Thursday, October 22, 2009

When being slapdash can hurt your career growth

One of the things I feel privileged to have the opportunity to do as CEO is to counsel our managers on how to coach their employees. I'm long enough in the tooth now, and I've see enough different types of employees, that I can often get to the essence of what minor course correction is needed to help someone advance.

One of my managers brought me a classic case today. This is a case of a skill that you've honed is now getting in your way.

We have an employee who is very talented and very smart, but he's slapdash. People go to him for advice and product input. Customers talk to him about how to use the product - and then how to apply it to their problems. And he's quick in everything he does. I believe he's learned how to make decisions fast, crank work out fast and move onto the next thing - and it's a life skill to him.

However, he's now at the point where while 90% of his work is great, he's producing some work that affects customers and it's sloppy. The course correction that is needed is not unlike the advice I give my son every day - check your work!

The challenge is (which I can personally relate to) how to slow down enough to do the boring step of checking - for example that the memo you are writing is crisp, or the product feature you are specifying is right. The check can be as trivial as spelling and punctuation, it can be as complex as ensuring that a feature covers all cases that might come up.

The checking step is boring and there is little positive feedback for doing it, just negative feedback when it isn't done. And the very skill that served you well in college - how to get a mountain of work done in a short amount of time so there was time left to party - is exactly the skill that has to be moderated now.

I find in coaching that some of the most interesting growth spurts come when you can show someone that, as Sun Tsu said "your strength will become your greatest weakness" and help them overcome the flipside of their strength when it shows up. Then the employee is in control of when to use their learned skill, and when not to.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How "team" is different in a small tech company

Guest post: Michael Prospero, FirstRain Director of Research

Throughout my professional career, I have worked for large financial organizations employing 100s to 1,000s of people. Therefore, I was one member of a very large so-called "team".

Every organization I have worked for attempted to make me feel as though I am a part of a team working toward a common goal. However, if I am one analyst or one person in accounting ( or whatever your job function may be ) I really never feel like my group and the other departments, functions or locations are all working together. In fact, I would rarely interact with other departments unless for some reason I was required to because of some need of theirs or mine. I always felt like just an employee in a large organization. Often the CEO never knew who I was and I may have only met them briefly at some function. There wasn’t any team building to bring us together. We never really got to know many of the others in the organization unless they sat near us or worked in the same department. In fact, employees were only in the same room together during a rare HR requirement or speech by the CEO, who wasn’t necessarily in the same office as us.

Three years ago, I accepted my current position knowing that I was about to begin working for a small company, which was essentially a mature start-up at the time. FirstRain continues to have a aggressive small company - like a start-up - type of culture, which is so different from a corporate environment that it would require a much longer post to describe it all to you.

To me, the refreshing part of working in this type of environment is truly being part of a team. Not the team that corporations pretend to be, but really a team of people all working hard at their respective positions to reach a common goal. To use a sports analogy, it is like being part of a football team. If each person doesn’t perform well at their respective position, the team may lose. If someone misses a block or a defensive assignment, the whole team suffers and may lose.

I guess working at FirstRain brings me back to those days when I played competitive team sports. Today, many of the employees at FirstRain are very different and we work in three different locations and in two countries. We bring different backgrounds, skill sets and even cultures together in a unique way and we are all working very hard to do something that hasn’t been done before. To bring us together, every so often, we have an activity set up where we are doing something outside of the office from movies, to half marathons to bowling. During our company outings, we are provided with an opportunity to get to know each other in a real way and it’s invigorating. Also, we have frequent all hands meetings where our CEO will hold a call to discuss everything going on with the company and responds to all questions from any employee.

Working as part of a team is the reason sports are so popular around the world. If you ask any retired athlete what they miss most about their playing days, they will almost invariably respond that they miss being part of a team. In many ways I’ve learned more in the past three years working at FirstRain than I have in my entire career. I feel my work contributes to each win that we have as a team.

Note from Penny - I promise I didn't ask Michael to write this - I think he's having fun!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Team building at the Rock and Roll Half Marathon

Regular readers of this blog may remember that the FirstRain team likes to take on physical challenges together - like last year's AquaBike. Well this year (yesterday) ten of us completed the San Jose Rock And Roll Half Marathon and I am very proud of them all for taking it on and every one of them for completing the course.

It was a perfect day for it. The FirstRain team and 15,000 people lined up at 8am in downtown San Jose to try to conquer the distance each in our own way. Hats of to our controller Eugene who ran the race in 1 hour and 42 mins - we were still walking in the first half when we saw him running the last stretch and cheered him on from across the road. Also hats off to Ana, David and Dennis who did their best distances and times - very impressive.

A few of us walked it, some in more pain than others, and YY comically awarded me the "Stubborness" award for doggedly finishing with the slowest time of the team. After the race we retreated to BJs for much needed food, water and alcohol (purely for medicial purposes of course).

Next FirstRain race is a 7km in Delhi on November 1 - the Great Delhi Run. David is planning to be in Delhi that week anyway so he's challenged a team from our Gurgaon office to run it with him. We'll see how many sign up for it!

Now we have to decide what race we'll chose for 2010 in California. Frankly I found the half ironman aquabike last year was easier to finish than the half marathon this year so I'll be lobbying for something in the water next time.

The crowd at the start of the race

Me leaning against the post for relief at the 9th mile marker

Rehydrating and refueling at BJs after the race

Friday, October 2, 2009

I Am A Technical Woman - Anita Borg Institute

I am at the Grace Hopper Conference today in Tucson Arizona - here as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology. Check out the video the team made last night (and which is at the top of Digg this morning) - it will make you smile and give you sense of the power of this group of young women.

