Avoiding Complacency

This past week I sent the email below (verbatim) to my leadership team, not as a critique, but as a challenge.   I really find my own personal motivation goes in cycles and I have to fight through this issue from time to time.  The title of the email was the same as this post, “Avoiding Complacency”.

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Guys, I wanted to share a simple technique I use every week to ensure I’m staying motivated and focused on the right stuff.  To be clear, this is not a critique on our/your work ethic, commitment or anything else other than my normal “challenging” the team to stay awesome.  I recognize everyone is working hard. 

Candidly, one of the issues I personally have to wrestle with is avoiding complacency, becoming “comfortable” in my role and most important, losing a sense of urgency and paranoia that I believe is critical for any startup to succeed – the leadership team simply has to feel an almost overwhelming sense of urgency and belief that if we don’t get better fast, someone else is going to kill us.
 
One of the things I do every Sunday night before the week begins is to answer the question, in writing “In addition to all the crap already on my calendar this week, what am I personally going to do, this week, to move the needle for the company?”
 
We should all take this view and we should push our teams to take this view.  On a weekly basis, its not sufficient for us to “move our existing, albeit important, workstreams closer to completion”.  We each must actually accomplish something, each week, that is foundational to our success, that we can all see as a big step forward, that those looking in (investors, press, customers) would say – yeah, that’s big.
 
Now, is this realistically going to happen each week?  No, but it HAS to be a goal, a focus that each of us holds each other accountable to.  I want us to ask each other this question and I welcome you saying “Rob, what did you do this week to move the needle?”
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The Hardest Decision That No One is Forcing You to Make, But You Should

One of the inevitable truths about startups and building a real business from scratch, is that you rarely get it right from the start.  Meaning, most assumptions made in the beginning about the business model, target market, customer profile, product features, etc will change over time as you build, learn and adjust.  And this cycle often repeats itself several times over the course of the first few years.

Although the decisions to change the product in a different direction, or to abandon sales efforts in a particular segment or to completely pivot the business model are extremely difficult, especially since the team is so invested in confirming rather than disproving hypotheses, these decisions pale in comparison to the most difficult decision – letting go of good people, employees who are top or strong performers but now have a skill mismatch.

To be clear, I’m not talking about terminating non-performers.  If you can’t do this as an entrepreneur within the first 90 days of someone’s employment, then you should try another line of work.  I’m talking about terminating, in many cases, top performers in their trade, its just that their trade is no longer a burning, urgent requirement to build your business based on how requirements are evolving.

Why so ruthless you say?  Because you won’t have room on the payroll for the skills you really need, you will get marginal contribution from top performers that are skill mismatched, and you are increasing risk that you won’t get the traction you need before you run out of money or a competitor eats your lunch.  When you have 5, 10 or 20 employees, every single person must be the best that exists and must gel culturally.  Everyone in the company should demand this level of performance and since “like attracts like”, it makes recruiting only the best that much easier.

Listen, I don’t take any satisfaction for decisions like this that impact people’s lives so deeply, in fact I don’t sleep for nights before it happens, but the consequence of inaction is too large.  The key is to handle these terminations in a dignified, empathetic way.

One last point.  As you look at your team and recognize that there are several folks that unfortunately aren’t cutting the mustard, let go of them all at once.  And when you do it, embrace the remaining team and reinforce that they are the foundation for the company going forward.  In my experience, top performers recognize when there is a lackluster contribution by others and will have more respect for a tough decision that actually breathes more life into the organization by creating cash runway and room to hire the right people.

Where’s Your Operating Plan?

Every business needs a 12-month operating plan, even startups at the earliest stages.  The only major difference between a startup Operating Plan (OpPlan) and a mature OpPlan is that the startup OpPlan will inevitably be wrong.  Then why do it?  Because it represents a stake in the ground, your living metrics, targets and milestones so that when targets are either missed or exceeded, it forces an internal review of “why” and then “how” to make adjustments to keep the business performance on track.  I’m going to focus here on the importance of OpPlans for early stage businesses.

