Tag

company culture

Career Advice

Managing the switchbacks of your career

A successful career is rarely a straight line up the slope. It is so often a weaving up through experiences and it’s important to recognize how and when to weave.

I did a coaching session yesterday where just this question came up. This time the individual had years of engineering, both as a stellar software engineer and also as a manager and can feel he wants to do more – can do more – and knows he needs to broaden his skillset.

I have a handful of principles which can be helpful when you are wanting to grow and create more upward momentum in your career:

  1. Make sure you are in a critical path for the company (and this will vary by industry). For tech companies success hinges on sales (revenue and cash) and product. In, and in-between, these functions there will be a number of critical roles and projects. These could be supporting the top customers, could be developing a handful of critical new relationships, could be bringing a new product to market. Learn what these are and which would be i) new to you, ii) challenging for you and iii) valuable to the company.
  2. Make sure you advocate for a new position you can be successful at if you work hard and learn fast (which I assume you would!). It’s important that you succeed in each role you take on even if it’s a bit rocky as you come up the learning curve. It’s OK to make short term tactical mistakes in your career, it’s not OK to make strategic ones.
  3. Stay visible. In some companies a tour away from HQ is truly valued but in others it may be the kiss of death for future promotion because you are out of sight and out of mind. If you do decide to step away from HQ to stretch yourself – for example to China or DC – agree on a time frame with your management (e.g. 2 years) and be sure to discuss what you would be eligible for when you come back, but before you go.
  4. Be aggressive – that you are very focused on personal growth – but humble  – that you know you have a lot to learn. I’ve had too many engineers tell me they know they’d be good in sales while massively underestimating how truly skilled great sales people are, and too many sales people sure they can do marketing (better than marketing is doing it) with no comprehension of what it takes. If you have not worked in a job I guarantee you underestimate it, so be humble.
  5. Be direct. It’s rare, especially in small companies, that your executives are sitting around thinking about taking risk with you to broaden your career outside of what’s immediately expedient for them so don’t beat around the bush.

If you’ve been in the same role for 3 years look up, and across, and consider stretching yourself in to a new role – unless this is truly what you want to do for the rest of your working life.

Photo: From the garden of La Foce in Tuscany © 2012 Penny Herscher

Leadership

When to tell your employees to take a hike

 Small companies are like families. They are full of tension, tight relationships, dreams and disappointments and they form a culture all of their own. And when they are small how each and every employee behaves affects the culture of the company. What it is like to come to work every day, how people solve problems, how they interact and help each other, or don’t.

In every group of employees you hire you are bound to hire a few non performers, and it’s management 101 that you know you have to move the non performers out. That’s what having an accountable team or a performance culture means.

But there is a group of employees that is harder to move on. I’m sure you’ve worked with people like this. They are good at their job but they are like dripping poison. They talk about “this place” or “this company” in negative terms. They make snide remarks about the leadership or about their coworkers. They work for you because it’s a good job, but nothing is good enough.

Clearly if the behavior is egregious you can move on the employee and treat it as a performance problem, but what if it’s borderline?

One way to handle this is to invite your employees to leave.

The most valuable resource an employee has is their time. Especially when they are in the early stages of their careers. In terms of personal growth and future earning power every year before 40 is more valuable that five after. Your millennial employees are investing in your company with their time learning, growing, inhaling everything they can do to improve their future. So if they are negative why are they there?

I talk to many teams and my logic to invite people to leave goes something like this:

“If you love this company and our mission, if you love working here, then invest your time wisely. Pour in your passion, work hard to make the company and your career they best they can be. Be a part of creating a positive, winning culture. Share your observations with your leaders but bring solutions, not just complaints. Support your leaders – they are human too and doing their best. Be positive.

But if you are unhappy here, if you see all the things that are wrong and you feel a need to continuously complain, if you think your leadership is incompetent, or the work is too hard then please leave. Get out.

Because life is too short to work in a company or a job you don’t like for people you don’t respect. If you think things could be better then make them better or please leave.”

Sometimes I am even more direct – “There’s the door”.

