This 1 Piece of Advice Could Make Or Break Your Career

There’s no handbook on how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice” from a boss or a mentor. But how you choose to act on these recommendations can speed up your learning and make or break your career. Here’s what to keep in mind:


I had a team of students working on an arcane customer problem. While they were quickly coming up to speed, I suggested that they talk to someone who I knew was an expert in the area and could help them learn much faster. In fact, starting in the second week of the class, I suggested the same person several times – one-on-one, in class and in writing. Each time the various team members smiled, nodded and said, “Yes, we’ll get right on it.”  Finally, eight weeks later when they were about to fly across the country to meet the customer, I reminded them again.

When they returned from the trip, I asked if the advisor I suggested was helpful.

I was a bit surprised when they replied, “Oh, we’ve been trying to connect with him for a while and he never responded.”  So, I asked:


Team,
As per our conversation about the lack of response from your advisor John Doe -please forward me copies of the emails you have sent to him.

Thanks

Steve


The reply I received was disappointing — but not totally surprising.


Dear Steve, 

Unfortunately, I believe our team has painted the wrong picture due to miscommunication on our part. It was our responsibility to reach out to John Doe, but we failed to do so.

We did not attempt to reach out to him up until Week 8 before our flight, but the email bounced. We got caught up in work on the trip and did not follow-up. What we should have done was to clarify the email address with our Teaching Assistant and attempt to contact him again.

Best regards,

Taylor


Extra credit for finally owning that they screwed up – but there was more to it.

Combine Outside Advice with Your Own Insights
Upon reflection I realized that this student team was missing a learning opportunity. They were soon heading for the real world, and they had no idea how to evaluate and process “suggestions” and “advice.”  Ironically, given they were really smart and in a world-class university, they were confusing “smart” with “I can figure it all out by myself.”

Throughout my entrepreneurial career I was constantly bombarded by advice – from bosses, mentors, friends, investors, et al. I was lucky enough to have mentors who took an interest in my career, and as a young entrepreneur, I tried to pay attention to what they were trying to tell me. (Coming into my first startup from four years in the military I didn’t have the advantage of thinking I knew it all.) It made me better – I learned faster than having to acquire every bit of knowledge from scratch and I could combine the data coming from others with the insights I had.

Have a Process to Evaluate Suggestions and Advice
Here was my response to my student team:

Dear Team:

Throughout your work career you’ll be getting tons of suggestions and advice; from mentors – people you don’t work for but who care about your career and from your direct boss and others up your reporting chain.

  1. Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction
    • Assume someone has just given you a package wrapped in a bow with your name on it.
    • Then think of how they’ll feel when you ignore it and toss it aside.
  2. When you’re working at full speed just trying to get your job done, it’s pretty easy to assume that advice/suggestions from others are just diversions. That’s a mistake. At times following up on them may make or break a career and/or a relationship.
    • The first time your boss or mentor will assume you were too busy to follow up.
    • The second time your boss will begin to question your judgment. Your mentor is going to question your willingness to be coached.
    • The third time you ignore suggestions/advice from your boss is a career-limiting move. And if from a mentor, you’ve likely damaged or ended the relationship.
  3. Everyone likes to offer “suggestions” and “advice.” Think of these as falling into four categories:
    • Some bosses/mentors offer “suggestions” and “advice” because it makes them feel important.
    • Others have a set of contacts or insights they are willing to share with you because they believe these might be useful to you.
    • A few bosses/mentors have pattern-recognition skills. They’ve recognized the project you’re working on or problem you’re trying to solve could be helped by connecting with a specific person/group or by listening to how it was solved previously.
    • A very small subset of bosses/mentors has extracted some best practices and/or wisdom from those patterns. These can give you shortcuts to the insights they’ve taken years to learn.
  4. Early in your career it’s hard to know whether a suggestion/advice is valuable enough to spend time following up. Here’s what I suggest:
    • Start with “Thanks for the suggestion.”
    • Next, it’s OK to ask, “Help me understand why is this important? Why should I talk to them? What should I learn?” This will help you figure out which category of advice you’re getting.If it’s a direct boss and others up your reporting chain, ask, “How should I prioritize this? Does it require immediate action?” (And it most cases it doesn’t matter what category it’s in, just do it.)
    • Always report back to whoever offered you the advice/suggestion to share what you learned. Thank them.

If you open yourself to outside advice, you’ll find people interested in the long-term development of your career – these are your career mentors. Unlike coaching, there’s no specific agenda or goal but mentor relationships can result in a decades-long dialog of continual learning. What makes these relationships a mentorship is this: you have to give as good as you are getting. While you’ll be learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what you need to give back is equally important – offering fresh insights to their data.

