Feb 162017

Reboot – Where do a company’s Values come from, and where do they go?

I’ve written a lot over the years about Return Path’s Core Values (summary post with lots of links to other posts here).  And I’ve also written and believe strongly that there’s a big difference between values, which are pretty unchanging, and culture, which can evolve a lot over time.  But I had a couple conversations recently that led me to think more philosophically about a company’s values.

The first conversation was at a recent dinner for a group of us working on fundraising for my upcoming 25th reunion from Princeton.  Our guest speaker was a fellow alumnus who I’ve gotten to know and respect tremendously over the years as one of the school’s most senior and influential volunteer leaders.  He was speaking about the touchstones in his life and in all people’s lives — things like their families, their faith, the causes they’re passionate about, and the institutions they’ve been a part of.  I remember this speaker giving a similar set of remarks right after the financial crisis hit in early 2009.  And it got me thinking about the origins of Return Path’s values, which I didn’t create on my own, but which I obviously had a tremendous amount of influence over as founder.  Where did they come from?  Certainly, some came from my parents and grandparents.  Some came from my primary and secondary education and teachers.  Some came from other influences like coaches, mentors, and favorite books.  Although I’m not overly observant, some certainly came from Hebrew school and even more so from a deep reading of the Bible that I undertook about 15 years ago for fun (it was much more fun than I expected!).  Some came from other professional experiences before I started Return Path.  But many of them either came from, or were strongly reinforced by my experience at Princeton.  Of the 15 values we currently articulate, I can directly tie at least seven to Princeton:  helpful, thankful, data-driven, collaborative, results-oriented, people first, and equal in opportunity.  I can also tie some other principles that aren’t stated values at Return Path, but which are clearly part of our culture, such as intellectually curious, appreciative of other people’s points of view, and valuing an interdisciplinary approach to work.

As part of my professional Reboot project, this was a good reminder of some of the values I know I’ve gotten from my college experience as a student and as an alumni, which was helpful both to reinforce their importance in my mind but also to remember some of the specifics around their origins – when and why they became important to me.  I could make a similar list and trade and antecedents of all or at least most of our Company’s values back to one of those primary influences in my life.  Part of Reboot will be thinking through all of these and renewing and refreshing their importance to me.

The second conversation was with a former employee who has gone on to lead another organization.  It led me to the observation I’ve never really thought through before, that as a company, we ourselves have become one of those institutions that imprints its values into the minds of at least some of its employees…and that those values will continue to be perpetuated, incorporated, and improved upon over time in any organization that our employees go on to join, manage part of, or lead.

That’s a powerful construct to keep in mind if you’re a new CEO working on designing and articulating your company’s values for the first time.  You’re not just creating a framework to guide your own organization.  You’re creating the beginning of a legacy that could potentially influence hundreds or thousands of other organizations in the future.

Mar 092015

The Value of a Break

The Value of a Break

I’ve written before about our sabbatical policy as well as my experience with my first sabbatical five years ago.

I just got back from another sabbatical. This one wasn’t 100% work-free, which breaks our rule, but after a few false starts with it, when I realized a few weeks before it started in January that I either needed to postpone it again or work on a couple of things while I was on a break, I opted for the latter.  The time off was great. Nothing special or too exotic. A couple short trips, and lots of quality time with Mariquita and the kids.

Re-reading my post from my last sabbatical now, I realize I have re-learned those same three lessons again — that I love my job, my colleagues, and what we are working on.

But I also recognized, in three different ways, the value of a break this time around maybe more than last time.  Maybe it’s that I’m five years older or that I’ve been doing the job for five more years.  Maybe it’s because the last couple of years at work have been incredibly intense and both physically and mentally taxing.  But regardless of cause, the outcome is the same — I return to work today rested, healthy, a little tanner, a few pounds lighter, and with more clarity, resolve, and ideas for work than I’ve had in a long time.

Not only did I recognize this with Return Path on my sabbatical, but during my sabbatical, I also reengaged with two organizations (Princeton and the Direct Marketing Association) where I sit on boards and used to be extremely active but have been pretty dormant for a couple of years. The perspective I gained from that dormant time not only gave me new energy for both, but I think very focused and creative energy that I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

Even with a little work sprinkled in, 6 weeks off and disconnected from emails, the office, and regular meetings is a blessing that I hope everyone gets to experience at some point in his or her career.

