Jan 132011

What a View, Part III

What a View, Part III

We are in the middle of our not-quite-annual senior team 360 review process this week at Return Path.  It’s particularly grueling for me and Angela, our SVP of People, to sit in, facilitate, and participate in 15 of them in such a short period of time, but boy is it worth it!  I’ve written about this process before — here are two of the main posts (overall process, process for my review in particular, and a later year’s update on a process change and unintended consequences of that process change). I’ve also posted my development plans publicly, which I’ll do next month when I finalize it.

This year, I’ve noticed two consistent themes in my direct reports’ review sessions (we do the live 360 format for any VP, not just people who report directly to me), which I think both speak very well of our team overall, and the culture we have here at Return Path.

First, almost every review of an executive had multiple people saying the phrase, “Person X is not your typical head of X department, she really is as much of a general business person and great business partner and leader as she is a great head of X.”  To me, that’s the hallmark of a great executive team.  You want people who are functional experts, but you also need to field the best overall team and a team that puts the business first with understandings of people, the market, internal dependencies, and the broader implications of any and all decisions.  Go Team!

Second, almost every review featured one or more of my staff member’s direct reports saying something like “Maybe this should be in my own development plan, but…”  This mentality of “It’s not you, it’s me,” or in the language of Jim Collins, looking into the mirror and not out the window to solve a problem, is a great part of any company’s operating system.  Love that as well.

Ok.  Ten down, five to go.  Off to the next one…

Jan 042007

Book (Not So) Short: Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure

Book (Not So) Short:  Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure

I couldn’t get the catchy jingle from the 80’s commercial for Sure deodorant (you remember, the one with the Statue of Liberty at the end of it – thanks, YouTube) out of my head while I was reading the relatively new book, Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End.  Written by HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor, Confidence is one of the few business books I’ve read that’s both long and worth reading in full.

The book has scores of examples of both winning and losing streaks, from sports, business, politics, and other walks of life, and it does a great job of breaking down the core elements that go into creating a winning streak or turnaround (Accountability, Collaboration, Innovation).  Kantor also puts a very fine point on the “doom loop” of losing streaks and just how hard it is to turn them around.  The book also has a good crisp definition of why winning streaks end — arrogange, anyone? — and has consistent, but not preachy recipes for avoiding pitfalls and driving success.  All in all, very inspirational, even if many of the roots of success lie in well-documented leadership qualities like those expressed in Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Good to Great.  The book is good enough that Kantor can even be forgiven for lauding Verizon, probably the most consistently awful customer service company I’ve ever dealt with.

But even more of the roots of success and disappointment around streaks are psychological, and these examples really rang true for me as I reflected back on our acquisition of the troubled NetCreations in 2004.  That company was in the midst of a serious slump, a losing streak dating back to 2000, at the peak of the original Internet boom.  Year over year, the company had lost revenues, profits, customers, and key personnel.  Its parent company saw poor results and set it into the doom loop of starving it for resources and alternating between ignoring it and micromanaging it, and when we acquired the business, we found great assets and some fantastic people (many of whom I’m proud to say are still with us today), but a dispirited, blame-oriented, passive culture that was poised to continue wallowing in decline.

I can hardly claim that we’ve turned the business around in full, or that I personally made happen whatever turnaround there has been, but I do think we did a few things right as far as Kantor and Confidence would see it.  Her formula for a turnaround (Espouse the new message, Exemplify it with leadership actions, Establish programs to systematically drive it home throughout the organization) is right in line with our philosophy here at Return Path.

First, we accelerated the separation and autonomy of a fledgeling NetCreations spin-off unit, now our Authentic Response market research group, and let a culture of collaboration and innovation flourish under an exceptionally talented leader, Jeff Mattes.

But that was the easy part (for me anyway), because that part of the business was actually working well, and we just let it do its thing, with more support from HQ.  The turnaround of the core list rental and lead generation business of NetCreations, the original Postmaster Direct, was much tougher and is still a work in progress.  In the last six months, we’ve finally turned the corner, but it hasn’t been easy.  Even though we knew lots of what had to be done early on, actually doing it is much harder than b-school platitudes or even the best-written books make it seem.

The one thing that Kantor probably gives short shrift to, although she does mention it in passing a couple times, is that frequently turnarounds require massive major amounts of purging of personnel (not just management) to take hold.  As one of my former colleagues from Mercer Management Consulting used to say, “sometimes the only way to effect Change Management is to change management.”  Sometimes even very talented people are just bogged down with baggage — the “ghost of quarters past” — and nothing you do or say can break that psychological barrier.