If your goal is to be a founder, having a network of mentors/advisors means that not only will you be up to date on current technology, markets or trends, you’ll be able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives that might be basis for your next startup.

Lessons Learned

  • Suggestions/advice at work are not distractions that can be ignored
    • Understand the type of suggestions/advice you’re getting (noise, contacts, patterns, insights)
    • Understand why the advice is being given
    • Agree on the priority in following it up
  • Not understanding how to respond to advice/suggestions can limit your career
  • Advice is a kickstarter for your own insights and a gateway for mentorship
  • Treat advice and suggestions as a gift, not a distraction

Why Entrepreneurs Start Companies Rather Than Join Them

If you asked me why I gravitated to startups rather than work in a large company I would have answered at various times: “I want to be my own boss.” “I love risk.” “I want flexible work hours.” “I want to work on tough problems that matter.” “I have a vision and want to see it through.” “I saw a better opportunity and grabbed it. …”

It never crossed my mind that I gravitated to startups because I thought more of my abilities than the value a large company would put on them. At least not consciously. But that’s the conclusion of a provocative research paper, Asymmetric Information and Entrepreneurship, that explains a new theory of why some people choose to be entrepreneurs. The authors’ conclusion — Entrepreneurs think they are better than their resumes show and realize they can make more money by going it alone.  And in most cases, they are right.

I’ll summarize the paper’s conclusions, then share a few thoughts about what they might mean – for companies, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial education. (By the way, as you read the conclusions keep in mind the authors are not talking just about high-tech entrepreneurs. They are talking about everyone who chooses to be self-employed – from a corner food vendor without a high school diploma to a high-tech founder with a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford.)

The authors’ research came from following 12,686 people over 30+ years. They found:

  1. Signaling. When you look for a job you “signal” your ability to employers via a resume with a list of your educational qualifications and work history. Signaling is a fancy academic term to describe how one party (in this case someone who wants a job) credibly conveys information to another party (a potential employer).
  2. Capable. People choose to be entrepreneurs when they feel that they are more capable than what employers can tell from their resume or an interview. So, entrepreneurs start ventures because they can’t signal their worth to potential employers.
  3. Better Pay. Overall, when people choose entrepreneurship they earn 7% more than they would have in a corporate job. That’s because in companies pay is usually set by observable signals (your education and experience/work history).
  4. Less Predictable Pay. But the downside of being an entrepreneur is that as a group their pay is more variable – some make less than if they worked at a company, some much more.
  5. Smarter. Entrepreneurs score higher on cognitive ability tests than their educational credentials would predict. And their cognitive ability is higher than those with the same educational and work credentials who choose to work in a company.
  6. Immigrants and Funding. Signaling (or the lack of it) may explain why some groups such as immigrants, with less credible signals to existing companies (unknown schools, no license to practice, unverifiable job history, etc.) tend to gravitate toward entrepreneurship. And why funding from families and friends is a dominant source of financing for early-stage ventures (because friends and family know an entrepreneur’s ability better than any resume can convey).
  7. Entrepreneurs defer getting more formal education because they correctly expect their productivity will be higher than the market can infer from just their educational qualifications. (There are no signals for entrepreneurial skills.)

Lemons Versus Cherries. The most provocative conclusion in the paper is that asymmetric information about ability leads existing companies to employ only “lemons,” relatively unproductive workers. The talented and more productive choose entrepreneurship. (Asymmetric Information is when one party has more or better information than the other.) In this case the entrepreneurs know something potential employers don’t – that nowhere on their resume does it show resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, tenacity and having a passion for products.
This implication, that entrepreneurs are, in fact, “cherries” contrasts with a large body of literature in social science, which says that the entrepreneurs are the “lemons”— those who cannot find, cannot hold, or cannot stand “real jobs.”

So, what to make of all this?
If the authors are right, the way we signal ability (resumes listing education and work history) is not only a poor predictor of success, but has implications for existing companies, startups, education, and public policy that require further thought and research.

Companies: In the 20thcentury when companies competed with peers with the same business model, they wanted employees to help them execute current business models (whether it was working on an assembly line or writing code supporting or extending current products). There was little loss when they missed hiring employees who had entrepreneurial skills. However, in the 21stcentury companies face continuous disruption; now they’re looking for employees to help them act entrepreneurial.  Yet their recruiting and interviewing processes – which define signals they look for – are still focused on execution not entrepreneurial skills.

