Monthly Archives: August 2010

Scoble on Happy Startups: No Assholes

I was at the Chomp Tastemakers party this week, and ended up chatting with @Scobleizer about Startup Happiness.  My question to him was: “What makes a happy startup?”  He didn’t even pause to take a breath before he answered emphatically “No assholes!”

Chatting with @Scobleizer at Crunch Tastemakers

Robert Scoble talks to founders and CEOs all the time, so he’s working from a huge set of sample data, in addition to his own personal experience. He explained that once you have even one asshole working at your company, it introduces politics in a way that wasn’t there previously. We didn’t drill down into the definition of asshole, but from my experience, an asshole is either someone who is more interested in their own personal success than in the success of the company and their colleagues, or someone who makes mean-spirited attacks on others, or both.

Assholes introduce the concept of “blame” at a company. If you know that you are in danger of being blamed for making a mistake, then it introduces a whole new level of anxiety into decisionmaking that is counterproductive. Of course you want people to make the best choices they can, and take the responsibility very seriously, but knowing that you can pitch an idea, and have it be wrong, or try doing something and fail, and still be accepted as a valued member of the team is one of the things that encourages the innovation and creativity that is the lifeblood of entrepreneurs and startups.

If all of the people on the team are focused on being succeeding *together*, then it matters a lot less who had the idea that worked, or that didn’t work. They have the shared belief that we’re all in this together, if we made a mistake, then we need to improve the process of making decisions, but not so-and-so is individually responsible, and therefore they’re a bad person.  An asshole has the belief that there is someone we can find to blame for this, and it’s worth spending the time and energy to do so. They are thinking about the team in a completely different way!  And they are interested in convincing other people that their belief is right…

Also, an asshole makes it dangerous to take responsibility for making a mistake. Here, I’ll lean on Agile software development as an example. Agile has the concept of weekly sprints, where a team bites off a chunk of work, mows through as much of it as they can, and then have an end-of-interaction review when it’s done. The end-of-iteration review is a chance to look at what went well, and what went wrong. It’s often a time when someone will step up and say “well, I thought that doing XYZ would work really well, but when we went to do it, it turned out to be not such a good idea after all. Next time I’d do it differently.”

Agile software development allows the team to discuss mistakes and learn from them. But if there is even *one* asshole who is part of an end-of-iteration review, then it’s no longer safe to admit you made a mistake, because you that the asshole on the team is either going to lambast you in the moment for doing it wrong, or stockpile the information to use against you and ding your credibility in a future meeting. What happy startups have is a culture of trying new things, assessing what worked and what didn’t, and making constant improvements. An asshole that’s lurking on your team is going to wrench that process so it’s less effective, or perhaps not even possible.

The best way to avoid this is to not hire assholes in the first place. Your hiring process should include ways to assess how an individual works on a team, how they think about decisions and mistakes, and interviews with people they’ve worked with. When I was at Critical Path, a crucial part of the late-stage hiring process was for me to take the candidate to a long dinner. I could tell fairly easily at the end of a few hours of social time what someone’s worldview was, and I wasn’t willing to hire someone who I didn’t trust deeply and enjoy on a personal as well as professional level. Life is too short to spend working with assholes!

We’re not all lucky enough to start from scratch building a team; sometimes we inherit the people we work with. But having zero tolerance for these behaviors on your team will go a long way toward making a great work environment.

In a perfect world, it would be easy to confront someone who is acting like an asshole, and change their behavior. In reality, some people are open to change, and will respond to a conversation with a manager, or work with a  coach, and some people are not interested in changing, and will need to be let go. A great leader is willing to invest the time and energy to find out which is which, and to fire an asshole who is unwilling to change. If you allow assholes to remain on your team without any intervention, you are risking the very culture of innovation and collaboration that you’ve worked hard to foster.

