The Three P’s: Lenses to Assess Your Startup’s Performance

I took a bit of a sabbatical this summer and now, refreshed and with a few new topics brewing, it’s time to get back to writing!

LunettesA recurring theme I’ve encountered this summer is which lenses you should apply when evaluating the performance of your growing organization. As an advisor and executive coach to early stage companies, I’m finding more often I am preaching the concept of the “Three P’s: People, Processes and Programs”. Looking at your company or department through each of these lenses and asking yourself how you’re doing in each area can be very telling. It helps you understand where you may need to improve to continue to scale and reach success.

Lens #1 – People

The best leaders of any organization know that their people are what makes or breaks the success of their company. This isn’t just about performance and productivity metrics of each member or as a team, this is about people being in the right roles, having the right training, career path and great peers, bosses and teams to work with. When you ask yourself “are my employees happy?”, consider if you are doing everything you can to ensure greatness. This is well beyond great pay and company perks or weekly beer bashes. Most people want to feel challenged in their roles, but also supported and set up for success. They want equally smart (or often smarter) people to work with and they want to see you get rid of people who don’t work as hard as they do or who are jerks.

Great employees want to work towards growth either as an individual contributor or as a leader. They want to know that they will be rewarded for making solid contributions and for being team players. Growth should not always come from taking on more responsibility or more people to manage. Growth can also come from broadening their knowledge through exposure to new things such as customer visits, interactions with your board, or maybe going to a conference or speaking on a panel with other domain experts. When an employee is not growing or rising to a new challenge, ask yourself if this is a limitation of the individual, or is the system limiting them? Do they need mentorship from someone who’s been in their shoes before to guide them to the next level? Are you micromanaging, thus not giving them a chance to step up and show what they can do?

Happy employees also feel like they have visibility into the vision and direction of the company. They don’t need to know every detail of a product roadmap or the revenue strategy, but they want to understand where the company is headed and how leaders of the organization are measuring success. As a leader of an organization, do you have weekly or monthly all-hands and/or quarterly reviews that include vision and strategy? Do you routinely communicate through company email or on-line forums (e.g., Slack) on big company news like closing a big deal or a great new hire and include why these are important? The more understanding each employee has about the big picture, the more they can calibrate their actions and contribute towards success.

This first lens – evaluating if you are setting up an environment for happy, growing and informed employees – is probably the most important thing you can do to set your company up for long term success.

Lens #2 – Processes

As much as any startup loves being small, nimble and usually pretty organizationally flat, the reality is that implementing processes can be useful. I’m not talking about three ring binders full of protocols and standards. I’m just saying that having a general process for key parts of the business is important. There was probably a time (or maybe your company is there now) where everyone sat around one table and could just talk through how to get something done. Then, all of a sudden, one table becomes a few desks, maybe a few remote employees and a field sales person or two and what used to be a simple chat becomes harder to navigate.

ProcessConsider what processes are in place today that grew organically vs. with intention. If the organic processes work, that’s cool, but keep an eye on them because over time they may not scale. For those set up with intention – e.g., a hiring process or maybe your weekly sprints – reevaluate them on a regular basis. Are they repeatable and do they scale with more people in the company or more bugs to fix? Resist the temptation to keep a process because “that’s how we’ve always done it” or because “our Founder set it up, so how can we kill it?”. Companies that evolve have processes that evolve and what once worked then, may not work now.

Think about how decisions are made, information is disseminated and loops are closed for critical processes first. The most common areas where processes comes more and more into play tend to be product roadmap and execution plans, hiring strategies and go to market strategies. Here are some suggestions for each:

Product Roadmaps

  • Consider monthly, three-months-out roadmap reviews to prioritize new products, major features and release plans. Do not lose sight of the fact that this is not just which designers or engineers are building what, but also how you’ll market and support these products and features.
  • You may have weekly reviews to ensure you’re tracking to the meta-plan and make adjustments if needed. Have some sort of process in place to deal with surprises like a critical bug that bumps a feature or a customer opportunity that may change the priority of a future feature. Set criteria that justifies this type of change so you don’t have to analyze each one on the fly. For a critical bug to bump a priority feature, it might be something like “must impact >50% of our customers or degrade performance more than “20%”. For a customer opportunity it could be “must be a deal worth >$(?) revenue or a customer that will provide undeniable street cred for >50% of our current prospects”.
  • If/when the roadmap changes, have a process for letting people know. Don’t just update Trello and assume everyone will see it – have some sort of change management message that goes out via email/slack that tells the team what and why.
  • It also doesn’t hurt to have a process to track changes to the roadmap so you can see the impact on your initial plan over time. This will contribute to better planning going forward.

Hiring

  • I highly recommend a quarterly hiring plan – not just how many new heads, but actual roles you intend to fill. Given today’s climate where hiring is SO hard, it could take 2-3 months to get that right candidate. So have a process in place to assess where you are with hiring and what new roles you need to ramp on filling.
  • Get in the habit of a regular job description (JD) writing process. Don’t always wait for a role to open up. If people are in the role now, have them write their own job descriptions. This not only helps when it comes to review or promotion time, but you then have these JDs on file if/when needed. I’ve seen major delays with filling a pipeline with good candidates or terribly inefficient candidate interviews simply because no JD exists.
  • Have a hiring process in place that starts with the JD and ends with the on-boarding of this new hire. I’ll write a future post on this with more details, but the short story is that it should include how you’ll post and market the opening, handle phone screens, on-site interviews, making an offer, negotiating terms and how you’ll get that new hire on board and productive as fast as possible.

