company culture

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!

Career Advice

In business Manners Maketh Man

Watching back to back Downton Abbey episodes it is hard to escape the focus on manners and tradition in the English way of life. Form matters. What you wear, how you behave to a lady or to one another, defines you in the eyes of the people around you.

But working in a silicon valley technology company does this matter? Do English manners have a place?

I believe they not only have a  place, but they particularly have a place in business. The small behaviors that indicate respect make a huge difference in how the people around you feel, and the behaviors cut both ways between the genders.

Consider, for example, being late. When you are late for a meeting you are telling the people waiting for you that you think your time is more important than theirs. Of course, sometimes you get held up, but a person who is repeatedly late (as Marissa Meyer is purported to be) is abusing power and disrespecting the people around them. In time, you yourself lose the respect of your team if you can’t, or won’t manage your time. In contrast, when you are on time you respect the other person’s time, as the team at Andreessen Horowitz strives to do.

Many of the behaviors we consider as good manners have a cultural bias in how men should treat women. Holding a door open, standing up when a woman enters the room or paying for a meal but, in today’s business world, these behaviors are as appropriate for a woman as for a man. One of the marvelous side effects of women’s growing equality in the office is that while it would be risky to treat your female office mates with patronizing chivalry, treating everyone politely allows women to display chivalry towards men.

When a customer walks into a conference room you should stand up, of course. Welcome them into the room. Offer to fetch a cup of coffee or glass of water. When you are walking through a door it’s polite to hold the door open for the next person, whether they are a man or a woman. If you go out for a meal the most senior person should pay, or the vendor should pay, or if you are with business peers offer to pay. Anything else is just crass.

And one of the areas that I (as essentially English) wish more people would pay attention to is manners at the table. When you wait for the other people at the table to start eating you respect that you are sharing a meal with them. When you carefully watch their pace to make sure you finish your plate just after them you ensure that no one else feels embarrassed to be finishing last. Common courtesy.

Saying thank you, sending a small thank you note (or email) when someone has spent time with you, or done a favor for you, goes a really long way in establishing relationship.

In the end, it does not matter what role you are in, or whether you are male or female, treating the people around you with respect – through your manners – makes a positive impression, and will earn you respect. Behaving badly, disrespecting others with your behavior may not change whether you are the boss or not, it may not change whether someone buys from you or not, but it does change what people privately think about you, and over time, whether they want to work with you or not.

William of Wykeham used Manners Makyth Man as the motto for the colleges he founded 650 years ago. And the value of manners is as true today as it was then, especially in business.


Don’t be too busy to lead

Do you respect the leaders who always look busy, or the ones who are calm and collected? Do you want to follow someone who’s harried, or someone who’s accessible to you?

Obvious right?

And yet the cult of being busy, and the sense of self importance that comes with that, undermines many aspiring leaders.

Being busy is not a virtue (except maybe in bees). It means you can’t manage your time, don’t have a competent admin or are trying to do too much (which impacts your ability to lead). Or it means you’ve hired the wrong people. And since a leader must never be a victim she must always take responsibility for being so busy.

The challenge is the more intense your job the more demands there are on your time, so it’s important to set up a system where you are still accessible. This means not over scheduling each day. Whether you or your admin book your calendar, don’t ever book every time slot. Leave blocks open so you can walk the halls and respond to people who want to talk with you. And get creative about how you can be available on the phone — in the car, on the treadmill (although hard to do in the pool!)

When you telegraph that you are over booked you telegraph that you’re not in command of your time. Don’t ever tell someone you’re “triple-booked” – even if you feel like you are. Never make someone feel bad for interrupting you – figure out gracefully how to give them your time at some point in the next 24 hours.

What’s underneath all of this is that great leaders telegraph to their employees that they are important to them. Provided you’re not dealing with someone who abuses access, your people are more important. They are doing the real work, your job is to facilitate their ability to do their job. The days of the executive who sits in a remote office behind a big desk with three admins in front of them are gone. The days of the social-media-using, accessible leader are here.

Image: Busy Bee on DeviantArt by tyrantwache


How to Unite your Team: Advice from Napoleon

Silicon Valley is littered with small (and large) companies that want to create a revolution. It might be a revolution in commerce – like Square trying to “Architect a revolution,
thoughtfully”, or being the enablers of a revolution like social media was for the Arab Spring, or creating a revolution in music delivery the way Apple did with the iPod.

But what is it that unites a team of people to try to create a revolution in the world of technology?

