May 302013

Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots

Although I still maintain that the three primary roles of a CEO are to set Strategy and communicate it, develop Talent, and ensure that the business has proper Resources to run (see post here), I am increasingly finding that I play a fourth role in the organization that’s probably somewhat important, which is Connecting the Dots.

What do I mean by Connecting the Dots?  I mean helping others network internally, or helping others connect their work to the work of others, or helping others connect their work to the mission of the company, or even to the outside world.

Here are a few examples of how I’ve done this kind of work recently:

 –          I joined an Engineering all-hands and stood up after each segment to talk about the business impact of that team’s work during the prior quarter

–          I met with a new senior employee and connected him to someone internally that he wouldn’t have otherwise met with…but with whom he had a common outside interest

–          I helped a team that’s a classic “support team” understand why their work was directly, but not obviously, contributing to one of the company’s strategic initiatives

–          I connected someone in one of our international offices who had expressed an interest to me in a new role with an operational leader in the US who was thinking of adding someone to his team outside the US

–          I talked to our professional services team about a customer visit I’d recently done where we got really good feedback on the next release of a product but which also pointed out some needs for services that we hadn’t focused on yet

As a business leader, you are in a really good position to help Connect the Dots in a growing organization because you have a pretty unique view across the organization – and you tend to spend time with people internally across different functions and teams and offices.

I am not going to change my position that there are three primary roles, because I’m not sure that a CEO is required to Connect the Dots – hopefully that role can be delegated and replicated.  It’s something to think about, for sure.  But in the meantime, I like doing that and find it useful for me as well as the organization.

Filed under: Leadership, Management, Return Path


Nov 292012

The Value of Paying Down Technical Debt

The Value of Paying Down Technical Debt

Our Engineering team has a great term called Technical Debt, which is the accumulation of coding shortcuts and operational inefficiencies over the years in the name of getting product out the door faster that weighs on the company’s code base like debt weighs on a balance sheet.  Like debt, it’s there, you can live with it, but it is a drag on the health of the technology organization and has hard servicing costs.  It’s never fun to pay down technical debt, which takes time away from developing new products and new features and is not really appreciated by anyone outside the engineering organization.

That last point is a mistake, and I can’t encourage CEOs or any leaders within a business strongly enough to view it the opposite way.  Debt may not be fun to pay off, but boy do you feel better after it’s done.  I attended an Engineering all-hands recently where one team presented its work for the past quarter.  For one of our more debt-laden features, this team quietly worked away at code revisions for a few months and drove down operational alerts by over 50% — and more important, drove down application support costs by almost 90%, and all this at a time when usage probably doubled.  Wow. 

I’m not sure how you can successfully scale a company rapidly without inefficiencies in technology.  But on the other side of this particular project, I’m not sure how you can afford NOT to work those ineffiencies out of your system as you grow.  Just as most Americans (political affiliation aside) are wringing their hands over the size and growth of our national debt now because they’re worried about the impact on future generations, engineering organizations of high growth companies need to pay attention to their technical debt and keep it in check relative to the size of their business and code base.

And for CEOs, celebrate the payment of technical debt as if Congress did the unthinkable and put our country back on a sustainable fiscal path, one way or another!

As a long Post Script to this, I asked our CTO Andy and VP Engineering David what they thought of this post before I put it up.  David’s answer was very thoughtful and worth reprinting in full:

 I’d like to share a couple of additional insight as to how Andy and I manage Tech Debt in the org: we insist that it be intentional. What do I mean by “intentional”

  •  There is evidence that we should pay it
  • There is a pay off at the end

 What are examples of “evidence?”

  •  Capacity plans show that we’ll run out of capacity for increased users/usage of a system in a quarter or two
  • Performance/stability trends are steadily (or rapidly) moving in the wrong direction
  • Alerts/warnings coming off of systems are steadily or rapidly increasing

 What are examples of “pay off?”

  •  Increased system capacity
  • Improved performance/stability
  • Decreased support due to a reduction in alerts/warnings

 We ask the engineers to apply “engineering rigor” to show evidence and pay-offs (i.e. measure, analyze, forecast).

 I bring this up because some engineers like to include “refactoring code” under the umbrella of Tech Debt solely because they don’t like the way the code is written even though there is no evidence that it’s running out of capacity, performance/stability is moving in the wrong direction, etc. This is a “job satisfaction” issue for some engineers. So, it’s important for morale reasons, and the Engineering Directors allocate _some_ time for engineers to do this type of refactoring.  But, it’s also important to help the engineer distinguish between “real” Tech Debt and refactoring for job satisfaction.

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.

May 032012

Skip-Level Meetings

I was talking to a CEO the other day who believed it was “wrong” (literally, his word) to meet directly 1:1 with people in the organization who did not report to him.  I’ve heard from other CEOs in the past that they’re casual or informal or sporadic about this practice, but I’ve never heard someone articulate before that they actively stayed away from it.  The CEO in question’s feeling was that these meetings, which I call Skip-Level Meetings, disempowers managers.

