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?”

My Favorite Free iPad Apps

I’ve been increasingly using my iPad since the applications are becoming comprehensive enough to almost be a PC replacement.  There are still two areas where the iPad falls way short of replacing my laptop – 1) directory based file access and integration with email attachments (I’m surprised DropBox hasn’t solved this issue or maybe they have?) and 2) “power” work sessions, times when I need to do a lot of typing or editing and need a larger screen.

In any case, here are some of my new faves right now:

Evernote.  Comprehensive notes application that syncs across platforms and devices.  This is an incredibly powerful tool that now has an ecosystem of plugins to make it even more useful for topically capturing and archiving just about anything.  Be sure to download “Ron’s Evernote Tips”.

Skype for iPad.  Finally, Skype’s application for iPad is out, enabling the iPad2 as a chat and video phone platform via WiFi.

FlipBoard.  Centralized news and social media aggregator with a unique interface, turns everything into a page-turning magazine layout, including your Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Zite.  Similar to FlipBoard, but becomes more personalized and “smart” the more you use it by aggregating more of the type of news and stories that you actually read.  This “personalized magazine” space is getting crowded, other very similar apps include Editions by AOL, SkyGrid and News360.

Zinio.  Basically full PDF-like versions of your favorite print magazine subscriptions.  You actually subscribe to your favorite magazines through Zinio (usually at reduced rates) and the full print edition is accessible from your iPad.

Rdio.  Streaming music, on demand and unlimited.  I’m still waiting for the Console.fm and Turntable.fm apps, although both are available through Safari’s web interface.

Join.me.  A GoToMeeting or WebEx competitor and absolutely free.  In fact, you don’t even have to register and there are no software downloads.

360Panorama.  (iPad2) This mobile photo application allows you to take 360 degree photos with your phone by simply turning in a circle, the application automatically snaps the photos and stitches them together.  Here’s Venice Beach.

What’d I miss?

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.

iPhone is changing my life!

Wow, received my iPhone yesterday after a long unsatisfying union with Blackberry. I was always wary of switching away from the button keyboard since I’m such a heavy email and text user on my mobile device. But here I am on day 2, writing this post on the plane and, by the way, doing so on the airline’s wifi. Try doing that on your Blackberry. The keyboard is actually pretty good due in large part to Apple’s autocorrect technology. The iPhone web experience is captivating especially compared to the unusable interface on the BB Tour. Literally unusable.

And the apps! Some of my favorites:

Dropbox – a must for accessing and syncing all of your files

Yelp – especially if you travel. A great location aware app.

Tripit Pro – for road warriors keeps track of all travel and points and monitors flights real time.

Google – pretty cool picture recognition technology that enables search.

Google voice – read or listen to your voice mail, for free of course.

Nirvino wine and beer ratings – separate apps with huge databases

I have much more to explore but I’m hooked. Here’s a (humorous) good review of how I’m feeling.

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