Author Archives: Ben Casnocha

Your Company is Not a Family

Reid, Chris, and I wrote a post on HBR.org about the myth of company as family, and explained why in The Alliance we liken companies to pro sports teams. Here’s how it starts:

When CEOs describe their company as being “like family,” we think they mean well. They’re searching for a model that represents the kind of relationships they want to have with their employees—a lifetime relationship with a sense of belonging. But using the term family makes it easy for misunderstandings to arise.

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: “We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.”

Unthinkable, right? But that’s essentially what happens when a CEO describes the company as a family, then institutes layoffs. Regardless of what the law says about at-will employment, those employees will feel hurt and betrayed—with real justification.

Read the rest at HBR.org.

How Do You Get Employees to Open Up?

One key concept in The Alliance is “mission alignment”: managers and employees ought to  define a mission objective that aligns the employee career goals and values with the company’s. A far cry from the “company man” era, where a notion of an employee’s individuality and autonomy was nonexistent.

In an interview with Chris and me at Inc.com, we explore some of the practical things managers can do to create the space for honest conversation about what your employees really care about. Here are are two excerpts:

2. Forget the notion that you and your employees must have 100% long-term alignment. ”The key,” says Casnocha, “is to have sufficient alignment to get this particular tour of duty to work out.”

The phrase “tour of duty” is a term the authors borrow from the military and use throughoutThe Alliance. “The metaphor conveys the key concept that both military and business tours of duty have in common,” they write. “Focus on accomplishing a specific, finite mission.”

What might that mission be? For employees, it could be developing skills or gaining connections that help them transition to a different industry or job type. As a leader, it’s in your power to help your employees with their missions. Think about how much more motivated your employees would be, if they knew you actually wanted to help them make a career transition–even though the transition would mean that they’ll be leaving your company one day.

4. Depersonalize the key questions. Yeh suggests approaching your employees by saying something like this: “It’s my job to help you overcome bottlenecks and all the things that are in your way. What things are preventing you from accomplshing your mission, and how can I solve them?”

Phrasing the question this way enables you to emphasize the mission, rather than the employee himself. It allows the employee to describe what’s wrong with his job, without feeling like he’s critiquing his own performance or ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

Casnocha says he learned a great conversational tactic from Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. The idea is another form of depersonalizing questions: Ask an employee what “most people” think of a certain situation. Usually, the employee will tell you what most people think. But in doing so, she will also provide a glimpse of her own personal feelings. Specifically, Casnocha suggests these conversational cues:

  • How is everyone feeling about what’s going on in the office?
  • What do you think people are frustrated about here at work?

These questions allow you, as a leader, to follow up on whatever topics arise. But you can do so delicately, without pouncing on the employee who–even in sharing what “most people” think–has just displayed a great deal of vulnerability.

Impressions of Italy, 2014 Edition

IMG_2170

(Beginning a long bike ride at the top of the Basilica of St. Frances in Assisi.)

I was in Italy last week for a wedding. It was my third time to the country. What more can one say about Tuscany? It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the world. A few general impressions:

  • Food. I’m trying to minimize bad carb intake. This makes Italy challenging. I ate more pizza in a week than I have in a long time. Italian pizza has few toppings on it — bread, bread, bread — but on the plus side, it is cheap. For one dinner we ordered 23 different pizzas and it cost less than 200 euros. The pasta and mozzarella was delicious, per usual.
  • Driving. For the first time, I drove a bunch on Italian highways, from Rome airport through Umbria and eventually to Florence airport. Italian drivers are, as the stereotypes suggest, quite aggressive. The tailgating is insane. One of the funnier things we noticed while driving was that there were frequently signs on the road that showed the name of the city you were leaving – crossed out.
    • The 20/euro/day fee for a GPS device from Hertz in the car was well worth it, given that I didn’t want to turn on data on my U.S. phone.
  • Electric bikes. I biked 6.5 hours from Assisi to Bavagna in central Italy. It was an amazing ride; it was mostly on custom built bike paths that were well marked. Highly recommend biking in the area. A special novelty for me: electric bikes! Felt and rode like a regular (albeit slightly heavy) bike. Pull a button as you pedal and the back wheel accelerates. This made treacherous hills accessible, and allowed us to cover more terrain in less time.
  • “Free” healthcare. An old, rusty fence slashed my leg on a hike and I went to the hospital in Siena to get a tetanus booster. The emergency room experience was a delight. Best of all, it was totally free! I signed a short form, they took my passport number, I got the shot, and left. Thanks, Italian taxpayers.
  • Side of the road prostitutes. Prostitutes advertised their services in the most random of back roads. Given that the trade is illegal in Italy, I suppose they’re optimizing for roads that see traffic but are not frequently visited by the police.