Photo: Petra © 2017 Penny Herscher

Leadership

5 Pros and Cons of Being CEO of Your Company

Being in the role of CEO can be terrific. You’re it. You’ve gained the power to put your brilliant idea into practice. You’re synonymous with the company for your customers, your employees and your investors. Your family is proud of you. You feel like the sky’s the limit.

And yet, the role is a double-edged sword. If your company is a big public company, you can possibly be looking at $10, $20, $30M+ a year. Or very easily get fired. If it’s one of the handful of $1B unicorns coming out of Silicon Valley, then this time around it’s likely more money than you ever dreamed of. But for most CEOs, the truth is not in the extremes.
It’s in the middle.

So before you decide to be the CEO of the company you want to create, here are a few Pros and Cons to consider first:

1. Pro: You decide the strategy and what’s important. When you are CEO you are ultimately responsible for the strategy: What to build? How to get to market? Where to focus? You get to put your ideas into action and test if they work. Then, when they do succeed, the sense of satisfaction is unbeatable. If you are the technical founder, and command the respect of those people around you, you also won’t have to hear much disagreement. People are following you because they believe in your vision and your strategy.

Con: You’ll work harder than you have ever worked in your life. It’s true not all CEOs are working on overdrive but when you’re trying to get a
company off the ground, there are always more mission critical things you need to do that require more hours than there are in the actual day. Look forward to the necessary red-eye flight you need to take to close a deal. The time pressure will seem worse than your college finals did and prepare for this pace to go on for years. Keeping physically fit with exercise will become a requirement just to survive the exhausting workload.

2. Pro: It’s an ego trip. It’s hard to be CEO unless you have a serious ego. Not that you have to be a jerk, but exuding confidence will ensure that people can look to you to lead them. In that sense, then yes, it’s an ego trip. Which means that, if you are already seriously thinking of becoming the CEO of your startup, then you probably have that necessary ego to both embrace and enjoy it.

Con: You’ll be lonelier than you’ve ever been in your life. That cliche “the buck stops with you” is absolutely true when you are CEO. There is no one to turn to if you have to make a hard decision. Your board is there to give you advice, but they are not going to tell you what to do. Your team is there to provide counsel and debate with you but in the end, they’ll look to you to make the difficult decisions. And there’s no one you can talk to. It’s unfair to burden your friends and family with these work related stresses. It’s you and the wall (or in my case the dog) talking it out sometimes.

3. Pro: You get to hire your team. When you are CEO you get to hand pick your team. You choose the structure of the organization, and hand pick the key people you want to build the company with. You choose the skills, the personality, the experience–and they will seem to become as close to you as your family. Building teams is a wonderful experience–and the best trait of a successful company comes down to the talent.

Con: You’re the one who has to let people go. It’s hard to consistently hire great talent which means sometimes you’ll make mistakes. You’ll hire a VP of Sales who looks and sounds good, but can’t build out a team themselves (think of Yahoo’s spectacular failure recently hiring and then firing of Henrique de Castro). There may also be a time when you may really like an employee but who struggles to consistently perform. When you are the CEO there is no ducking the responsibility of firing the people who have to go, and striving to do it with respect and kindness is an art form.

4. Pro: Customers rely on you to solve their problems. Most great ideas come from trying to solve a problem for someone. In the enterprise world, you’re most likely solving a business problem for another company. You could be putting a critical process in the cloud, so it’s more cost effective, or automating a solution for a time consuming technology problem. It’s a rewarding feeling to know you helped customer’s solve problems and improve their overall business–and of course make money for both of you in the end.

Con: Customers can jerk you around. A former CEO of a software company with $1B in revenue once told me he quit, in the end, because of some of his customers. They’d hold deals until the last day of the quarter, and then force him to drive the price down to get the deal done. After 10 years of building his company and providing solutions for countless customers, he was overwhelmed with the lack of respect his customer’s gave to his business. As you’ll find, this is not always the case and there will be times you are providing value to your customer but professional patience and just ‘sucking it up’ will still be required.

