Apr 052012

Scaling Me

Scaling Me

Two things have come up over the last couple years for me that are frustrations for me as a CEO of a high growth company.  These are both people related — an area that’s always been the cornerstone of my leadership patterns.  That probably makes them even more frustrating.

Frustration 1:  Not knowing if I can completely trust the feedback I get from deep in the organization.  I’ve always relied on direct interactions with junior staff and personal observation and data collection in order to get a feel for what’s going on.  But a couple times lately, people had been admonishing me (for the first time) when I’ve relayed feedback with comments like, “of course you heard that — you’re the CEO.”

So now the paranoid Matt kicks in a bit.  Can I actually trust the feedback I’m getting?  I think I can.  I think I’m a good judge of character and am able to read between the lines and filter comments and input and responses to questions I ask.  But maybe this gets harder as the organization grows and as personal connections to me are necessarily fewer and farther between.

Frustration 2:  Needing to be increasingly careful with what I say and how I say it.  This comes up in two different ways.  First, I want to make sure that while I’m still providing as transparent leadership as I can, that I’m not saying something that’s going to freak out a more junior staff member because they’re missing context or might misinterpret what I’m saying.  Ok, this one I can manage.

But the tougher angle on this is having unintended impact on people.  Throwing out a casual idea in a conversation with someone in the company can easily lead to a chain reaction of “Matt said” and “I need to redo my goals” conversations that aren’t what I meant.  So I’ve done some work to formalize feedback and communication loops when I have skip-level check-ins, but it’s creating more process and thought overhead for me than I’m used to.

Nothing is bad here – just signs of a growing organization – but some definite changes in how I need to behave in order to keep being a strong and successful leader.

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.