"You're a leader of servants, not a servant leader" and other warning signs

Yesterday I was surprised by this post from the Wall Street Journal: Five Signs You're a Bad Boss. Surprised because most of the signs listed were so obviously bad only the worst bosses could be oblivious to them. I quote:

1. Most of your emails are one-word long
2. You Rarely Talk to Your Employees Face-to-Face
3. Your employees are out sick–a lot.
4. Your team's working overtime, but still missing deadlines.
5. You yell.

Yelling? That's all they can come up with?  Or am so out of touch with how most bosses perform?

Of all the signs listed above I think #3 is the most interesting: given a large enough team size, this is an external metric HR could track as an indicator that something's wrong... Though of course there are many more reasons for people to take sick days than having a bad boss.

Reason #4, working overtime and missing deadlines, is clearly bad but in my experience many companies (certainly in high tech) don't track their employees' hours and so may not detect long periods of overtime. Moreover an organization that tolerates long periods of overtime and missed deadlines is itself guilty of poor performance, nevermind the boss.

It's always easy to criticize so here's my attempt at creating a more useful set of signs. These aren't all encompassing, there's a lot that could be added: fostering innovation, continuous improvement, recognition...

Think of these as a leadership Minimally Viable Product.

1. You communicate by "telling" not by "sharing", and infrequently at that
Telling is top down and usually focused on "we need to do X". Sharing is egalitarian. It's "here's why we're doing this" and "here's what's going on outside our group". By explaining or emphasizing the purpose of the team's projects, your employees will be bought in and better equipped to make decisions about priorities and tasks.

Recommendations: Communicate often and use multiple forms of communication, especially with large and/or dispersed teams.  At RelayHealth we used email, daily standups, experimented with Yammer, and had weekly / bi-weekly / monthly all hands meetings (as the size of the team grew I made those meetings left frequent to make space for managers to gather their teams together). Focus on context and purpose, not just nuts and bolts.


2. You don't know your employees
Do you know every person on your team by name? Do you know them as a person instead of someone who's on project X? Are you aware when something of importance happens in their private lives (e.g. birth of a child, passing of a relative)? If your team is large enough that you can't know everyone, are you making sure your managers are getting to know their employees?

Recommendations: Even if you don't interview all new members, welcome them to your group personally. Their manager will explain their duties but sometimes you're best placed to give them the wider context of the organization and the purpose of the group's projects. 

At RelayHealth, I took every new employee out to lunch after they'd been on the team a couple months: it gave me another touch point after welcoming them to the team, I could make sure they were doing OK, and it was an opportunity to find out if there were any improvements they thought we could make to our tools, processes, habits, etc. I learn a lot from doing this and often discussed the feedback I'd received with my managers.


3. Your employees aren't taking on new responsibilities
Are your employees growing? When was the last time you promoted someone? Or even had an employee take on a new or expanded role within your group? They should be, and you need to help them. 

Recommendations: Identify your top performers, ensure they have mentors, help them grow. At least once a year you and your managers should review all employees in your group and focus on how they are performing in the current role, what their career aspirations are, what opportunities you see, and how the management team can facilitate that growth. At RelayHealth, this meeting took us the better part of a day but it was time very well spent.


4. You're not mentoring one of your employees to replace you
This will likely be the most controvertial recommendation but I believe one of the best things you can do for your organization and your employees is mentor one or more of them to replace you. If you're worried about job security: it's too late! Extrinsic job security is an illusion. Intrinsic job security comes from performing to your fullest potential. Helping to grow the next generation of leaders is one of the most rewarding things you can do.


5. You don't give your employees realtime performance feedback. And, more importantly, you don't expect the same from them
The best time to catch and correct a performance problem is when it happens. If you've cultivated an open and honestly environment this feedback shouldn't be contentious, it should be a gift. You're helping someone improve, or someone's helping you!

Recommendation: Be mindful how you communicate. Don't blame. State the behavior you witnessed as objectively as possible and then explain how it made you feel personally or how you feel it impacted the group. Discuss alternative options. And when someone gives you constructive feedback? Thank them profusely, esp. if they report up to you. Giving feedback to your boss or your boss' boss takes courage. 