Surprisingly, the company that best epitomized this was not some old-line manufacturing company but Google. When Marissa Mayer ran products at Google the New York Times  described her hiring process, “More often than not, she relies on charts, graphs and quantitative analysis as a foundation for a decision, particularly when it comes to evaluating people…At a recent personnel meeting, she homes in on grade-point averages and SAT scores to narrow a list of candidates, many having graduated from Ivy League schools, …One candidate got a C in macroeconomics. “That’s troubling to me,” Ms. Mayer says. “Good students are good at all things.”

Really.  What a perfect example of adverse signaling. No wonder the most successful Google products, other than search, have been acquisitions of startups not internal products: YouTube, Android, DoubleClick, Keyhole (Google Maps), Waze were started and run by entrepreneurs. The type of people Google and Marissa Mayer wouldn’t and didn’t hire started the companies they bought.

Entrepreneurship. When I shared the paper withTina Seelig at Stanford she asked, “If schools provided better ways to signal someone’s potential to employers, will this lead to less entrepreneurship?”  Interesting question.

Imagine if in a perfect world corporate recruiters found a way to identify the next Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, or Larry Ellisons. Would the existing corporate processes, procedures and business models crush their innovative talents, or would they steer the large companies into a new renaissance?

The Economic Environment. So, how much of signaling (hiring only by resume qualifications) is influenced by the economic environment? One could assume that in a period of low unemployment, it will be easier to get a traditional job, which would lead to fewer startups and explain why great companies are often founded during a downturn. Those who can’t get a traditional job start their own venture. Yet other public policies come into play. Between the late 1930s and the 1970s the U.S. tax rate for individuals making over $100,000 was 70% and 90% (taxes on capital gains fluctuated between 20% and 25%.) Venture capital flourished when the tax rates plummeted in the late 1970s. Was entrepreneurship stifled by high personal income taxes? And did it flourish only when entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to make a lot more money on their own?

Leaving a Company. Some new ventures are started by people who leave big companies to strike out on their own – meaning they weren’t trying to find employment in a corporation, they were trying to get away from it.  While starting your own company may look attractive from inside a company, the stark reality of risking one’s livelihood, financial stability, family, etc., is a tough bar to cross.  What motivates these people to leave the relative comfort of a steady corporate income and strike out on their own?  Is it the same reason – their company doesn’t value their skills for innovation and is just measuring them on execution? Or something else?

Entrepreneurial Education. Is entrepreneurship for everyone? Should we expect that we can teach entrepreneurship as a mandatory class? Or is it calling? Increasing the number of new ventures will only generate aggregate wealth if those who start firms are truly more productive as entrepreneurs.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurs start their own companies because existing companies don’t value the skills that don’t fit on a resume
  • The most talented people choose entrepreneurship (Lemons versus Cherries)
  • Read the paper and let me know what you think

 

Leadership is More Than a Memo

I just read Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. It was both eye-opening and cringe-worthy. The book explores the role of gender in the tech industry – at startups and venture capital firms – and the interaction between men and women in the two. While Silicon Valley has grown to have global influence, in many ways the cultural leadership from the venture community has dramatically shrunk in the last decade. Chasing deal flow has resulted in many VCs leading the race to the bottom in startup ethical behavior.

Among other things the book reminded me how important leadership is in setting startup culture – both consciously and implicitly.

Here was the day I got that lesson.

—-

With the reckless and naïve abandon of founders who had no clue what they were about to tackle, we had just started Ardent, a supercomputer company. Ben Wegbreit, the VP of Engineering (one of my mentors and then co-founder of Epiphany), broke his foot skiing just as the company started. So every day Ben hobbled into our very small office nattily dressed in his suit but wearing sneakers over his cast. (Yes, in the dim past of Silicon Valley the execs really wore suits.)

At first the company just consisted of the founders, but Ben soon started to hire his engineering team. Since this was the pre-Hoodie era, they interviewed in various types of then engineering attire – most with jeans, some with khakis, etc. (And back then they were all men.) But as each engineer was hired and started work I began to notice that after a few days they started to wear suits… wait for it… with sneakers. Obviously, this was a pretty bizarre fashion statement – and no one had sent out a memo announcing this as the engineering dress code. After six weeks of furious staffing and recruiting Ben had a team of 10 or so engineers and I have vivid memories of all of them trying to look like Ben.

Yet Ben was oblivious to the suit-and-sneaker clone army he had created.

With my now decades of hindsight, I realize I should have just let the engineers know that Ben had broken his foot and there was no attempt at sartorial innovation. But I remember just being mesmerized by this lesson in implicit leadership unfolding before me.