First, what is an OpPlan for an early stage or emerging business?  Probably the most common mistake I see is equating the OpPlan to the 3-5 year financial projections spreadsheet that every startup creates to raise money.  While these projections are incredibly useful and contain many of the assumptions that go into the OpPlan, the OpPlan requires an extraction of key assumptions in written form that is easily communicated to everyone in the organization and certain external stakeholders (investors, Board).  Specifically, the 12-month OpPlan contains the following – think of it as an outline for a powerpoint presentation to share with employees:

  1. Statement of Vision, Mission and Strategy.  At the highest level, these should be really clear and posted on a few walls in the office.  How can you know what to do today if you don’t know where you are going and why?
  2. Core 12-month Objectives.  This should be 5 or fewer major objectives for the business that, if achieved, will define success over the next 12 months, at least based on what you know now.  They ought to be completely consistent with point #1 above.  These are not activities or tasks but rather major objectives (ie, “Achieve 5% market share in our category”).  They don’t describe the “how”, just the “what” and since there’s only 5, key stakeholders (Board, investors) should view the achievement of these objectives as a highly successful month/quarter/year.
  3. Key Initiatives and Priorities.  For the current quarter and in order to meet the Objectives, what are the key Priorities and Initiatives that the team will focus on?  We are now breaking down the Objectives in #2 into a manageable set of Initiatives, answering the “how”.  This list becomes the ultimate arbiter when resource conflicts arise (and they will).  Completion of these Initiatives should absolutely result in performance against the Key Metrics (discussed below).  These corporate Key Initiatives then drive more detailed plans within each functional area – Sales and Product priorities drive the product roadmap, which in turn helps to prioritize the Technology, Analytics, Support and Marketing/PR initiatives.
  4. Key Metrics, Target Values and Accountability.  For each Objective in #2, what must be measured (Metric) and what are the Target Values for each Metric that ensure the Objectives are met?  And who is responsible for achieving each Target Value?  Important to track Metrics monthly, understand why there are variances and, most important, take decisive action to address under-performance.  Examples of corporate metrics might be # customers, average revenue per customer, visitor conversion to sale %, hire 10 people, etc.  Ultimately, each functional area (sales, tech, marketing, support) will have their own set of Metrics and Targets that roll up into achieving the overall corporate Targets.
  5. Financial Projections / Budget.  To include Revenue and Expense targets and assumptions.  There are really two methods for determining Revenue projections – “Top Down” and “Bottoms Up” – and I think its important to have a view into both because they often tell different stories.  Top Down approaches begin with understanding the potential market size, assuming some penetration or market share to determine Revenue growth.  Bottoms Up, on the other hand, starts with understanding the sales cycle, product development complexity and available capital to determine a more “reasonable” picture of Revenue scale.   Another way to think about it – Top Down shows “what’s possible” in a world of few constraints and Bottoms Up is more in line with “what’s achievable” being more realistic about resource constraints.  But having a view into both allows for some analysis to answer the question “What additional resources would it require (money, people, technology) to scale the business faster?”

Finally, I highly recommend creating a “One Sheet OpPlan”, a 2-sided but one page document that has Key Initiatives and Priorities for the current period (quarterly) on the front and Key Metrics and Target Values on the back.  This document gets distributed to ALL employees so everyone is fully informed and aligned on what drives success and, more importantly, how individual efforts tie directly or indirectly to certain Objectives that drive that success.

This important process and document really forms the basis for instilling a Performance Based Culture within the organization by tying individual performance and compensation to company Objectives.

Detractors may say that this is all too much structure and process for a startup where you are simply trying to get the product right and achieve some customer traction.  I would agree that putting too much effort into planning when you are a team of 2 or 3 is probably not the highest and best use of time.  However, while the need for this level of thought into the business may vary, certainly by the time you are taking external capital into the business its important that everyone is aligned on where the business is going and what defines success in the near term, even if success is defined by “get 2 paying customers”.  Even an objective this simple requires sales, a product, technology reliability and scale, support, design, analytics, etc. such that each department has a list a mile long of things they can’t get accomplished due to resource constraints.  A well constructed OpPlan helps to coordinate priorities across departments and keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize.

Are You Working in a Performance Based Culture?

Or in a culture that rewards based on popularity or some other subjective measures?

I’ve had several vastly different experiences in organizations that preached “we are building a Performance Based Culture (PBC)” and generally I don’t think there’s any confusion or lack of understanding about what it is.  The problem, and where I’ve seen it break down, is a poor execution by 1) not putting in place the key ingredients to enable employees to truly understand how their actions will be measured and rewarded and 2) inconsistent and subjective evaluations by leadership.  This last point is the cultural kiss of death for having employees believe that true performance will be rewarded.  Just because you are told you work in a PBC by a C-level executive doesn’t mean you do.  So for startups, why is an explicit transition and focus on building a real PBC important?