Bottom Line: Tuscany is Tuscany: one of the most beautiful, pleasant places in the world. And as is the case for a lot of Europe, when I’m there, I feel like I’m living in a museum.

Network Literacy in the Networked Age

Reid recently published an essay on LinkedIn about network literacy, which develops and expands upon the idea which we first articulated in The Start-Up of You. Essay included below. – BC

It’s said that when architects walk through an office, they see ceiling ornamentation, light sources, building acoustics. When psychologists walk through an office, they see unresolved father issues and avoidant personality disorders. When I walk through an office, I see networks. I know that makes me sound like the kid from The Sixth Sense. But I don’t see dead people. I see networks.

When you truly see networks, it changes the way you plan and strategize. You move differently.

Take job hunting. The Networked Age has radically changed this activity, and yet when you ask people how they look for a job, a surprising number continue to say they “search the job listings.” That’s the Information Age approach! In the Networked Age, you should look for people with connections to companies you’re interested in, trace the best path from those connections to people who can share useful intelligence, and then ask for introductions to those people.

Or consider investing. In my work at Greylock Partners, I don’t form an investment theory and then go search for a startup that fits this theory. Nor do I purchase ad space in the Yellow Pages and hope that talented entrepreneurs let their fingers do the walking until they find me. Again, those are Information Age approaches.

The Networked Age approach? I focus on being a great ally to my network, and developing strong relationships where the information flow is highly reciprocal. I put myself at as many key intersections in my networks as I can. As a result, my network inevitably ends up connecting me with great entrepreneurs and great investments.

A decade ago, John Battelle stressed the importance of “search literacy.” What he meant was that people who were skilled at using Google to find information had an edge over those who had yet to acquire this aptitude. In the Information Age, if you couldn’t make sense of an increasingly information-rich world through effective search capabilities, you’d be culturally marginalized, just like a person who couldn’t read street signs.

Now, those who can conceptualize and understand networks – both online and off – have an edge in today’s fast-paced and hyper-competitive landscape, where the speed with which we can make informed decisions is critical. To wit, the subtitle of my forthcoming book is “Managing Talent in the Networked Age” — I think the networked age changes everything.

I like to use the word “literacy” in this context because it suggests a fundamental skill, a capability you must possess in order to effectively navigate the world. An illiterate person, a person who can’t read street signs or complete job applications, has limited opportunities compared to others who possess these skills. A literate person moves freely and capably through the world.

So how do you know when you’re network-literate? I think in terms of three levels that signify ascending competency:

Apprentice: Using network technology

Journeyman: Establishing a network identity

Master: Utilizing network intelligence

Apprentice: Using network technology

At this most basic level of network literacy, you’re part of some networks. You have a Facebook profile, a LinkedIn profile, etc. You’re using these networks to keep in touch with people you know, and on occasion, you may even use them to facilitate new connections.

While you may not be completely fluent yet, you understand that Facebook is more than just a place to announce what you had for lunch – it’s a place to strengthen personal relationships. Similarly, you know that LinkedIn is more than just a repository for your digital resume. You use phrases and keywords with deliberate intention, to maximize your discoverability by the kinds of people you want to be found by.

In the case of my own LinkedIn profile, for example, my headline isn’t “Executive Chairman of LinkedIn.” It’s “Entrepreneur. Product Strategist. Investor.” That’s because my LinkedIn profile is targeted primarily to entrepreneurs who might want financing from me.

(You’d be surprised at how many people simply use their current job title as the headline of their LinkedIn profile. This isn’t wrong per se. But ultimately the headline on your LinkedIn headline is the first thing many people will see about you in a professional context – so it’s an excellent place to choicefully craft your network identity. And your network identity is larger – or at least it should be larger — than your current position and company affiliation.)

Another way to make yourself more findable by the kinds of people you want to be found by are to join the same LinkedIn groups that they’re participating in, or to follow relevant companies and individuals within the domain of your industry. Once you start thinking in terms of how the people you want to be found by might in fact find you – and tailoring your profile to maximize such potential discoveries – you have begun to think in a network-literate way.

 

Journeyman: Establishing a network identity

Once upon a time, we exercised unchecked authority over our identities, verbally air-brushing our resumes into highly idealized portraits of ourselves, carefully vetting the references we chose to vouch for us. In the Networked Age, however, we’re all visibly and enduringly enmeshed in networks – even the so-called “self-made man” is a highly annotated specimen, with readily apparent links to the colleagues, mentors, institutions, and other entities that have helped shape the contours of his identity.

Indeed, we’re all the sum of an ongoing conversation that we initiate and propel, but which colleagues, customers, and even competitors contribute to as well. And while we once relied upon the broad strokes of resumes to define us, now we’re often judged by far more granular, network-derived metrics of influence and authority: Who retweets our tweets? Who comments on our Medium posts? Who shows up on LinkedIn as a 1 degree connection?

