A Simple Trick to Reduce Cross-Cultural Confusion

Have you ever been to a business meeting that felt like this?

I love communications.  Back in the day, I spent hours learning the comprehensibility of different typefaces on the theory that you shouldn’t fumble the ball on the two-yard line by building a great message, only to put in a typeface that people can’t understand.  Yesterday, I just started The Sense of Style, a manual that one-ups Strunk & White by providing research-backed rules driven not just by elegance, but comprehension.

When working with non-native English speakers, it’s easy to blame language as the source of miscommunication.  But language problems are pretty easy to identify — “Huh, what did you say?”  The scary situation is when everyone leaves a meeting thinking they’ve agreed to something, but no one actually agrees on what that is.  And that can easily happen even when everyone speaks fluent English.

That’s where culture comes in.  Most big miscommunications — the kind that derail projects and cost people their jobs — are driven by culture, not language.

If you work with India, trying to communicate without Speaking of India is like trying to trying navigate Mumbai without a map.  Living in France (as I did for five years) is greatly aided by French or Faux, which has nothing to do with language and everything to do with culture.

I’ve always found it interesting that the literal translation of jihad is “struggle.”  I often feel like communicating is a jihad in this sense:  an ongoing struggle to understand each other.

Having been to too many meetings where a false agreement was reached, I have come up with two different tricks that help minimize confusion among teams:

  • Real-time minutes.  Allocate a material chunk of the meeting to present the minutes of the meeting while it is still occurring.  But putting key decisions and action items on the screen somehow grabs peoples’ attention and gets them to focus.  Hey, we didn’t agree to X.  Or, that’s not what I meant by Y.  This trick works well for most groups, particularly those where both language and culture are not a real impediment.
  • First-draft-by-you minutes.  For more difficult situations, where miscommunications are frequent and important, I have found that it is incredibly useful to find out “what you heard” through the minutes as opposed to me simply re-writing “what we said.”  Thus, one great trick is to pick someone on the remote team and ask them to write the minutes and send them only to you, so you can see clearly was heard as opposed, perhaps, to what was said.  Once you identify and close any gaps with that one person you can then rollout the revised minutes along with someone on the ground who can explain them.

That’s it.  Two easy tricks to reduce miscommunication in the workplace.

Free Download of the Gartner 2015 Magic Quadrant for Corporate Performance Management Suites

Just a quick post to let you know that my company, Host Analytics, is offering a free copy / free download of the Gartner 2015 Magic Quadrant (MQ) for Corporate Performance Management (CPM) Suites.

You need to give about six fields of basic contact information to get the report, which can be downloaded here.  CPM is also known as enterprise performance management (EPM) and financial performance management (FPM) and includes corporate financial planning, scenario planning, budgeting, consolidations, financial reporting, profit modeling and optimization, and analytics.

Joining the Granular Board of Directors

I’m very happy to say that I’ve joined the Board of Directors of Granular.  In this post, I’ll provide some commentary that goes beyond the formal announcement.

I think all CEOs should sit on boards because it makes you a better CEO.  You get take remove the blinders that come from your own (generally all-consuming) company, you build the network of people you can rely upon for answering typical CEO questions, and most importantly, you get to turn the tables and better understand how things might look when seen from the board perspective of your own company.

Let’s share a bit about Granular.

  • Granular is a cloud computing company, specifically a vertical SaaS company, aimed at improving the efficiency of farms.
  • They have a world-class team with the usual assortment of highly intelligent overachievers and with an unusual number of physicists on the executive team, which is always a good thing in a big data company.  (While you might think data scientists are computer science or stats majors, a large number of them seem to come from physics.)

To get a sense of the team’s DNA, here’s a word cloud of the leadership page.

wordle 2

Finally, let’s share a bit about why I decided to join the board.

  • As mentioned, they have a world-class team and I love working with supersmart people.
  • I like vertical strategies.  At MarkLogic, we built the company using a highly vertical strategy.  At Versant, a decade earlier, we turned the company around with a vertical strategy.  At BusinessObjects, while we grew to $1B largely horizontally, as we began to hit scale we used verticals as “+1″ kickers to sustain growth.  As a marketeer by trade, I love getting into the mind of and focusing on the needs of the customer, and verticals are a great way to do that.
  • I love the transformational power of the cloud. (Wait, do I sound like too much like @Benioff?)  While cloud computing has many benefits, one of my favorites is that the cloud can bring software to markets and businesses where the technology was previously inaccessible.  This is particularly true with farming, which is a remote, fragmented, and “non-sexy” industry by Silicon Valley standards.
  • I like their angle.  While a lot of farming technology thus far has been focused on precision ag, Granular is taking more of financial and operations platform approach that is a layer up the stack.  Granular helps farmers make better operational decisions (e.g., which field to harvest when), tracks those decisions, and then as a by-product produces a bevy of data that can be used for big data analysis.
  • I love their opportunity.  Not only is this a huge, untapped market, but there is a two-fer opportunity:  [1] a software service that helps automate operations and [2] an information service opportunity derived from the collected big data.
  • Social good.  The best part is that all these amazing people and great technology comes packaged with a built-in social good.  Helping farmers be more productive not only helps feed the world but helps us maximize planetary resource efficiency in so doing.

