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Gluecon’s early bird pricing ends Friday, April 4th and I wanted to make sure you got the chance to register prior to the registration rates going up. When we started Gluecon with Eric Norlin six years ago, I don’t think any of us really had any idea about the true size of the wave of innovation that we were catching. Glue started out like a lot of tech conferences do, with a “business track” and a “technical track,” but we quickly realized what a mistake that was. Since then, Gluecon has transformed into a conference of what I assert is the deepest technical content available around the topics of cloud computing, mobile, big data, APIs and DevOps. The agenda is shaping up to be something really special. Use “brad12″ to take 10% off of the early bird registration.
One of the things I love best about my Foundry Group partners is that they each have strong opinions. Another thing I love about them is that they each have big open ears.
I know a lot of people who have strong opinions. I know a lot of other people who are excellent listeners. The venn diagram of the intersection of the two is uncomfortably small.
I know a lot of people with strong opinions who think they are good listeners, but all you need to do is listen to a conversation between them and someone else to watch them talking all over the other person. Or asserting the same point over and over again, often using slightly different language, but not engaging in a process of trying to actually learn from the other person’s response. This is especially vexing to me when the person with strong opinions claims to have heard the other person (as in “I hear you, ok, that makes sense”) but then 24 hours later Mr. Strong Opinion is back on his original opinion with no explanation.
In contrast, I know a lot of strong listeners who won’t express an opinion. The VC archetype that I describe as Mr. Socrates is a classic example of this. I expect most entrepreneurs can give many examples of them being on the receiving end of a stream of questions without any expressed perspective, null hypothesis, or summary of reaction. I hate these types of board meeting discussions – where the VCs just keep asking questions but never actually suggesting anything. There’s not wrong with inquiry and I definitely have my moments of “I don’t get this – I need to ask more questions” but in the absence of a feedback loop in the discussion, it’s very tiresome to me.
Big open ears doesn’t mean that you just listen. It means you are a good listener. An active listener. One who incorporates what he is hearing into the conversation in real time. You are comfortable responding with a modification to an opinion or perspective as a result of new information. You are comfortable challenging, and being challenged, in the goal of getting to a good collaborate answer, rather than just absorbing information but then coming back later as though there was never any information shared.
I’ve always had strong opinions. I can be a loudmouth and occasionally end up in lecture mode where I’m just trying to hammer home my point. My anecdotes and stories often run longer than they should (I blame my father for teaching me this particular “skill.”) But I always try to listen, am always willing to change my opinion based on new data, or explain my position from a different perspective after assimilating new data. When I realize I’m bloviating, I often call myself publicly on it in an effort to shift to listening mode. And I always try to learn from every interaction I have, no matter how satisfying or unenjoyable it is.
Do you have strong opinions AND big open ears?
I’ve been thinking about the concept of “the duo” a lot recently.
Many of the companies I’m involved in have either two co-founders or two partners who partner up early in the life of the business. Examples of founding partners including Andrei and Peter (Kato.im), Keith and Jeff (BigDoor), James and Eric (Fitbit), and Matthew and Cashman (Yesware). Of course there are many other famous founding duos like Steve and Steve (Apple), Jerry and Dave (Yahoo!), Larry and Sergey (Google), and Bill and Paul (Microsoft). My first company (Feld Technologies) had a duo (me and Dave) and the company that bought Feld Technologies did also – Jerry and Len (AmeriData).
Now, these duos are not the leadership team. But there is a special magic relationship between the duo. I like to think about it like the final fight scene from Mr. and Mrs. Smith where Brad and Angelina are back to back, spinning around in circles, doing damage to the enemy.
This is not just “I’ve got your back, you’ve got my back.” It’s “we are in this together. All in. For keeps.”
It’s just like my relationship with Amy. We are both all in. It’s so powerful – in good times and in bad times.
I learned a very profound thing from my partner Dave Jilk at Feld Technologies 25 years ago. I have been practicing, and getting better at it, ever since. It’s a core part of the way I work with people and I have Dave to thank for it.
First, some context. Feld Technologies was my first company. Dave and I started it in 1987. We hired, then fired, a bunch of part time people and then just worked together – the two of us – for the next 18 months until we hired our first employee (Shawn Broderick). We were cash flow positive every month because we never raised any outside money. We both did everything, working very closely together. As the company grew, we partitioned a lot of things – I became the sales guy – generating much of our new business. Dave became the software guy, managing the team and getting the work done. But we continued to work closely together – he sold plenty of business and I did plenty of work, including doing all the network integration work for our clients, and occasionally managed something.
We were both young and very inexperienced so we learned a lot together, mostly by screwing things up and then fixing them. Sometimes we had a lot of fun, sometimes we were under tremendous stress, and every now and then one of us was miserable. We were (and continue to be) best friends so when one of us was very unhappy, the other could pick up on the vibe quickly and we talked about it.