In the Networked Age, your professional identity expands well beyond your job title and the company you work for. You’re not just “you” anymore. You’re also who you know, how they know you, what they know about you, who they know, and so on. At the Journeyman level, this way of thinking is becoming second nature to you. You understand that your identity is multivariate, distributed, and partially out of your control – your network helps shape your identity too.

Increasing your network literacy also means understanding other people’s network identities. Tell me the name of a person, and I’ll think of the network around them. I always see a person as part of a larger web of relationships. When I met Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s current CEO, I’d already had conversations with many of my own trusted colleagues about him. I had relationships with people that he had relationships with, and these strong points of network connectivity gave me a clear signal about Jeff and the kinds of people he trusted and valued most. I had a network portrait of him. And based on that portrait, I knew I wanted to build a strong relationship with him.

 

Master: Utilizing network intelligence

Spend five minutes watching your LinkedIn feed or Twitter timeline, and it’s clear that information proliferates even faster in the Networked Age than it did in the Information Age. Consequently, the ability to extract the right information at the right time is more crucial than ever. Search literacy is an important starting point, but in today’s high-velocity world, network literacy is increasingly crucial too.

In the Information Age, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and eventually Google were typically people’s “first reads,” i.e., their default sources of new information and intelligence. Now, if you’re fully network-literate, your networks are your first reads – because you’ve consciously built up pipelines of people who reliably deliver information that is highly significant and relevant to you.

There is a whole “dark net” of critical-edge information that hasn’t made it into newspapers and blogs, information that exists only in people’s heads. In the past, such information was difficult to access for all but the best-connected and most persistent individuals. Now, it’s often just a few keystrokes away.

And if you’re fully network literate, you’ve taken the time to understand the information flows within any given network. You know who the news breakers are. You know the thought leaders, the critics, and skeptics within a particular domain. You’re familiar with their preferred sources and biases.

While platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter certainly qualify as information Costcos, one-stop shopping for data en masse, the quality of your connections – and the strength of the relationships you have with them — generally matters more than the quantity. Ten extremely informed individuals who are happy to share what they know with you when you engage them can tell you a lot more than a thousand people you only know in the most superficial way.

But remember, using networks well is always a two-way street. People who exhibit the highest levels of network literacy know that the more relevant, high-quality information you share with others, the more such information you’re likely to receive. To be truly network literate is to always be thinking of how you can add value to the networks you’re a part of, and to make it a priority to turn connections into relationships, and relationships into alliances.

What Do You See When You Enter a Room?

These days, it’s not just Internet entrepreneurs who should see networks everywhere they look. When architects walk into a room, they should see networks. When psychologists walk into a room, they should see networks. In the Networked Age, we’re all like the little kid from The Sixth Sense. If you’re not seeing networks when you enter a room, you might want to check your pulse.

He Was Himself. And He Knew What He Had Been.

61UbQXxc-iLThe other weekend, I was eating cottage cheese wrapped in toasted tortillas (my go-to snack), and casually flipping through the New York Times magazine. I came upon an article that took me in by surprise. Afterwards I contemplatively stared into space and had one of those “What does it all mean?” moments. Maybe I was in a dark mood when I read it.

In any event, it’s a short and simple piece. The writer, Steve Almond, extolls his favorite book ever: Stoner by John Williams.

I bought the book, of course, but in the meantime, Almond’s summary is as follows.

First, take your inner life seriously: “Stoner argues that we are measured ultimately by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the burnishing of our public selves.”

Second, you’re probably a rather ordinary and flawed human being — just like the protagonist William Stoner:

William Stoner is, in many ways, a dubious leading man, introverted and passive. He fails even to protect his daughter from the deranged whims of his troubled wife. The story of his life is not a neat crescendo of industry and triumph, but something more akin to our own lives: a muddle of desires and inhibitions and compromises.

And if you think you’re really special, get real:

Put your wit — or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks — on public display.

Otherwise, you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.

But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end? Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives?

Stoner’s creator seems to argue that self-knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, especially when the actuality of our lives isn’t anything special (as is the case for 99.9% of us):

Soon enough, fate confounds him. His marriage devolves into a domestic horror. His daughter falls into despair. A senseless feud undermines his career. He suffers no delusions about his place in the world. He recognizes that others find him absurd and that his intellectual contributions to his arcane field are at best minor. Over and over again, Stoner is forced to confront his own weakness, his limitations as a son and father and husband and scholar. And yet he refuses to turn away.

As Stoner lies dying, his creator observes: “There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

How many of us can say the same of ourselves?

He was himself. And he knew what he had been.