Napoleon believed that “There are only two forces that unite men — fear and interest” (from Napoleon: In His Own Words 1916) because “all great revolutions originate in fear, for the play of interests does not lead to accomplishment.”

I think he was right, but in reverse order.

In the world of the technology startups the dominant, unifying force is interest. Most people I have ever worked with were a part of the company because of shared interest. They have a common end in mind (to use one of Covey’s 7 habits).

At Simplex (bought by Cadence in 2002) our interest was in the electrical modeling that semiconductor companies needed to make faster, more reliable chip designs – and so sell more chips at lower cost. Everyone in the team was interested in how to get the technology to work (a non-trivial series of math and computer science challenges), and work in the hands of customers at ever decreasing, truly less-than-the-width-of-a-hair, geometry sizes. Chip modeling was a “big data” problem before we talked about big data. Geeky, but very interesting.

The best technology leaders – usually the CEO or founders – unite their employees with a vision for what’s possible. They have a uniting concept that everyone gets interested in – like salesforce.com with their “no software” platform to move CRM to the cloud, or Amazon with a vision that we’d all be buying books, and then everything else too, on line. Both visions were compelling, interesting to work on, and right.

So “the play of interest” does lead to accomplishment when you are building a technology company. I think it’s the only thing. You can’t unite people around money (well not for long anyway) and you can’t unite them with fear in a market when they can walk down the street and find another interesting job.  You have to do it with interest.

The great general was right that fear plays a role too but it’s only at the tactical level, in the moment, or in the sleepless times of the night. Fear of losing a deal, fear of failure, fear of missing a deadline you’ve committed to another team or a customer, fear of being wrong in the path you took to solve a problem. Everyone in a startup feels it. If they say they don’t they’re lying. Everyone experiences The Struggle. But you can’t unite people with fear because, in the end, this is a game. It’s not life and death, it’s not the control of empires or the defense of your homeland. It’s a business, with a dream, but a business.

Napoleon had to unite his men to fight through the mud and risk their
own lives to (almost) bring continental Europe under his command –  he used both fear and interest. You
need to unite them to work grueling hours and take huge personal risk to
try out new ideas – and in technology that means uniting your team with interesting work and a meaningful goal.

Career Advice

Loyalty Matters

Seems like an old fashioned concept doesn’t it?

Loyalty. A word from the old feudal world being “of good quality, faithful and honorable” and “carrying out legal obligations” – with deeper origins in the Latin legalem, or law.

Loyalty was expected in the past. You would be loyal to the company that employed you, and the company would be loyal back and employ you for your whole career. A 1950’s dream that no longer exists in our current global competitive environment, as pensions get wiped out and companies downsize in the blink of an eye. It’s a word than can carry negative overtones today – being loyal sometimes being synonymous with being blindly loyal, something many people would be uncomfortable claiming as one of their key characteristics.

And yet it is a concept that is very powerful when creating and growing a company, and something I look for when hiring key employees – can they be loyal, is it in their nature?

When people are loyal to each other – up, down and across an organization – they can move quickly, make mistakes and recover. They can make difficult decisions, knowing that they won’t get stabbed in the back if they are wrong. They can take risk, knowing that their boss, or their peer, or their employee, will support them and help them recover if the risk was too great.

As a CEO, building a loyal culture can make a big difference in how much risk you can take with the business, how fast you can drive growth and change. In the extreme case the figure of the cult CEO, like Marc Benioff at Salesforce.com, can inspire loyalty in employees and help them feel empowered to take more risk, run faster, push the edge of what’s possible because they are loyal to a risk-taking leader. And obviously nothing creates loyalty like success.

I’m old fashioned. I think loyalty within a company matters. When people are loyal to the company, the goals and dreams of the company, and each other, they can make magic happen. Like trust, loyalty is efficient. It makes a working system where everyone can focus on the task at hand, not watching their back or their own personal interests. But to build a loyal culture you have to take care of each individual’s growth interests as well as the company’s.

As a leader you can build loyalty when you:

– create an experience that is fun, intense and a growth experience for every individual

– are fair – even-handed and open in how you deal with people, pay and promotion

– have your team’s back, especially in times of adversity

– stomp out politics – put the company first at all times

– be direct – if you don’t agree say so, if you think an idea is dumb say so and respectfully explain yourself, if you think an idea is great say so

– act quickly – if someone is not cutting it tell them so, tell them why, and move them on – and if you have to let them go for performance reasons, help them
through it so they land in a better job for them – that creates long
term loyalty in both the employees who are staying and those who are leaving

– don’t be afraid to exercise authority if you need to – people understand in the end that your job as a leader is to drive forward and make decisions, even if they are unpopular

– be decisive

– be courageous

– be accessible and human

 and the most important

– be loyal to your team – loyalty begets loyalty


Is it ever acceptable to use the term “Rape” in a business context?