Go to Market

  • It’s one thing to have a product roadmap that outlines what you’ll build, but it’s another to say how you’ll get those things out there. With every product roadmap, there should be a parallel process for laying out how and when new products/features are publicized, priced (if applicable) and sold.
  • Have a process for content updates such as your website, marketing materials, and demos.
  • What process will you have for telling the world about your new stuff? Do you have a regular list of press or industry bloggers who write about your company or trends in your market? When should they hear about your new product/feature and what’s your plan to share what they write through social media or other channels?  How do your current customers and/or prospects hear about the latest new thing? These are not afterthoughts once the engineering is done, they are just as important processes to get in place as your code check-ins and testing procedures (which you have already, right?).

Looking through the lens of processes and seeing what you have and don’t have in place should tell you whether your company will be able to scale or is heading for a train wreck. Don’t be afraid to pause when you see a gap where a light process could relieve a bottle neck or better prepare your team for future scaling challenges.

Lens #3 – Programs

The Program lens is not used as often as it should. Granted, as a former Program Manager in a past life, I’m a little biased. However, what I often see missing in growing organizations is someone looking across the organization, programmatically, to ensure all the pieces are coming together including people, schedules and money.

A great example of this is the processes I mentioned above around new products or major feature releases. These are often multi-pronged activities involving engineering, sales, support, marketing and maybe finance and operations. You may have program_managerheads of each of these groups, but who is overseeing how they all work towards a common goal or launch date? For many small companies, that’s the CEO or CPO, but (oh by the way), these same people are running your company or out in the field selling or closing your next round of funding.

In the early stage, you may consider rotating the role of Program Manager between different leaders in your organization. Keep in mind, though, not everyone has the knack for project plans and cross-company communication. Make sure you pick the right people to be in this role.  As your organization grows, consider hiring an actual Program Manager. A Program Manager is often one of the unsung heroes of a company because they are in the background instead of on the front lines. They quietly prod and check things off lists. They communicate what’s happening and where there are possible gotchas. Program Managers beat the drum so everyone is marching in the right direction and at the right pace. They are masters in GSD (Getting Sh-t Done) with no task too small or ask too big.

So, don’t just look through the process lens, but also ask yourself what programs are cutting across more than one part of your company and who is orchestrating them. You’d be amazed how productive and efficient your startup will be when programs are well managed.

In Summary….

Startups, when they’re working, develop very quickly – often without enough attention given to people, processes and programs. It’s one thing for an Advisor or Investor to tell you what your company or department is lacking or how you could be doing better, but in the end, you need to ask yourself how YOU think it’s going. Applying these three lenses should help bring things into focus [pun intended].

Have you been using any of these lenses to assess performance or have different lenses that you’ve found effective?  Please share in the comments below!

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…

“People are Funny”

IMG_4079One of my favorite and rather famous family quotes from my Dad, is “People are funny” [see his epitaph, inset]. It was his catch-all phrase for when someone did or said something odd. The saying was his way of recognizing that we can’t always explain why people do or say what they do, we just have to either learn from them or have compassion for them. Sometimes, though, I want to do more than just learn or have compassion. I want to respond with a “hey, what are you doing?” or “you can’t say that!”.  Yesterday was one of those days. When someone said something that I brushed off in my head as “people are funny”, but the next morning it still nags.

“Are you two both work and life partners?”

I’ll explain…

Because I’m in the wonderful world of entrepreneurship and tech, I have the common experience of working closely with men. A man has been my boss in just about every job I’ve had. Men have been the majority of the employees I have hired and managed and, as I have grown professionally, more often these men are my peers. I travel with these men, go out to coffee, lunch, drinks, and have dinner with these men. Often, I also get to know their wives and have introduced our children. I’ve been to their weddings and have had the honor of staying in their homes when I travel. I have been so fortunate to develop some of the strongest relationships with these men over my career as I have with some of my dearest girlfriends. They’ve been my mentors and confidants and often ask the same of me – which I do with pleasure.

Despite all of this, it seems that no matter what my rank and status or theirs, there is always someone who assumes that my strong rapport with these wonderful men must mean there’s more to our relationship. Good working relationships at work are often like second marriages. We’ve all heard the expression “my work husband” which suggests that this other guy in your life who knows you inside and out is your go-to guy at work, but it’s strictly a professional relationship. These are the guys we have friendly banter with, we share inside jokes and we are able to finish each other’s sentences. We’re BFFs in the best sense of the word. Yet, someone always opens that door that questions how a relationship like this is possible without something more going on. It’s the proverbial “a man and woman can’t possibly JUST be friends“.

Now back to yesterday. While in a meeting that was (ironically) about raising awareness of gender bias in venture capital, I was asked if my male colleague in the meeting with me was both my “work and my life partner”. I do not believe there was anything this man or I said or did that would infer such a thing. We clearly know each other well and had a few occasions of poking fun at each other that demonstrated a good working relationship, but it wasn’t flirty or unprofessional.

So, what provoked this question? Do men and women have to be all business to be taken seriously as professional colleagues? Should my colleague and I be more impersonal in meetings? Can men and women NOT just be friends? When we are striving towards more equal and gender neutral work environments, how do we eliminate the assumptions and biases we have about men and women working together? As a society, we need to hold each other accountable for respecting the strong relationships colleagues develop regardless of their gender. If two guys can be BFFs at work, play golf together and travel together without judgement, shouldn’t male and female colleagues be able to do the same?

…or, are people just funny?

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