Step One: Investing in the Minority

Once, in my first few weeks in the early days at Akamai, I was pulled aside and told I had to stop wearing suits every day because people thought I was looking for a new job. I promptly went out and bought five new pairs of jeans and mothballed my vast array of suits and dresses. I wanted to be sure I was taken seriously as a senior member of a technology organization. Now here I was, 15 years later, asking myself if jeans were OK to wear to a program I was invited to attend at Stanford Law. The event was hosted by a16z and is designed to prepare future corporate board members of venture backed companies. I’m a big believer in the value of strong first impressions and, like it or not, what we wear is part of that first impression.

I sought advice from a friend who’s been a senior leader at a few top technology companies in the valley. Her opinion is that jeans “are part of a wardrobe that connotes technical competence. Dressing like a stereotypical engineer offsets the fact that I’m female; people can place me as an engineer in spite of my gender. And the converse is true as well – jewelry, high heels, emphatic makeup, skirts, scarves – most garments that emphasize femininity also connote non-technical because they connote femininity.” However, she goes on to say “being female, of course, still connotes ‘not a leader’ just like it does ‘not technical’ so you’re still going to have to dress like a guy to get intuitively bucketed as leader instead of an admin.” This last part struck me because the guys I know, in our field, who are some of the best leaders I have had the pleasure to work with, routinely wear jeans; not just to go to work but on stage and in executive meetings.

So what does this have to do with “Investing in the Minority”?

As noted above, the program I was about to attend was to prepare future corporate board members. I knew I was invited along with another CEO friend of mine from Boston in part because we were women, but I thought it was to round out the attendee list. We are often the token “nerd chicks” in our circle of professionals. So, while I was stressed about walking into a room full of white dudes in suits and being taken seriously (on first impressions because of what I wore), it turned out to be a totally moot point. As soon as I arrived, I knew this was about getting a new class of highly diverse board members and no one cared about what we wore. The room was ~75%, ethnically diverse, women and of all the male attendees, I counted only two white dudes. Most of the presenters were, however, white dudes (and most of these white dudes were wearing jeans), but they had clearly been tutored on balanced use of pronouns and were careful not to patronize or overtly call out the diversity in the room.

Audience diversity and wardrobe aside, what was really striking was that a16z put a stake in the ground that they are intent on solving the dearth of women and diversity on corporate boards by training up a bunch of us for the job. This realization reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a founding CEO and CTO duo who want to hire more women engineers. Women were applying for their job postings and they were great fits for this company, but they were finding that most of these women were not “technical enough”. I questioned whether there was unconscious bias at play or whether these women were really not as technically competent for the roles they were hoping to fill. The founders insisted these candidates were great in every way, but they just didn’t have enough coding experience. Just like a16z is investing in diversity for boards by training us up, I pushed these founders to invest in these women engineers. If they are great in every way, but just don’t have enough experience, give them that experience!

Which leads me to think more about this group of newly enlightened future board members. Now that we have been schooled in the duty of care and the duty of loyalty, who is taking the next step to actually get us onto boards? This is no different than the very capable women engineers who just need hiring managers to give them a chance, and perhaps some training/mentoring, so they can get experience. Unless we are actively marketed, recruited and given a chance to sit on boards, this investment in us as minorities is for not. I am not saying that we sit back and wait for others to do the work for us. I will definitely tap my board and others to make sure they know I am now even more prepared to take a board seat than I was with “just” my 25+ years of experience in management in startups and mature companies and from sitting on three different non-profit boards. However, I do think it’s incumbent upon a16z and others who aspire to support and foster diversity on boards and in corporations to seek us out and take a chance on us.

A16z made it clear in their invitation to this event that they are not guaranteeing us board seats. I get that and nor should they as we each need to stand on our own and demonstrate what we can do. However, they should, IMHO, commit to Step Two:

  • Create a directory of newly minted “board ready” professionals who have completed programs such as the one offered by Stanford Law
  • Upon election to a board, provide a mentor directory to those who have completed the program so we can have an experienced, trusted advisor or two to call upon in our first year of board service [Note: They may have to sign an NDA to do this, but if they are trusted professionals without a conflict, this should be a reasonable ask.]
  • Pressure their portfolio companies, current boards they sit on, and others in their networks to take a chance on us, or perhaps if not already oversubscribed with board observers, let us observe so we can start to get real board experience.
  • Finally, track our progress. Where are we in 9-12 months? Are we sitting on a board? Did anything we learned in this program become valuable in our first months as board members? Did we make an impact? As Professor Daines noted in his lecture last week, not enough research has been done on corporate board governance – especially on VC backed companies – so let’s start capturing the data now.