I knew that the cast was going to come off, and Ben would show up one day wearing regular shoes. What I didn’t know was what would happen to the engineering dress code then– would they all then adopt suits and shoes? Drop the suits all together? Keep their suit and sneaker style?

And how long would the change in engineering dress take? The next day?  A week?

And then it happened. Ben showed up wearing a suit and … shoes.

I’m sure engineering productivity took a big hit that week as cognitive dissonance set in.  Some of the engineers literally went home at lunch and changed – some into shoes, some dropping the whole suit.  Most started wearing regular shoes the next day, and by the second day no one was wearing sneakers.

Decades later Mark Zuckerberg would run the experiment at scale.

Lessons Learned

  • Culture gets set both explicitly with rules and implicitly by example
  • The bro culture of the Valley is a failure of leadership – by VC’s who should know better and CEO’s who need to be taught
  • Ironically, it would take a Los Angeles VC, Mark Suster at Upfront Ventures and the Inclusion Clause to lead the change in venture capital culture

Janesville – A Story About the Rest of America

I just read book – Janesville – that reminded me again of life outside the bubble.

Janesville, tells the story of laid-off factory workers of a General Motors factory that’s never going to reopen. It’s a story about a Midwest town and the type of people I knew and worked alongside.

When I got out of the Air Force after Vietnam, I lived in Michigan and I installed process control systems in automobile assembly plants and steel mills across the industrial heart of the Midwest. I got to see the peak of America’s manufacturing prowess in the 1970s, when we actually made things – before we shipped the factories and jobs overseas. I hung out with the guys who worked there, went bowling and shooting with them, complained about the same things, wives, girlfriends, jobs, the union and bosses, and shared their same concerns. Janesville is their story.

On the surface the book is an incredibly well written narrative over the course of five years, from 2008 to 2013, that connects the laid off auto workers, job center retraining, union organizers, community and business leaders, and politicians. Five stars for the reporting.

But what makes the book great is that the story is deeper than just the people it follows. On closer reading it busts the shared delusions about our economic system that requires our faith in order for it to survive.

First, America was built on workers who believed that their hard work would allow their children to have opportunities to do better. The hard truth is that part of the Janesville story is about a generation of blue collar workers who grew up thinking that a factory job wasn’t just an entry into the economy, but instead was a multi-generational entitlement. They believed the posters that said, “Our employees are our greatest asset” and assumed it meant forever – instead of reading the fine print which said, “Until we can reduce our labor costs by moving your jobs overseas.”

To be clear it doesn’t mean they didn’t work hard or that they deserved what happened to them. Far from it. But it does mean, that even as evidence was piling up around them that this couldn’t last, they took for granted that a high-paying factory job was a never ending economic cornucopia. The grim reality is that the 50 years of post WWII factory work in GM and other places was a golden age of blue collar jobs – in the U.S. – it’s gone and not coming back. 

Second, the jobs aren’t coming back because while our economy has continued to grow, in the name of corporate efficiency and profitability we’ve closed the shipyards and factories and moved those jobs overseas. In board rooms across the country we traded jobs for short-term corporate profits – while selling out the very people who believed they had a social contract with their company – and their country. And while we gave those policies polite names like globalization and outsourcing, the consequences have wreaked havoc on towns like Janesville. Oh, and the jobs we moved overseas, or never even attempted to build here, (think iPhones)? They helped build the blue collar working class in China and India.

And with campaign donations spread equally, both parties supported this exodus and no one in the government stood in their way – in fact, they encouraged it. The result was that the bulk of those corporate profits have ended up in the pockets of the very affluent. The contrast is pretty bitter in towns like Janesville where income inequality stares you in the face. When towns do recover, the new jobs are most often at a fraction of the salary the closed factories once offered. The level of despair and anger of the workers the companies and politicians and the rest of the country abandoned is high. The Janesville’s across the U.S. really didn’t care about Hacker News, TechCrunch, etc, Hollywood gossip in Variety, or the latest financial moves in the Wall Street Journal. They wanted to hear people talking to them about how to get their lives back. They voted their interests in 2016. 

Third, when those jobs moved in the name of maximizing profits, no one (other than unions) pointed out that all the supporting jobs would disappear as well. Not only the obvious ones like machine tool makers, direct suppliers, etc. but that the supporting service jobs would also disappear in the community. Restaurants, movie theaters, real estate agents, etc.