Many managers have an excruciatingly hard time confronting bad behavior. They hope that a problem will just go away on its own, or that other team members won’t notice, and won’t be affected by it. But the long-term ROI of having a team with no assholes is ridiculously high. The best and brightest people in our industry (like Robert Scoble!) have a very low tolerance for working with assholes. Your most valuable asset as a leader is a high-functioning team of A+ performers. If you spend the time and energy to insure that this behavior isn’t tolerated, then you have a much higher likelihood of building and keeping the A+ team that you’ll need to succeed.

Dry Erase Girl Demonstrates Why the Age of Open Leadership is Here

One of the news stories circulating on the Internet today is about a girl who quit her job as an executive assistant, and outed her boss as a sexist Farmville addict (story here). She now has a Facebook page that’s asking fans to nominate her to be a Playboy model, which makes me wonder if the story is a hoax, or if she’s just capitalizing on the viral nature of her whiteboard photo series and really did quit. (Update #1: My friend Andy points out that the FB page is created with an edited photo from the original site, so anyone could have created it. Update #2: AllThingsD says the entire stunt is a hoax).

The two primary things she “outs” about her manager is that he’s sexist (he calls her a HOPA, or “hot piece of ass” on the phone), and that he spends 19.7 hours per week on Farmville, in addition to time spent on Scottrade (4 hrs) and TechCrunch (5.3 hrs).  We don’t know that any of this is true; although the fact that she wrote it on a whiteboard and stood in the photos makes it *feel* far more credible.  We’re used to doubting words more than pictures.

Humor is one of the things that makes lots of stories enticing to circulate, but this has something else that makes it fascinating: a subordinate standing up to her boss in a very public way about his (alleged) bad behavior. She supposedly uses monitoring software that was already running on all the computers in the office to track his website use, and then email to insure that her story will arrive in everyone’s inbox before the boss had a chance to do anything about it. Kind of brilliant, if what you want to do is burn your boss and expose yourself as someone who puts your own interests above your company’s.

(warning: Mad Men spoiler ahead) Most companies would toss her resume as soon as they connected her with this stunt. And 60 years ago, this kind of thing would have seemed pretty much inconceivable. When Don Draper sleeps with his assistant on a recent episode of Mad Men, you never think for a second that she’ll write about that experience, photocopy it, and put it on everyone’s desk for them to read in the morning.

But nowadays, there may be companies that would consider her chutzpah and creativity to be an asset. Will someone end up hiring her *because* she created something viral? To me, her getting hired because of this seems more likely to happen now than it would have 10 years ago. Social media has made information sharing more free, and it may make the punishment for this type of sharing less harsh – the jury’s out. In fact, I notice that the comments on TheChive are trending generally in favor of her choice, with a smattering of further sexist comments, and a few negative ones (although one presumes that there are less leaders leaving comments than rank and file employees).

All this made me think of @CharleneLi‘s book “Open Leadership“. The thesis of the book is that information about your company, your employees, and your customers is going to continue to be more and more public, whether you’re excited about that, or not. The first chapter is called “Why Giving up Control is Inevitable”, and the first bullet point in the New Rules is “Respect that your customers and employees have power.”

I’m thinking that this exposes one of guiding principles that makes happy startups: their leaders behave with integrity, even when they think no one’s watching.  That doesn’t guarantee that leaders always do the right thing, or even that they never play Farmville. (Everyone likes to blow off steam, and maybe Farmville is the new golf?)

But the behavior of leaders is more important than ever, because in addition to the staff watching, there are more and more ways for people to share information widely and anonymously. Mark Twain said “Dance like nobody’s watching”, but I’d add to that “Lead like everyone’s watching”.

Investors Take Note: Happiness & Culture Matter

I was reading an interview with Tony Hsieh (Zappos CEO) yesterday, and it had an interesting hidden gem. Zappos has a very customer and employee-centric culture; it’s one of the things that makes people fanatical about the company.

One of the things Tony talked about early in the interview was that his former company, LinkExchange, was sold because he was *unhappy* there. Apparently as they were hiring, they didn’t pay much attention to the culture, and as a result, they ended up with a mishmosh of staff that didn’t particularly get along, even though everyone could do their jobs just fine. So, the founders sold to Microsoft so that they could stop working there.