Boy, have we learned that lesson here at Return Path the hard way.  I’m extremely grateful to our team at Return Path, from the old RP people who’ve seen it all happen, to the old NetCreations people who are thriving in the new environment, to the new blood we’ve brought in to help effect the turnaround, for playing such important roles in our own Confidence-building exercises here.  And I’m super Confident that 2007 will be the year that we officially turn the old NetCreations/Postmaster losing streak into a big, multi-year winning streak.

Anyway, I realize this may redefine the “short” in book short, but Confidence is without question a good general management and leadership read.

Oct 152006

Book Short: You’d Never Run Your Business This Way…

Book Short:  You’d Never Run Your Business This Way…

I am an unabashed conservative, so you might wonder what I was doing reading  A Country That Works, by union chief Andy Stern, the President of SEIU (Service Workers International Union) this weekend.  Well, part of it is that my mother-in-law Carmen works for him.  Part was that he was quite inspiring during his recent appearance on the Colbert Report a week or two ago.  And part was that I always like reading about different points of view, especially with the current, somewhat dismal state of the Republican leadership in Washington.

The book was very short and a worthwhile read.  I may not agree with Stern on some of his illustrations of the problems — his statistical presentations were a bit apples-to-oranges at times — and some of his solutions, which were a bit high on the big-government-tax-and-spend side for me, but the book was very plain-speak, apolitical, and solution-oriented, all of which I found refreshing.

He certainly had at least one underlying premise about “labor as electricity ” (compete on something else other than forcing wages to go lower) that is making me think hard about my long-standing philosophical opposition to federally-mandated minimum wages.  His notion of the importance of a global labor movement to act as a check/balance on corporate globalization both make sense.  Actually, now that I think about it, those two things put together start working well as one plank in a solution to global poverty.

But the best part of the book was the fact that Stern is clear that, like his ideas or hate them,  he is at least proposing that we DEAL with them.  America is missing serious debate about some critical issues facing our society.  Anyone who doesn’t think we have serious problems facing our future around retirement savings, education, and health care is not facing reality.  The debate happening in Washington today is weak at best, and over-politicized.

The bottom line is that I think we’re in danger as a country of boiling the frog when it comes to some major structural issues in our society, and, most important to me, You’d Never Run Your Business This Way.  Any good entrepreneur knows that when danger lurks around the corner, you have to reinvent yourself, and we as a country aren’t doing that at this moment when we’d benefit from it greatly for the long term.  Stern displays that mix of optimism for the future and serious reality check today known as the Stockdale Paradox and revered by Jim Collins in his two books on corporate leadership, Good to Great and Built to Last.

My biggest criticism of the book was that it was too short.  It was basically 1/3 Andy’s story, 1/3 SEIU’s story, and 1/3 labor’s story — and it could have been at least twice as long and gone into more detail on Stern’s points, especially in the last chapter where he starts spelling out his plan to get America back on track.  But presumably when Stern runs for national office or gets a cabinet appointment someday (no inside knowledge here, but the book certainly reads that way), he’ll flesh things out a bit!

Mar 292006

Book short: Myers-Briggs Redux

Book short:  Myers-Briggs Redux

Instinct:  Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals, by Tom Harrison of Omnicom, is an ok book, although I wouldn’t rush out to buy it tomorrow.  The author talks about five broad aspects of our personalities that influence how we operate in a business setting:  Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  These traits are remarkably similar to those in the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that so many executives have taken over the years.

It’s not just that you want to be high, high, high, high, and low in the Big 5.  Harrison asserts that successful entrepreneurs need a balance of openness and conscientiousness in order to be receptive to new ideas, but be able finish what you start; a balance of extroversion and agreeableness so that you have enough energy but also have the ability to work with others; and not too much neuroticism, as you have to be able to take risks.

The book not only talks about how to spot these factors, but how to work around them if you don’t have them (that part is particularly useful, but he doesn’t do it for all five factors).  He also talks about the entrepreneurial addiction to success, and creating the all-important Servant CEO culture, which I certainly agree with and wrote about early on in this blog in my “Who’s The Boss?” posting.

Harrison does have a great section on how “Nice Guys” can and should be winners; how being nice and having guts aren’t mutually exclusive, and he gives a well-written Twelve Rules for expressing the Nice Guy gene:

– Don’t walk on other people, but don’t let them walk on you

– Respect the big idea in everyone

– Own everything

– Never let ’em see you sweat Keep it simple

– Never think in terms of “So what have you done for me today?”