5. Pro: You set the culture for your company. And this many especially appeal to you if you are sick of the Silicon Valley bro culture. Many people spend 8-10 hours a day at work. And all this time should be joyful. Why work for a company, if the culture is not enjoyable? So as CEO, one of the most important responsibilities you have is to set the right culture of the company with the actions you do every day and not just what you say. Great CEOs, like Reed Hastings of Netflix, make this the centerpiece of their leadership. They focus on the areas they believe create a successful company and a positive environment to work, which in turn assists in better recruitment, and increasing their impact with the community.

Con: It’s your company. Well, is that a pro, or a con? You’ll find it depends on the day. Some days you’re so proud of the solutions your team provides that you could burst. But this will not be every day, definitely not every day.

So, if you want to be the CEO of your company then brace yourself. It’s a wonderful experience, and can be a thrilling ride, but it’s a roller coaster with many ups and downs. Maybe write down why you want it before you start, so that on the dark days you can remind yourself why you are doing it. Me? It was about creating a great culture.

Leadership

Forced ranking is about the top, not the bottom

How do you rank against the guy next to you—better, worse, the same? And do you think the process of your managers discussing you relative to your peers is a good thing, or a bad one?

The practice of forced ranking—or the euphemistically named “vitality curve“—was developed by Jack Welch and GE in the 1980’s as a way to identify non-performers and so improve the financial results of the company. It was quickly picked up by companies in Silicon Valley with more aggressive cultures, like Intel, and used as a way to force employees onto a bell curve. It was recently dropped by Microsoft, while being picked up by Yahoo.

The ranking process is not a scientific one—it’s a process of judgement. My experience has been managers sitting in a conference room, putting names up on a white board, arguing through the lifeboat test: if you had to throw one employee out of the life boat, which one would you throw? Sometimes the process is simply a forced ranking, putting employees in a linear list; other times it’s a process to force employees into groupings like A, B and C, or top 20%, middle 60% and bottom 20%.

Sometimes it is a scientific process. In sales, results are ultimately measurable, and I know one tech CEO who used to fire the bottom 10% of his sales team each quarter, irrespective of whether they made quota or not. His purpose was to drive a dog-eat-dog competitive culture within his sales team.

The end result is the same. You end up with the collective judgement of a group of managers on a group of employees and, if you’ve run the process well, you know who your top and bottom performers are.

It’s always illuminating. If nothing else, to find out what other managers think—but I think it’s a clumsy, archaic process to manage the performance of your weakest players.

Poor performance needs to be managed continuously, not once a quarter or once a year. When you have someone who is not performing, you need to act quickly. Never forget, if someone’s not pulling their weight you can bet everyone around them knows it, and they are pulling down (at a minimum) the morale and (more likely) the performance of everyone on the team with them. So as the manager, you owe it to everyone to intervene and either put some training and coaching in place quickly to bring up the employee’s performance, or get them out.

But the top performers are the most valuable people in your organization and the ranking process can make you pay attention to their satisfaction and compensation, as a team, on a rigorous schedule. The pareto principle holds true for your engineer’s performance as much as it does for the likely distribution of your customers—80% of your results are probably coming from the contributions of your top 20%. This does not mean that the middle 60% is not important—quite the contrary—but it does mean you need to pay daily attention to the happiness and professional health of your top 20%.

This is where forced ranking can be truly illuminating. When you get your managers from across the organization, responsible for different job types, into a room and get them talking about their top talent, everyone can then pay attention to their careers. You can make sure your top talent has appropriate top compensation (especially stock options and/or RSUs) and that their career interests are being watched over and nurtured by every member of your management team.

Forced ranking is a useful tool, but a tool to be used occasionally and not as a religion. It’s not about making your employees compete (and so driving financial performance up). It’s not about identifying your bottom performers (you need to be doing that continuously). It’s about making sure your leaders know who the top talent in your organization is so you can grow them, and grow their leadership and impact on your company.

Photo: Seth Coal Deviant Art

Career Advice

Stop Sh****ing on me!


There’s a word in the English language that, when you hear it, is likely
to either make you feel guilty, or make you turn off. Do you say it?
What do you do when you hear it? What’s your reaction when someone says
“you should” to you?

It’s a turnoff, isn’t it? And yet it’s pervasive in the way many people speak in business.

