Blurring the Professional and Personal Lines at Work

I recently had dinner with a CEO of a fast-growing startup. He told me that he wants his employees to have deep, emotional relationships with each other, which often means becoming great friends outside of work. He wants his employees going to each other’s weddings. He wants to blur the lines that normally separate “colleague” and “personal friend.”

This value manifests at his company in at least two ways. The first is simply the language he uses, saying things like, “I want you all to be great friends outside of work!” or “It’s awesome that Joe went to David’s wedding.” The second is by the team activities he schedules. For example, “Let’s grab beers at the bar after work” or “Let’s all do a hike on Sunday.”

I wrote recently about the values that distinctively shape a culture. They aren’t values you see on official company press releases like “integrity” or “excellence.” Rather, they’re ideas that have both pros and cons. For example, transparency up and down the org chart has upside and downside, so as a value and policy it uniquely shapes those companies that embrace it. Consensus-driven decision making is another example of a value that has upside and downside.

This particular example — promoting social activities that blur the lines at work so that there isn’t as as strong a distinction between “friends” and “colleagues” — is another solid example of a cultural value with both pros and cons.

The pros to blurring the social lines among your employees are fairly obvious:

  • Stronger trust among the team. When you hang out in non-work settings, you tend to get to know other side of someone and this greater familiarity likely leads to greater trust when back at the office.
  • Improved communication. More time together, more time communicating. More communication is always a good thing.
  • Better employee engagement and retention if employees feel like some of their best friends are at work. For someone who has great friends at work, it’s more than a job and it’s more than the company mission. It’s about the deep relationships he or she is forming. Presumably, this translates into superior engagement on the job and higher overall happiness.

The cons to blurring the lines are more subtle:

  • Sexism and tricky gender dynamics. It’s exceedingly hard for women and men to be close personal friends in general due to sexual tension. This is a fact of life: see this famous clip from When Harry Met Sally. So there’s necessarily awkwardness in a work culture that promotes employees chumming it up in personal settings. Popular after work activities like “let’s all grab beers at a bar” can create awkwardness for female employees if they’re in the distinct minority. Sadly, some male leaders, recognizing potential awkwardness of co-ed out-of-office socializing, make it easy for themselves: they invite only other guys to the bar to watch the game. This greases a two-tier culture: the men are buddy-buddy, hanging out after work and on the weekends, and the women, with no company-organized outings to facilitate off-hours bonding, don’t forge the same tight bonds. By the way, the CEO whose blur the lines philosophy inspired this post has roughly 50 employees, 85% of whom are men.
  • Many employees prefer boundaries. Some people don’t want to grab beers with colleagues after work. Some people don’t want to hike with co-workers on the weekend, especially folks with families. Sure, it’s not a big deal for people to decline the weekend hiking invitation, but just receiving those invitations and feeling pressure to go on them can provoke guilt and light weight irritation. A culture where everyone is expected to be friends outside of work might repel prospective high-talent employees who want more work/life separation. Given the kinds of people who work at startups, entrepreneurs tend to promote a line blurring culture in the early days, but this is harder to maintain as a company scales and needs to draw on a more diverse and older portion of the professional population.

Personally, I blur the lines between professional and personal in many of relationships, which is to say some of my best personal friends I met originally in a professional context or are people with whom I still work professionally. But making this instinct a part of a corporate culture raises different considerations.

Bottom Line: Within a company, there are obvious benefits and less-understood risks to suggesting employees become close personal friends outside of work an explicit part of the culture. Male CEOs in male-dominated companies should be especially aware of the downsides, as should startup CEOs who need to attract an increasingly diverse professional population as they grow.

Short Term Profit Taking vs. Long Term Value Creation

Reid recently penned a piece about Carl Icahn’s ambitions to split PayPal off from eBay, and the broader difference between the short-termism of Wall Street vs. the long-termism of Silicon Valley. The piece generated a lot of attention and it advances some some important ideas. Give it a read. My favorite line: “Innovation comes from long-term thinking and iterative execution.”