Most successful startups go through a few phases of growth that inevitably leads to varying degrees of erosion of the talent level as the team grows, particularly if the team grows quickly and can’t hire staff fast enough.  At the early stages, the right way to hire is to be ruthless about hiring only the best – test everyone extensively in specific skills, intellect, skills flexibility and cultural fit.  Individual performance metrics are less important as everyone is hunkered down to build the product and achieve product/market fit.  And, everyone on the team in the early days has to be a star, their work is too important and is seen and experienced daily by everyone else.  An explicit focus on PBC is not necessary, it simply already exists.  However, over time the organization passes through two important phases that require changes in leadership both of the business and of people.

  1. Rapid scale in employees.  For hyper-growth companies at roughly 20-25 employees (and urgently going to 50 or more), it becomes impossible for the “entire team” to interview every candidate and hiring velocity becomes a gating factor to progress.  Thus compromises tend to be made, B & C level talent sneaks in and because the company is growing so fast, its requires a heroic effort to instill a culture of “firing fast” for mediocre performance.  The result, you end up with some “hangers-on” employees that are not horrible at what they do, but they certainly are not leaders and innovators that will propel the company forward.
  2. Different skills required to scale the business – particularly on the leadership team.  In the best run organizations, this is the time that a more disciplined approach to managing the business takes hold – putting processes in place, tracking and reporting on metrics that drive success, and explicitly preaching and building a Performance Based Culture (PBC) for evaluating and rewarding employees.
So what’s the big deal, seems easy enough right?  I think much of it IS easy – determining organizational goals, defining the desired behaviors, creating individual goals – takes work but not an overwhelming challenge.  The hard part is constantly communicating and coaching employees, supporting their achievement of individual goals, eliminating fear and making reward, hiring and firing decisions that are absolutely consistent with the preaching and the promise, decisions must be objective.  Leadership can’t on the one hand preach rewards and advancement based on objective performance and then exhibit subjective, special treatment or “inner circle” mentality based on a popularity contest.  Everyone will see it, eyes will roll and faith in any sort of real PBC will be lost.
Bottom line, if you are a leader in a startup that is growing rapidly and in need of a more explicit focus on performance management, here’s an oversimplified formula that’s worked for me:
  1. Be clear about what drives success for the business, then create a handful of metrics, measure them, share them, post them – make sure everyone has clarity if we do x, then we achieve y.
  2. With success metrics clear, ensure everyone has actionable individual goals that tie directly to the organizational metrics.  This can be tricky for non-executives.  Every individual goal should roll up into the organizational metrics, directly or indirectly (Some goals should reinforce desired behaviors, not just quantified metrics).
  3. Provide frequent feedback, encourage dialogue and make course corrections.  This should be an ongoing topic of discussion every week as part of a broader check in with direct reports, especially in the early days of implementation.
  4. Be timely.  Don’t let half the quarter expire before individual goals are in place.  It shows a lack of commitment.  How can evaluations be objective if goals are undefined for half the period?
  5. And most important, lead by example, evaluate your staff objectively.  No inner circles, no boys/girls club, no rewarding big talkers, no overly subjective evaluations.  Even with the best intentions this can go awry simply because you may not have a full view of your employee’s performance if they work closely with others.  Important to actively seek out performance feedback from those with the best understanding of performance.  Put in the effort to get it right, you may be fooled by a lack of information on someone’s performance, but everyone else in the organization won’t be.

Don’t Hate Me Cause I’m a Business Guy

I recently read a fantastic post by Jacob Quist entitled “Why Engineers Distrust Business People” that provided a unique perspective on what I never fully understood, but was always aware, to be a common tension between deeply technical folks and those of us who are far more competent in non-technical arenas such as business operations, business development, sales or marketing.  In Jacob’s post, he believes the foundation of this distrust is due to the fact that historically engineers have been directed at the highest levels of the organization by business people and it only takes a few bad experiences to perpetuate a stereotype.  This is certainly a 2-way street, there are plenty of bad engineers and technical leadership out there, but typically its the business side of the house that directs the organization.  At least historically.  Jacob is right, its all about providing mutual value which leads to mutual respect.  Now with so many new startups founded by engineers, there’s a burst of independence from these bad experiences, creating a challenge for even the most effective, accomplished business entrepreneurs to find “co-founder” opportunities unless they bring the idea or concept to the table.

