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 112012

Return Path Core Values, Part III

Return Path Core Values, Part III

Last year, I wrote a series of 13 posts documenting and illustrating Return Path’s core values.  This year, we just went through a comprehensive all-company process of updating our values.  We didn’t change our values – you can’t do that! – but we did revise the way we present our values to ourselves and the world.  It had been four years since we wrote the original values up, and the business has evolved in many ways.  Quite frankly, the process of writing up all these blog posts for OnlyOnce last year was what led me to think it was time for a bit of a refresh.

The result of the process was that we combined a few values statements, change the wording of a few others, added a few new ones, and organized and labeled them better.  We may not have a catchy acronym like Rand Fishkin’s TAGFEE, but these are now much easier for us to articulate internally.  So now we have 14 values statements, but they don’t exactly map to the prior ones one for one.  The new presentation and statements are:

People First

  • Job 1:  We are responsible for championing and extending our unique culture as a competitive advantage.
  • People Power:  We trust and believe in our people as the foundation of success with our clients and shareholders.
  • Think Like an Owner:  We are a community of A Players who are all owners in the business.  We provide freedom and flexibility in exchange for consistently high performance.
  • Seriously Fun:  We are serious about our job and lighthearted about our day.  We are obsessively kind to and respectful of each other, and appreciate each other’s quirks.

Do the Right Thing 

  • No Secrets:  We are transparent and direct so that people know where the company stands and where they stand, so that they can make great decisions.
  • Spirit of the Law:  We do the right thing, even if it means going beyond what’s written on paper.
  • Raise the Bar:  We lead our industry to set standards that inboxes should only contain messages that are relevant, trusted, and safe.
  • Think Global, Act Local:  We commit our time and energy to support our local communities.

Succeed Together

  • Results-Focused:  We focus on building a great business and a great company in an open, accessible environment.
  • Aim High and Be Bold:  We learn from others, then we write our own rules to be a pioneer in our industry and create a model workplace.  We take risks and challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense.
  • Two Ears, One Mouth:  We ask, listen, learn, and collect data.  We engage in constructive debate to reach conclusions and move forward together.
  • Collaboration is King:   We solve problems together and help each other out along the way. We keep our commitments and communicate diligently when we can’t.
  • Learning Loops: We are a learning organization.  We aren’t embarrassed by our mistakes – we communicate and learn from them so we can grow in our jobs.
  • Not Just About Us:  We know we’re successful when our clients are successful and our users are happy.

For the 4 values which are “new,” I will write a post each, just as I did the old ones and run them over the next couple months.  RPers, I will go back and combine/revise my prior posts for us to use internally, but I won’t bother editing old blog posts.


Dec 202011

Return Path Core Values, Part II

Return Path Core Values, Part II

As I said at the beginning of this series, I was excited to share the values that have made us successful with the world and to also articulate more for the company some of the thinking behind the statements.

You can click on the tag for all the posts on the 13 Return Path’s core values, but the full list of the values is below, with links to each individual post, for reference:

  1. We believe that people come first
  2. We believe in doing the right thing
  3. We solve problems together and always present problems with potential solutions or paths to solutions
  4. We believe in keeping the commitments we make, and communicate obsessively when we can’t
  5. We don’t want you to be embarrassed if you make a mistake; communicate about it and learn from it
  6. We believe in being transparent and direct
  7. We challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense
  8. We believe that results and effort are both critical components of execution
  9. We are serious and passionate about our job and positive and light-hearted about our day
  10. We are obsessively kind to and respectful of each other
  11. We realize that people work to live, not live to work
  12. We are all owners in the business and think of our employment at the company as a two-way street
  13. We believe inboxes should only contain messages that are relevant, trusted, and safe

As I noted in my initial post, every employee as of August 2008 was involved in the drafting of these statements.  That’s a long post for another time, but it’s an important part of the equation here.  These were not top-down statements written by me or other executives or by our People team.  Some are more aspirational than others, but they are the aspirations of the company, not of management!