I am truly grateful for the invitation to participate in the program last week and hopeful I can leverage what I’ve learned on a private or public board soon. Much thanks to Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, Margit Wennmachers and their team for taking the time to organize and participate in last week’s program!

…and for those wondering “but she never said what she ended up wearing??!”, I wore jeans.

Got ideas about how to foster more diversity on corporate boards? Please reply with a comment!

The 90-Day Plan – To Go or Not to Go

90daysI give 100% credit to my dear friend Drew for inspiring this post. Drew and I were catching up last week about our respective lives, careers, and the startup world. We are similar people in that we have a million ideas and suffer from wanting to do everything at once! When we reach our saturation point of options, we each make a 90-day plan and decide to commit to next steps within that 90 days. It could be anything – a home improvement project, planning a trip, taking a new job or founding a startup – just time box it and go for it.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I rarely do anything with any degree of seriousness without a plan. When I decide to take on a new project, I outline a few key questions I will ask myself and/or the team I work with:

  • What goals do we think we can reach within 90 days?
  • How much of ourselves can we commit to reach this goal?
  • What will be our successful “go” criteria beyond meeting those goals and timeline?
  • What will be our successful “no-go” criteria? (because deciding not to do something can be a successful outcome!)
  • At the end of our first 90 days, what do we imagine the next 90 days or beyond to look like?

In an established company setting, this approach could apply to a prototyping phase of a new product or feature, setting up a new human resource program or even raising new capital via a series “x” or IPO. Having a plan that considers the above may help secure budget and/or support of key stakeholders to let you take a risk early on before making a bigger investment such as hiring people, marketing, etc. This approach can also apply to building a company from the ground up.

I recently took this approach on a potential startup with a prospective co-founder. We had an idea and laid out a plan to flesh out that idea before building anything or raising any money. We created a timeline and committed ourselves to dig in. We answered the above questions like so:

  • We want a clear MVP defined within 90 days
  • We will taper back our other work commitments to give ~50% of our respective work time to this project
  • Our successful “go” criteria beyond the above two points was loosely defined as:
    1. Being more in love with the idea and its potential than when we started
    2. Proving the market opportunity was massive(*)
    3. Feeling like we were the right team and individuals to build it
  • Our successful “no-go” criteria was one or the combination of the following:
    1. The market opportunity was not as massive as we had defined
    2. We were not the right individuals/team to build it
    3. One or both of us became less enamored with the idea as we pursued it
  • At the end of the first 90 days, we would either raise a small amount of capital to hire engineers to build the MVP OR we would kill the project

(*) “Massive” opportunity for our project meant we’d disrupt a billion dollar market, but each project should have its own definition of massive

While we didn’t write out our plan as explicitly as I did above, we had many deep conversations throughout the 90-day period that solidified this approach. In the end, we had a successful, mutually agreed upon, “no-go” decision. It was a great learning experience not only in terms of the domain we explored, but also in terms of what each of us wanted out of our next venture.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say “trying is succeeding”, but wouldn’t you rather know you tried, with a plan, and understood why you decided not to do something than doing nothing or working without a plan and wondering “what if” or “why did we fail”? When you’re weighing options, take the 90-day approach. Go for it, execute on a plan, and be true to your self and whomever you may partner with to go, or not to go.

Have other good examples of 90-day plans that led to go or no-go?  Please reply and share!

Just Be Excellent

“Hi, my name is Julia, and I used to be a Grey’s Anatomy fan.”

I stopped watching the show sometime after season 4 or 5, but there was a scene in an early episode that has stuck with me ever since (and if someone can find the clip, I’ll buy them a fine dinner!). One of the female characters – Yang or Grey, I think – was feeling the classic pressure of needing to do more to succeed than just be a surgeon. She was stepping out of her comfort zone because she thought that’s what she needed to do to excel in her career. In this case, she was vying for an administrative type of role that required lots of paperwork, scheduling and managing staff – all non-surgical skills. While she was learning new things and stretching herself, she was not loving or doing well at this new type of work. In the memorable clip, one of this woman’s mentors lays it on the line with her and tells her to stop trying to be something she’s not or do something she doesn’t love and to just “be excellent”.