Filed under: Return Path

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May 272009

Book Short: Entrepreneurs in Government

Book Short:  Entrepreneurs in Government

Leadership and Innovation:  Entrepreneurs in Government, edited by a professor I had at Princeton, Jim Doig, is an interesting series of mini-biographies of second- and third-tier government officials, mostly from the 1930s through the 1970s.  The book’s thesis is that some of the most interesting movers and shakers in the public arena (not elected officials) have a lot of the same core skills as private sector entrepreneurs.

The thesis is borne out by the book, and the examples are interesting, if for no other reason than they are about a series of highly influential people you’ve probably never heard of.  The guy who ran the Port Authority of New York for 30 years.  The guy who built the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines.  The head of NASA who put a man on the moon.

The biggest gap I identified between the success of these individuals and business entrepreneurs is the need for cultivation of direct relationships with congressional leaders, true in almost all cases.  I’m not sure there’s a proper analog — shareholders, maybe — but that’s clearly a skill that is required for the heads of agencies to succeed with their political patrons.

It’s an interesting read overall, particularly if you’re an entrepreneur who is considering a future career change into government.

Oct 082007

Impact of a Leader

Impact of a Leader

I had an interesting moment of clarity the other day around the impact of a leader that’s not from the business world but that does have lessons for the business world.  This may take a couple of minutes to set up, so bear with me.

One of my extracurricular activities is raising money for Princeton from fellow alumni.  For this effort, we use two basic metrics to track success in any given year’s campaign:  participation (what % of alumni give) and dollars (how much $ we raise). While dollars raised are escalating year over year as you’d expect with inflation and with an expanding alumni base due to larger classes in more recent years, participation rates are reasonably consistent for given classes, year in, year out.

But there’s an interesting trend I saw on a graph of the numbers that Princeton posts over time, which is that participation rates vary from class to class, much more than dollars given.  One class may always have 50% of its members donating; another will always have 75% of classmates donating.  You’d expect classes to hover around an average much more closely than the data would indicate.

One of the things that was pointed out to me when I was looking at the graph is that record-breaking participation rates of the younger classes spike up and stay up coincident with the arrival of the University’s current President, Shirley Tilghman, about 5 years ago.  I’m sure there are other explanations for this, but this one keeps resonating with me.  Why?  President Tilghman is an incredibly engaging public figure who really connects with students and alums of all ages.  And many (though not all) of the classes with systematically weak participation rates were on campus during the reign of her predecessor, President Harold Shapiro.  I don’t mean to malign President Shapiro – I’m sure he was an excellent administrator and fundraiser – but a warm figure and dynamic speaker that students looked up to, he was not.  No one I can think of when I was on campus during the Shapiro years felt as connected to the institution of Princeton as I hear current students feeling connected to the institution in the Tilghman years.  Again, there may be other explanations for the coincident timing of the drop in participation, but I’m going to run with this one for thematic convenience if nothing else.  🙂

This lesson must translate to the business world as well, especially for larger companies.  Leaders that can connect with their people receive payback for that connection in the form of retention, productivity, and quality of work.  Leaders that fail to do so – even while competently managing things like finances and Boards – are doomed in the long run to lead companies with less engaged teams, therefore weaker products, therefore less happy customers, therefore lower profits.

Filed under: Leadership


Jun 062007

The 80 Percent Rule (Not the 80/20 Rule)

The 80 Percent Rule (Not the 80/20 Rule)

I believe it was Ronald Reagan who said about the Republican Party that there are a lot of people in it with a lot of different views, but that as long he agreed 80% with someone, he was solidly “with them.”  The older I get, the more I find this to be a great rule of thumb.

Certainly in politics, it must be true.  In a two-party system that handles an infinite number of issues, you’re never going to agree 100% with someone.  You just have to get close.  That’s why it will be interesting to see how things like the candidacy of Giuliani works, with him running as a pro-choice Republican.

I also find it true in the non-profit fundraising world.  I am currently raising a lot of money for Princeton from my classmates, and of course everyone has different opinions about what the University is doing today, in particular about some of their policies around admissions, expansion, and athletics.  But in the end, the argument that “you’re never going to agree 100%…but are you at least at 80%?” seems to work well to persuade people to donate.

And of course, this 80% rule is very true in running a business as well.  You can’t expect your employees to agree with 100% of your decisions.  But your employees also realize that they will never agree with 100% of their company’s decisions.  At about the 80% rule, with enough transparency around decision-making to make the missing 20% at least seem rational, you have a winning formula.