Dec 202011

Transparency Rules

Transparency Rules

I think each and every one of our 13 core values at Return Path is important to our culture and to our success.  And I generally don’t rank them.  But if I did, People First is a leading contender to be at the top of the list. The other leading contender would be this last one in the series:

We believe in being transparent and direct

The big Inc. Magazine story about us last year talked a lot about our commitment to transparency and some of the challenges that come with being transparent and direct with people. I’d like to highlight here some of the benefits of being transparent, and the benefits of being direct (sometimes those two things are the same, sometimes they are different).

Transparency’s benefits are so numerous that it’s hard to pick just one or two themes to write about, but my favorite benefit is empowerment.  Especially in a world where information is increasingly available and free, hoarding it comes at a high cost.

  • If everyone in the company knows that you’re short of plan and disappointed about that, the majority of people will exercise hawkish judgment about expenses.  The opposite is true as well.  If people know you’re running ahead of plan, they will be more willing to take risks and make investments. Without transparency of financials, people are just more in the dark and looking for all answers and judgment to come from above
  • If everyone on your staff understands the process you went through to make a tough call about an element of your strategy, they are not only more likely to understand and support the decision, but they learn from you how to make decisions in the first place
  • If your Board knows you’re having a tough quarter from the get go, they’re not surprised at the quarterly meeting and don’t force you to spend painful and precious minutes in the meeting On the firing line reporting on the details. Instead, they can spend time leading up to the meeting thinking about the details of the problems and how they can help or what insights they can bring to bear

Transparency does have some limits, even today.  There are three main limits we run into. One is compensation — still too touchy and wrapped up in people’s self esteem to post on the wall (though I have heard about a couple companies that do that, believe it or not). Another is terminations. Although you might want to tell the company that you fired Sally because she wasn’t carrying her weight, the long term value you derive from dignity and kindness trump any short term value you might derive from such a statement (plus, people know when Sally isn’t carrying her weight, anyway). The third limit to transparency is around half-baked ideas. Although you might sometimes want to try ideas on for size publicly, you have to be careful not to send people scurrying off in the wrong direction just because you blurted something out in a meeting.

The second half of this value statement is about being direct.  Being direct mostly has benefits in terms of efficiency. You can be direct and still be polite and kind.  But being direct means not beating around the bush, being political, or being conflict avoidant.  It means nipping problems in the bud and saving yourself time or money in the long run.

  • If you are direct with an employee who is not performing well with data to back it up, the employee has a much better shot at improving than if you delegate the feedback to HR, wait for the next annual performance review, or go passive and skip the feedback entirely
  • If you are direct with a boss who you think is treating you unfairly, your odds of fixing the situation go way up
  • If there’s bad news to deliver, be direct about it — look the other person in the eye, deliver the news crisply and succinctly, and as quickly as you can after finding it out or deciding on it yourself

Avoid euphemisms at all cost. Telling someone you “might have to rethink things” is not the same as saying “I will have to fire you if xyz don’t happen in the next 30 days.” Saying “xyz would be good for you to do” is not the same as saying “the way for you to get promoted is to consistently do xyz.”

Being transparent and direct are increasingly table stakes for successful companies full of knowledge workers who want to be empowered and clear on where they stand.

I’ve really enjoyed writing all of these values out in living color. I will do a wrap up post shortly.

Dec 082011

To Err is Human, To Admit it is Divine

To Err is Human, To Admit it is Divine

Forget about forgiveness.  Admitting mistakes is much harder.  The second-to-last value that I’m writing up of our 13 core values at Return Path is

We don’t want you to be embarrassed if you make a mistake; communicate about it and learn from it

People don’t like to feel vulnerable.  And there’s no more vulnerable feeling in business than publicly acknowledging that you goofed, whether to your peers, your boss, or your team (hard to say which is worse — eating crow never tastes good no matter who is serving it). But wow is it a valuable trait for an organization to have. Here are the benefits that come from being good at admitting mistakes:

  • You’re not afraid to MAKE mistakes in the first place.  Taking risks, which is one of the things that vaults businesses forward with great speed, inherently involves making mistakes. If you’re afraid to shoot…you can’t score
  • You teach yourself not to make the same mistake twice.  Being public about mistakes you make really reinforces your leanings.  It’s sort of like taking notes in class.  If you write it down, you’re more likely to remember it, even if you’re a good listener to the teacher
  • You teach others not to make the same mistake you made.  Not everyone learns from the mistakes of others as opposed to the mistakes of self, but being public about mistakes and learnings at least gives other people a shot at learning

We’ve gotten good over the years at doing post-mortems (which I wrote about here) when a major snafu happens, which is institutional (large scale) admission and learning. But smaller scale post-mortems within a team and with less formal process around them are just as important if not more so, to make them commonplace.

We have also baked this thinking into our entire product development process.  We are as lean and agile as possible given that we are closing in on 300 employees now in 11 offices in 8 countries.  Our entire product development process is now geared around the concept of “fail fast” and killing projects or sending them back to the drawing board when they’re not meeting marketplace demand.  Embracing this posture has been one of the hallmarks of our success as we’ve scaled the business these past few years.

One trick here:  If this is something you are trying to institutionalize in your company — make sure you celebrate the admission of a mistake and the learnings from it, rather than the mistake itself. You do still value successful execution more than most things!

Nov 222011

B+ for Effort?

B+ for Effort?

Effort is important in life.  If Woody Allen is right, and 80% of success in life is just showing up, then perhaps 89% is in showing up AND putting in good effort.  But there is no A for Effort in a fast-paced work environment.  The best you can get without demonstrating results is a B+.

The converse is also true, that the best you can get with good results AND without good effort is a B+.

Now, a B+ isn’t a bad grade either way.  But it’s not the best grade.  In continuing with this series of our 13 core values at Return Path, the next one I’ll cover is:

We believe that results and effort are both critical components of execution

We’ve always espoused the general philosophy that HOW you get something done is quite important.  For example, if the effort is poor and you get to the right place, maybe you got lucky.  Or even worse, maybe you wasted a lot of time to get there.  Or if you burned your colleagues or clients in the process of getting to the right place, a positive short-term result can have negative long-term consequences.

But when all is said and done, even with the most supportive culture that values effort and learning a lot (more on that in the next post in this series), results speak very loudly. Customers don’t give you a lot of credit for trying hard if you’re not effectively delivering product or solving their problems.  And investors ultimately demand results.

Our “talent development” framework at Return Path – the thing that we use to measure employee performance, reflects this dual view of execution:

The X axis is clearly labeled “Performance,” meaning results, and the Y axis is labeled “Potential – RP Expectations,” which basically means effort and fit with the culture at Return Path.  We plot out employees on the basis of their quantitative scores coming out of their performance reviews on this grid every year.  Which box any given employee falls in has a lot to do with how that employee is managed and coached in the coming months.  We’re always trying to move people up and to the right!

The definitions of the different boxes in this framework are telling and speak to the subject of this post.  To be an A player here, you have to excel in both effort and results – that’s our definition of successful execution.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  We’re getting to the end of this series…only two more to go.

Nov 102011

Protecting the Inbox

Protecting the Inbox

We only have one out of our 13 core values at Return Path that’s closely related to the content of our business. But as with the other values, it says a lot about who we are and how we approach the work that we do. That value is:

We believe inboxes should only contain messages that are relevant, trusted, and safe

We occupy a pretty unique space in the email universe – we serve senders and receiving networks, but aren’t directly in the mail stream and therefore don’t directly touch end users.  So much of our business, from our Certification or whitelisting business, to our new Domain Assurance anti-spoofing/anti-phishing business, revolves around building trust in our company that this core value is critical to our survival. If we ran afoul of this core value — and it comes up all the time — we’d be dead in the water.

Here’s how it comes up:  because our Certification program is the closest thing on the Internet to guaranteed universal email delivery, every spammer and grey mailer in the world wants to be on it. We don’t just SELL access to our whitelist. Even once a prospect has been converted to an under-contract client, they have to APPLY for Certification.