Are you made uncomfortable by the repeated use of the word “rape” in a work setting? To my surprise I was.

First let me preface this by saying I am no shrinking violet. I’m a CEO who grew up in the semiconductor business where blue language and sexual harassment is/was common. I’m tough to shock and I will drop an F-bomb myself to make a point (although I am trying to stop this!).

But I found myself in the middle of a conversation about how a class of vendors would “rape” the company being discussed. There were 10 men in the room and me, and the word kept getting repeated, with intensity, from person to person as the discussion grew. It’s not the first time I have heard the word rape be used for a company being “skewered”, “screwed”, “taken advantage of” etc. in a pricing and supply discussion. However, I was surprised to find myself reacting to the repeated, high energy use of the word. I had an internal stress reaction – I was distressed and very uncomfortable. Of course I schooled my body and face to make sure no reaction showed, and watched my own reaction flow through me until the conversation switched to another topic.

It made me consider whether it is ever OK to use such a violent word in a business setting?

Rape is a violent act, in 90% of cases against women. One in six women in the US has experienced rape or attempted rape – and it is one of the most under-reported crimes. Rape is featured widely in classical art by artists like Titian, Rubens and Poussin. It is shown both as a violent act and as in-the-end-she-liked-it in films. In no case are women, or most men, numb or indifferent to the physical and emotional violence of visual portrayal of the act, or the description of the act.

We use other violent words in business. We talk about “attacking a market”, we talk about “killing an issue”, sometimes we tastelessly use war terminology when describing a market strategy, talking about defeating the enemy. Business is not for the faint of heart.

But I find men talking about “being raped” by business terms a bridge too far. It’s insensitive to the violence of the real act and it’s terrible after effect on the victims. To me, it’s in the class of talking about women’s bodies in a business setting – carrying the objectification of women in the media into the workplace. It’s in bad taste and insensitive. But to bring the issue up at the time would be professional suicide (notice the use of the word for another violent act in a phrase which is in common use). So I just “suck it up”. Would you?

Career Advice

Tribal Knowledge is Treasure

We try to capture everything – we really do. But the reality is so much of our wisdom is in our heads and it’s never more apparent than when trying to train someone new.

At FirstRain we have a new executive – the fabulous Daniela Barbosa who just joined us from Dow Jones. She’s smart and experienced and I want to bring her up to speed as fast as possible but pointing her to our systems is, I know, simply insufficient. We think we capture everything about our users and workflow in our salesforce CRM system. We think we capture our contracts in Netsuite and our central wiki. But of course so much of the deep knowledge is tribal – to quote WikipediaTribal knowledge is any unwritten information that is known within a tribe but often unknown outside of it.”

The reality is that the really interesting stuff about your customers, your technology, why people truly buy is in people’s heads. Our customer facing technical team knows the customer’s workflow, the nuances of why they want one choice over another, what internal projects – and opposition – they are facing and need our system to help them solve. It’s impossible to write it all down, and so it’s crucial to share as much verbally as possible.

And it’s one of the reasons that turnover can be so damaging to companies.

Sometimes turnover is good. If you want to change the culture of a company you typically will have to change 50% of the leadership — or more as when Cadence fired it’s entire executive team. If you want to dramatically change your strategy and go-to-market you have to change your business team — as Dell is now bravely doing.

But short of dramatic change, turnover is expensive simply because you lose and have to re-learn so much tribal knowledge. Especially with your R&D team and with customer support. The R&D team knows where the bodies are buried in the code; the customer support team knows the truth about customer use and where they find value.

It is, of course, important to document the knowledge you have, but when you are growing and moving fast it is also important to value, and protect tribal knowledge and bring your team together frequently and efficiently to talk through and share what’s in people’s heads.

My Personal Journey

Progressive states of long offsite meetings

Long meetings can progressively sap energy and create altered states of being. Yes they can.

We went offsite as a management team for 2 days this weekend to talk through our strategy and 2012 planning. 11 of us in 2 houses at Pajaro Dunes, lots of flip charts, heated discussions, cooking together, walking on the beach and generally spending time together thinking about our business. It was really fun but, even so, it was intense and, combined with long discussions late into the night about the state of the world accompanied by some excellent wines, pretty tiring for some.