I thank the Granular team for taking me on the board, and look forward to a bright, transformational future.

Thoughts on the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Corporate Performance Management Suites 2015

“Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest EPM vendor of them all?”

It’s that time of the year again.  Gartner just released their Magic Quadrant for Corporate Performance Management (CPM) Suites 2015.  At Host Analytics, we call the category Enterprise Performance Management (EPM), so I’ll refer to the market henceforth as EPM.

In this post, I’ll share some of my commentary on the most recent Gartner Magic Quadrant (MQ) for EPM.

  • Get the big picture — and that picture is cloud.  All four cloud EPM vendors are in the Visionaries quadrant.  The first two trends in the market overview are about cloud.  The word “cloud” appears 113 times in the document, more than twice as much as the word “performance” at 46.   Cloud EPM is a huge trend in the market.
  • Use their critical capabilities research for short lists.   The MQ is a lot of fun to look at, but remember that Gartner analysts generally don’t recommend using the MQ for making vendor short lists.  Because markets are broad (and suite markets particularly so), they generally recommend using their critical capabilities documents to create a short list of which vendors are most likely to meet your specific needs.
  • Avoid dot-vector analysis.  Remember that Gartner analysts view the quadrant as re-created from scratch every year.  Vendors tend to obsess with dot-movement vectors, but when I ask the Gartner team about this issue, they tell me that the CPM MQ is effectively recreated from scratch each year and thus all about positions, not movements.  I know it’s hard to resist the temptation (heck one year at Business Objects I made an animated GIF of the MQ where the Brio dot even exploded in the end), but the folks there tell me it’s not meaningful, so I won’t do it.
  • Analyze via the football.  If you look at one-hundred Gartner MQs, you’ll see the pattern that the MQ placement algorithm generally lays out the vendors in a football shaped way.  I believe that inside the football you find the standard leaders, visionaries, challengers, etc.  Since most vendors are in the football, it’s more interesting to me to look who’s outside it and understand why.

football

  • Beware the impacts of the customer satisfaction survey.  I’ve seen and conducted customer satisfaction research on EPM vendors and what I see generally doesn’t jibe with the results that Gartner uses as an important data source in making the MQ.  By analogy, if you were trying to decide where to have dinner and I gave you the choice of two surveys, which would you pick?  Survey 1 — a random sample of diners leaving the restaurant.  Survey 2 — ask each restaurant to provide 10 customers.  You can argue that Survey 2 is “fair” because every restaurant had the same opportunity to prime, coach, offer free meals, etc., to the respondents.  But for my dinner investment, I’d pick survey 1.  The Gartner MQ survey is more like Survey 2.
  • Factor in degree of difficultly.  Another factor that influences the Gartner customer satisfaction survey is more subtle:  low-end vendors trying to solve easier problems should generally get better marks than high-end vendors trying to solve harder ones:  imagine a diving contest where we scored dives on execution but forgot to multiply by degree of difficulty.  Note that I do believe that the analysts understand this issue and try to mentally correct for it.  But the point is should I care how much QuickBooks users like QuickBooks if I’m in the league where only Oracle or SAP can solve my problem?
  • Read the text.   I sometimes think Gartner MQs are like old Playboy magazines, full of good journalism but where nobody actually reads the articles.  The MQ document is 1/35th pictures and 34/35th text.  Read the text. There’s a lot of great insight in there — where they even touch on some of the issues I’m raising above.
  • My favorite quote:  “Although the base of cloud CPM applications is still larger for small and mid-market organizations, the number of larger organizations (more than $1 billion in annual revenue) turning to the cloud for CPM continues to increase.”  This is why I joined Host Analytics 2.5 years ago.  EPM is an amazing market.  The cloud is still only scratching the surface of the market.  We are the leader in taking up-market EPM applications to the cloud.  And cloud EPM is increasingly coming up-market.