There’s the person who thinks they’re a coach and you can benefit from their wisdom. Instead of listening and
carefully reflecting ideas for you to figure out, they listen to what
you’re worried about and then launch into “Well, what you should have done is…” (I hate this response, it’s just not helpful to me).

Then there’s the guy who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Born with a sense of superiority, he loves to tell you what you should have said or done. Especially if you criticize him. It’s a quick way to deflect from the substance of what you are saying to how you are saying it.

Then there’s the woman who says it to herself all the time. Told by the world every day that she’s not good enough, she thinks, “I should have done…” – and loses her personal power in her own mind every time she thinks it.

The problem with the word is that it carries a sense of obligation and guilt with it. The word originally comes from the past tense of “shall“, from the days when shall carried the obligation of “I owe/he owes, will have to, ought to, must.” We don’t use shall that way anymore, but should still means “ought to” to many of us.

So it feels like a judgmental word. It’s difficult to take “you should” and turn it into a positive feeling when your first reaction is guilt or shame.

So listen for it. When you hear someone say it around you to someone else, try to help them re-frame their feedback. When you hear someone say it to you, try to check your reaction and listen to the substance, not the delivery. And when you say it to yourself, go find a mirror, look in it, and try saying “stop shoulding on yourself” several times. You’ll hear what you’re really doing to yourself.

Leadership

Sales is a Team Sport

Sometimes sales culture glorifies the lone sales rep: the road warrior who goes out and hunts, slays the order and throws it, still bleeding, on your desk, seeking your praise like a big game hunter standing over his kill’s rapidly cooling dead body.

Is this how your best guys—your top performers—sell? Or do they view sales as a sport that’s won as a team?

Now, I’m the girl who hates sports on TV, who reads a book during Super Bowl parties (except during the ads of course) and has never been to a live football, soccer or basketball game. So I’m simply not a sports fan. But I love watching a sales organization plan, play and win a deal as a well-trained team, each with his or her own role to play.

Hunting and winning the giant enterprise deal first of all takes a team lead: the sales rep on the ground who owns the account. She’s expected to know every aspect of the deal, to lead and choreograph every play, coach every other player on their role, put them in the right room with the right person and plan through what to say when. This rep is accountable for every detail 24/7—they get the glory, but they live or die by the deal.

Then there’s sales management. Carrot and stick, reviewing every play, coaching every move. Willing to show up whenever, wherever to keep the deal moving. Able to manage the CEO and the CFO through the ups and downs of the deal.

There’s the sales engineer—the showman who captures the customer’s imagination up front and answers all the thorny questions. He’s responsible for establishing the value and the match between your capability and the customer’s business need. And he works closely with the customer success lead who stands in front of the customer towards the end of the sales cycle and commits to being on point to ensure the success of the implementation with them.

Sometimes R&D leadership gets involved, especially if you’re doing any integration with a product team or IT, and sometimes your own IT gets involved responding to questions about SaaS delivery, security, response times…

In the end, everyone has a role to play, and they all depend on each other to play those roles well.

When I look at my own sales team I can see the high school and college sports training coming into play. We have several high school quarterbacks, a minor league AA baseball player, several college-level soccer players, a mountain biker who competes on a team, a Junior Olympic badminton player and several college swimmers. Even our runners like to form into teams for our summer triathlons.

Clearly, sports experience is not a requirement for the job, but training in how to work well in a team is – because, in the end, sales is a team sport. And the end result of great teamwork is killer results!

Career Advice

Ask the provocative question in a job interview: Do you have kids?

I love to ask the question “do you have children?” in a job interview. What!? you think to yourself – didn’t she go to training on what questions not to ask??? Well there’s a method to my madness…

If you’ve been through interview training then you know there are a set of questions you are told not to ask like are you married? do you have children? are you thinking of having children? how old are you? etc.

You may have been told that it is illegal to ask these questions in a job interview because you might discriminate against a candidate as a result of their answer: their sexual preference, whether they have little kids, whether they might get pregnant, do they like American football etc.

But it’s not true. Asking the question is not illegal. What is illegal is to discriminate based on the answer. A subtle but powerful difference. Your lawyers trained you to keep you and the company out of trouble, not to teach you how to recruit the best and brightest.