Fourth, this was the story of just one town and one factory. If we believe any of the predictions of autonomous vehicles and disruption in the trucking business, and machine learning disrupting other industries, Janesville is just the harbinger of much larger economic upheavals to come.

Fifth, and a critical insight that I almost missed, because it was buried in Appendix 2, (and a real surprise to me) was that, “laid-off workers who went back to school were less likely to have a job after they retrained than those who did not go to school.” Wow. Talk about burying the lead. Skill retraining is a core belief of any economic recovery plan. Yet the data the author and her associated researchers gathered shows that it’s not true. People who went through skills retraining were worse off than those who went out on their own.

Sixth, this means that in spite of their well-meaning efforts, both the jobs training people and the local boosters of “Janesville will rise again” were actually doing the laid-off workers a massive disservice. The very things they were advocating were not going to help this generation of laid-off workers. I wonder if they’ve come to grips with that.

Seventh, This raises the question of what kind of skills training, if any, should be given to laid-off workers when the factory shuts down in a one-company town. My conclusion from the narrative that followed the families is that they would have been better served by basic training in the reality of their new economic context, financial management and new life skills. For example, teaching a few days of, “Lessons learned from families in other one-industry cities” and “the mortgage meltdown – how to get out from underneath an underwater mortgage,” and practical job search tips outside their community, along with organized trips to other cities and paid-for car pools for they gypsy workers commuting to far off GM plants. In addition, skills training in resilience, agility, etc. would have provided these workers with an education and relevant tools for surviving in the new economy.

A great book that made me sad, angry and make me think long about the consequences of not having a national industrial policy. And why by using the fig leaf of “maximize shareholder value” corporations and financial institutions have set it by default.

It truly feels like a return to the Gilded Age.

Worth a read.

Working Outside the Tech Bubble

Annual note to self – most of the world exists outside the tech bubble.

—–

We have a summer home in New England in a semi-rural area, just ~10,000 people in town, with a potato farm across the street. Drive down the road and you can see the tall stalks of corn waving on other farms. Most people aren’t in tech or law or teaching in universities; they fall solidly in what is called working-class. They work as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, in hospitals, restaurants, as clerks, office managers, farmers, etc. They have solid middle-class values of work, family, education and country – work hard, own a home, have a secure job, and save for their kids’ college and their retirement.

This summer I was sitting in the Delekta Pharmacy in the nearby town of Warren having a Coffee Cabinet (a coffee milkshake).  It’s one of the last drugstores with a real soda fountain. The summer tourists mostly come through on the weekend but during the week the locals come by to gab with the guy behind the counter. There are four small wooden booths along the wall in front of the fountain, and as I drank my Cabinet I got to overhear townie conversations from the other three booths.

Unlike every cafe I sit in the valley or San Francisco, their conversations were not about tech.

While they own tech, smartphones and computers, most can’t tell you who the ex-CEO of Uber is, or the details of the diversity blowup at Google. More important issues dominate their daily lives.

I was listening to one guy talk about how much his mortgage and kid’s college expenses were increasing while he hadn’t gotten a raise in three years and was worried about paying the bills. A woman talked about her husband, and how after 21 years as an electrician in the local hospital, he had just been laid-off. Others chimed in with their stories, best summarized by a feeling of economic anxiety. Of being squeezed with no real exit.

It was a long time ago, but I knew the feeling well.

I grew up in New York in a single-parent household that teetered on the bottom end of what today we’d call working class. My parents were immigrants and when they were divorced my mother supported us on the $125 a week she made as a bookkeeper. The bills got paid, and we had food in the house, but there was nothing extra left. No vacations. New clothes were bought once a year before school.

Years later when I got out of the Air Force, I installed broadband process control systems in automobile assembly plants and steel mills across the industrial heart of the Midwest. I got to see the peak of America’s manufacturing prowess in the 1970s, when we actually made things – before we shipped the factories and jobs overseas. I hung out with the guys who worked there, went bowling and shooting with them, complained about the same things, wives, girlfriends, jobs and bosses, and shared their same concerns.

Listening to these conversations in the Pharmacy, and the other stories I have heard as I explored the small towns here, reminded me that people I grew up with, served with and others I worked with, still live in this world. In fact, more than half of Americans fall into the working class. And the conversations I was listening to were a real-life narrative of the “middle-class squeeze.” While the economy has continued to grow, in the name of corporate efficiency and profitability we’ve closed the shipyards and factories and moved those jobs overseas. The bulk of those gains have ended up in the pockets of the very affluent. Income inequality stares you in the face here. The level of despair is high. The small city next to us has been hard hit in the opioid crisis: 63 people died last year.