Two of our jokesters memorialized their progressive states of mind as they helped clean up after the meeting. They sent me the photos – the editorial is all mine.

Yeah! This two day offsite thing is a great idea, they’re ready.

A few hours in and Ryan is already wondering, he’s seen enough of these type of meetings to be healthily cynical, but Nima’s still gung ho.

Second day and Ryan’s mind is wandering but Nima’s using caffeine to push through – “There’s the mountain guys let’s go for it!”

Ryan’s rolling his eyes at Nima’s enthusiasm, just as Nima starts to wind down .

But as Nima finally falls asleep in response to Penny’s energizer bunny, Ryan stoically keeps pushing forward.

Thanks Nima and Ryan – it was fun – and despite the warm sun and sand, amazingly productive!

Career Advice

It’s All about Expectations folks

I have a pet peeve that got me thinking. My peeve is people who say “I’ll call you” or “I’ll email you some times to connect” and then don’t. It’s the modern equivalent of the Hollywood brush off “Let’s do lunch”. One of my service providers did this to me last week and it’s annoying and unprofessional, and it got me to thinking again about how important expectations are.

Satisfying other people really is all about setting their expectations, and it’s especially true in business.

The ultimate is meeting your quarterly numbers. AAPL was slammed because they missed their financial expectations even though profits had grown dramatically. If you say you are going to report X and you report X-1 you are going to get dinged in today’s short term market. It’s a no win for the public company CEO and the great ones understand it’s a long term game, but the CFOs make their stripes on setting expectations right consistently.

Next is product schedules. There is discipline to this skill. You want to be aggressive to stretch the team and yet hit the dates you set because the rest of your business team is planning on it. Literally. Planning customer roll out, planning PR, so major delays play havoc with customer expectations. I very much admire my business partner YY and her ability to think through every aspect of the product release, set the company’s expectation at 95%, consistently deliver that 95% and sometimes deliver the upside of 100%. Everyone’s needs are met and our products leap forward every month.

Then there is your relationships. Californians seem very friendly at first, and then are hard to get close to. The English are frosty at first and then warm up. In business, be clear about your relationships. Are you work colleagues or friends… can your companion truly be him or herself in all his or her dumbness at times, or do they always need to be wary ? Are you loyal or fickle at heart? Obviously you can’t signal this early in a relationship but there comes a time when you can, and it’s just more efficient.

Arrive when you say you are going to arrive. Being late is the ultimate in bad manners – it says you think your time is more important than my time.

And if you tell me you are going to do something for heaven’s sake do it or don’t tell me in the first place! It just makes me grumpy.

My Personal Journey

Raising over $31,000 for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund

Earlier this year I set out a challenge for myself to do a really long swim for my mother, and on Monday that crazy idea grew into something really big for FirstRain and for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

We started doing athletic competitions at FirstRain back in 2008 as a way to build stronger teams inside the company and this Summer I decided to encourage Rainmakers to get involved in a series of events building up to my personal challenge of a 2.4 mile ocean swim off Maui.

And to my delight many of my coworkers have been with me all the way – and into the race! All summer Rainmakers have been training with me in the pool, competing in the Splash and Dash series and yesterday two of them did the Maui ‘Aumakua Swim too. We’ve been doing relays, running, teaching each other how to swim better and generally having fun and becoming friends.

The race yesterday was on a spectacular, perfect Maui day. The water was crystal clear and we were swimming over coral reefs, fish and the occasional turtle. Thomas and Jordy did the 1 mile distance and were both very pleased with their times and I beat my time goal in the 2.4 mile distance.

2.4 miles is a very long way to swim if you don’t compete all the time. It was a huge personal challenge for me but once I set my pace I pushed through, absolutely determined to finish because I was raising money for OCRF, I was on a mission and I was supported by so many coworkers, friends and family.

My mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer 18 months ago. She has been through treatment and is in remission but we know the fight is not over. Unfortunately today there is no effective early detection method for this disease and so the statistics are tough. Over 22,000 women are diagnosed with the disease each year in the US and over 15,000 die from it. My goal was to raise as much money as possible for OCRF to help find a detection method and ultimately a cure.

And the result was donations of more than $31,000! Truly fantastic generosity from many, many people. We put out a FirstRain press release on the news because the achievement is, to a great extent, the result of my coworkers wonderful involvement and support. It’s a privilege to work with such terrific people.

Several Rainmakers have asked me what we are going to do next Summer – any suggestions for what we should do next?