My New Book — The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age

I’m delighted to share the news that I’m co-author of a new book called The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, coming out on July 8th from Harvard Business Review Press.allinacecover

A year ago, we published an article in Harvard Business Review titled Tours of Duty, which attracted a decent amount of attention. The book builds on those themes, with significantly more nuance, especially around the concept of the tour of duty. We show how you can reclaim the loyalty and trust in the workplace that’s been lost over the past 50 years by designing an employer-employee relationship that emphasizes mutual trust, mutual benefit, mutual investment. With honest conversation about what each side wants out of the employment relationship, employees are able to do their best, most innovative work, and companies are able to retain them for a meaningful period of time.

In one sense, the new book is an evolution from The Start-Up of You, which Reid and I published about two years ago. That book was for individuals. We argued that individuals can and must think of themselves as entrepreneurs, deploying a full range of entrepreneurial skills in their career, even if they work at someone else’s company. The Alliance is for managers. All managers, to be sure, but especially those who are keen on recruiting, managing, and retaining the kinds of flexible, creative, adaptive employees who’ve been reading The Start-Up of You.

As with the HBR article, Reid and I teamed up with my longtime partner-in-crime Chris Yeh to co-author the book. It’s a ton of work to conceive, write, edit, publish, and market a book. Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the uncommon pleasure of being able to partner with two of my closest friends at once during this long journey.

I’ve already spoken about The Alliance to corporate audiences. Based on those experiences, the reaction to the article, and early feedback on the book, I believe The Alliance has the potential to be a big idea in talent management.

If you manage people — or want to better understand how your managers should be managing you — please pre-order The Alliance!

Marc Benioff Commencement Speech

Marc is an inspiring human being. His 20 minute commencement speech at USC this year nicely sums up his life story and how he became committed to his model of integrated philanthropy.

The College Premium

The everyone-should-attend-college camp often cites the “college premium” — people with college degrees make a lot more money in life than those who do not.

In his recent Econtalk interview, Bryan Caplan adds interesting nuance to this claim. The most important takeaways, in my own words:

  • An average college grad makes 83% more money in an average year than an average high school grad.
  • Folks with some college (who don’t graduate) make on average 10% more than high school grads.
  • Why is there such a premium? The usual story points to the value of the college education itself. Bryan sooner points to the kind of people who attend college.
  • There’s a big difference at the starting point of college. Those who sign up to go to college are, at the outset, going to have higher IQs and an accumulation of other initial advantages than those who choose not to sign up. It stands to reason that those inclined to sign up were going to succeed either way — it has less to do with what they actually learn in school.
  • The 5-year graduation rate for a 4-year college degree (i.e., giving someone five years to graduate) is roughly 55%. In other words, almost half of people who start college do not finish.
  • It’s pretty predictable who will drop out: those with weak academic ability in high school will probably not graduate. Caplan: “For students in the bottom quartile of academic ability [in high school], paying a year’s college tuition is almost as foolish as buying 10,000 lottery tickets.” I previously blogged about this phenomenon in my post Who Should and Should Not Be Going to College.

Bottom Line: The earnings premium college grads enjoy is complicated and may not have much to do with college per se. And fewer people should be attending college — especially those who struggle in high school.

Write About What You Know (So Don’t Write About Yourself)

“Write about what you know,” the creative-writing teachers advise, hoping to avoid twenty-five stories about robots in love on Mars. And what could you know better than the inside of your own head?

Almost anything. And almost anyone else is better positioned than you are to write about the foreign land between your ears. You are the person least qualified to be writing about changes in your own brain, since you need your brain to comprehend those changes. It’s like trying to fix a hammer by using the hammer you’re trying to fix.

That’s the always-interesting Michael Kinsley in the New Yorker, writing about Parkinson’s.

RIP Seth Roberts

seth-roberts-headshot-colorNews came today that Seth Roberts, the UC Berkeley professor of psychology, collapsed during a hike near his home. I met Seth through our respective blogs and shared a few meals with him in the Bay Area over the years.

I’ve blogged about him several times. Seth taught me about self-experimentation and science. He taught me about nutrition and fish oil. He taught me about innovation and creative thinking.  Most importantly, he taught me the value of appreciative thinking, which I once summarized thusly:

School teaches us to be proactively skeptical and critical. We’re taught to immediately look for the flaws in experiments or theories. An appreciative approach, by contrast, simply asks, “What’s redeeming about this experiment or idea? What’s done right?”

Some VCs are naturally appreciative, others naturally critical. After an entrepreneur pitch their first feedback will either be, “OK, here’s what I like about what you’re doing” versus “Here’s where I think the problems are.”

I am trying to take a more appreciative approach to people. When I meet someone new at a cocktail party, I am trying to ask myself more regularly, “What’s cool / impressive / interesting about this person?” as opposed to dwelling on their imperfections.

Like many who knew him or read his stuff, I’ll miss Seth. He was a one-of-a-kind thinker. And a deeply compassionate person.