The Power of the Word “Yet”

Suppose your boss pulls you aside and tells you: “You don’t have the right skills for the project.”

Then suppose a different situation, where your boss tells you: “You don’t have the right skills for the project, yet” or “You don’t yet have the connections to make this deal happen.”

The word yet makes all the difference in the world. In the first example, you feel like a dud. In the examples with “yet,” you feel like you may not be ready now, but you could be in the future.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor who’s researched the idea of a “growth mindset,”elaborates:

By [using the word “yet”] we give people a time perspective. It creates the idea of learning over time. It puts the other person on that learning curve and says, “Well, maybe you’re not at the finish line but you’re on that learning curve and let’s go further.” It’s such a growth mindset word.

As Chris Yeh points out, when you’re mentoring or helping someone, you want to emphasize the idea of on-going improvement. He offers two more “yet” examples:

“You haven’t been able to find a replicable sales model…yet. But each program your startup tried has taught you something, and you’re refining your approach.”

“You haven’t been able to play that violin piece without mistakes…yet. But every time you practice, you’re getting a little better.”

Bottom Line: Next time you need to criticize or offer feedback to a colleague, add the word “yet” — and you’ll be encouraging a growth mindset.

###

A single word can carry an entire thought. In a previous LinkedIn post, I noted that basketball coach Gregg Popovich inspired his players to work hard with the phrase “I want some nasty.” The word “nasty” brings the idea to life.

(Originally posted on LinkedIn)

Experts Take Notes.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg addressed a large auditorium of young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. He shared lessons from his journey and his perspective on the state of the internet industry. Every seat was taken, and the 20-somethings who aspired to entrepreneurial greatness were listening with rapt attention.

According to my friend who relayed this story, there were two older folks in the front row who stood out: John Doerr and Ron Conway. They are both legendary investors in Silicon Valley.

They stood out not just because their gray hair shimmered in the sea of youth around them, but because they were the only people in the audience taking notes.

Isn’t it funny, my friend told me, that arguably the two most successful people in the room after Zuckerberg were also the only two people taking notes?

As I wrote in the excerpts from the Five Elements of Effective Thinking, experts understand simple things deeply. They return to the basics, over and over again. eBay CEO John Donahoe is widely regarded as one of the premier execs in the Valley right now and I’m told is an avid note-taker to boot. He recently said on LinkedIn, “Great leaders are never too proud to learn.”

You could argue people have different approaches to capturing nuggets of wisdom and committing those nuggets to memory. Sure. But I’m skeptical of passive learning. If you don’t write down what you’re hearing and learning, what the odds you remember it? I take lots of notes in paper mole skin notebooks; every week or so I go back with a different color pen and circle the key sentences; I then transfer these ideas to Evernote files on my computer; and finally, I blog/tweet/publish/email out the crispest, most important ideas or quotes. And this is nothing compared to Tim Ferriss’s extreme “take notes like an alpha geek” system, which is worth learning about.

You might argue people like John Doerr and Ron Conway are old school. Most young folks today, you’d say, aren’t going to be using pen and paper in the first place. Fine. The actual technology/process is not as important as having a repository, and preferably having a system that reinforces retention.

I thought about this broader idea the other month when I visited the University of Washington business school the other month. I was giving the keynote talk in the afternoon, but I set my alarm clock early to catch the morning keynote from my friend Charlie Songhurst. I know from personal experiences that Charlie is unusually insightful. As he delivered his keynote to the MBAs in the audience I noticed something peculiar: almost no one was taking notes–on paper or on tablet or computer. Well, I was. A few other people were. But most weren’t. There was plenty to write down, to be sure. It was an insightful talk. What gives? My theory: The audience was mostly students. Experts — or those who have deconstructed what experts do — take notes. Novices don’t see the point.

