Category Archives: Leadership

Are You a “Challenging” or Simply a “Difficult” Direct Report?

Most managers, save for true sycophants, want to challenge their boss.  Few managers want to be puppet yes-people to the boss.  They’ve worked hard to get where they are.  They bring years of wisdom and experience.  They want to push and challenge.  But many don’t know when or how.  More importantly, they don’t know what they don’t know.

How often do you think you’re challenging the boss when he/she thinks you’re just being plain difficult?  Challenging direct reports keep their positions and rise with the organization.  Difficult ones get jettisoned along the way.

There are two great ways you can figure out how often you’re being which:

  • Think of things from the boss’s perspective
  • Ask the boss

Think from the Boss’s Perspective

Bosses want to get things done.  Things generally fall into two buckets:  easy and hard.  Easy things may still entail a lot of work and planning, but there’s nothing really conceptually difficult or unknown about them.

Running the company’s presence at a tradeshow you attend every year might be a lot of work, but I’ll consider it easy for this conversation because that work is known.

Deciding to terminate a problem employee is easy.  (Note inclusion of word “problem.”)  If you see a problem, the adage goes, everyone else has probably already seen it for months and the damage done is more than you know.  This decision is hard from a personal perspective — I’ve never met anyone who enjoys terminating people.  But firing someone who routinely misses deadlines, training sessions, and team meetings isn’t hard in this context.

Launching the new version of a product is easy.  Yes, the positioning may be hard, but managing the overall launch process is easy.   It’s hopefully done a few times per year.  Yes, it’s a lot of work and planning, but there’s nothing conceptually difficult about running the process.

Difficult direct reports make easy things hard.  How?

  • Complexification.  When you ask someone the time you discover that there are three types of people in the world:  those who tell you the time, those who tell you how to build a watch, and those who tell you how to build a Swiss village.  Simplifiers go far in organizations, complexifiers get stuck.
  • Lack of follow through.  Bosses want to talk once about a project, agree to it, and then have it get executed.  As my friend Lance Walter always said bosses want “set it and forget it” direct reports.  If you have a question, come ask.  But otherwise I assume you are tracking our agreed-to objectives and they’re going to happen without me having to check and re-check.  Ditto for feedback given along the way.
  • Drama.  Difficult directs tend to take things personally.  They turn criticism of work into criticism of them.  They view a heavy workload as dramatic sacrifice and not a prioritization problem.  They are sensitive to criticism, defensive when questioned or given feedback, and often unable to separate bad performance from bad intent.

The result is that over time the boss starts to loathe the idea of meeting with the direct report which results in a downward spiral of communication and relationship.

Challenging direct reports keep easy things easy.  They get shit done without a lot of supervision, complexification, or drama.  On the flip side, challengers don’t just go along for the ride when it comes to inherently hard things like fixing a break in the sales pipeline, selecting company or product strategies, or working on a competitive campaign strategy.  They weigh in, sometimes challenging the majority or consensus view.  They provide good arguments for why what everyone else is thinking could be wrong.  Their selective Devil’s advocacy helps the company avoid groupthink and the organization make better decisions.  And they do this without going overboard and positioning themselves as the resident contrarian.

Simply put, when you say something to the boss or in a meeting, imagine how the boss will react and then count the ratio between the following two reactions

  • God, what a pain in the ass.
  • Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.

Ratios above 1.0 indicate you are a net difficult direct report.  Ratios below 1.0 indicate you are a net challenger.

Ask the Boss

Since knowing is always superior to guessing, I’ll give you a set of good questions that can help you figure out where you stand.

  1. If you had to rank your direct reports from top to bottom in terms of difficultly, would I fall above or below the median and why?
  2. Can you please list 3-5 things I do that make it difficult to manage me so I can work on them?
  3. To what extent do you find me difficult/contrarian for difficulty’s sake vs. genuinely challenging ideas and helping the company reach better decisions?
  4. When it comes to strategic debates do you feel that I sit on the sidelines too much, participate too much, or strike a good balance?
  5. If there is a pattern of skipped/cancelled 1-1’s (a sign of avoidance) or higher frequency 1-1’s with other directs, then ask why?

Sycophants know they are sycophants.  Challengers usually know they are challengers.  The risk is that you are a difficult when you think you’re a challenger — and that rarely ends well.  So think about, ask, and take appropriate measures to correct the situation.  Before your boss doesn’t want to talk to you anymore.