I remember a stretch of time where I could tell that Dave was really aggravated with me. This wasn’t uncommon – our love and respect included plenty of “moments” as we were both developing into real adults. But this aggravation seemed deeper and didn’t surface in an obvious way.
I remember taking Dave out to dinner at a sushi place called Nara around the corner from our office at 260 Franklin Street in Boston. I can picture how the night felt – dark and empty with plenty of downtown Boston ambient noise. We went to Nara a lot – this was way before sushi became trendy and it was one of the few places in Boston, located a few blocks away from our office. They had excellent huge bottles of cold beer and amazing fish. And it was always quiet and there was always a booth open.
We sat down, got our beers, and I started with the issue, as I often do.
I asked, “Dave, what’s bugging you so much right now.”
“Why? What am I doing that’s bugging you.”
“Working with you is like reading the last page of a novel first.”
I sat nursing my beer for a quiet, long minute pondering this. I mentally read the last page of a novel and thought I knew what Dave meant. Eventually Dave broke the silence.
“When I bring an issue to you, you immediately tell me the answer. 99% of the time you are correct. So I then go spend all of my time looking for a solution that is better that yours. But I only find it 1% of the time. This is incredibly unsatisfying to me.”
I think he may have added something like “fucking demotivating” but by this point I totally groked it. We had an awesome dinner discussing what over the last 25 years we have regularly referred to as “the last page in the book problem.”
Today, I try hard not to start by telling the answer immediately. The CEOs and entrepreneurs I work with need to learn how to get to the answer. And their answer, in many cases, will be better than mine since I don’t have enough context or information to be right 99% of the time like I did when I was the president of Feld Technologies. But even more importantly, a great CEO knows this also. His team doesn’t want to always hear the answer first. Sometimes they do, or need to, but often they want to be able to talk openly, collect data, and come to it over time.
This brief moment has had a profound impact on how I work. While I despise Mr. Socrates (the guy who just asks question after question after question and never expresses a point of view) and don’t emulate him, I definitely ask more “guided questions” when presented with a problem. I tell more stories to try to give examples of how others have solved the problem. And occasionally, when I realize the CEO is asking for the answer (e.g. when Bart Lorang, in the middle of a board meeting, says “Brad, just tell me the fucking answer – I know you know it.”) I tell the answer. But in the back of my mind I always remember that part of learning the answer is figuring out how to find it.
I was fired from my first two jobs. Here’s the story of one of them, which first appeared as part of LinkedIn’s My First Job content package.
“You’re fired.” Those were the last two words I heard from my boss after working for six months at Potatoes, Etc., my first real job. I smirked, immaturely threw my apron at her (I was 15 years old after all), and slammed the door on my way out.
My final three words, preceding hers, were “you’re a bitch.” In hindsight, her response was predictable.
I remember riding my bike home the three miles from Prestonwood Mall where I worked. I had no idea what I was going to tell my parents, but I decided I’d just tell them what happened and see where the chips landed. I felt ashamed of myself for being so disrespectful to my boss, even though she had constantly demeaned me, and all the other people that worked at Potatoes, Etc. I didn’t have any respect for her, but my parents had taught me better and I was proud of my ability to suck it up and not lose my temper.
Potatoes, Etc. was one of those local fast food restaurants in a giant shopping mall from the 1980s. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Yup – that was us, except Potatoes (as we liked to call it) was staffed by the “honors kids.” I think the Greek souvlaki place was staffed by the jocks and the Corn Dog place was staffed by the stoners, but it all blurs together 30 years later.
In hindsight, the Potatoes, Etc. supply chain was pretty cool. Idaho spuds appeared magically in 50 pounds boxes and ended up in a dank, gross storeroom. Each shift, one person was responsible for getting them, cleaning them, putting them on trays, covering them with industrial grade salad dressing, and racking the trays. Another person was responsible for putting them in the convection oven and making sure there were enough potatoes cooking at all times to handle the spikes in demand. Another person manned “the bar” – cutting open the potatoes and filling them with whatever goop and toppings the customer ordered. And the last person worked the cash register. After we closed, we were all responsible for cleaning up.
Since we were honors kids, we had a lot of fun with the supply chain. We did a good job of load optimization. We figured out process improvements to cut, fill, and serve the potatoes. We ran a parallel process on cleaning and closing up, so we could be done in ten minutes. We were never, ever short on cash.
Our boss was a young woman – probably in her early 20s. I remember the smell of smoke and alcohol on her breath. I remember Saturday morning shifts where she would come in at 1pm, clearly hung over. She liked to yell at us. Her favorite form of managerial shame was to call someone into the back “room” (there was no door) and dress them down randomly so everyone in the food court could hear.