#

There’s an old rule of thumb that if you have something really important you need done, ask for help from the busiest person you know. Here’s an analogous rule: if you want to identify the most senior, knowledgeable people in an audience, look for the people who are taking notes and asking questions.

#

While taking notes in a large auditorium in front a keynote speaker is a no brainer, note-taking in a 1:1 meeting is a bit trickier. A few years ago, I wrote about the pros and cons of taking notes in a 1:1 conversation. One risk is it can make the conversation seem more transactional than is ideal. And it can also introduce a power dynamic if only one person (and not the other) is taking notes. Still bias yourself to take notes in a 1:1, but tread a bit more cautiously.

(Photo credit: Geekcalendar)

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn)

Simple Yet Hard, Public Market Investing Edition

Anyone who touches public market investing sings endless praise for Warren Buffett. But how many public market investors invest like Buffett — that is, actually employ the same strategy to generate superior returns? Remarkably few, it seems.

The Mutual Fund Observer recently profiled the Bretton Fund and interviewed its manager Stephen Dodson:

In imagining that firm and its discipline, [Dodson] was struck by a paradox: almost all investment professionals worshipped Warren Buffett, but almost none attempted to invest like him.  Stephen’s estimate is that there are “a ton” of concentrated long-term value hedge funds, but fewer than 20 mutual funds (most visibly The Cook and Bynum Fund COBYX) that follow Buffett’s discipline: he invests in “a small number of good business he believes that he understands and that are trading at a significant discount to what they believe they’re worth.”    He seemed particularly struck by his interviews of managers who run successful, conventional equity funds: 50-100 stocks and a portfolio sensitive to the sector-weightings in some index.

Stephen says:

I asked each of them, “How would you invest if it was only your money and you never had to report to outside shareholders but you needed to sort of protect and grow this capital at an attractive rate for the rest of your life, how would you invest.  Would you invest in the same approach, 50-100 stocks across all sectors.”  And they said, “absolutely not.  I’d only invest in my 10-20 best ideas.” 

The obvious question is why this is. There are various incentives that distort fund managers’ behavior, certainly. But my guess is that a large number of public market investors think they’re investing like Buffett, but they’re actually not disciplined enough to follow the value strategy all the way. It’s no wonder the average returns from actively managed mutual funds (versus index funds) are so disappointing.

#

I should note that Steve is one of my closest friends. And not just because he’s made me money from my being an investor in the Bretton Fund.

Learning to Own the Room

I recently attended an Own the Room public speaking and communication course in New York.

I’ve done a lot of public speaking, from enterprise software sales pitches in the early days, to paid keynote speeches more recently. But I’ve never formally trained. I’ve relied on some natural ability, decent content, and feedback from friends/clients along the way.

Over the past year, I felt like I hit a plateau in my verbal communication/presenting skill. I also came to the more general realization — described in my recent blog post on investing in yourself — I should be investing aggressively in my existing strengths. So I flew to New York and participated in the intensive Own the Room bootcamp, which had been referred to me by several people in my network.

It was phenomenal. I learned so much. Here are some reflections.

The native speaker who can’t write or understand grammar. When I took Spanish classes in school in California, there were always a few near-native speakers — immigrants whose parents spoke Spanish at home. Their accent was perfect and conversational pattern fluid, but occasionally they would unknowingly make very basic grammatical errors. They were never taught grammar; they couldn’t spell many words they spoke. Going through this course, I felt like I was that native Spanish speaker: when I speak or verbally communicate, I do a fine job most of the time, but now I know I make some really basic mistakes. Until this course, I wasn’t aware of the mistakes, let alone how to improve them. I’d argue that many business execs with a natural flair for speaking fall into this camp. They’re quite good, but they won’t get to great without stretching themselves beyond their natural ability.