You can download a free copy of the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Corporate Performance Management Suites 2015 via Host Analytics, here.

A Disney Parking Lot Attendant Gets More Training than Your Typical $250K Enterprise Sales Rep: Thoughts on Bootcamps

At Disney — a company that is truly focused on customer experience — every “cast member” (i.e., employee) gets six weeks of training before they see a “guest” (i.e., customer). “Face characters” (e.g., Snow White walking through the park) spend an additional 40 hours just watching and re-watching the movie to ensure they get every nuance right.

Oh, and how much training does your company give your $250K enterprise salesreps?

Anecdotally, I think the typical answer is a one-week bootcamp. Two weeks is on the long side. Once in a blue moon, you’ll hear 4 to 6 weeks, but that’s typically one to two weeks of corporate training followed by two to four weeks of deep technical training.

This is genuinely strange because a typical enterprise software or SaaS company freely spends between 40% and 100% of revenue on sales. Sales is typically the single biggest expense line in the firm. Sales runs 2-5x cost of goods sold.  It runs 2-5x R&D expense.  So, if we’re going to spend all this money on salespeople, then why don’t we want to train them?

I think there are a number of rationalizations:

  • “We hire experienced people so we don’t need to.” This is dangerous because your new people are experienced at someone else’s company and may have learned norms quite different from those you desire at yours.
  • “We train them on the job.” Either by throwing them in the pool and seeing if they sink or by building a conveyor-belt model where we hire folks as in-bound call-takers who we promote into outbound call-makers then into SMB reps then into mid-market reps. While there is nothing wrong with these models and they do very much help develop reps, it still doesn’t answer why we don’t give them deep training at the start.
  • “We never really developed it as a competency.” When you only have three reps you’re not going to create a six-week training program because — among other reasons — you don’t know what to teach. But as you scale your business that quickly becomes more excuse than reason.

I think the root answer is simple: most senior executives just don’t believe in training. (Think: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach do marketing.”)

Having competed against the output of some great internal training programs at Oracle and MicroStrategy, having created and run Business Objects University for several years, and then having gone through the outstanding on-boarding program at Salesforce, I’d like to share some perspective.

First, given my experience I would argue that by far the #1 key success criteria for these programs is a dictum from the CEO that they are important, they will be funded, and the organization will support them. Barring that, they get launched to lots of hype and then slowly erode into a self-fulfilling prophecy of mediocrity.

Here are some thoughts on how to run a great bootcamp.

  • Make it mandatory. Everybody goes. No one is too important to skip it from the new accountant to the new COO.
  • Make it long. Shoot for two weeks, minimum. Three is better. A double-dip is probably best of all (2 weeks initially followed by 3 months on the job followed by 2 weeks of reinforcement.)
  • Do it live. Some virtual pre-work and post-work is fine, but the core of your program should be live and in person. It shows commitment. It helps people build relationships. It enables better progress tracking and assessment.
  • Engage practitioners. Don’t learn how to sell from only a bootcamp trainer; hear from one of your top 5 reps on a rotating basis. (And pulling those top reps out of the field is an example of just one thing requires top-level support for the program.
  • Teach culture. Hit values. Train in how you define “The Your-Company Way.”
  • Be operational. Teach how the company wants deals entered in the pipeline, what your stage definitions are, and how to value deals. (These are critical items to maintaining a comparable set of pipeline metrics over time.)
  • Mix up the format. Have lectures, panels, individual exercises, group projects, videos, homework, reading, and team building exercises. Where applicable, do a volunteering session. (If volunteering is a key part of your culture, do some right from the get-go in the bootcamp – as Salesforce does.)
  • Keep it applied. Don’t just teach facts or theory (“Competitor A uses a proprietary, non-Excel formula language.”) Show them how to apply that fact in everyday life (e.g., suggest prospects to build some models to get a taste of what that feels like versus good-old Excel).
  • Everyone’s in sales. Teach everyone how the company sells, what problems it solves, and why customers buy from it.
  • Fire people who don’t take it seriously. The University head should be able to fire any employee during the training period. If you’re skipping sessions, not paying attention, late, disrupting, etc., then boom, you’re gone. It sends a message that won’t soon be forgotten.
  • Send home a report card. Build a culture where managers are embarrassed when their new hire gets a B- and the put people immediately on a performance plan when they get a C. List specific student strengths and development areas. Build the University program into the management process right from the start. Train managers on how work with fresh bootcamp graduates.
  • Try to use it for prediction. Give granular objective grades in different areas (e.g., delivery of corporate message, fluency in finance, consultative selling) along with an instructor success prediction and do regressions over time to see what really drives sales success as opposed to what you might think does. Try to answer the question: do people who do better in the University do better in real life?
  • Hire a consultant. My colleague Elay Cohen is a sales productivity expert, the author of Saleshood (Kellblog review here), and ran the outstanding program at Salesforce — I’m pretty sure he’d be happy to help you setup yours. You don’t have to invent this stuff anymore. Plenty of people know how to do it.