6. You tolerate poor performers and poor cultural fits
You can't afford to tolerate either for long or they'll impact the wider organization. Poor performers waste your team's time. Poor fits can destroy morale and productivity.

Recommendations: Periodically ask yourself "Would I hire this team member again in their current role? Would I hire them in a different one?" If it's a skill set issue then help the person learn. A cultural misfit shouldn't be tolerated long. In either case, realtime feedback is important to give the person a chance to change. I've long admired what Zappos does here: if, within a month of joining, you don't think you'll be happy there, Zappos will pay you $2,000 to leave. A very smart way to incent poor fits to manage themselves out of an organization.


7.You're a leader of servants, not a servant leader
If you're managing knowledge workers, they'll likely know more than you do in at least some areas, and often in many areas. Not giving your employees the autonomy to own their work is one of the worst ways to waste human capital.

Recommendations: In my experience a manager rarely has all the answers. A good leader focuses on asking the right questions. Helping your employees think through a problem, avoid pitfalls, and learn from the experience is a lot better than giving an answer (which may not be that great anyway!)



In the end here's what matters: Celebrate your employees!
Celebrate them by doing what you can to make them shine. The more your employees thrive, the more you're doing a good job. 

And when they outshine you? You'll know you've succeeded!

(Thanks to Mike Myers for letting me mod one of his pics)

The Day We Didn't Start eBay

Today has been a day of walking down memory lane. I've been looking through projects I worked on 15 years ago as I was studying in Europe and the US.

One in particular caught my eye. At the time I was studying for an MBA at the Solvay Business School in Brussels. It was a fun time: lots to learn, students from all over the world, and for the geeks among us, the dawn of the web.

Here's the startup a group of us researched for our New Ventures class. I've only reproduced the proposal below, we did a lot more analysis. We even interviewed Christies and other brokers...

March 1, 1995.

New Ventures

To: Professor Spindler

From: Michael ...
Won ...
Bart ...
Paul Clip

Re: New Ventures Proposal

The creation of a on-line collectibles brokerage. Collectibles (stamps, telecards, basecards, currency, etc.) are a worldwide phenomenon attracting vast crowds of collectors and money. Our company will setup an Internet World Wide Web server enabling customers anywhere anytime to buy, sell and exchange collectibles.

Could we have founded eBay before eBay? Unlikely... In early 1995 the web was in its infancy and the situation was much worse in Belgium, as high telco costs kept users from spending much time online (those few who actually knew what being "online" meant). We were also students with limited means and much to do before graduation.

Setting all that aside I think our biggest drawback was that we just didn't believe it would work, or at least I didn't. Would users really want to buy and sell from anonymous people online? Was the market really that big? Starting a company in Belgium takes effort (or used to, things may be different now) was it worth it?

Here's how eBay started, quoting Wikipedia:

The online auction website was founded as AuctionWeb in San Jose, California, on September 3, 1995, by French-born Iranian computer programmer Pierre Omidyar as part of a larger personal site [...]
One of the first items sold on eBay was a broken laser pointer for $14.83. Astonished, Omidyar contacted the winning bidder to ask if he understood that the laser pointer was broken. In his responding email, the buyer explained: "I'm a collector of broken laser pointers." 
The frequently repeated story that eBay was founded to help Omidyar's fiancée trade Pez candy dispensers was fabricated by a public relations manager in 1997 to interest the media.

This I think is the key lesson: Pierre Omidyar had an idea and tried it. Yes, he was lucky: he tapped a motherlode of pent-up demand. Yes, he had first mover advantage (as far as I can remember). But the fact is that he acted on his idea. He gave it a shot, learned from it, and turned it into a business.

And that's truer today than ever before. The barriers to entry on the web are very very low. It's easier than ever to find people to work with. There are many ways to reach people. And there are tons of us online.

So are you going to keep coming up with ideas? Or are you going to take one and make it happen?

(Picture credits)

Making the most of OS X Spaces

I read with particular interest a blog post proposing a navigational re-design for Apple's Spaces, the OS X feature that implements multiple screens user can switch between. What sparked my interest is that I'd just diagrammed how I layout my Spaces this weekend, thinking I'd blog this someday. Like today.