It’s not everyone that can sell their company for US$265 million and walk away when they’re unhappy, but it’s an interesting reflection on what makes entrepreneurs tick: happiness *matters*.

Here’s the actual quote from an interview with Tony on BigThink: “From the outside, the first company, LinkExchange, that I co-founded seemed like a success. It was actually a pretty sad thing selling the company. Most people don’t actually know the reason why we ended up selling the company. It’s because the company culture just went completely downhill. I remember when it was just five or 10 of us; it was kind of like your typical dot-com back in the day. This was 1996, and we were working around the clock, sleeping under a desk, had no idea what day of the week it was, but it was a lot of fun. But we didn’t know any better to pay attention to company culture.

“So, by the time we got to 100 people, we hired all the people with the right skill sets and experiences, but not all of them were culture fits. And when we got to 100 people, I remember I myself dreaded getting out of bed in the morning to go to the office. And that was kind of a weird feeling because this was a company that I co-founded and if I felt that way, then I wondered how all the other employees must have felt. So, we ended up selling the company.”

Wow. He’s essentially saying “we sold it because we hated working there.” Now, it may be that it was the perfect time in the marketplace to sell LinkExchange anyway, or it may be that that they sold earlier than they needed to, but having the bad company culture force your hand isn’t something that most entrepreneurs or investors want.

Wisdom Traditions in the Workplace?

I (foolishly) missed the Wisdom 2.0 conference in SF in May (next one is Feb ’11), but I watched some of the videos with fascination here. I think the explosion in current neuroscience research is going to show that the ability to sink into a state of focused attention (aka “flow”) at work yields great results, and meditation might be one of the vehicles that helps get people there. Tonight there was a meetup of a handful of the Wisdom 2.0 folks at Samovar in SF, so I set out into the fog…

Soren Gordhamer (@soreng) from the Fetzer Institute led the conversation, and it was a lively mix of people from Fetzer, the SF Zen Center (@latrippi), SFSU (@jonathanrood), CIIS, and a handful of independent folks that did everything from ethics consulting (@k8ethics) to programming.  Fetzer’s stated mission is “to help bring the power of love, forgiveness, and compassion to the center of community life” and the Wisdom 2.0 conference brings together technology leaders and people from wisdom traditions, to explore the intersection of the two.

Tonight’s conversation was about how wisdom and mindfulness can play a role in the business world, and how the avalanche of ever-changing technology causing endless distractions can coexist with practices like mindfulness meditation.

People were interested in research on how mindfulness/wisdom practices could be put to good use in the workplace, both by individuals, and by organizations, and in what ways those might be measurable.  In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the coaching profession 20-30 years ago – even though it was producing results that people felt good about, it wasn’t being measured in terms of ROI. Now there have been numerous studies on the ROI of coaching, it’s a provable win, and as a result, over 70% of the fortune 500 utilizes coaching for top performers. Will mindfulness follow the same path, initial brought in my early adopters who “know” it’s the right thing, but eventually the topic of whitepapers and research that prove its ROI to the skeptical COO’s who have to justify spending money on company-wide programs?

Another interesting topic was: do we introduce mindfulness practice into the workplace with a sort of “melting pot of wisdom traditions” background, including contemplative practices in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhist, Sufism, etc, or do we go the “vanilla” route of just saying it’s useful, and quoting all of the neuroscience literature, and leave the roots of these traditions behind in the workplace? When we brought yoga teachers to Critical Path in 1998 (before it was a must-have at tech startups), we screened for teachers who were less likely to talk about “exploring spirituality through yoga” and more likely to talk about “stretching your body to feel great,” and it worked just fine. A big victory was getting the folks from BizDev to come to the classes with the Development team. Some of us went on to explore the spiritual side of yoga once they got the moves down; I trained as a yoga teacher in 2002.