Finally, don’t stop with bootcamp. Build ongoing training programs that take care of your existing hires as much as your new ones. But that’s the subject of a different post.

Career Development:  What It Really Means to be a Manager, Director, or VP

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of big company HR practices.  I’m more of the First Break all the Rules type.  Despite my general skepticism of many standard practices, we still do annual performance reviews at my company, though I’m thinking seriously of dropping them.  (See Get Rid of the Performance Review.)

Another practice I’m not hugely fond of is “leveling” which is the creation of a set of granular levels to classify jobs across the organization.  Leveling typically looks like this

level

While I am a huge fan of compensation benchmarking (i.e., figuring out what someone is worth in the market before they do by getting another job) for employee fairness and retention, I think classical leveling has a number of problems.

  • It is futile to level across functions. Yes, you might discover that a senior FPA analyst II earns the same as a product marketing director I, but why does that matter?  It’s a coincidence.  It’s like saying with $3.65 I can buy either a grande non-fat latte or a head of organic lettuce.  What matters is the fair price for each of those goods in the market, not they that happen to have the same price.  So I object to the whole notion of levels across the organization.  It’s not canonical; it’s coincidence.
  • Most leveling systems are too granular, with the levels separately by arbitrary characterizations. It’s makework.  It’s fake science.  It’s bureaucratic and encourages a non-thinking “climb the ladder” approach to career development.  (“Hey, let’s develop you to go from somewhat independent to rather independent this year.”)
  • It conflates career development and salary negotiation. It encourages a mindset of saying “what do I need to do make L10” when you want to say “I want a $10K raise.”  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people ask for “development” or “leveling” conversations where I get excited and start talking about learning, skills gaps, and such and it’s clear all they wanted to talk about was salary.  #disappointing

That said, I do believe there are three meaningful levels in management and it’s important to understand the differences among them.  I can’t tell you the number of times someone has sincerely asked me “what does it take to be a director” or “how can I develop myself into a VP.”

It’s a hard question.  You can turn to the leveling system for an answer, but it’s not in there.  For years, in fact, I’ve struggled to deliver what I consider to be a good answer to the question.

I’m not talking about senior VP vs. executive VP or director vs. senior director.  I view such adjectives as window dressing or stripes:  important recognition along the way, but nothing that fundamentally changes one’s level.

I’m not talking about how many people you manage.  In call centers, a director might manage 500 people.  In startups, a VP might manage 0.

I’m talking about one of three levels at which people operate:  manager, director, and vice president.  Here are my definitions:

  • Managers are paid to drive results with some support. They have experience in the function, can take responsibility, but are still learning the job and will have questions and need support.  They can execute the tactical plan for a project, but typically can’t make it.
  • Directors are paid to drive results with little or no supervision (“set and forget”). Directors know how to do the job.  They can make a project’s tactical plan in their sleep.  They can work across the organization to get it done.  I love strong directors.  They get shit done.
  • VPs are paid to make the plan. Say you run marketing.  Your job is to understand the company’s business situation, make a plan to address it, build consensus and get approval of that plan, then go execute it.

The biggest single development issue I’ve seen over the years is that many VPs still think like directors. [1]

Say the plan didn’t work.   “But, we executed the plan we agreed to,” they might say, hoping to play a get-out-of-jail-free card with the CEO (which is about to boomerang on them).

Of course, the VP got approval to execute then plan.  Otherwise, you’d be having a different conversation, one about termination for insubordination.

But the plan didn’t work.  Because directors are primarily execution engines, they can successfully play this card.  Fair enough.  Good directors challenge their plans to make them better.  But they can still play the approval card successfully because their primary duty is to execute the plan, not make it.

VP’s, however, cannot play the approval card.  The VP’s job is to get the right answer.  They are the functional expert.  No one on the team knows their function better than they do.  And even if someone did, he or still is still playing the VP of function role and, as such, it’s their job – and no one else’s — to get the right answer.

Now, you might be thinking “glad I don’t work for Dave” right now — he’s putting failure for a plan he and the team agreed to on the back of the VP.  And I am.

