the blame
  • When something really goes right, you need to give all the credit away

Perhaps a bit more than the other posts in this series, this one needs to apply to all your senior managers, not just you.  Your job?  Manage everyone to these standards.

Jul 262012

The Best Place to Work, Part 1: Surround yourself with the best and brightest

First in my series of posts around creating the best place to work  is to Surround yourself with the best and brightest.  This one is simple.  Build the best team you can possibly build…as you need it.

As a founder, you may be the best person at doing everything in your company, especially if you are a technical founder.  But as my long-time Board member at Return Path Greg Sands always says, when the organism grows, cells start to specialize.  Eventually, you need a liver and a brain.  Just like companies need a head of sales and a CFO (not to imply that Anita likes the occasional cocktail or that Jack likes math – turns out both like both).

How does this come into play as a CEO?

-Don’t be afraid to hire people better than you at their specialty – older, wiser, more experienced, more expensive

– Check references carefully – don’t get suckered in by resume or rolodex – some successful big company people don’t actually know how to do work or build a business, so you have to dig and find back-channel references

– Don’t overhire before you’re ready, but especially as a start-up, better to hire 3 months before you need the position, not 6 months too late

-Remember that you are the CEO.  Even if you hire very experienced people in specific roles, you have the best global view of everything going on in the company.  And you need to pay attention to people on your team and actively manage them, even experts who are older or wiser than you are

Surrounding yourself with the best and brightest can be daunting and even threatening to some CEOs.  But you have to do it to grow your business.  And you have to keep doing it as you keep growing your business (and your staff has to do the same!).

Jul 192012

The Best Place to Work, Part 0

The Best Place to Work, Part 0

I keep getting questions about a deck I’ve used several times at Techstars, Seedcamp, DreamIt, and the like which is called “7 Ideas for Creating the Best Place to Work.”  So today I will launch a 7-part series over the next 7 weeks to describe my 7 points.  As always, this is not intended to be perfect or comprehensive, but it is a bit of lessons learned over the last 12-13 years at Return Path.  It’s just 7 ideas – not the only 7 ideas.  And there’s nothing magic about the number 7, despite what George Costanza says.  Or Steven Covey.

Here’s the outline:

  1. Surround yourself with the best and brightest
  2. Create an environment of trust
  3. Manage yourself very, very well
  4. Be the consummate host
  5. Be the ultimate enabler
  6. Let people be people
  7. Create a thankful atmosphere

Let’s go!  I will create a tag cloud for this series called Best Place to Work.