How To Get Your Startup a Halo

How would you like your startup to win deals not only when you win a customer evaluation, but when you tie — and even sometimes when you lose?

That sounds great.  But is it even possible?  Amazingly, yes — but you need have a halo effect working to your advantage.  What is a halo effect?  Per Wikipedia,

The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which an observer’s overall impression of a person, company, brand, or product influences the observer’s feelings and thoughts about that entity’s character or properties

There’s a great, must-read book (The Halo Effect) on the how this and eight other related effects apply in business.  The book is primarily about how the business community makes incorrect attributions about “best practices” in culture, leadership, values, and process that are subsequent to — but were not necessarily drivers of — past performance.

I know two great soundbites that summarize the phenomenon of pseudo-science in business:

  • All great companies have buildings.” Which comes from the (partly discredited) Good To Great that begins with the observation that in their study cohort of top-performing companies that all of them had buildings — and thus that simply looking for commonalities among top-performing companies was not enough; you’d have to look for distinguishing factors between top and average performers.
  • “If Marc Benioff carried a rabbit’s foot, would you?”  Which comes from a this Kellblog post where I make the point that blindly copying the habits of successful people will not replicate their outcome and, with a little help from Theodore Levitt, that while successful practitioners are intimately familiar with their own beliefs and behaviors, that they are almost definitionally ignorant of which ones helped, hindered, or were irrelevant to their own success.

Now that’s all good stuff and if you stop reading right here, you’ll hopefully avoid falling for pseudo-science in business.  That’s important.  But it misses an even bigger point.

Has your company ever won (or lost) a deal because of:

  • Perceived momentum?
  • Analyst placement on a quadrant or other market map?
  • Perceived market leadership?
  • Word of mouth as the “everyone’s using it” or “next thing” choice?
  • Perceived hotness?
  • Vibe at your events or online?
  • A certain feeling or je ne sais quoi that you were more (or less) preferred?
  • Perceived vision?

If yes, you’re seeing halo effects at work.

Halo effects are real.  Halo effects are human nature.  Halo effects are cognitive biases that tip the scales in your favor.  So the smart entrepreneur should be thinking:  how do I get one for my company?  (And the smart customer, how can I avoid being over-influenced by them?  See bottom of post.)

In Silicon Valley, a number of factors drive the creation of halo effects around a company.  Some of these are more controllable than others.  But overall, you should be thinking about how you can best combine these factors into an advantage.