I configure my Macbook Pro with 9 Spaces, arranged in a 3 x 3 configuration. The center space (#5) is my dedicated "Home" space: the one I always come back to. The blue spaces are for key activities. The rest for auxilliary ones.

In practice the center space is where I do email (Gmail), catch up with Twitter, take notes, and surf the web. Right now, I find I don't need four blue "dedicated activity" spaces and only use three, The remaining "sand spaces" usually have the programs listed but will change as needs dictate. For instance if I'm doing a lot of Rails development (#4) then I may use the spaces above and below (#1 & 7) to display documentation or work with files on the server with Cyberduck.

Advantages of this layout:
  • Using the center space as "Home" makes it easier to return to it, my fingers can find their way without me thinking about it
  • The four spaces above, below, left and right of center are very quickly accessed, and there are two spaces either side of them if I need more room to work
  • I don't use MacFreedom (even when I'm focused I still need the net) but I'm a firm believer in eliminating distractions. Keeping email and Twitter on the center space achieves this just fine 
  • I do use Optimal Layout as my task switcher (love it!). It sorts my windows / apps according to the screen I'm on: very handy

One detail I've left out: I often use my MBP with an external 24" monitor, effectively doubling my total real estate to 18 screens. Here's an example of this looked like over the weekend. (Oh, and 8GB RAM helps to run all those programs smoothly :-)

Other tips? Let me know!

Why Developed Countries Don't Experience Food Riots

I was listening to NPR on the iPad this morning (nice app, but so unstable). The subject was rising food prices (30+% increase over the last few years) impacting poorer countries, like those in northern Africa, and that this was one of the main causes of the riots in Tunisia and Egypt: when people go hungry for too long, revolution happens.

Still, if food prices are rising why haven't we seen price increases here in the US? After a bit of digging, I found this explanation. It turns out that in the US (and I expect developed countries in general) the actual cost of the food we eat is a fraction of what we actually pay for (the bolding is mine):

Production and marketing costs determine the minimum price of food in the retail marketplace. Production costs are typically called the "farm value" of food, and they comprise about 20 percent of the final food cost. This percentage varies by type of food, depending on how highly processed or perishable the food is. The farm value for meats and dairy products is around 28 percent, for poultry around 41 percent, for cereals around 5 percent, for fresh fruits 16 percent, and for fresh vegetables 19 percent. As consumers demand more highly processed foods, fresh foods from distant places, and foods ready to eat, the farm value falls as a percentage of the retail price.

So when you buy a $4 box of cereals at the grocery store, the raw ingredients only cost about $0.20. In a country like a Egypt where 20% of the population subsists on $2/day or less (some articles I've seen put this at 40%), people spend a substantial portion of their income on food. A 30% percent increase is going to hurt. A lot.

In the US most citizens probably wouldn't notice a 30% increase for two reasons. One is that we're (on average) over 20 times more affluent than our Egyptian counterparts, so we spend a much smaller portion of our income on food, and we can tolerate an increase.

(Hard not to notice how 30 years of dictatorship have flatlined Egypt's GDP per capita...)

The second reason we don't notice is that a 30% hike would push the farm value of that $4 box of cereals to $0.26, which is usually absorbed by the rest of the value chain without being passed on to consumers. So what are we paying for then?

Raw commodities (farm value), labor, and packaging comprise 67 percent of the cost of food. The rest of the costs are in transportation, advertising, rent, profits, energy, business taxes, depreciation, interest payments, miscellaneous costs, and repairs. These last types of costs have increased at about the rate of inflation and have not changed their share of the food dollar much over time. 

No wonder more and more people (ourselves included) are buying local.

Note: Yes, I know there are many other reasons developed countries don't have food riot (e.g. democracy & the ability vote bad leaders out of office). What struck me most is how most of the money we, in the developed world, pay for food doesn't even go towards the food itself.

Delivering Great Service? The Journey counts as much as the Destination

A few years ago some colleagues and I were dining at a Parisian restaurant. It had been a long day and we'd picked an establishment close to our hotel. I ordered a seafood dish. The waitress was perfunctory: just doing her job. After a few mouthfuls of gritty crunching between my teeth, it was clear that the food hadn't been properly cleaned.