Finally, we talked about the ever-increasing level of interruption caused by Twitter, FB, mobile phones, and all of the other electronics that are becoming de rigeur (and I admit I took two phonecalls during the meetup, just to offer an example of the always-connected life). We wondered if Fetzer could play a role in aggregating the current studies about neuroscience and how brains, productivity, and happiness are affected by varying levels of connectedness. I’d like to see this done without making value judgements (at least not initially) about what level of connectedness is “best”, but rather how they generate differing abilities to focus, and to be proactive vs. reactive (or whatever else they are causing our brains to do).

All in all, a super-interesting evening. Looking forward to the next meetup at the end of August. Thanks to Fetzer Institute for buying us tea and snackies, and hosting a great conversation!

Later-Stage CEO Influence on Product Design

In the early days of a startup, founders gets used to weighing in on decisions as they’re being made, especially on product features and design. It’s part of what makes the early days of startups go so quickly and efficiently – everyone is in one room collaborating on the one thing that matters: the first product.

As the company matures, someone other than the CEO will (hopefully) end up in charge of making design and feature decisions. The product manager (or someone else in a similar role) will work with mutiple parties to decide on an upcoming feature set, and then work with a design/development team on how it will work and look. There’s a more complex path toward making a decision, and hopefully a well-developed process that goes along with it.

In some cases, this will leave the CEO or other founders feeling adrift and left out of the development process. Software development tends to create one of the more tangible results at a startup, and it’s tempting, especially on a day where other things are frustrating, to roll by a developer’s desk “just to take a peek”. Looking at the latest version will in turn prompt one to ask questions, give feedback, and it can often lead to changes in designs and plans.

The challenge is that if another staff member rolls by a developer’s desk, it’s relatively easy for a developer to refer them to the product manager if they have suggestions. If the CEO does this, it’s not always clear if they’re acting as the CEO (and thus their suggestions trump everyone else’s), or if they’re acting as an interested staff member (and their suggestions should be taken with a grain of salt and run by whoever is in charge).

Almost without fail, if the CEO or founder tries to exert influence without going through the person who is in charge of product decisions, it’s confusing to the developer, and confounding to whatever process is already in place. It’s also a FAIL for the company: you have two people competing to do the same job.

If you find yourself in this situation, what to do? The CEO may be reticent to let go of their influence – it’s fun to talk to developers about what they’re doing, and even more fun to dream up new features.  Here are the steps I’ve found useful:

(1) Make Giving Input Predictable and Easy

Make sure you have a process that solicits input on design or features from the CEO and other stakeholders at known, published times. Being able to say “we have a standing design meeting on Tuesdays at 2p”, or “I’ll come by your office every other morning at 10:30 to show you what you’re working on” will help get things moving in the right direction. If you can’t meet directly with the someone, it may be worth it to send them screenshots and explanations, and let them know feedback will be accepted for a limited amount of time.

(2) Explain to the CEO what Impact they’re Creating

The CEO needs to understand what the repercussions are of making decisions on the fly without the product manager – you want to speak from the perspective of the company having great products and a great process for creating them, rather than criticizing the CEO for wanting to give input. Also valuable to stay away from critique of the CEO’s input – it doesn’t matter if it’s great, or terrible; it matters that it’s at the wrong time to be useful. Also pointing out that developers don’t know who’s in charge or who makes decisions also helps in getting the point across.

(3) Train Developers to say “No” or “Maybe”

Half the battle is convincing the developers that it’s OK to say no, and the other half is convincing the CEO that stopping by their desk won’t create instant change. It may take explaining this to both parties, multiple times, to get the point across. You will need to make the point to both parties that the way to get things changed is to talk to the Product Manager, not the developer.  If you find the developers are still getting bugged too much, you may need to create “office hours” where they’re willing to answer questions from the rest of the staff, so that the rest of the time, they’re working and off limits.