I often reflect on this scene when I coach leaders of early stage growth companies who are striving to grow professionally. keep-calm-and-be-excellent-8Sometimes it’s a salesperson who has become a CEO or a programmer who is now a VP of Engineering. Often, when one starts a new company, they are still doing their day job (sales, programming, market analysis…) not just because there’s no one else but them to do it, but because it’s their passion and the reason they started their business to begin with. The catch 22 of a successful startup can be that the job you loved and got you this far is a job you no longer have time to do. You are meeting with investors, managing people, closing deals, looking for space or just paying the bills. In many cases, there’s great satisfaction in learning how to run a company and domain experts become great leaders across and outside of their organizations. They are being excellent! Sometimes, however, they are being anything but excellent. They are poor people managers or suck at managing investors and they find themselves in a role that makes them miserable. This can have a negative impact on everything from the happiness of their customers, employees and the overall bottom line to their personal self-worth and esteem.

I have taken pleasure in seeing some great founding CEOs and CTOs step down from their roles early into their company’s success to go back to their true passion. Whether it was programming, a business development or sales role, they chose to be excellent so that they can make an impact on their company and found someone with the right skills and experience to do the job they did not want or were good at doing. So, when I am advising leaders in early stage growth companies about scaling their organization, I walk them through an exercise that forecasts what their company might look like in 12, 18 and/or 24 months. Then, I ask them a series of questions that include some of the following:

  • Do you feel prepared to manage an organization at that size?
  • What tools do you think you are missing in your toolbox to be good at that role?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you willing or eager to give up?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you loathe to give up?
  • What criteria will you use to know when you need to delegate something to a new or existing team member?
  • What criteria will you use to decide if you are still happy in your role?

Even with the best planning, most leaders have no idea what their companies will look or feel like at scale, never mind how they will feel about their own roles. However, being self aware and having some ideas in mind of what one will do at that juncture can be vital to their success. Lining up advisors and/or coaches who can help add those tools to your toolbox or to find the right people to delegate to, or perhaps hand the reins to, can be critical to the overall success of the company.

A good leader/founder is not a failure for admitting they suck at their job or that they can’t do it all. The best leaders are those who acknowledge what needs to be done and by whom and they make it happen. They know they need to just be excellent.

Have you stepped down from a leadership role so you can be excellent or know someone who has?  Please share your story in the comments!

Author’s note: After posting, I realized I should have called out that this mindset is applicable for ANY role. If you’re a great programmer, be an excellent programmer. If you’re a great designer, be an excellent designer, etc…

Thoughts on Leadership From a Great (and sorely missed) Leader

danny-lewin-close-story-topIn the grand scheme of the tech world, very few of us can say we had the privilege to work with/for Danny Lewin – Akamai Founder and CTO, who we lost on 9/11.  Yesterday, on the anniversary of his murder, I assembled our “Akamai Early Days – Pre-2002’ish” Facebook group to use Throwback Thursday (#TBT) to share memories of Danny.  There were so many stories from his heroic sales moves and tough discussions to the more humorous incidents like when, weeks before he was about to make bank on the Akamai IPO, he tried to buy a ring for his wife at Tiffany’s and none of his credit cards would work because they were all tapped out.  Sharing these stories not only allowed us to all get through what’s usually a very difficult day, with some amount of warmth and humor.  These stories also reminded us of the type of leader Danny was and inspired us to be.  One post to the group was an email Danny wrote on leadership that my dear friend John Healy had saved for all these years.  This note was sent when Danny had just taken the reins as the head of Product Management.  It’s truly inspirational and worth sharing.  I believe this message planted a seed in many of us over 13 years ago to be better leaders and as I have watched my colleagues from those early days at Akamai grow in their careers – still there or now on to other great companies – I see a little bit of Danny’s spirit and leadership in each of them.

Please read and take notes!

A note from Danny….

Hi All,
I’m writing this email to communicate to you some leadership principals that I believe are very important and that I want to see implemented in our organization. As the management team of product management it is core to what we do to think about the leadership of our organization and of the company. Most management teams don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about leadership – and the result is low productivity, inefficient decision making, and subdued creativity. I want our new organization to be an example inside Akamai of how thinking actively about leadership, and planning how to motivate and empower people, can lead to a great organization that executes flawlessly.