We were good kids. It took a lot to get a rise out of us. Sure – we’d complain to each other about her, but we bonded together and did a good job regardless of her antics. Every now and then she’d do something that she thought was motivating, like bring a case of beer into the back of the store and offer up cans to us (we always declined – remember, we were good kids). But I can’t remember a single time she praised us – or at least me – for anything.
I had been racking potatoes all day on the day I got fired. I was cranky – I wanted to work up front but today wasn’t my day. I was tired – lifting 50 pounds of potatoes and washing them one by one is a drag. And I was bored out of my mind.
My boss probably noticed I was in a bad mood. A kind word from her would have made all the difference in the world. Instead, she came over to the full rack of potatoes, started pulling them off the racks, and without even looking at me dumped them one by one in the sink.
“You suck at washing potatoes.”
“You’re a bitch.”
My parents were gentle with me. They made sure I understood the lessons from the experience, which included the power of respect and not losing your temper with a superior.
But most importantly this was a key moment that I think back to whenever I consider motivation. My boss never did anything to create a context in which we were motivated. It wouldn’t have taken much. And, if she had, respect – and motivation – would have followed. At 15, I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a boss who had no idea how to create an environment in which the people that worked for her were motivated. I’ve carried that experience, and the resulting insight, to every subsequent thing I’ve been involved in.
I am so very tired of MBO-based bonuses in startups. I knew the concept of MBOs pre-dated my time in business school, but I couldn’t remember where they came from. Wikipedia reminded me – it’s another Peter Drucker creation from The Practice of Management.
I’ve only worked in what could be considered a “big” company for 18 months (1993 – 1995) and that was the company (AmeriData) that bought my first company (Feld Technologies). When they acquired us, they weren’t big (probably 200 people) and when I left they still weren’t really big (2,000 people) but were “big enough.” So the joy, and experience, of working in a 50,000 or even 100,000 person company eludes me.
As we enter Q4, I’m starting to see discussions about annual performance – often in the context of gearing up for 2014 plans. This often comes in the form of long emails or tedious board discussions about compensation and bonus programs. And inevitably, discussions of MBOs and qualitative performance bonuses quickly enter the discussion.
Now, I’m not a huge fan of programatic bonuses. I spend way to much time reviewing comp plans and trying to help CEOs get a decent alignment between an elusive and inaccurate “plan” (which – especially in a rapidly growing company is never anywhere close to correct), bonuses driven off of company performance, and then bonuses driven off of individual performance. It’s just really hard to get right and feels like an enormous misallocation of time for a young company.
The ostensible goal is to motivate certain behavior and reward certain outcomes. The quantitative, performance-based bonuses are about rewarding outcomes. The qualitative MBO based bonuses are often included to motivate behavior.
Therein is the conflict for me. I have a deeply held belief that a manager cannot “motivate behavior.” She can only create a context in which a person is motivated. It’s up to the individual to motivate himself. Theoretically MBOs help create this context, but it’s often an artificial construct linked to arbitrary behaviors that have nothing to do with motivational structure. Toss money in, and you put focus on the behavior, not on the motivation.
This is totally messed up in a startup. Things are changing daily. Annual performance plans are often irrelevant by February. Quantitative metrics are either too easy to hit, or completely impossible. So the MBOs becomes the achievable bonus, and behavior shifts to achieving them, even when they are even more irrelevant because of the needs of the business.
At Feld Technologies, we had a very simple bonus program. Each quarter, we paid out 10% of pre-tax profits as a bonus. We did this on an accrual basis. My partner Dave and I took the number, made a list of all employees, and figured out how much we were going to give each of them. We then printed out checks and gave them to each person. When we had our act together, which was several quarters each year, we delivered feedback – good and bad – with the checks. If I had realized how powerful this was, I would have done a better job of figuring out and delivering the feedback, in the goal of creating a context for motivation for each person, and realigning goals each quarter.
I’m considering encouraging all the CEOs I work with to get rid of MBOs in 2014. If you insist of having a bonus plan, use a financial bonus for the entire company based on top down performance. This will be a calculation across the entire company and built into the budget at an EBITDA level (e.g. it has to be funded by the performance of the company, which could include a negative EBITDA number, but the bonus pool is linked to that.) Then, the CEO and the leadership get to allocate the bonus to each person on a direct performance basis at the end of the year.
Even better, consider using equity compensation as the bonus. Figure out an equation for converting the bonus amount (in current cash terms) to stock option awards. Then let’s set aside that pool, at the beginning of the year, to award at the end of the year based on the bonus achieved. Be transparent with everyone in the company about the size and determined value of the pool, how their behavior will increase the value, and then work like hell to achieve it.
I’m looking for feedback on this approach. A programatic bonus amount driven by company performance. Individual bonuses based on the discretion of the leadership team that add up across the company to the company bonus pool. No MBOs.