As a “business guy” who’s worked closely with engineers in startups for over 10 years, I’ve consciously made efforts to complement, not contribute to (read: get in the way of), the technical aspects of the business while treating the technical/engineering function equally if not more important than anything that drives the success of the organization.  Most recently I’ve tried to take it one step further, a step that I rarely see other business folks embrace – ensuring technology leadership has an equal seat at the table at the highest levels of strategy and product development and enabling the technical staff, the engineers, to contribute to product development in the form of a “safe challenge” dialogue with the product team.  This view has evolved over time for me as I’ve been exposed to increasing levels of strategic talent in the technical individuals I’ve worked with.  Experienced engineers often have incredible design and product sensibilities because they are the closest to the end product.  While they may not create the original design or spec, they are problem solvers in implementation, constantly iterating to find the best solutions.  And they usually understand a product’s complexity better than anyone, which HAS to be considered in any strategic product discussion.

So to all of you startup engineers out there, especially those who are founders and assuming you need a business partner (and you do, subject of a future post!), what should you look for in your “business partner”?

  • Demonstrable success in starting, building and scaling a startup.  These are 3 distinct phases of a company’s early growth that require different skills and perspective, and you need someone that has success in all three.
  • Philosophically aligned on the role of technology.  Ask the tough questions about the qualities of a great CTO, the role of the engineers and how strategic decisions are made for the organization.
  • The business co-founder does not have to be the CEO.  This is a great ego-check moment.  There should at least be a dialogue and healthy debate, never a default assumption.  And discussing how roles will evolve as the company grows is equally important.
  • Find an overall athlete (COO or Head of Ops)  instead of a functional expert.  This is probably the most controversial point that many will disagree with.  Many founders want to solve their most immediate need (more sales, marketing to acquire customers) and thus seek to find deep experience in a single skill as the first or second key leader.  I would contend that in a startup, there are a dozen areas that need leadership now to properly set the company up for success and that if every other attribute on this list is met, the “right” business partner can fill any immediate functional need sufficiently in the interim.  Another important point – acquiring and building out a talented, cohesive and high performing leadership team is difficult and a skill that should be historically demonstrated by your partner.
  • Ability to immediately contribute.  Leadership recruiting, product strategy, fund raising, sales, business development, marketing – the seasoned business lead can successfully step into most of these roles initially as the other functional leaders are recruited.
  • Test for worst case scenario.  When all hell breaks loose and it looks like the business is going to crater, how will your partner deal with it?   Do you share common philosophies on hiring, spending, tough decision processes?  This is difficult to predict, but you have to talk about worst case, because in a startup, worst case is most likely case!

What other qualities should you look for in your “business” partner?

Lifelong Learning With MIT – For Free!

Ten years ago the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began OpenCourseWare, a program to publish educational materials from all of its courses freely and openly on the Internet.  At this ten-year milestone, the program has 90% participation among faculty, sharing 2,000 courses with over 100 million individuals worldwide.  The program’s objective over the next ten years is to serve 1 billion people.  Wow.

While these courses do not bestow degrees or certificates, there are some incredible stories about how these world-class instructional materials are changing lives, particularly for the under-privileged and those in remote locations throughout the world.

It’s been 14 years since I completed graduate school at Kellogg and while I actively read to keep stimulated, there are areas, particularly in technology, that I could really stand to dig a little deeper to make me a more effective leader.  So I have just started an undergraduate, self-paced course through MIT’s program called Introduction to Computer Science and Programming that educates on the role computation and programming can play in solving problems, including application using Python programming language.  Lots has changed since my undergraduate FORTRAN programming class in 1987.  It should be fun!

43% of OpenCourseWare users are self-learners and 40% of them use the service to “explore areas outside my professional field”.  There are lots of areas of curiosity and interest for me in these 2,000 courses.  Particularly areas I know nothing about but have a curiosity to learn.  Anthropology and Urban Design are two areas I know squat about, but with a small amount of time and access to such great educational resources, I can get a cursory introduction.  Heck, why not Genomics and Computational Biology while I’m at it?

The world truly is at our fingertips.

What Kind of Leader Are You?