It’s not easy to GET Certified. You have to be a really, really good mailer. Not just a real entity. Not just a big spender. You have to send mail that is safe and secure and wanted by end users. We have a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods we can use to determine this, and the requirements for Certified status and therefore Inbox placement are carefully negotiated and regularly reviewed with our ISP partners. Once a client is Certified, it’s not easy to STAY Certified because we are monitoring all of those same standards in real time, 24×7. Clients who go out of bounds get immediately suspended from the program until they are back in bounds. Clients who go out of bounds enough, we just terminate from the program for good.

By the way, just because we won’t certify a particular client isn’t an indictment that they are a spammer. It just means that their email programs still need to be subject to all the state of the art filtering and security measures that our ISPs have in their arsenal.  And most of the time, it doesn’t mean that we won’t work with them to improve the quality of their mail programs so their messages are relevant, trusted, and safe.

But at the end of the day, we’d rather not take money from questionable clients than compromise the quality of our Certification program. That’s a hard decision to make sometimes.  I’ve had to call large clients who are poor mailers and fire them more than once, and I’ve had to take angry phone calls and threatened legal action from clients or prospects many times over the years.  But for us, respect for end users and inbox security are deeply baked into the culture.  It’s why we developed the Domain Assurance product and launched it earlier this year.  And that’s why it’s one of our core values.

Oct 272011

More Than 1/3 of Your Life

More Than 1/3 of Your Life

When I was a kid, so my parents tell me, I used to watch a lot of TV. For some reason, all those episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Dallas still have a place in my brain, right next to lyrics from 70s and 80s songs and movies. I also tend to remember TV commercials, which are even more useless (not that JR Ewing or Ferris Beuller had all that many valuable life lessons to impart).  Anyway, I remember some commercial for some local mattress company which started out with the booming voiceover, “You spend 1/3 of your life in bed — why not enjoy that time and be as comfortable as you can be?”

Well, we humans frequently spend MORE than 1/3 of our lives at work. Why shouldn’t we have that same philosophy about that time as the mattress salesman from 1970s professed for sleep?  Another one in my series of posts about Return Path’s 13 core values is this one:

We realize that people work to live, not live to work

There are probably a few other of our core values that I could write about with this same setup, but this one is probably the mother of them all.  I even wrote about it several years ago here.  Work is for most people the thing that finances the rest of their life — their hopes and dreams, their families’ well-being, their daily lives, and ultimately, their retirement. I think many people wouldn’t work, at least in most for-profit jobs as we know them, if they didn’t have to. And that’s where this value comes from.

How does this value play out?

First, we are respectful of people’s time in the daily thick of things.  We know that society has changed and that work and personal time bleed into each other much more regularly now than they used to.  As I’ve written about before in this series of posts, we have an “open” vacation policy that allows employees to take as much time off a they can, as long as they get their jobs done well. One of the real benefits of this, besides allowing for more or longer vacations, is that employees can take slices of time off, or can work from home, as life demands things of them like dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences, without having to count the hours or minutes.

Second, an important part of our management training is to make sure that managers get to know their people as people.  This doesn’t mean being buddies or pals, though that happens from time to time and is fine. Understanding everything that makes a person tick, from their hobbies, to their kids, to their pets or pet causes, really helps a manager more effectively manage an employee as well as develop them. And as Steven Covey says, it’s important to “sharpen the saw,” which a good manager can help an employee do ONLY if they are in tune to some extent at a personal or non-work level.

Finally, our sabbatical policy — beyond our fairly generous and flexible vacation policy — ensures that every handful of years, employees really can go off and enjoy life. We’ve had employees buy around-the-world plane tickets and show up at JFK with a backpack. We’ve had people take their families off for a month in an exotic tropical destination. We even had one employee spend a sabbatical in a coffee shop learning how to write code (names masked to protect the innocent).