– More is less

– Live your word consistently

– Don’t lie:  fix what’s causing you to think you need to lie

– Never forget to thank, congratulate, or acknowledge people for their efforts

– Keep your door and your heart open

– Never stand in the way of balance

The most annoying part of the book is that Harrison keeps making references to a handful of genetic studies about twins to prove on and off that traits are inherited and that inherited traits can be expressed in different ways.  These references are mildly interesting, but they detract from the substance of the book.

Overall, the book has some interesting points in it, but it’s too much like Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Built to Last, only without the depth of business research and case studies.  Plus, Harrison does the one thing I find most irritating in business books — he is clearly an expert in one thing (business), but he unnecessarily pretends to be an expert in another thing (genetics) in order to make his point.

Aug 082005

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

A Ball Bearing in the Wheels of E-Commerce

As an online marketing professional, I’ve long understood intellectually how e-commerce works, how affiliate networks function, and why the internet is such a powerful selling tool.  But I got an email the other day that drove this home more directly.

When I started my blog about a year and a half ago, I set myself up as an Amazon affiliate, meaning that any time someone clicks on a link to Amazon from one of my postings or on the blog sidebar, I get paid a roughly 4% commission on anything that person buys on Amazon on that session.

According to the email report I just got from Amazon on Q2 sales driven by my blog, I am responsible for driving traffic that buys about $2,500 worth of merchandise from Amazon every quarter, which yields about $100 to me in affiliate fees.  All I really link to are business books that I summarize in postings, although people who click from my blog to Amazon end up buying all sorts of random things (according to my report, last quarter’s purchases included a Kathy Smith workout DVD and a new socket wrench set in addition to lots of copies of Jim Collins’ Built to Last and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

This is a true win-win-win — Amazon gets traffic for a mere 4% of sales, a relatively low marketing cost; I get a small amount of money to cover the various fees associated with my blog (Typepad, Newsgator, Feedburner), and people who read my blog pay what they’re going to pay to Amazon anyway – and maybe get something they otherwise wouldn’t have gone out to get in the process.

My blog is certainly not a top 1,000 blog, or probably not even a top 10,000 blog in terms of size of audience.  This is merely a microcosm that proves the macro trends.  If I’m driving $10,000 per year of business to Amazon, now I REALLY understand how there are now approximately 500,000 people who make their LIVING by selling goods on eBay, and how probably another 500,000 people are making good side money or possibly even making their living by running offers and affiliate marketing programs from their web sites.  I’m like a little ball bearing in the finely tuned but explosively growing wheel of e-commerce.

If my quarterly affiliate fees keep growing, I’ll find something more productive or charitable to do with them than keep them for myself.  But for now, I am covering my costs and marveling on a personal level at how all this stuff works as well as it does.

Sep 222004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

The press conference this past spring where President Bush embarrassingly refused to admit that he had ever made any big mistakes, other than to reiterate his gaffe at trading Sammy Sosa when he owned the Texas Rangers, brings up another issue in this series: is it good for leaders, both political and corporate, to admit mistakes?

On the corporate side, I think the ability to admit a mistake is a must. Again, I’ll refer back to Jim Collins’ books Good to Great and Built to Last, both of which talk about humility and the ability to admit mistakes as a critical component of emotional intelligence, the cornerstone of solid leadership. And in another great work on corporate leadership, The Fifth Discipline, writer Peter Senge talks about “learning systems” and the “learning organization” as far superior companies. My experience echoes this. Publicly admitting a mistake, along with a careful distillation of lessons learned, can go a long way inside a company to strengthening the bond between leader and team, regardless of the size of the company.

But in politics, the stakes are higher and weirder — and the organization is a nation, not a company. Publicly admitting a single mistake can be a leader’s downfall. It’s too easy these days for political opponents to seize on a mistake as a “flip flop” and turn a candidate’s own admission into a highly-charge negative ad.

There was a fantastic op-ed in The Wall Street Journal back on April 15 on this topic, which unfortunately doesn’t have an available link at the moment, entitled “Bush Enters a Political Quandary As He Faces Calls for an Apology.” I’ll try to both quote from and summarize the article here since it’s central to this topic:

“For a politician, is an apology a sign of weakness or strength? That is the debate now swirling around President Bush after a prime-time news conference in which he refused reporters’ invitations to acknowledge any specific mistakes in handling the issue of terrorism or offer an apology to Sept. 11 victims’ families. Mr. Bush deflected the invitation, saying, ‘Here’s what I feel about that: The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.’ Mr. Bush’s quandary is a time-honored struggle for politicians. While some have found a public apology helps them out of a tough spot, others discovered it can fuel more criticism. So far, there isn’t a definitive answer.”