  • Lineage, typically in the form of previous success at a hot company (e.g., Reid Hoffman of PayPal into LinkedIn, Dave Duffield of PeopleSoft into Workday).  The implication here (and a key part of halo effects) is that past success will lead to future success, as it sometimes does.  This one’s hard to control, but ceteris paribus, co-founding (even somewhat ex post facto) a company with an established entrepreneur will definitely help in many ways, including halo effects.
  • Investors, in one of many forms:  (1) VC’s with a strong brand name (e.g., Andreessen Horowitz), (2) specific well known venture capitalists (e.g., Doug Leone), (3) well known individual investors (e.g., Peter Thiel), and to a somewhat lesser extent (4) visible and/or famous angels (e.g., Ashton Kutcher). The implication here is obvious, that the investor’s past success is an indication of your future success.  There’s no doubt that strong investors help build halo effects indirectly through reputation; in cases they can do so directly as well via staff marketing partners designed to promote portfolio companies.
  • Investment.  In recent years, simply raising a huge amount of money has been enough to build a significant halo effect around a company, the implication being that “if they can raise that much money, then there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere.” Think Domo’s $690M or Palantir’s $2.1B.   The media loves these “go big or go home” stories and both media and customers seem to overlook the increased risk associated with staggering burn rates, the waste that having too much capital can lead to, the possibility that the investors represent “dumb money,” and the simple fact that “at scale” these businesses are supposed to be profitable.  Nevertheless, if you have the stomach, the story, and the connections to raise a dumbfounding amount of capital, it can definitely build a halo around your company.  For now, at least.
  • Valuation.  Even as the age of the unicorn starts to wane, it’s undeniable that in recent years, valuation has been a key tool to generate halos around a company.  In days of yore, valuation was a private matter, but as companies discovered they could generate hype around valuation, they started to disclose it, and thus the unicorn phenomenon was born.  As unicorn status became increasingly de rigeur, things got upside-down and companies started trading bad terms (e.g., multiple liquidation preferences, redemption rights) in order to get $1B+ (unicorn) post-money valuations.  That multiplying the price of a preferred share with superior rights by a share count that includes the number of lesser preferred and common shares is a fallacious way to arrive at a company valuation didn’t matter.  While I think valuation as a hype driver may lose some luster as many unicorns are revealed as horses in party hats (e.g., down-round IPOs), it can still be a useful tool.  Just be careful about what you trade to get it.  Don’t sell $100M worth of preferred with a ratcheted 2 moving to 3x liquidation preference — but what if someone would buy just $5M worth on those terms.  Yes, that’s a total hack, but so is the whole idea of multiplying a preferred share price times the number of common shares.  And it’s far less harmful to the company and the common stock.  Find your own middle ground / peace on this issue.
  • Growth and vision.  You’d think that industry watchers would look at a strategy and independently evaluate its merits in terms of driving future growth.  But that’s not how it works.  A key part of halo effects is misattribution of practices and performance.  So if you’ve performed poorly and have an awesome strategy, it will overlooked — and conversely.  Sadly, go-forward strategy is almost always viewed through the lens of past performance, even if that performance were driven by a different strategy or affected positively or negatively by execution issues unrelated to strategy.  A great story isn’t enough if you want to generate a vision halo effect.  You’re going to need to talk about growth numbers to prove it.  (That this leads to a pattern of private companies reporting inflated or misleading numbers is sadly no surprise.)  But don’t show up expecting to wow folks with vision. Ultimately, you’ll need to wow them with growth — which then provokes interest in vision.
  • Network.  Some companies do a nice and often quiet job of cultivating friends of the company who are thought leaders in their areas.  Many do this through inviting specific people to invest as angels.  Some do this simply through communications.  For example, one day I received an email update from Vik Singh clearly written for friends of Infer. I wasn’t sure how I got on the list, but found the company interesting and over time I got to know Vik (who is quite impressive) and ended up, well, a friend of Infer.  Some do this through advisory boards, both formal and informal.  For example, I did a little bit of advising for Tableau early on and later discovered a number of folks in my network who’d done the same thing.  The company benefitted by getting broad input on various topics and each of us felt like we were friends of Tableau.  While sort of thing doesn’t generate the same mainstream media buzz as a $1B valuation, it is a smart influencer strategy that can generate fans and buzz among the cognoscenti who, in theory at least, are opinion leaders in their chosen areas.

Before finishing the first part of this post, I need to provide a warning that halo effects are both powerful and addictive.  I seem to have a knack for competing against companies pursuing halo-driven strategies and the pattern I see typically runs like this.

  • Company starts getting some hype off good results.
  • Company starts saying increasingly aggressive things to build off the hype.
  • Analysts and press reward the hype with strong quadrant placements and great stories and blogs.
  • Company puts itself under increasing pressure to produce numbers that support the hype.

And then one of three things happens:

  1. The company continues delivering strong results and all is good, though the rhetoric and vision gets more unrelated to the business with each cycle.
  2. The company stops delivering results and is downgraded from hot-list to shit-list in the minds of the industry.
  3. The company cuts the cord with reality and starts inflating results in order to sustain the hype cycle and avoid outcome #2 above.  The vision inflates as aggressively as the numbers.

I have repeatedly had to compete against companies where claims/results were inflated to “prove” the value of bad/ordinary strategies to impress industry analysts to get strong quadrant positions to support broader claims of vision and leadership to drive more sales to inflate to even greater claimed results.  Surprisingly, I think this is usually done more in the name of ego than financial gain, but either way the story ends the same way — in terminations, lawsuits and, in one case, a jail sentence for the CEO.

Look, there are valid halo-driven strategies out there and I encourage you to try and use them to your company’s advantage — just be very careful you don’t end up addicted to halo heroin.  If you find yourself wanting to do almost anything to sustain the hype bubble, then you’ll know you’re addicted and headed for trouble.