It’s actually important to know some of the private life of your candidates because life interferes with people’s ability to do their job in many more ways than you’ve been trained not to ask about, or the law protects, and how your company reacts when it does says a lot about whether the candidate should want to work with you or not.

When your parent gets cancer and slowly dies that presents a huge challenge to staying fully productive. When you have a bad accident and smash a bone into so many pieces that you have to work from home for months, that can certainly make it hard to focus. When you’re trying to adopt a child from the foster care system and you need to spend days in court fighting for your (soon to be) child’s rights, that means you’re working odd hours and in odd places to stay on top of you job. All experiences we’ve shared at FirstRain, and we’ve got more!

When I meet a candidate I want to know if s/he has children,
or has elderly parents, or has an intense hobby, because I want to tell him or her about our
culture and how much we support and adapt around our people’s needs as
life happens to them.

Life just happens. Babies, sick parents, health issues. And the sign of a strong company culture is one that is adaptable and flexible to help the employee stay engaged and work through whatever challenge comes up, or take time off if that’s what’s needed. It’s important to remember that you cannot make assumptions about how your employee is going to react to the challenge, or what course of action they are going to want to take, but instead to put a team-based system in place so everyone can do their best.

It is true that some older men do still discriminate based on whether women in the workforce have young children, or are likely to have young children, so the lawyers are not all wrong. I recently sat
in a discussion (not in FirstRain!) where a pregnant, very senior
employee’s likelihood to come back to work after her pregnancy was
questioned. But those
older generation views are dying out as the old guard retires or their
daughters successfully work and raise children at the same time.

We’re not naive at FirstRain. Being flexible as life challenges our people doesn’t mean an employee can be distracted from their job indefinitely (we are a for-profit, growing company after all and we probably work harder than most because of high growth rate) but it does mean, from time to time, we have to cover for each other.

So back to interviewing. I want to know if candidates are married, or have little kids, or are thinking of getting pregnant, or adopting. I want to know if they have dogs, or horses, or like to travel. I want to know because we are in a competitive hiring environment, and I want the best people in my company possible. So I want an opportunity to tell them about our culture, and what a great place FirstRain is to work when you have major events in your life, and how supportive we are of raising a family here, and that these are reasons to be a part of your decision to chose FirstRain over any other job you may have today or be considering.

Leadership

It takes guts to make imperfect decisions

Every day we make decisions that impact our future. Every day we decide on pricing, product, sales strategy, hiring and because it’s an imperfect world we never have enough information.

When you’re building a company you have to get very comfortable with making decisions on partial information. There is never enough time to assemble all the facts, and if you wait for them you’ll fail anyway because the opportunity will pass you by.

Think about product design. When you’re creating a new market and growing fast you can’t take the time to survey the market, ask users what they want and then carefully design your product in response! Quite the contrary – you need to have a vision, a theory of what users want, build it and watch how they react. Do A/B testing to see which approach is better. Make changes very quickly as you figure it out. Listen to customers problems but don’t let them prescribe the solution.

Consider choosing a job. You never know enough, or everything, about a job until you’re in it. You can try to find out, but if you are too pedantic and careful about collecting information chances are you’ll turn off the very manager and company you want to work for, or you’ll miss the window for the job. Your job will probably dominate the majority of your waking hours – you need to fall in love and that’s not an analytical process. It’s a gut process.

And how about sales strategy! Sales campaigns are always under time pressure. A sale delayed is a sale lost (as one of my sales mentors used to tell me). So you can take an afternoon with the team at the white board thrashing through all the intelligence you have from your coaches but in the end you have to decide on a strategy with partial information and then be ready to course correct if you have to. When millions of dollars are on the line that takes balls.

But being able to make good decisions, where the majority are right, from incomplete information will change your future. As Pythagoras said “Choices are the hinges of destiny”. When you are courageous and make the decision with imperfect information you mold your destiny. So take a deep breath, embrace your imperfect information, and decide!