The conference is a spectacular success - 1600 attendees - 99% technical women and 50% students. The energy and enthusiasm for technology is contagious and exciting to see.

The Institute is all about women AND technology: helping women come into and stay into technology - particularly computer science today although we are expanding - and helping the influence of women on technology. We've gone from barely surviving 6 years ago when Anita died to now being a thriving organization with a budget of over $3M and an annual conference that is a sellout even in a recession year - and I fully expect that we will continue to grow from here.

Today we are very strong in the IT sector - the majority of our sponsors like Google, HP, IBM, Sun, Cisco, Microsoft, NetApp (to name just a few) to our newer sponsors like SAP and Symantec - are in the IT business but we have strong interest from the financial services sector and the government and defense sectors. I bet today we are going to be talking about how we staff up and bring up some sectors specific programs to bring the leaders in financial services into the Institute. I had the pleasure of meeting with senior women from companies like Goldman Sachs and BP last night and no matter how diverse their businesses are they need and use technology and want diversity in the workforce - and we can help!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The MacBook Air is a terrific product

I had posted on September 15 that my PC had died and I was considering whether to go Mac for work - well I did!

The key app for me to be able to do this is VMWare Fusion which allows me to run Outlook on my Mac (it runs a PC emulation window). This is essential because I have a complete archive of FirstRain emails in my local inbox (all filed by topic) and I could not afford to not carry these forward. Hence any laptop decision was constrained by my ability to continue to run Outlook.

To my IT team's credit - when I walked into the office with a long face about my dead PC and a yearning for an Air they dug in and figured out how to make it work for me. So now I have an Air on my lap (sitting at San Jose airport waiting for a flight) and I can live in a Mac world for everything except email. It's so very, very much better than a PC. It's a modern OS, with modern apps, and now a seamless interface into my home computer world which is MacBooks and Drobos for all our media (we have all our music and DVDs ripped and stored digitally on Drobos which are home RAID drives so all four of us can access all our media whenever we want - and we can watch any movie we own on the AppleTV under our TV).

I am a very happy user - and very grateful to my flexible IT team. Only problem now is we have to hope Apple brings the price down over time so we can afford to have more Air's in the company.

How to write a performance review

We are in the final stages of our annual performance review process here at FirstRain and it's a great time to visit what really matters when writing a performance review.

My first principle is that everyone deserves a performance review - it's a benefit and a right. I believe we owe it to every employee to listen to how they see their own performance, listen to their ambitions and what they want to learn next, and share our observations, advice and encouragement at least once a year. In reality it is something I like to do on an ongoing basis but at least having a formal review process ensures the conversation happens at least once a year.

So to the content of the review. We use SuccessFactors which (while not perfect!) structures an easy to use process to move the performance review documentation through the process.

The structure of our reviews is
section 1: assessment of the employee against our 5 core values
section 2: assessment of the employee against specific job skills (only 1 or 2 per job)
section 3: summary and overview assessment

It is the managers responsibility to communicate to the employee that the review time is here and what the steps are going to be so the process is clear.

First the employee writes their self assessment. How do they rate themselves against the values and job skills (on a scale of 1 to 5 and a brief description for each category)? What's going well and what isn't. Where would they like to improve, what help do they want from their manager or the company.

Next the manager talks with the employees peers and senior management. What is their observation of what's going well? What behaviors should be praised and reinforced? Where are there opportunities for improvement. This is a 360 process of getting input around the individual to be able to give them useful and grounded advice.

The manager then writes up their assessment. Rating each category and writing up what is great about the employees performance, what could be improved, and advice. I find myself writing the phrase "I encourage you to..." many times. I manage senior people - there is very little I would ever "tell" someone to do because how they perform is their choice. I try to encourage and advise but it's up to them what they do with that advice.

The step of the conversation about the employees performance is the most important step. This is where absolute honesty and integrity makes all the difference to whether the review is a positive or negative - useful or destructive experience. I believe it is very important to be straightforward, kind, use humor and above all else be direct but non judgmental. If you are direct you have a much higher chance of being heard and understood, rather than the employee shutting you out. This is a process that really should be going on continuously. I feel I have failed if there is a major surprise in the conversation - although this does sometimes happen.

Finally the employee has a final step of being able to edit their review, or comment on your comments, so the complete conversation is documented. And then you both sign.

I had 10 reviews to write this year. In each one I was able to give positive feedback on the many things that are going well and the great progress and growth we have made this year. And in each case I thought carefully about the one or two areas of advice I would give to help each person grow in the coming year. It's the least I can do for a team that is working as hard and being as creative as my team is being.

How trust impacts you when you're overloaded

I've written before about how I believe trust is very efficient when running a company and yesterday I had a classic example of it.

Yesterday I was trying to decide whether to go to the funeral of a close family member in England next week. The decision was non trivial because I am very over committed right now with work, boards and family and taking 3 days to go to the funeral seemed out of reach. I sit next to YY and Ana at work and spoke with them both about my decision right after speaking with my father about the family's plans and whether I could be there or not (and listening to the subtle, subliminal messages only parents know how to send).

YY made it all very straightforward for me. She reassured me that FirstRain business could wait, the team would cover, and more importantly pointed out that 5 years from now all the things I am worried about for next week would not matter, but that whether I was at the funeral or not would matter. That I would not regret going and I could well regret not going.

As CEO I strive to always put the company first - it's a labor of love (as one of our investors thanked me for this week) and I never want to make a decision that could reduce the chances of FirstRain thriving. But being able to trust my team and trust their advice makes it all so much more manageable and time efficient.

I have unfortunately worked with too many turkey executives who I did not trust in recent years (pre FirstRain). The difference at FirstRain is like night and day.

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