The Customer View

Thus far, I’ve written this post entirely from the vendor viewpoint, but wanted to conclude by switching sides and offering customers some advice on how to think about halo effects in choosing vendors.   Customers should:

  • Be aware of halo effects.  The first step in dealing with any problem is understanding it exists. While supposedly technical, rational, and left-brained, technology can be as arbitrary as apparel when it comes to fashion.  If you’re evaluating vendors with halos, realize that they exist for a reason and then go understand why.  Are those drivers relevant — e.g., buying HR from Dave Duffield seems a reasonable idea.  Or are they spurious —  e.g., does it really matter that one board member invested in Facebook?  Or are they actually negative — e.g., if the company has raised $300M how crazy is their burn rate, what risk does that put on the business, and how focused will they stay on you as a customer and your problem as a market?
  •  Stay focused on your problem.  I encourage anyone buying technology to write down their business problems and high-level technology requirements before reaching out to vendors.  Hyped vendors are skilled at “changing the playing field” and trained to turn their vision into your (new) requirements.  While there certainly are cases where vendors can point out valid new requirements, you should periodically step back and do a sanity check:  are you still focused on your problem or have you been incrementally moved to a different, or greatly expanded one.  Vision is nice, but you won’t be around solve tomorrow’s problems if you can’t solve today’s.
  • Understand that industry analysts are often followers, not leaders.  If a vendor is showing you analyst support for their strategy, you need to figure out if the analyst is endorsing the strategy because of the strategy’s merits or because of the vendor’s claimed prior performance.  The latter is the definition of a halo effect and in a world full of private startups where high-quality analysts are in short supply, it’s easy to find “research” that effectively says nothing more than “this vendor is a leader because they say they’re performing really well and/or they’ve raised a lot of money.” That doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know already and isn’t actually an independent source of information.  They are often simply amplifiers of the hype you’re already hearing.
  • Enjoy the sizzle; buy the steak.  Hype king Domo paid Alec Baldwin to make some (pretty pathetic) would-be viral videos and had Billy Beane, Flo Rida, Ludacris, and Marshawn Lynch at their user conference.  As I often say, behind any “marketing genius” is an enormous marketing budget, and that’s all you’re seeing — venture capital being directly converted into hype.  Heck, let them buy you a ticket to the show and have a great time.  Just don’t buy the software because of it — or because of the ability to invest more money in hand-grooming a handful of big-name references.  Look to meet customers like you, who have spent what you want to spend, and see if they’re happy and successful.  Don’t get handled into meeting other customers only at pre-arranged meetings.  Walk the floor and talk to regular people.  Find out how many are there for the show, or because they’re actual successful users of the software.
  • Dive into detail on the proposed solution.  Hyped vendors will often try to gloss over solutions and sell you the hype (e.g., “of course we can solve your problem, we’ve got the most logos, Gartner says we’re the leader, there’s an app for that.”)  What you need is a vendor who will listen to your problem, discuss it with you intelligently, and provide realistic estimates on what it takes to solve it.  The more willing they are to do that, the better off you are.  The more they keep talking about the founder’s escape from communism, the pedigree of their investors, their recent press coverage, or the amount of capital they’ve raised, the more likely you are to end up high and dry.  People interested in solving your problem will want to talk about your problem.
  • Beware the second-worst outcome:  the backwater.  Because hyped vendors are actually serving Sand Hill Road and/or Wall Street more than their customers, they pitch broad visions and huge markets in order to sustain the halo.  For a customer, that can be disastrous because the vendor may view the customer’s problems as simply another lily pad to jump off on the path to success.  The second-worst outcome is when you buy a solution and then vendor takes your money and invests it in solving other problems.  As a customer, you don’t want to marry your vendor’s fling.  You want to marry their core.  For startups, the pattern is typically over-expansion into too many things, getting in trouble, and then retracting hard back into the core, abandoning customers of the new, broader initiatives.  The second-worst outcome is when you get this alignment wrong and end up in a backwater or formerly-strategic area of your supplier’s strategy.
  • Avoid the worst outcome:  no there there.  Once in awhile, there is no “there there” behind some very hyped companies despite great individual investors, great VCs, strategic alliances, and a previously experienced team.  Perhaps the technology vision doesn’t pan out, or the company switches strategies (“pivots”) too often.  Perhaps the company just got too focused on its hype and not on it customers.  But the worst outcome, while somewhat rare, is when a company doesn’t solve its advertised problem. They may have a great story, a sexy demo, and some smart people — but what they lack is a core of satisfied customers solving the problem the company talks about.  In EPM, with due respect and in my humble opinion, Tidemark fell into this category, prior to what it called a “growth investment” and what sure seemed to me like a (fire) sale, to Marlin Equity Partners.  Customers need to watch out for these no-there-there situations and the best way to do that is taking strong dose of caveat emptor with a nose for “if it sounds too good to be true, then it might well possibly be.”