Talking about how to lead people can be a little “cheesey” at times, however in my experience you need to get over the discomfort and create a plan to lead – just like you would create any plan of action. Now, I am no great expert in leadership, but I was lucky enough to have learned some basic principals first hand from some of the best leaders I know of, and I want to try to implement these principals together with you in our organization. Here goes:

Great leaders create great teams. You can always tell that there is a great leader at hand when you see a group of people that are executing as a team. People do not naturally create good teams. Most intelligent human beings are opinionated, irrational, jealous, and angry – but when there is a great leader at hand people seem to put all that under the rug and concentrate on working together towards a common goal.

So, a great leader is someone who can create a great team, and creating a great team means understanding how to manipulate people to work together instead of against each other. Surprisingly, people in groups behave in very predictable and reproducible ways, and hence, there are some common principals that great leaders use over and over again to create teams. It is almost like we humans have built inside of us a basic capacity to function in a team that just needs to be turned on by pushing the right buttons – we need to identify the buttons!

There are a zillion things a great leader does to create and lead a team, but I want to focus on the ones that I believe are the most important. There are only three.
1. Lead By Example
2. Suffer Together
3. Hold People Accountable and Get Rid of Non-performers
These may seem harsh and simple, but please read on to understand what I mean by each one, and how I see us implementing these principals in our organization.

Lead By Example
—————————
Leading by example may seem a trite principal at first – it is “clear” that a leader has to lead by example! However, in many cases people only give lip service to this principal without really understanding what it takes to truly lead by example. There are three big buckets here (in order of importance):

  1. A leader needs to exhibit truly exceptional abilities in at least one aspect of the personal skills required from team members. This allows people to give the leader responsibility for decisions related to the tasks that the team executes with a feeling of safety. For example, if the team is required to program, the leader must be an exceptional programmer in at least one area. This requirement is ignored in many reorgs and hirings – but is critical to the formation of a great team. This does not mean that the leader has to be the best at everything that the team does – just in some specific areas. No good team member will submit to the leader without at the very least respecting his or her capabilities. A good leader both has the required capabilities AND makes sure that the team knows it! Without this quality – a leader will fail.
  2. A great leader identifies the job specific behaviors that the team needs to have to succeed and makes sure to exhibit them to the extreme. For example, if a team needs to work weekends to be successful – the leader will work weekends, holidays, and nights. If the team needs to manage costs down to be effective, the leader will reduce his/her own salary and follow up on all expenses. People are motivated on a day-by-day basis by a leader who maintains a superior record of professional behaviors – this tells people that they have to live up to the expectations of behavior because their leader can always hold herself up as an example.
  3. A great leader understands the basic characteristics that any leader needs to show and they make conscious and concentrated efforts to exhibit them. All people look to the leader of a team for the following things:
    a. Clear Goals and Objectives – Teams form around a leader to achieve objectives. Without an objective, a leader cannot build a team. Team members want to see goals and objectives communicated clearly. Vagueness in goals and objectives is the death of team.
    b. Crisp Decision Making – Leaders make decisions and teams expect and need leaders to make decisions. Decisions should be made by soliciting input from all relevant team members. But – the responsibility for the decision is with the leader. Decisions need to be made efficiently, firmly, and with authority. Once a leader makes a decision, the team needs to be held accountable to accept that decision. Team members make decisions all the time while working, and for teams to be effective they need to make decisions. The way that a leader makes decisions is emulated by the team, so great leaders make an effort to expose to the team how they make decisions.
    c. Follow Up – One of the great pitfalls of leadership is the Delegation Pitfall. A leader falls into the delegation pitfall when they start to truly believe in delegation and that leads to the dangerous idea of Delegation of Accountability. Responsibility and accountability are never delegated. Work is delegated and new accountability created by a leader. A leader is responsible and accountable for everything a team does – no matter what. This means that:
    1 – A leader always follows up on work that is delegated. Always and often. Team members perceive micromanagement not because of follow up, but because of shortfalls in other areas of leadership.
    2 – A leader manages down to the details. Great leaders follow up on the details of what team members are doing. Truly great leaders create atmospheres where team members feel responsibility, but also search out the leader to share the details.
    3 – Leaders always work harder than all of the team members. If you have X work for your team, you can delegate X into three parts, but the follow up and the details will sum up to more than a third of X.
    d. Integrity – Team members need to trust the leader. Trust is inspired by integrity. Integrity is the firm adherence to a code of professional behavior that the team respects. This includes directness, honesty, clarity of conversation, and a sense of incorruptibility.
    e. Equivalent Accountability – Only leaders can cause the principle of equivalent accountability to take hold in a team. Equivalent accountability is the principle of holding all people and all organizations, at all levels to the same standard of performance and honest dedication to the mission at hand. Teams that operate without equivalent accountability, tend to disintegrate into unfortunate politics and finger pointing, which takes the place of forward progress for the team.