My annual trek out here reminds me that that I live in a Silicon Valley bubble—and that a good part of the country is not reading what we read, caring about what we care about or thinking about what we think about. They have a lot more immediate concerns.

It’s good to spend time outside the bubble –  but I get to go back. My neighbors here, people in that pharmacy and the many others like them can’t. In the U.S. people used to move to where the jobs are. But today, Americans are less mobile. Some are rooted, embedded in their communities; and some are trapped — because housing is unaffordable where the better paying jobs are. And the jobs that are high paying are not the jobs they built their lives on. Likely their circumstances won’t have changed much by the time I return next year.

I don’t know how the people I listened to and talked to voted, but it’s easy to see why they might feel as if no one in Washington is living their lives.  And that the tech world is just as distant as Hollywood or Wall Street.

There isn’t an app to fix this.

Why Some Startups Win

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?

I was having a second coffee with an ex student, now the head of a marketing inside a rapidly growing startup.  His company had marched through customer discovery, learning about the customer problem, validated solutions and was now scaling sales and marketing.  All good news.

But he was getting uneasy that as his headcount was growing the productivity of his marketing department seemed to be rapidly declining.

I wasn’t surprised. When organizations are small (startups, small teams in companies and government agencies) early employees share a mission (why they come to work, what they need to do while they are at work, and how they will know they have succeeded). But as these organizations grow large, what was once a shared mission and intent gets buried under HR process and Key Performance Indicators.

I told him that I had learned long ago that to keep that from happening, you need to on-board/train your team about mission and intent.

—-

Why Do You Work Here?
I had taken the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy. We’d managed to secure another infusion of cash, but it wasn’t going to last long.

During my first week on the job, I asked each of my department heads what they did for marketing and the company. When I asked our trade show manager, she looked surprised and said, “Steve, don’t you know that my job is to take our booth to trade shows and set it up?” The other departments gave the same type of logistical answers; the product-marketing department, for example, said their job was to get the product specs from engineering and write data sheets. But my favorite was when the public relations manager told me, “We’re here to summarize the data sheets and put them in press releases and then answer the phone in case the press calls.”

If these sound like reasonable answers to you, and you are in a startup, update your resume.

Titles Are Not Your Job
When I pressed my staff to explain why marketing did trade shows or wrote press releases or penned data sheets, the best response I could get was, “Why that’s our job.” In their heads their titles were a link back to a Human Resources job spec that came from a 10,000-person company (ie. listing duties and responsibilities, skills and competencies, reporting relationships…)

It dawned on me that we had a department full of people with titles describing process-centric execution while we were in environment that required relentless agility and speed with urgency. While their titles might be what their business cards said, titles were not their job – and being a slave to process lost the sight of the forest for the trees.  This was the last thing we needed in a company where every day could be our last.

Titles in a startup are not the same as what your job is. This is a big idea.

Department Mission Statements – What am I Supposed to Do Today?
It wasn’t that I had somehow inherited dumb employees. What I was hearing was a failure of management.

No one had on-boarded these people. No one had differentiated a startup job description from a large company job. They were all doing what they thought they were supposed to.

But most importantly, no one had sat the marketing department down and defined our department Mission (with a capital “M”).

Most startups put together a corporate mission statement because the CEO remembered seeing one at his last job or the investors said they needed one. Most companies spend an inordinate amount of time crafting a finely honed corporate mission statement for external consumption and then do nothing internally to make it happen. What I’m about to describe here is quite different.

What our marketing department was missing was anything that gave the marketing staff daily guidance about what they should be doing. The first reaction from my CEO was, “That’s why you’re running the department.” And yes, we could have built a top-down, command-and-control hierarchy. But what I wanted was an agile marketing team capable of operating independently without day-to-day direction.

We needed to craft a Departmental Mission statement that told everyone why they came to work, what they needed to do while they were at work, and how they would know they had succeeded. And it was going to mention the two words that marketing needed to live and breathe: revenue and profit.

Five Easy Pieces – The Marketing Mission
After a few months of talking to customers and working with sales, we defined the marketing Mission (our job) as:

Help Sales deliver $25 million in sales with a 45% gross margin. To do that we will create end-user demand and drive it into the sales channel, educate the channel and customers about why our products are superior, and help Engineering understand customer needs and desires. We will accomplish this through demand-creation activities (advertising, PR, tradeshows, seminars, web sites, etc.), competitive analyses, channel and customer collateral (white papers, data sheets, product reviews), customer surveys, and customer discovery findings.