Do You Want to be Judged on Intentions or Results?

It was early in my career, maybe 8 years in, and I was director of product marketing at a startup.  One day, my peer, the directof of marketing programs hit me with this in an ops review meeting:

You want to be judged on intentions, not results.

I recall being dumbfounded at the time.  Holy cow, I thought.  Is he right?  Am I standing up arguing about mitigating factors and how things might have been when all the other people in the room were thinking only about black-and-white results?

It was one of those rare phrases that really stuck with me because, among other reasons, he was so right.  I wasn’t debating whether things happened or not.  I wasn’t making excuses or being defensive.  But I was very much judging our performance in the theoretical, hermetically sealed context of what might have been.

Kind of like sales saying a deal slipped instead of did not close.   Or marketing saying we got all the MQLs but didn’t get the requisite pipeline.  Or alliances saying that we signed up the 4 new partners, but didn’t get the new opportunities that were supposed to come with them.

Which phrase of the following sentence matters more — the first part or the second?

We did what we were supposed to, but it didn’t have the desired effect.

We would have gotten the 30 MQLS from the event if it hadn’t snowed in Boston.  But who decided to tempt fate by doing a live event in Boston in February?  People who want to be judged on intentions think about the snowstorm; people who want to be judged on results think about the MQLs.

People who want to judged on intentions build in what they see as “reasons” (which others typically see as “excuses”) for results not being achieved.

I’m six months late hiring the PR manager, but that’s because it’s hard to find great PR people right now.  (And you don’t want me to hire a bad one, do you?)

No, I don’t want you to hire a bad one.  I want you to hire a great one and I wanted you to hire them 6 months ago.  Do you think every other PR manager search in the valley took 6 months more than plan?  I don’t.

Fine lines exist here, no doubt.  Sometimes reasons are reasons and sometimes they are actually excuses.  The question isn’t about any one case.  It’s about, deep down, are you judging yourself by intentions or results?

You’d be surprised how many otherwise very solid people get this one thing wrong — and end up career-limited as a result.

10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Moving into Management

I went looking for a post to help someone decide if they should move into management, but couldn’t find one that I really loved.  These three posts aren’t bad.  Nor is this HBR article.  But since I couldn’t find a post that I thought nails the spirit of the question, I thought I’d write one myself.

So here are the ten questions you should consider before making a move into management.

 1. Do you genuinely care about people?  

Far and away this is the most important question because management is all about people.  If you don’t enjoy working with people, if you don’t enjoy helping people, or if you’d prefer to be left alone to work on tasks or projects, then do not go into management.  If you do not genuinely care about people, then do not go into management.

2. Are you organized?

While a small number of organizational leaders and founders can get away with being unstructured and disorganized, the rest of us in management need to be organized.  If you are naturally disorganized, management will be hard for you — and the people who work for you — because your job is to make the plan and coordinate work on it.

This is why one of my managment interview questions is:  “if I opened up your kitchen cabinets what would I see?”

3.  Are you willing to continuously overcommunicate?

In a world filled with information pollution, constant distractions, and employees who think that they can pay continuous partial attention, you’d be amazed how clearly you need to state things and how often you need to repeat them in order to minimize confusion.  A big part of management is communication, so if you don’t like communicating, aren’t good at it, or don’t relish the idea of deliberately and continuously overcommunicating, then don’t go into management.

4.  Can you say “No” when you need to do?

Everybody loves yes-people managers except, of course, the people who work for them.  While saying yes to the boss and internal customers feels good, you will run your team ragged if you lack the backbone to say no when you need to.  If you can’t say no to a bad idea or offer up reprioritization options when the team is red-lining, then don’t go into management.  Saying no is an important part of the job.