(4) Extra Credit: Teach the CEO to Act like a Peer when Offering Suggestions

A CEO is used to wielding total influence; it’s an advanced skill to tone down their influence on purpose, and some just won’t go for it. The goal is the for the CEO to sit down and say “right now, I’m going to act as your peer, not the CEO… I might have suggestions, but if I do, we’re running them by the product manager”. If the CEO is willing to take this on, they will be able to collaborate with developers in a new way, and their input will be much easier to absorb. I’ve had limited success with this one, but when it works, it gives the CEO access to what they really want: intimate conversation with the developer(s) about what is possible to create.

Founder Happiness

Startup Happiness

As an executive coach, I end up talking to a lot of startup founders; I’ve also been one myself, with two successful exits. I’ve noticed that there is a relatively common phase in being part of a founding team that is rarely talked about, so it goes almost unnoticed. It’s the phase where a founder becomes dissatisfied with their role in the company, and has to decide what comes next.

The founder’s lack of enthusiasm doesn’t generally make news: they mask their dissatisfaction until they decide what to do. The process of realizing that something needs to shift, figuring out what it is, and actually taking steps to make a change all happen behind the scenes, and with as little fanfare as possible. The end result can be small but powerful course corrections that are completely internal to the company, or an announcement of a new role or a departure.

That process is more fascinating, and more fraught with challenges than most people imagine. As an executive coach, I have the honor of helping startup founders see the landscape clearly, lay out possible options, test out ideas and possibilities to gather more data, think through options to make the best decision, and then to follow through in the best way for themselves and their companies.

Company founders start with a huge amount of enthusiasm, and the challenge of building a business from the ground up.  Those challenges are a good fit for most entrepreneurs – the work is fast paced, there are lots of interesting challenges, and they are constantly being stretched and tested in new ways. Although the process can be exhausting, most people in this phase are working at their edge, and energized by all the activity and change. During this phase, if an entrepreneur gets stuck, it’s not due to boredom.

If a founder is profoundly lucky and skillful, their company may reach a point, after several years, where they have become a known success. They are one of the top companies in their market segment, and instead of changing continuously, the organization is focused on consistency and predictability, moving into new market segments, improving processes, reducing costs, and maintaining and improving existing products.

It’s during this phase that some founders get stuck. The paradox is this: they have achieved the level of success that most people only hope for, so the majority of people around them are saying “Wow, congratulations… You did it! That’s so awesome! You must be thrilled!” They may also be a minor celebrity in relation to their own company – as the founder, they are the keeper of the company’s early lore and stories, magazines want to interview them, they are recognized and sought after at social events, and depending on the size of the company, even employees often get a big thrill by spending time with members of the mythical founding team.

But in the quiet moments of their lives, they’re asking themselves: “How come this isn’t fun anymore? If I built this company, why don’t I love my job? What am I supposed to do now?”

When they realize they are at this point, most founders are profoundly sad. They started on a journey many years ago to do something that seemed barely possible, built a team that they worked shoulder to shoulder with, demonstrated extreme passion for achieving each milestone, and told anyone who would listen “I’m a founder at company XYZ” with enthusiasm and pride.  It’s a core part of their identity, and they can’t imagine not being a part of the team and business that they helped to create.

Initially it’s hard for many founders to even talk about this conflict – it seems almost disloyal to not love their work, and by association, the company that they built from the ground up.  The information that a founder is dissatisfied isn’t generally in anyone’s best interest to broadcast, so founders can have a difficult time deciding who is safe to talk to. The interpersonal dynamics between founders, boards, executive teams, and investors can be fraught with challenges and competing priorities.

Because it’s hard to talk about, and hard to find someone to talk to, many founders stay quiet and stuck in this situation for far longer than they need to.

Often, my work is helping founders understand what their options are, and how to get to a place where they are happy and energized again.  Sometimes it’s just a single founder who needs to make a shift, and sometimes it’s the whole organization or culture. But if you’re the founder who is unhappy in your current role, it’s well worth figuring out what needs to change, and taking steps to make it happen. Your happiness depends on it!