The article goes on to say that while Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” mentality was de rigeur in the Beltway for a while (through Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and Reagan’s poor handling of Beirut), nowadays, apologies are a dreaded last resort. The reason? The rise of partisanship and the use of ethics and congressional or special counsel investigations used to humiliate or defeat political opponents by raising the spectre of corruption. The examples? Gingrich’s struggles in 1996 over his book; Clinton’s ridiculous linguistics machinations (“it depends what the definition of ‘is’ is”) around the Lewinsky scandal; and Lott’s downfall over segregationist comments.

The piece wraps up by saying that “Mr. Bush was backed into the apology quandary by one of his administration’s toughest critics, former White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke…Since then, White House officials have been pressured to do likewise [apologize to victims’ families about the government’s failings on 9/11] — or explain why they won’t…[but] aides are convinced that admitting error would only embolden Mr. Bush’s critics in the Democratic Party and the news media.”

So the question is: would Bush be better off by saying “Sorry, folks, we thought there were WMD in Iraq, but it turns out we were wrong. And we miscalculated how difficult it would be to win the war, how many troops it would take, and how many lives would be lost. I still feel like it was right for us to go to war there for the following four reasons…”?

I’m not sure about that. He’d certainly be more intellectually honest, and a number of people in intellectual circles would feel better about him as a leader, but my guess is that he thinks it would cost him the election in today’s environment. My conclusion is that today’s system is discouraging politicians from admitting mistakes, and that it will take an exceptionally courageous leader (neither Bush nor Kerry as far as I can tell) to do so.

In the end, while humility appeals to many people in a leader, it’s not for everyone. Fortunately for us, CEOs don’t have to run for office and most CEOs don’t have to face some the same level of public, personally competitive, and media scrutiny that politicians do. Now that’s an interesting conclusion that I didn’t intend at the beginning of the post — being a good political leader and being a good politician are sometimes deeply at odds with each other.

Next up in the series: Not sure! Any ideas? Please comment on the blog site or by emailing me.

Aug 302004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part I: Realist or Idealist?

It’s election season, the GOP convention is literally in my backyard, and while this is not a political blog, I can’t help myself. As we as Americans grapple with the question of who we want to be our next leader (or at least those people who live in the 11 annointed swing states do), I have had a lot of thoughts lately about the question of what makes a good leader, and what the differences are between successful leadership in politics and successful leadership in business.

James O’Toole’s article on President Bush on page 31 of the September issue of Fast Company (no link available yet) brings up a really interesting point in comparing Bush to former president Ronald Reagan. He asserts that “what made Reagan effective and respected was that his actions followed consistently from a positive worldview.” (I’d also argue that the positive worldview as a starting point had something to do with it, but that’s beside the point.) He goes on to say that Bush has an “implementation problem” in that he “has vacillated between contradictory approaches to leadership: realism and idealism.” His central thesis is stated very clearly that

“Realists and idealists can both be effective leaders. But one cannot be both at once…The leadership lesson for GW – and for any leader – is simple: Followers don’t much care if leaders are realists or idealists, but they distrust inconsistency.”

This may or may not be true in the political arena, but I know it’s not true in business. Jim Collins’ watershed books Built to Last and Good to Great — both must reads! — describe the ideal CEO as someone who can simultaneously be optimistic and idealistic about the future of the company while simultaneously recognizing and dealing with the realities of the short-term situation. Ironically for this posting, Collins calls this the Stockdale paradox, after retired Admiral James Stockdale, a military leader and erstwhile vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot in the 1992 election.

As CEO, I have to constantly be selling the vision of the company — what we’re trying to become and how we’re going to get there — in broad strokes to my investors, board, management team, employees, and even customers. It’s that vision that keeps the whole machine running and keeps everyone focused and excited and working hard towards our long-term goals. But I have to be equally vigilant about the mundane realities of the current quarter, making our numbers, containing costs, and running the machine. If I did either one without the other, I think the whole system would break down.

Is Bush’s problem, as O’Toole asserts, that he articulated two different types of reasons for the war in Iraq — one rooted in Realism (WMD) and one rooted in Idealism (freedom and democracy)? Same goes for his states reasons for the tax cut — Realism on the one hand (to stimulate the economy) and Idealism on the other hand (shrink government). I agree that the Bush Administration has occasional implementation problems and doesn’t have nearly the “following” that Reagan and other more successful leaders in the past have, but I don’t think they’re caused by combining Realism and Idealism in the President’s leadership style. I think the leader of the free world has to do both well, each at its appropriate time, in order to be effective at his job.

Next up in this series: Admitting Mistakes.