The bootcamp model. I’ve blogged about the bootcamp model of learning. Own the Room definitely fits that mold — a couple super intensive days focused on a single topic. I still seek a framework by which you can evaluate when a format of learning fits the type of learning — i.e., I think a bootcamp model works well for public speaking, but not for language learning, say.

Demand feedback. “What did I do well? What could I do better next time?”After every module exercise, we “demanded feedback” from our partner or small group or coach by asking these two questions. This is a general learning theme, of course, but was emphasized to such a degree in Own the Room that it stuck with me more than anything else. (“What could I do better next time?” is an example of ‘feedforward’ instead of ‘feedback’ as Marshall Goldsmith calls it — constructive feedback focuses on what you can do better next time.)

Presence comes from change. Dynamic leaders have presence. It’s a hard thing to define. When do you feel someone’s “presence” in a room?  You feel presence when they change. Change their physical position. Change the volume of their voice. Change the speed of their voice. Change their point/topic. Change = presence. A huge learning.

Voice modulation and pauses. I discovered in the class two key weaknesses in how I verbally communicate. First, I don’t employ pauses enough. The rightly timed pause can make such a difference in how a point lands in the audience. Second, I don’t modulate my voice. I don’t use the full range of volume. I’m too monotone too often.

“Imagine…” Paint pictures with words. Paint pictures with words. Paint pictures with words.

Here’s a video of highlights from the first day of the course I attended.

And here’s a clip of Bill Hoogterp, owner of Own the Room, teaching voice modulation and body language:

How Busy People Find Time to Think Deeply

(Originally published on LinkedIn, where there are 300+ comments.)

During the first presidential campaign Michelle Obama was worried her husband’s schedule allowed him “no time to think.” You hear the same from business executives who traverse impossibly packed days.

But how many people budget serious thinking time on their calendar? Few. After all, what would you actually do during time set aside to just “think”? Sit in a chair, stare straight ahead, and ponder the world?

Indeed, it’s not a challenge you confront head-on. As Alain de Botton says, “The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do; the task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand.”

If you want to do more proactive, deep thinking, you want to obliquely engage in two kinds of activities.

Directed Thinking Activities

Write. Famed author Joan Didion says, “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos preaches the value of writing long form prose to clarify thinking. Unless you’re a professional writer, writing is not always about the written output; it’s about the thinking that happens as you attempt to communicate. Do not assume you have to share your writing with others for it to be time well spent.

Read a book. Don’t read an executive summary or two-page cheat sheet. Read a full book. It’s not about the content of what you’re reading — in most business books, there’s not much new anyways — it’s about the quiet time you’re spending by yourself. Unless you’re a professional book reviewer, reading is not about reading; it’s about thinking. It’s about hearing yourself think.

Undirected Thinking Activities

“Undirected” thinking time involves activities that are themselves minimally mentally taxing, and conducive to creative thinking about other things.

Drive to and from the office. Driving a familiar route = good thinking time. “When Joan Didion moved from California to New York, she realized that she had done much of her thinking and mental writing during the long drives endogenous to the Californian lifestyle,” Steve Dodson once noted. I’m the same. I can’t tell you how many decent thoughts I’ve concocted in my head while driving on the 101 or 280 freeways in the Bay Area.

Take your dog for a walk. Same as driving, but safer.

Take extra long showers. You’re free from distraction, you’re engaged in a monotonous activity that doesn’t require active focus, and you’re in a different environment. Sounds like the perfect place for a creative thought.

Stare out of airplane windows. Travel journeys of any sort are the midwives of thought. “Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains…Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape,” says Alain de Botton. On the topic of airplane windows and thinking, I always call to mind this picture (right) of Bill Clinton, having a moment.

Organize your office/room/house. Tidy up documents, pick up around the floor, rearrange books. It’s an excellent foil to serious thinking.

***

When do you find time to think deep thoughts amid the day to day chaos of professional life?

(Photo credit: Flickr)

“What Would I Need to Believe For This to Be the Right Decision?”