This year, marketing needs to provide sales with 40,000 active and accepted leads, company and product name recognition over 65% in our target market, and five positive product reviews per quarter. We will reach 35% market share in year one of sales with a headcount of twenty people, spending less than $4,000,000.

  • Generate end-user demand (to match our revenue goals)
  • Drive that demand into our sales channels
  • Value price our products to achieve our revenue and margin goals (create high-value)
  • Educate our sales channel(s)
  • Help Engineering understand customer needs

That was it. Two paragraphs, Five bullets. It didn’t take more.

Building a Mission-focused Team
Having the mission in place meant that our team could see that what mattered wasn’t what was on their business card, but how much closer their work moved our department to completing the mission. Period.
It wasn’t an easy concept for everyone to understand.

My new Director of Marketing Communications turned the Marcom departments into a mission-focused organization. Her new tradeshow manager quickly came to understand that his job was not to set up booths. We hired union laborers to do that. A trade show was where our company went to create awareness and/or leads. And if you ran the tradeshow department, you owned the responsibility for awareness and leads. The booth was incidental. I couldn’t care less if we had a booth or not if we could generate the same amount of leads and awareness by skydiving naked into a coffee cup.

The same was true for PR. My new head of Public Relations quickly learned that my admin could answer calls from the press. The job of Public Relations wasn’t a passive “write a press release and wait for something to happen” activity. It wasn’t measured by how busy you were, it was measured by results. And the results weren’t the traditional PR metrics of number of articles or inches of ink. I couldn’t care less about those. I wanted our PR department to map the sales process, figure out where getting awareness and interest could be done with PR, then get close and personal with the press and use it to generate end-user demand and then drive that demand into our sales channel. We were constantly doing internal and external audits and creating metrics to see the effects of different PR messages, channels and audiences on customer awareness, purchase intent and end-user sales.

The same was true for the Product Marketing group. I hired a Director of Product Marketing who in his last company had ran its marketing and then went out into the field and became its national sales director. He got the job when I asked him how much of his own marketing material his sales team actually used in the field. When he said, “about ten percent,” I knew by the embarrassed look on his face I had found the right guy. And our Director of Technical Marketing was superb at understanding customer needs and communicating them to Engineering.

Mission Intent – What’s Really Important
With a great team in place, the next step was recognizing that our Mission statement might change on the fly. “Hey, we just all bought into this Mission idea and now you’re telling us it can change?!”  (The mission might change if we pivot, competitors might announce new products, we might learn something new about our customers, etc.)

So we introduced the notion of Mission Intent. Intent answered the question, “What is the company thinking and goal behind the mission?” In our case, the mission of the company was to sell $25 million of product with 45% gross margin. The idea of teaching intention is that if employees understand what we intended  behind the mission, they can work collaboratively to achieve it.

We recognized that there would be a time marketing would screw up or something out of our control would happen, making the marketing mission obsolete (i.e. we might fail to deliver 40,000 leads.) Think of intention as the answer to the adage, “When you are up to your neck in alligators it’s hard to remember you were supposed to drain the swamp.” For example, our mission intent said that the reason why marketing needed to deliver 40,000 leads and 35% market share, etc., was so that Sales could sell $25 million of products at 45% gross margin.

What we taught everyone is that the intention is more enduring than the mission. (“Let’s see, the company is trying to sell $25 million in product with 45% gross margin. If marketing can’t deliver the 40,000 leads, what else can we do for sales to still achieve our revenue and profitability?”) The mission was our goal, but based on circumstances, it might change. However, the Intent was immovable.

When faced with the time pressures of a startup, too many demands and too few people, we began to teach our staff to refer back to the five Mission goals and the Intent of the department. When stuff started piling up on their desks, they learned to ask themselves, “Is what I’m working on furthering these goals? If so, which one? If not, why am I doing it?”

They understood the mission intent was our corporate revenue and profit goals.

Why Do It
By the end of the first year, our team had jelled. (Over time, we added the No Excuses culture to solve accountability.) It was a department willing to exercise initiative, with the judgment to act wisely and an eagerness to accept responsibility.

I remember at the end of a hard week my direct reports came into my office just to talk about the week’s little victories. And there was a moment as they shared their stories when they all began to realize that our company (one that had just come off of life support) was beginning to kick the rear of our better-funded and bigger competitors.  We all marveled in the moment.