5. Are you conflict averse?

Several decades I read the book Tough-Minded Management:  A Guide for Managers Too Nice for Their Own Good, and it taught me the importance of toughness in management.  Management is a tough job.  You need to layout objectives and hold people accountable for achieving them.  You need to hold peers accountable for delivering on dependencies.  You need to give people feedback that they may not want to hear.  If you’re conflict averse and loathe the idea of doing these things, don’t go into management.  Sadly, conflict averse managers actually generate far more conflict than then non-conflict-averse peers.

6. Do you care more about being liked than being effective?

If you are someone who desperately needs to be liked, then don’t go into management.  Managers need to focus on effectiveness.  The best way to be liked in management is to not care about being liked.  Employees want to be on a winning team that is managed fairly and drives results.  Focus on that and your team will like you.  If you focus on being liked and want to be everyone’s buddy, you will fail as both buddy and manager.

7. Are you willing to let go?  

Everybody knows a micromanager who can’t let go.  Nobody likes working for one.  Good managers aim to specify what needs to be done without detailing precisely how to do it.  Bad managers either over-specify or simply jump in and do it themselves.  This causes two problems:  they anger the employee whose job it was to perform the task and they abdicate their responsibility to manage the team.  If the manager’s doing the employee’s job then whose doing the manager’s?  All too often, no one.

8.  Do you have thick skin?

Managers make mistakes and managers get criticized.  If you can’t handle either, then don’t go into management.  Put differently, how many times in your career have your run into your boss’s office and said, “I just want to thank you for the wonderful job you do managing me.”  For me, that answer is zero.  (I have,  however, years later thanked past managers for putting up with my flaws.)

People generally don’t complement their managers; they criticize them.  You probably have criticized most of yours.  Don’t expect things to be any different once you become the manager.

9.  Do you enjoy teaching and coaching?

A huge positive of management is the joy you get from helping people develop their skills and advance in their careers.  That joy results from your investment in them with teaching and coaching.  Great employees want to be mentored.  If you don’t enjoy teaching and coaching, you’ll be cheating your employees out of learning opportunities and cheating yourself out of a valuable part of the management experience.

10.  Are you willing to lead?

Managers need not just to manage, but to lead.  If stepping up, definining a plan, proposing a solution, or taking an unpopular position scares you, well, part of that is normal, but if you’re not willing to do it anyway, then don’t go into management.  Management requires the courage to lead.  Remember the Peter Drucker quote that differentiates leadership and management.

“Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things.”

As a good manager, you’ll need to do both.

The Opportunity Cost of Debating Facts

I read this New York Times editorial this morning, How the Truth Got Hacked, and it reminded me of a situation at work, back when I first joined Host Analytics some four years ago.  This line, in particular, caught my attention:

Imagine the conversation we’d be having if we weren’t debating facts.

Back when I joined Host Analytics, we had an unfortunate but not terribly unusual dysfunction between product management (PM) and Engineering (ENG).  By the time the conflict got to my office, it went something like this:

PM:  “ENG said they’d deliver X, Y, and Z in the next release and now they’re only delivering X and half of Y.  I can’t believe this and what am I going to the customers and analysts who I told that we were delivering …”

ENG:  “PM is always asking us to deliver too much and we never actually committed to deliver all of Y and we certainly didn’t commit to deliver Z.”

(For extra fun, compound this somewhat normal level of dysfunction with American vs. Indian communication style differences –including a quite subtle way of saying “no” – and you’ll see the real picture.)

I quickly found myself in a series of “he said, she said” meetings that were completely unproductive.  “We don’t write down commitments because we’re agile,” was one refrain.  In fact, while I agree that the words “commitment” and “agile” generally don’t belong in the same sentence, we were anything but agile at the time, so I viewed the statement more as a convenient excuse than an expression of true ideological conflict.

But the thing that bugged me the most was that we had endless meetings where we couldn’t even agree on basic facts.  After all, we either had a planning problem, a delivery problem, or both and unless we could establish what we’d actually agreed to deliver, we couldn’t determine where to focus our efforts.  The meetings were a waste of time.  I had no way knowing who said what to whom, we didn’t have great tracking systems, and I had no interest in email forensics to try and figure it out.  Worse yet, it seemed that two people could leave the same meeting not even agreeing on what was decided.

Imagine the conversation we’d be having if we weren’t debating facts.