There are so many different kinds of leadership & leadership styles.  A broad categorization might include People leadership (management) and Subject Matter leadership (expertise).  Then there are various styles of leadership – inclusive, authoritarian, hands on/off, etc.

I would like to talk about People Leadership in this post, and specifically leadership in a startup or early stage organization where innovation, speed, energy and passionate engagement need to be the life blood of the organization.  My leadership style for direct reports is very much one of inclusion, collaboration, and support to enable people to perform at a high level.  But it all starts with the team composition and quality from both a skills and personality standpoint.  This will be an oversimplification, but I see the “process of people leadership” something like this:

  1. Ensure the individuals on your team are the most skilled at what they do.  I’m specifically talking about pure intellectual horsepower and subject matter expertise.  Every individual that works in my current organization goes through skills testing, both general intellect and functional specific.  There are homework assignments that are evaluated in a panel/presentation setting by a group of the prospective candidates peers and hiring manager.  This is an area I simply won’t compromise.  True story – I interviewed over 100 individuals for a critical VP Analytics/Statistician role I was trying to fill.  The skills test was nearly impossible, taking a consultant 3 months to solve.  Most candidates fell flat, some solved 10% of the problem.  My eventual hire solved the problem and recreated the statistical model, in its entirety, over a weekend.  Find the best no matter how long it takes.  The best team wins, always.
  2. Direct reports must have the right personality and cultural sensibilities to gel with your leadership style and culture you desire to create.  This is really important and I think often overlooked.  Team dynamics and how they operate as a team, not as individuals, will define the success of achieving organizational objectives.  I look for team members that share my philosophies on desired culture and management styles.  This does NOT mean, and this is important, finding “yes” people to agree with you all the time.  Quite the contrary, I explicitly encourage feedback and dissonance to create healthy debate.  The best idea should win, not the strongest personality or the person with the most authority in the room.
  3. Show up credible as a manager, leader and problem solver. I must inspire confidence in my team as a leader.  Have I provided a clear vision for where I am leading them (strategy)?  How do I treat people?  I often participate in even the most technical conversations outside of my experience, there is likely an angle to the problem that has not been considered.  My suggestion:  Inspire your team through your engagement in their work.
  4. Recognize what each individual needs – rewards, support, level of autonomy. Knowing this and responding to it on an individual level I have found will  maximize productivity, engagement and happiness.  I have also found that every individual can be widely different on these requirements.
  5. Become a master at conflict resolution and personality management.  All of us are different and respond differently to varying personalities.  It’s human nature.  I have also found that highly intelligent subject matter experts who are the best at what they do have a high degree of confidence that their way is the right way.  Getting different personalities to work together and facilitating the flow of information & communication in a way that creates a highly effective team environment is a lot of what I do on a daily basis.
  6. Encourage risk taking and let people fail. While I often hear this in organizations, I’ve rarely experienced a real commitment to it.  People may be given a second chance, but often the reputational damage discourages further risk taking.   A culture of innovation through a tolerance for mistakes and failures starts at the top of the organization, plain and simple.
  7. Make sure each individual knows clearly how success will be measured for the organization and for themselves.  This is an important point that I see too often misguided.  By setting rigid, documented objectives for individuals and tying compensation directly to these objectives can often result in undesired behavior, particularly in a startup or early stage organization where the continuous need for flexibility and adjustment for things as core as strategy and business model are paramount.  Don’t get me wrong, I see a need for written objectives and planning, but I also am explicit about how objectives can and will shift along the way and that there is no substitute for close and ongoing communication with direct reports.  I simply don’t get overly dogmatic on this point, especially since there is always a subjective nature to the review process.  A fully objective review process will undoubtedly lead to undesired behavior if there is even the slightest shift in objectives.
  8. When times get tough, real leadership begins.  I’ve been through some tough segments in organizations that I’ve run and you really learn about people when we go into “self-preservation” mode.  More than ever, I try to lead by example during tough times.  I over-communicate.  I really try to treat people with integrity and honesty through the challenging times and I’ve found by doing so it increases people’s tolerance for uncertainty, inspires confidence and increases loyalty.
  9. Don’t be a dick.  Seriously, this is a simple tenant but one I constantly review so as to not abuse the position of authority.  How are you perceived?  I have witnessed “dick” behavior destroy the culture of an organization almost overnight, morale sinks, motivation wanes, and at 6pm every night the place is a ghost town whereas before everyone was passionately working and collaborating long after the sun went down.
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