I called the waitress and mentioned there was sand in my food. Used to living in the US I expected her to apologize, swiftly whisk my plate away, and offer me something else (on the house maybe?). Possibly the chef would come over to proffer his excuses. Did any of this happen? No. Instead the waitress explained in a sarcastic tone: "It comes from ze sea Monsieur, of course it will 'ave sand!" Then she walked away.

This attitude, though extreme in this example, is more prevalent in Europe than the States, esp. in Northern Europe. People in service industries focus on the destination, i.e. the ultimate transaction, such as curbing your hunger, at the expense of the journey. Who cares if there's sand if your food? At least you're no longer hungry, right?

Focusing on the transaction is fine if the service is low value. Fast food joints focus on a cheap, repeatable, consistent experience. Margins are thin enough that there's little room for personalized service, though even here courtesy and a smile can go a long way. As the price of the service rises, how the transaction is delivered, the "journey", is as important as its delivery, the "destination".

This applies online just as much as offline: your site may sell goods cheaper than the competition but if that's not enough if you care about your customers' lifetime value. And if you don't focus on repeat business, you'll be putting yourself at the mercy of search engines and spending more and more on advertising. In fact, unless you're selling commodity items being cheapest probably isn't even the most important criteria.

Ultimately you need your customers to reach the destination, i.e. purchase something. To achieve this you should focus on their journey: understand why people buy from you, what their needs are, how you can differentiate your service, how you can make their shopping experience more enjoyable, informative, and relevant (reviews, videos, testimonials, leveraging the social web, etc.), and deliver great customer support. 

If you can consistently delight your users with a fantastic experience, as well as a good product, your customers will happily reach your destinations over and over and over.

(Picture by James Jordan)

Locking down Apple's new Find my iPhone / iPad

Kudos to Apple for making this service free, it's well worth enabling.
However to make sure you're properly protected there are a few changes
you should make in Settings.

Enable Passcode Lock and, optional but recommended, Auto-Lock.

Next enable restrictions and disable deletion of apps and accounts.
This will prevent thieves from nuking your MobileMe account or your
Find my iPhone / iPad app.

Yes! Facebook finally implements Hugs!

Well, no, they didn't. Or rather, they haven't... yet.

Most friends' status updates on Facebook are full of good news, fun stuff, and happy events.

Sadly, not this week:
  • One dear relative is in pain
  • A former colleague & his wife just lost their baby at 23 weeks
  • A friend of my wife's family, and father of two young kids, was tragically killed in a car crash
These aren't friends with statuses you can "Like". These are friends in need of a hug. But Facebook doesn't have a "Hug" button :-(

An obvious alternative is to leave a note for friends, expressing sympathy. However when many people have already replied I often find myself reluctant to do so to avoid triggering an email to a dozen people I may not know. 

And sometimes it's not easy to find the right words. Often, in these situations actions do speak louder than words, even virtual ones.

So Facebook, please add a Hug button to status updates. A hug is pretty much a universal act of friendship, solidarity, and sympathy. It would be easy to implement and understand. In the few countries where a hug might be culturally inappropriate, it could be replaced with its equivalent.

Personally, I'd love a simple way to say "I feel for you".

(Any resemblance to the real Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg is entirely fortuitous :-)

Favorite Poem on Parenting: "If I had my child to raise all over again"

I like to read this one regularly. So well said... And sometimes so hard to do.

If I Had My Child to Raise Over Again
by Diane Loomans

If I had my child to raise all over again,
I'd build self esteem first, and the house later.
I'd fingerpaint more, and point the finger less.
I would do less correcting and more connecting.
I'd take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.
I would care to know less and know to care more.
I'd take more hikes and fly more kites.
I'd stop playing serious, and seriously play.
I would run through more fields and gaze at more stars.
I'd do more hugging and less tugging.
I'd see the oak tree in the acorn more often.
I would be firm less often, and affirm much more.
I'd model less about the love of power,
And more about the power of love.

Paragliding in the Swiss Alps

Katrine and I took turns at tandem flights (i.e. with an instructor) today. Gliding over the Alps was magnificent. My first experience with paragliding, I was surprised by how comfortable it was, and how "in the air" you feel. You can easily forget there's a chute above you, esp. when you're not the one piloting. What a difference with the Cessna I usually fly (of course, I do like my engine :-)

Definitely something I could do more of!