In the end, it was clear that we needed to overhaul the whole process, but that would take time.  The question was, in the short term, could we do something that would end the unproductive meetings so we take basic facts in evidence and then have a productive debate at the next level?  You know, to try and make some progress on solving our problems?

I created a document called the Release Scorecard and Commitments document that contained two tables, each structured like this.


At the start of each release, we’d list the major stories that we were trying to include and we’d have Engineering score their confidence in delivering each one of them.  Then, at the end of every release, PM would score how the delivery went, and the team could provide a comment.  Thus, at every post-release roadmap review, we could review how we did on the prior release and agree on priorities for the next one.  Most importantly, when it came to reviewing the prior release, we had a baseline off which we could have productive discussions about what did or did not happen during the cycle.

Suddenly, by taking the basic facts out of question, the meetings changed overnight.  First, they became productive.  Then, after we fully transitioned to agile, they became unnecessary.  In fact, I’ve since repeatedly said that I don’t need the document anymore because it was a band-aid artifact of our pre-agile world.  Nevertheless, the team still likes producing it for the simple clarity it provides in assessing how we do at laying out priorities and then delivering against them.

So, if you find yourself in a series of unproductive, “he said, she said” meetings, learn this lesson:  do something to get basic facts into evidence so you can have a meaningful conversation at the next level.

Because there is a massive opportunity cost when all you do is debate what should be facts.

Win Them Alone, Lose Them Together

It was back in the 1990s, at Versant, when my old (and dearly departed) friend Larry Pulkownik first introduced me to the phrase:

Win Them Alone, Lose Them Together

And its corollary:

Ask for Help at the First Sign of Trouble

Larry told me this rule from the sales perspective:

“Look, if you’re working on a deal and it starts to go south, you need to get everyone involved in working on it.  First, that puts maximum resources on winning the deal and if — despite that effort — you end up losing, you want people saying ‘We lost the Acme deal,’ not ‘You lost the Acme deal.'”

It’s a great rule.  Why?  Because it’s simple, it engages the team on winning, and most of all — it combats what seems to be a natural tendency to hide bad news.  Bad news, like sushi, does not age well.

Twenty years later, and now as CEO, I still love the rule — especially the part about “the first sign of trouble.”  If followed, this eliminates the tendency to go into denial about bad news.

  • Yes, they’re not calling me back when they said they would, but I’m sure it’s no problem.
  • They did say they expected to be in legal now on the original timeline, but I’m sure the process is just delayed.
  • Yes, I know our sponsor seemed to have flipped on us in the last meeting, but I’m sure she was just having a bad day.
  • Well I’m surprised to hear our competitor just met with the CIO because they told us that the CIO wasn’t involved in the decision.
  • While the RFP does appear to have been written by our competitor, that’s probably just coincidence.

These things — all of them — are bad news.  Because many people’s first reaction to bad news is denial, the great thing about the “first sign” rule is that you remove discretion from the equation. We don’t want you to wait until you are sure there is trouble — then it’s probably too late.  We want you to ask for help at the first sign.

The rule doesn’t just apply to sales.  The same principle applies to pretty much everything:

  • Strategic partnerships (e.g., “they’ve gone quiet”)
  • Analyst relations (e.g., “it feels like the agenda is set for enemy A”)
  • Product development (e.g., “I’m worried we’ve badly over-scoped this”)
  • Financing (e.g., “they’re not calling back after the partner meeting”)
  • Recruiting (e.g., “the top candidate seemed to be leaning back”)
  • HR (e.g., “our top salesperson hated the new comp plan”)

I’ll always thank Larry for sharing this nugget of wisdom (and many others) with me, and I’ll always advise every manager I know to follow it.

The Three Golden Rules of Feedback

I was speaking to my executive coach the other day and we had a great discussion of feedback.  I’m going to adapt what she said into some pithy advice for managers on how to give feedback.

Here are the three golden rules of feedback

  • It has to be honest
  • It has to be kind
  • It has to be timely

Honest Feedback

When you give someone feedback it has to be authentic.  It has to be what you really feel.  It can’t be candy coated.  It has to be what you honestly feel about the situation, tempered by the humility that you may not necessary be “right” — or that right and wrong may not even have meaning in a given situation.

Example:  “I felt disrespected when you arrived late at my meeting.”