But it’s the same standard to which the CEO is held.  If the CEO makes a plan, gets it approved by the board, and executes it well, but it doesn’t work, he/she cannot tell the board “but, but, it’s the plan we agreed to.”  Most CEOs wouldn’t even dream of saying that.  It’s because CEOs understand they are held accountable not for effort or activity, but results.

Part of truly operating at the VP level is to internalize this fact.  You are accountable for results.  Make a plan that you believe in.  Because if the plan doesn’t work, you can’t hide behind approval.  Your job was to make a plan that worked.  If the risk of dying on a hill is inevitable, you may as well die on your own hill, and not someone else’s.

Paraphrasing the ancient Fram oil filter commercial, I call this “you can fire me now, or fire me later” principle.  That is, an executive should never make or sign up for a plan they don’t believe in.  They should risk being fired now for refusing to sign up for the plan (e.g., challenging assumptions, delivering bad news) as opposed to halfheartedly executing a plan they don’t believe in, and almost certainly getting fired later for poor execution.  The former is a far better way to go than the latter.

This is important not only because it prepares the VP to be  CEO one day, but also because it empowers the VP in marking his/her plan.  If this my plan, if I am to be judged on its success or failure, if I am not able to use approval as a get-out-of-jail-free card, then is it the right plan?

That’s the thinking I want to stimulate.  That’s how great VP’s think.

# # #

Footnotes:

[1] Since big companies throw around the VP title pretty casually, this post is arguing that many of those VPs are actually directors in thinking and accountability.  This may be one reason why big company VPs have trouble adapting to the e-staff of startups.

Why Can’t PR People Do Math?

I think in today’s world that we need to ask PR people to be not just literate, but numerate.  What does that mean?

  • They need to do basic math correctly.  Most PR people think that going from size $100K to size $700K is 700% growth.  It’s 600%.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have caught this error.  Growth % = ((year N+1 / year N) -1).  2.4x is 140% growth.  1.3x is 30% growth.
  • They need to understand the law of small numbers as well understanding the scale of large ones.  It’s not hard to grow 1000% off a tiny base.  And the typical reader response to mega-growth claims is not “wow, look how big you are this year,” it’s “oh, I didn’t know how small you were last year.”  In addition, PR needs to understand the scale of large numbers — i.e., that 10% growth off $1B is $100M.  Technically speaking whenever company A is growing faster than company B, company B is losing relative market share.  However, remember that if you compare a $10M startup that doubled to a $1B that grew 10%, the latter company still had 10x the new sales of the former.  So you need to be careful making claims in that light.
  • They need to understand how people will react to the numbers.  There is tendency in PR to throw out any numbers you can because, sadly, much of the Silicon Valley trade press will consume them wholesale.  But PR needs to be careful.  Some analysts (e.g., the 451 group) are famous for detailed note-taking and cross-checking and will challenge you if your own figures are inconsistent over time.  In addition, there are fairly normal ratios for, e.g., sales/salesperson or revenue/employee so saying one thing definitely implies another.  Savvy readers will try to triangulate things like revenue, bookings, or cashflow based on the tidbits you hand out.  And if the triangulation produces inconsistent results, it’s going to be a headache for your company and drive credibility questions about the figures and your claims.
  • They need to understand what metrics mean.  One favorite PR trick is talk about undefined metrics like sales (e.g., “company reported that sales grew 57% last year”).  It sounds good.  But wait a minute — what’s “sales”?  Do you mean revenue (and if so, why not say it) or bookings (and if so, how you define it).  Another is to discuss poorly defined product-line growth rates, where companies try to classify anything they can as related to the BNI (big new initiative — e.g., cloud at most mega-vendors).  What do those numbers actually mean?  If a purchase order has products 1, 2, and 3 on it and has $100K at the bottom, how does the company allocate the sales across product lines and does it do so consistently over time.  Product line sales figures might sound meaningful but they are often not.  Another favorite is three-division company growing 10% where each division says they’re growing 30%.  Hey, wait a minute — that’s not possible.

If you net all this out, the best advice is that PR needs to become more like IR (investor relations).  IR people know their numbers.  They’re consistent about what they release over time.  They understand how people will triangulate and the implications of so doing.  And they ensure consistency of the message as told by both the English and the math.

[Rewritten and decomposed from a prior interim version, focusing the content to better align with the title.  I removed the “beware of SaaS Companies talking bookings” meme as, while it remains a great topic that raises interesting yellow/red flags, it’s not one you can reasonably expect a PR person to understand or control.]