I couldn’t disagree more.  I have found Skip-Level Meetings to be an indispensable part of my management and leadership routine and have done them for years.  If your culture is set up such that you as CEO can’t interact directly and regularly with people in your organization other than the 5-8 people who report to you, you are missing out on great opportunities to learn from and have an impact on those around you.

That said, there is an art to doing these meetings right, in ways that don’t disempower people or encourage chaos.  Some of these themes will echo other things I’ve written in recent posts like Moments of Truth and Scaling Me.  My five rules for doing Skip-Level Meetings are:

  1. Make them predictable.  Have them on a regular schedule, whatever that is.  The schedule doesn’t have to be uniform across all these meetings.  I have some Skip-Levels that I do monthly, some quarterly, some once a year, some “whenever I am in town.”
  2. Use a consistent format.  I always have a few questions I ask people in these meetings – things about their key initiatives, their people, their roadblocks, what I can do to help, what their POV is about the company direction and performance, how they are feeling about their role and growth.  I also expect that people will come with questions or topics for me.  If I have more meaty ad hoc topics, I’ll let the person know ahead of time.
  3. Vary the location.  When I have regular Skip-Levels with a given person, I try to do the occasional one over a meal or drink to make it a little more social.  For remote check-ins, I now always do Skype or Videophone.
  4. Do groups.  Sometimes group skip-levels are fun and really enlightening, either with a full team, or with a cross-section of skip-levels from other teams.  Watching people relate to each other gives you a really different view into team dynamics.
  5. Close the loop.  I almost always check-in with the person’s manager BEFORE AND AFTER a Skip-Level.  Before, I ask what the issues are, if there is anything I should push on or ask.  After, I report back on the meeting, especially if there are things the person and I discussed that are out of scope for the person’s job or goals, so there are no surprises.

 I’m sure there are other things I do as well, but I can’t imagine running the company without this practice.  Doing it often and well EMPOWERS people in the company…I’d argue that managers who feel disempowered by it aren’t managers you necessarily want in your business unless you really run a command-and-control shop.

Jan 242012

Is It Normal?

A friend who is a newly promoted CEO just wrote me and asked me this:

I’m having a sort of guilt complex.  Let me explain.

I’ve set up a bunch of positions, which people are grooving into.  We just completed our budget for our new fiscal year, probably faster and easier than ever before.  Sales are going really, really well.

BUT, despite all of this, I feel more relaxed than I have in years.  And I am struggling with that.

I’m relaxed because we seem out in front of stuff, I’ve reduced my span of control from a dozen direct reports to four.  Things are progressing in good ways.  I also have time now that I’ve not had in ages to pop my head up and out and do some long-term thinking and planning.

I still have a bunch of management to do with the senior team, some key problem areas to work on … but I’m not racing breathlessly feeling like I’d rather shoot myself than do my job.

Of course, we are doing well.  That helps. 

Is this honeymoon?  Should I feel guilty?  Should I figure out ways to race breathlessly?

My gut tells me I should feel good and not guilty but this is a sense-check request.

 My response:

I have gone through many stretches here over the years of not being overly busy.  Just means you have a great team and have delegated well.  And that the business has a nice tailwind behind it.

You should feel good.  And not guilty.  But you should also feel a bit paranoid about what you might be missing.

Filed under: Business, Management


Mar 172011

Connecting with Other CEOs

Connecting with Other CEOs

CEOs get introduced to each other regularly.  Sometimes it’s through VCs or other investors, sometimes it’s through other CEOs, sometimes it’s because the two companies are already partners.  I try hard to meet personally or at least on the phone with other CEOs every time I get a chance, sometimes because there’s business to be done between Return Path and the other company; but always because I come away from every interaction I have with another CEO with some learnings to apply to myself and the company.

I have noticed two unrelated things over the years about my interactions with other CEOs who are in our industry, and therefore with whom I spend time more than once, that I find interesting:

First, the personality of the organization frequently (though not always) mirrors the personality of the CEO.  When the other CEO is responsive and easy to schedule a meeting with, it turns out the organization is pretty easy to work with as well.  When the other CEO is unresponsive to email or phone calls, or is inconsistent with communication patterns — one communication through LinkedIn, another via email, another via Twitter — people at Return Path who also work deeper within the other organization have experienced similar work styles.  I guess tone setting does happen from the C-suite!