I provided a concrete situation in which something happened; I am not generalizing or pattern-matching.  I indicated a specific behavior that I observed.  I described the impact on me — how I felt about it (which is fairly incontrovertible) — without trying to speculate why you did it or what you intended.

This form of feedback is called situation-behavior-impact, and it’s a great template for giving honest feedback.

While awesome, it’s quite hard to do and (given how things went when I’ve been trained on it) seems to come naturally to few people.  While I would never claim to be a great SBI feedback-giver, I nevertheless continue to aspire to be one –because it does work.

Always be honest.

Kind Feedback

While not something I’m necessarily known for, I love my coach’s second rule of feedback.  If you’re like me, the honest part of feedback isn’t hard.  Example:

That’s the worst proposal I’ve ever seen.  You never said what you wanted to do, what it would cost, or why we should do it.  Other than omitting the three key elements of a proposal it was great.

(Or, as Larry Ellison was reputed to have often said:  “That’s the stupidest f**king idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” sometimes rather amazingly followed by, “Say it again!”)

While “honest” comes naturally to me, I really like the “kind” principle.  I stand behind the vast majority of feedback I’ve given over the years.  It’s always been honest and usually been accurate.  I’ve been unafraid to put hard issues on the table that other managers were afraid to confront.  I am proud that I have helped people identify and eliminate issues that would have otherwise limited them and/or developed strengths that helped propel them.

But I am equally certain that I could almost always have found a better way of expressing my feedback had I known about and applied the kind principle.

Being kind forces the feedback giver to focus not just on the validity of his/her feedback, but on the appropriate timing and expression of it.  It provides a second, important test — particularly for well-intentioned managers too blunt for their own good.

To be clear, being kind doesn’t mean avoiding hard issues or candy-coating conversations.  It does mean that you should challenge yourself, even during very difficult conversations, to find a way to communicate such that the other person leaves feeling respected and with their dignity intact.

Even the ultimate hard conversation — terminating someone — can be conducted in a way that leaves feeling respected as a person and with their dignity intact.  While many fearful mangers bungle termination into a personal tear-down, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Before a comment-outcry develops, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the King of kind feedback.  I am, however, going to work on it for three reasons:

  • It’s nicer.  I’d like people to want to work for me because of my feedback — not despite it.
  • It’s a challenge — that will make me a better manager.
  • It’s more effective — I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people spend more time reacting to how I said something than I what I said.

You can generate big distractions and waste hours by giving feedback without adequate consideration for its impact on the recipient.  It’s far more effective to think up front for 30 minutes about both what to say and how to say it than to hastily offer feedback only to spend hours in damage control afterwards, simply working your way back to zero on the relationship — with most of the actual feedback long-forgotten in the process.  It happens.  I’ve been there.

Always be kind.  (Hey, I’m working on it.)

Timely Feedback

The last rule is that feedback needs to be timely.  Feedback, like sushi, does not get better with age.

Timeliness matters for several reasons:

  • Both sides are in a better position to discuss recent events than ancient history.  Memories fade and the best feedback is usually quite specific.
  • Letting feedback get old tends to bottle up anger or dissatisfaction on the part of the giver.  The manager might start treating someone differently — e.g., being curt, assigning core projects to others — without them having any understanding of what’s going on.
  • Delaying feedback often leads to “pattern matching,” where instead of discussing specific situations (e.g., when you were late to my staff meeting on Tuesday) the giver generalizes to patterns (e.g., you are always late to my staff meetings) which wrecks the SBI process and results in factual disputes (e.g., no I’m not) instead of impact discussions (e.g., it made me feel disrespected).

Being timely doesn’t mean delivering a real-time stream of constant criticism.  (I’ve tried that too and it doesn’t work.)  Nor does it mean confronting hot issues immediately when tempers may still be high.  But it does mean giving feedback within a timeframe when memories are still fresh and when the recipient doesn’t feel like “why did you wait so long to tell me this?”

Finally, if you’re going to start giving periodic constructive feedback you better get ready to give a lot more positive feedback if you want to preserve the overall quality of the relationship.  Research shows that the ideal ratio of praise to criticism is 5 to 1.  This applies not only at work, but also at home —lasting marriages have a 5 to 1 ratio of praise to criticism while marriages ending in divorce have a 0.7 to 1 ratio.

I better go buy some flowers on the way home tonight.  I love you guys.

Always be timely.