Leadership

Triathlon teambuilding

Over the years I’ve found that real teams form when you have an intense experience together, or repeated intense experiences that force you to be authentic and completely present – and so your true self – because you are reacting to the intensity. This happens on deals, it happens on tough product releases, but it’s the most fun when it happens outside the office. In a competition for example…

Yesterday 16 Rainmakers competed in the Cupertino Splash and Dash with me. This is a 1 mile lake swim followed by a 3 mile hill run up on the Stevens Creek Park. Most doing the race were triathletes looking for mid week training but we’ve done it in relay teams for several years now.

We fielded 8 relay teams yesterday. 8 swimmers and 8 runners. Turns out a couple of the swimmers had never swum in a lake before. One of them thought it was going to be in a pool. So this was a big challenge, standing on the mud flat at the edge, realizing they actually had to swim two half-mile laps of the lake. I found myself giving a pep talk on what it would feel like, how to pace yourself, how to see the buoys despite the sun, all in the 60 seconds before the gun. They were a very courageous set of new swimmers.

Our cheer group collected at the finish line to whoop and holler each runner in (one of the rules is if you want to eat bar-be-que at my house you don’t have to compete but you do have to cheer). All our runners had done it before and so they were stellar and we had everyone in by 7:30pm – at which point we rolled down the hill to my garden to cook, eat and drink. Not quite as intense, but still fun, especially with the pile of young kids in my pool swimming with the dog.

I’m so proud of FirstRain – it take a lot to race if you don’t do it all the time and the intensity and joy once we had finished was spectacular.

Chanting “Go FirstRain” together!

Career Advice

10 things I don’t need to know about you

I believe in having an open door. I believe in making it easy for employees to talk to me. And yet, there are some things I just don’t need to know.

Salary.com posted an advice piece on the 10 Things You Should Never Tell Your Boss. They start with “keep personal things personal” and of course “discrimination in the workplace is illegal” so as long as you don’t get too personal – and you work for a good company that does not discriminate – anything should be OK right?

Well, you’d be amazed at the things people tell me that I really don’t need to know. I’m hard to offend, and I only judge people on their performance not their personal habits, but some people over share. Believe it or not, each of these examples is based on a real conversations.

Here are 10 things I don’t need to know about you:

1. The gory details of your shoulder surgery. I’m sorry you had surgery. I hope you’re better. No I don’t need to know at a level of detail that makes my skin crawl.

2. Your politics. My mother told me there are three subjects never to discuss in polite company: politics, religion and sex. I don’t mind knowing your political leanings, but I really don’t need to debate it with you endlessly, please.

3. Your skill dealing drugs. Even if you were very successful selling coke out of the back of your car in college… or in the 90s… or in South America it’s TMI for me. We’re selling solutions to problems. Cocaine is never the solution.

4. How often you have a hangover. Come on – you really think that is something your CEO should know? Which days you felt bad at work because you’d over done it the night before?

5. The amount of time you spend on your second job. I do actually understand that sometimes people have outside responsibilities (provided you’ve cleared it with us) but it’s not a good idea to spend too much time telling me about it. Remember my company comes first!

6. That you don’t believe in my company. This is an intelligence test. I’m open to you not agreeing with me on strategy and tactics but don’t tell me you don’t believe in what we’re doing. If you don’t believe please leave. Now.

7. The blow by blow of your divorce. This is a hard one. I’ve had employees get divorced and tell me nothing (and then it’s hard for me to be supportive), but then I’ve also had employees tell me the blow by blow he-said-she-said which, I confess, is boring. So, here’s a guideline: if we’re out at dinner and telling life stories yes, I’ll listen, otherwise, keep the details of how “she’s crazy” to yourself.

8. Your porn habits. See point #2. Nuff said.

9. How your boyfriend cheated on you. How you came home and found him in your bed with another woman and so you can’t concentrate today and you’re not sure you can handle the customer meeting you’re taking me to. The drama of your love life doesn’t belong in the workplace. If you need a personal day, take the day.

10. (Ladies) How nervous you are, or how scared you are. A man would never tell me that. Why do you need to tell me?

We spend a lot of time at work and form deep friendships so sharing your life is natural. And in a social setting like out to dinner after an intense day with customers yes you are going to share, as am I. But think first and don’t drink if it makes you over share!