Second, even when there is alignment of temperament per my above point, there is frequently a disconnect between CEOs and their teams when it comes to getting a deal done.  The number of times I’ve had a solid meeting of the minds with another CEO on a deal between our two companies, only to have it fall apart once the two teams start working through details is well north of 50% of the cases.  Why is this?  Maybe sometimes it’s unfortunately calculated, and the CEO is being polite to me but doesn’t really have any intent of moving forward.  In other cases, it’s a natural disconnect — CEOs have a unique view of their company and its long term strategy, and sometimes the people on their teams have different personal, vested interests that might conflict with a broader direction.  But in many cases, I think it’s also because some CEOs are weak at follow-up, and even if they give their team high-level direction on something don’t always check in to see how progress is or is not being made.  I know I’ve been guilty of this from time to time as well, so please don’t take this post to be self-righteous on this important point. Those of us who run organizations have a lot on our plates, and sometimes things fall between the cracks.  The best way to make sure this last point doesn’t happen is to really ensure the meeting of the minds exists — and for the two CEOs to hold each other accountable for progress on the relationship up and down the stack.

I will close this post by noting that most of the best relationships we as a company have are ones where the other CEO and I get along well personally and professionally, and where we let our teams work through the relationship details but where we hold them and each other accountable for results.

Sep 062010

What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?

What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?

Fred has a great post up last week in his MBA Mondays series caled “What a CEO Does.”  His three things (worth reading his whole post anyway) are set vision/strategy and communicate broadly, recruit/hire/retain top talent, and make sure there’s enough cash in the bank.

It’s great advice.  These three are core job responsibilities of any CEO, probably of any company, any size.  I’d like to build on that premise by adding two other dimensions to the list.  Fred was kind enough to offer me a “guest blogger” spot, so this post also appears today on his blog as well.

First, three corollaries – one for each of the three responsibilities Fred outlines.

  • Setting vision and strategy are key…but in order to do that, the CEO must remember the principle of NIHITO (Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office) and must spend time in-market.  Get to know competitors well.  Spend time with customers and channel partners.  Actively work industry associations.  Walk the floor at conferences.  Understand what the substitute products are (not just direct competition).
  • Recruiting and retaining top talent are pay-to-play…but you have to go well beyond the standards and basics here.  You have to be personally involved in as much of the process as you can – it’s not about delegating it to HR.  I find that fostering all-hands engagement is a CEO-led initiative.  Regularly conduct random roundtables of 6-10 employees.  Send your Board reports to ALL (redact what you must) and make your all-hands meetings Q&A instead of status updates.  Hold a CEO Council every time you have a tough decision to make and want a cross-section of opinions.
  • Making sure there’s enough cash in the bank keeps the lights on…but managing a handful of financial metrics on concert with each other is what really makes the engine hum.  A lot of cash with a lot of debt is a poor position to be in.  Looking at recognized revenue when you really need to focus on bookings is shortsighted.  Managing operating losses as your burn/runway proxy when you have huge looming CapEx needs is a problem.

Second, three behaviors a CEO has to embody in order to be successful – this goes beyond the job description into key competencies.

  • Don’t be a bottleneck.  You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut, 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.
  • Run great meetings.  Meetings are a company’s most expensive endeavors.  10 people around a table for an hour is a lot of salary expense!  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.  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.
  • 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.

There are a million other things to do, or that you need to do well…but this is a good starting point for success.

Aug 262010

Style, or Substance?

Style, or Substance?

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend who sits on a couple of Boards, as do I (besides Return Path’s).  We ended up in a conversation about some challenges one of his Boards is having with their CEO, and the question to some extent boiled down to this:  a Board is responsible for hiring/firing the CEO and for being the guardians of shareholder value, but what does a Board do when it doesn’t like the CEO’s style?

There are lots of different kinds of CEOs and corporate cultures.  Some are command-and-control, others are more open, flat, and transparent.  I like to think I and Return Path are the latter, and of course my bias is that that kind of culture leads to a more successful company.  But I’ve worked in environments that are the former, and, while less fun and more stressful, they can also produce very successful outcomes for shareholders and for employees as well.

So what do you do as a Board member if you don’t like the way a CEO operates, even if the company is doing well?  I find myself very conflicted on the topic, and I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with it myself as an outside Board member.  I certainly wouldn’t want to work in an organization again that had what I consider to be a negative, pace-setting environment, but is it the Board’s role to shape the culture of a company?  Here are some specific questions, which probably fall on a spectrum:

Is it grounds for removal if you think the company could be doing better with a different style leader at the helm?  Probably not.

Is it fair to expect a leader to change his or her style just because the Board doesn’t like it?  Less certain, but also probably not.

Is it fair to give a warning or threaten removal if the CEO’s style begins to impact performance, say, by driving out key employees or stifling innovation?  Probably.

Is it fair to give feedback and coaching?  Absolutely.

This is one of those very situation-specific topics, but probably a good one for others to weigh in on.  I do come back to the question of whether it is part of a Board’s role to shape the culture of a company.  Is that just style…or is it substance?