The challenge with this value is that not everyone treats the flexibility and freedom with the same level of respect, and occasionally we do have to remind someone that flexibility and freedom don’t mean that work can be left undone or delayed.  We believe that by providing the flexibility, people will work even harder, and certainly more efficiently, to still go above and beyond in terms of high performance execution.

In my CEO fantasty world, I’d like to think that given the choice, most of our employees would still come to work at Return Path if they didn’t have to for financial reasons, but I’m not that naive. Hopefully by setting the tone that we understand people work to live and not vice versa, we are allowing people to enjoy life as much as possible, even in the 1/3+ of it that’s spent working.

Sep 292011

Challenging Authority

Challenging Authority

My dad told me a joke once about a kid who as a teenager thought his father was the dumbest person he’d ever met. But then, as the punchline goes, “By the time I’d graduated college, it was amazing how much the old man had learned.”

The older we get as humans, the more we realize how little we know — and how fallible we are. One of our 13 core values at Return Path gets right to the heart of this one:

We challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense

I will note up front that this particular value statement is probably not as widely practiced as most of the others I’m writing about in this series of posts, but it’s as important as any of the others.

Very few things make me happier at work than when an employee challenges me or another leader — and quite frankly, the more junior and less well I know the employee, the better. No matter what the role, we hire smart, ambitious, and intellectually curious people to work at Return Path. Why let all that raw brainpower go to waste?  We thrive as a company in part because we are all trying to do a better job, and because we work with our eyes open to the things happening around us.

I have no doubt that some real percentage of the decisions that I or other leaders of the company make don’t make sense, either in full or in part. And I’m sure that from time to time we become complacent with things that are running smoothly or quietly, even if they’re not optimal or even moderately destructive.  That’s why I’m particularly grateful when someone calls me out on something. We have made great strides in and changes to the business over the years because someone on the team has challenged something. We’ve terminated employees who were poisonous to the organization, we’ve reversed course on strategic plans, we’ve even sold a business unit.

One of the things we do well is blend this value with one I wrote about a few weeks ago about being kind and respectful to each other.  The two play together very nicely in our culture.  People are generally constructive when they have feedback to give or are challenging authority, and people who receive feedback or challenges assume positive intent and nothing personal.  We specifically train people around these delicate balances both via the Action/Design framework and a specific course we teach called Giving and Receiving Feedback.

It takes courage to challenge authority. But then again, nothing great is ever accomplished in life without courage (and enthusiasm, so the old adage goes).

Sep 152011

Why We Occasionally Celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Why We Occasionally Celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day

No kidding – next Monday is September 19, and that is, among other things, International Talk Like a Pirate Day. We’ve done a variety of things to celebrate it over the years, not the least of which was a series of appropriately-themed singing telegrams we sent to interrupt all-hands meetings.  I can’t remember why we ever started this particular thing, but it’s one of many for us.  Why do we care?  Because

We are serious and passionate about our job and positive and light-hearted about our day

This is another one of Return Path’s philosophies I’m documenting in my series on our 13 core values.

I’m not sure I’d describe our work environment as a classic work hard/play hard environment. We’re not an investment bank. We don’t have all 20something employees in New York City. We’re not a homogeneous workforce with all of the same outside interests. So while we do work hard and care a lot about our company’s success, our community of fellow employees, solving our clients’ problems, and making a big impact on our industry and on end users’ lives, we also recognize that “playing hard” for us means having fun on the job.

It’s not as if we run an improv comedy troop in the lunch room or play incessant practical jokes on each other (though I have pulled off a couple sweet April Fool’s pranks over the years). But as the value is worded, we try to set a lighthearted and positive atmosphere. This one is a little harder to produce concrete examples of than some of our other core values that I’ve written up, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

Whether it’s talking like a pirate, paying quiet homage to our unofficial mascot – the monkey, stopping for a few minutes to play a game of ping pong, or just making a silly face or poking fun of a close colleague in a meeting, I’m so happy that our company and Board have this value hard-wired in.  Life’s just too short not to have fun at every available opportunity!