Lessons Learned

  • Push independent execution of tasks down to the lowest possible level
  • Give everyone a shared Mission Statement: why they come to work, what they need to do, and how they will know they have succeeded.
  • Share Mission Intent for the big picture for the Mission Statement
  • Build a team comfortable with independent Mission execution
  • Add a No Excuses Culture
  • Agree on Core Values to define your culture

The No Excuses Culture

Getting ready for our next semester’s class, I asked my Teaching Assistant why I hadn’t seen the posters for our new class around campus.  Hearing the litany of excuses that followed –“It was raining.” (The posters go inside the building.)  “We still have time.” (We had agreed they were to go up a week ago) — I had a strong sense of déjà vu. When I took the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy, excuses seemed to be our main product.  So we created The No Excuses Culture.

No Excuses as a Core Value  
In addition to customer discovery, creating end user demand, and product strategy, Marketing also serves as a service organization to sales.  It drove me crazy when we failed to deliver a project for sales on time or we missed a media deadline. And I quickly realized that whenever there was a failure to deliver on time, everyone in my Marketing department had an excuse. Making excuses instead of producing timely deliverables meant we were failing as an organization. We weren’t supporting the mission of the company (generate revenue and profit), and the lack of honesty diminished our credibility, and our integrity.

I realized that this was a broken part of our culture, but couldn’t figure out why. Then one day it hit me.  When deadlines slipped, there were no consequences – no consequences to my direct reports when they failed to deliver on time, no consequences to the people who reported to them – and no consequences to our vendors.

And with no consequences our entire department acted as if schedules and commitments didn’t matter. I heard a constant refrain of, “The sales channel brochure was late because the vendor got busy so they couldn’t meet the original deadline.” Or “the January ad had to be moved into February because my graphic artist was sick, but I didn’t tell you because I assumed it was OK.” Or, “We’re going to slip our product launch because the team thought they couldn’t get ready in time.” I had inherited a department with a culture that turned commitments into vague aspirations.  We had no accountability.

I realized that for us to build a high-performance marketing organization that drove the company, this had to change. I wanted a department that could be counted on to deliver. One day I put up a sign on my door that said, “No excuses accepted.” And I let everyone in the marketing department know what I meant was, “We were all going to be ‘accountable’.”

I didn’t mean “deliver or else.”

By accountable I meant, “We agreed on a delivery date, and between now and the delivery date, it’s OK if you ask for help because you’re stuck, or something happened outside of your control. But do not walk into my office the day something is due and give me an excuse. It will cost you your job.” That kind of accountable.

And, “Since I won’t accept those kind of excuses, you are no longer authorized to accept them from your staff or vendors either.  You need to tell your staff and vendors that it’s OK to ask for help if they are stuck.  But you also need to let everyone in your department know that from now on showing up with an excuse the day the project is due will cost them their job.”

The goal wasn’t inflexible dates and deadlines, it was to build a culture of no surprises and collective problem solving.

I don’t want to make implementing this sound easy. Asking for help, and/or saying you were stuck created cognitive dissonance for many people. Even as we publicly applauded those who asked for help, some just couldn’t bring themselves to admit they needed help until the day the project was due.  Others went in the other direction and thought collective problem solving meant they could come into my office, and say they “had a problem” and think I was going to solve it for them without first trying to solve it themselves. As we worked hard on making “no excuses” part of our culture some couldn’t adapt. A few became ex-employees. But the rest felt empowered and responsible.

Everything is “priority one”
One other thing needed to be fixed before we could implement “no excuses.”  I realized that my groups inside of marketing had become dumping grounds for projects from both inside and outside of marketing – with everything being “priority one.”  There was no way for us to say, “We can’t take that project on.” And yet, simply accepting anything anyone wanted Marketing to provide was unsustainable.

We quickly put in a capacity/priority planning process. Each marketing group, (product marketing, marcom, trade shows, etc.) calculated their number of available man-hours and budget dollars. Then every week each department stack-ranked the priority of the projects on their plate and estimated the amount of time and budget for each. If someone inside of marketing wanted to add a new project, we needed to figure out which existing one(s) on the list we were going to defer or kill to accommodate it. If someone outside of marketing wanted to add a new project before we had the resources, we made them decide which of their current projects they wanted to defer/kill.  If we didn’t have the resources to support them, we helped them find resources outside the company. And finally, each of the projects we did accept had to align with the overall mission of the company and our department.

Over time, accountability, execution, honesty and integrity became the cornerstones of our communication with each other, other departments and vendors.

We became known as a high-performance organization as we delivered what said we would – on time and on budget.

Lesson Learned

  • No excuses for failures given, just facts and requests for help
  • No excuses for failures accepted, just facts, and offers to help
  • Relentless execution
  • Individual honesty and integrity

That was it. Four bullets. It defined our culture.

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