Leadership by example is the number one priority for all leaders – and I expect us in Product Management to focus on the example that we set for our own teams and for the whole company.

Suffer Together
———————–
This one is a shocker!! But seriously…
Teams form around a leader when there is *necessity* for a team. Teams are necessary when there is an external circumstance, requirement, goal, obstacle, or pressure that cannot be overcome or achieved by an individual alone.
In any case where you are required to lead, there must be some necessity for a team – so the circumstances at hand usually provide the external pressure.

Many times, people who lead believe that the goal of a leader is to shield teams from the external pressures. This is a mistake because is prevents the team from feeling the need to become a team. People need the pressure to form a team – this is how people work.

Great leaders keep their teams under pressure at all times.
External pressure alone however is not enough for a team to form. External pressure is like having critical mass for fusion – you still need the compression to start the chain reaction. In team building the compression comes from Suffering Together.

Suffering together means allowing a team to feel pain related to the external pressure as a group.
Truly great leaders make sure that during team formation (and at regular intervals after that) the team suffers together. This may seem simplistic, but groups of people are very predictable – teams need to suffer together to form.

Hold People Accountable and Get Rid of Non-performers
———————————————————————————–
The third and last key principal for building a team again seems trite at first glance. However, this is probably the most misunderstood of the three principals.

There are really two parts to this principal. First, a leader holds people accountable. This has three simple components:
1. People have commitments that they make to the team and to the leader
2. People are measured in a fair and uniform way against the commitments that they have made
3. People are compensated according to how well they perform
This is the simple part.

The more complex, and more critical part, of this principal is Getting Rid of Non-Performers. Getting rid of non-performers is NOT aimed primarily at raising productivity by replacing a non-performer with a performer. Getting rid of non-performers is aimed at helping the group that remains to coalesce and perform as a team. This is one of the most difficult of the three principals to grasp at first. Here is an explanation:

For teams to form, there needs to be trust.Trust between the team members and trust between the team and the leader. The first part of trust is coaxed into being by leadership by example. Next, suffering together forces initial trust between team members – there is no other choice! However, in all teams, after a period of initial trust, non-performers are identified by team members and trust starts to deteriorate. This is a critical time for the team and for the leader. In order to preserve the trust that team members have for each other and for the leader, the leader must remove the non-performers from the team. The result is two main behaviors that cement the team together:
a. The team respects the leader for taking action when holding someone accountable reveals that they are not holding up their part of the bargain. This creates trust in the leader. In addition, when accountability is equivalent for all team members, the leader demonstrates integrity to the team.
b. The team feels comfortable trusting each other – because if they are still in the team, they must be performing against the teams goals and objectives. This sense of safety in the group is key to a great team.
Because this principal is the most difficult to understand, it is the most widely abused. Things to be careful of:
a. This principal does not say that anyone who does not perform needs to be fired immediately. Leaders work with people to improve and to achieve first. Only if after fair chance and help a team member is not performing should they be removed from the team.
b. Both parts of this principal need to be applied for it to be effective. People have to have commitments that can be fairly measured. Only after people have a chance to execute on clear commitments can they be help accountable by the leader, and only then can the leader effectively decide to remove non-performers from the team. This means that coming into a team and getting rid of 3 non-performers does not contribute to team building.

These principals are simple to state, but the way they affect people is quite profound. It is worth thinking about the successful and unsuccessful teams that you have been a part of and recognizing how these principals applied to each situation. Questions to me.

In the new organization we are building I plan to leading our team by these principals – and I want you to think about how you can implement these steps in your groups as well.

[excluded AKAM sales data points here]

Our ability to provide good leadership is key to Akamai not becoming “just another company” – we need to take it seriously as a group.
Things you will get from me:
1. Clear goals for you and your groups
2. A commitment an measurement process you feel is fair
3. A compensation plan based on performance
4. An organizational structure based on what is best for Akamai as a company
What I need from you in the mean while:
1. Stay focused on the Sales Push and support teams
2. Absorb the uncertainty about the future of the org until the end of the Sales Push
3. Input
Thoughts, questions, suggestions – to me.
Thanks,
Danny