Long time readers know I love easy-to-remember questions, litmus tests, proxies, rules of thumb that make navigating a complex and uncertain world a little bit easier.

Dan Shapero, a VP at LinkedIn, wrote a good post recently about a way to bring clarity to a decision making process.

If you’re faced with a choice of whether or not to do something, just ask yourself, “What would I need to believe for this to be the right decision?” This simple question is incredibly clarifying.

Here’s an example: I’m trying to decide whether or not to prioritize the development of a new product. In order for that to be a great idea, I would need to believe the following assertions:

1. We have the team capable of building the product

2. Customers will buy the product at an attractive price if we build it

3. We have the distribution to reach potential customers at a reasonable cost

4. None of our competitors can replicate this offering in the next 12 months

5. There are no higher priority development opportunities for the R&D team

Simple and powerful.

How to Get Useful Feedback on Your Projects: Avoid Like/Dislike

When you show someone a plan, product demo, or piece of writing and ask for feedback, you might ask, “How do you like it?” If you don’t ask this explicitly, it is often the implied question in a feedback session.

But whether the other person likes whatever it is you’re working on is frequently irrelevant. And, in fact, asking this question can distract both of you from the real goal: discovering practical steps to improvement.

When Reid and I were writing The Start-Up of You, we asked for feedback from several friends on drafts of the manuscript. During the first round of feedback, we were genuinely curious if others liked it because we weren’t sure how much work we had left to do. Folks came back and said they didn’t like several portions of it, and that was useful: we learned we had months of work left. During the second round of feedback, I did not ask people if they liked it, because I knew by then we still had work ahead of us. Instead, I asked, “What are three specific ways you think we could improve the manuscript?”

See, once we realized we had more work to do, hearing whether someone thought the current draft of the manuscript was great or not great was irrelevant. What was helpful was how you actually make the text better. Maybe that meant making a good manuscript great. Maybe that meant making a bad manuscript simply average. Either way, better is the right mantra in an environment of continual improvement.

What’s more, opening with the “like” question can actually be counterproductive. Ask somebody who was in the audience, “What’d you think of my speech?” and you will probably get some variant of “good,” especially if the person is of lower status. Any specific tips that follow will be under this potentially sugarcoated guise. Or, if they say they didn’t like it, you could get defensive or argumentative. Ask instead, “What is one thing I could have done better in the speech?” and you’ll jump right into something that’s potentially actionable–and avoid a potentially awkward like/dislike evaluation.

Bottom Line: If you know there’s still work to do — on your draft essay, on your public speaking skills, on your product — ask people for one or two specific ideas on how they’d improve it. Focus their mind exclusively on practical, specific changes that they think would lead to improvement.

#

I wrote a long essay titled “Behind the Book” summarizing other lessons learned from the process of publishing The Start-Up of You.

(Photo credit: Flickr. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

Political IQ is Like “Overall Athleticism” and “Court Vision”

James Fallows, who’s one of the most consistently level headed and clear bloggers on current affairs, has a post up with two good yet different points. The first point is a worthwhile one about the role of “culture” in a country’s success.

The second point is about “political IQ”:

Political talent includes the ability to tell your immediate audience things it wants to hear — without offending people beyond that audience, who in today’s panopticon age will inevitably hear anything troublesome you say. At its crass extreme, this is the “dog whistle” — sending a coded signal that the general public will miss but only a select group of listeners will recognize and respond to. Less crassly, it is a skill both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton demonstrated in managing to appeal to some groups without alienating too many others. Barack Obama took such heat for his “people get bitter” comments four years ago because they violated this rule. For him it was a rare exception….

Here is the point I am building to. Three months before the election, it is fair to wonder about Mitt Romney’s basic skill level as a politician. I am not talking policy and substance, which I will do later. I’m talking about the counterpart to what coaches call “overall athleticism,” “court vision,” “ball sense,” even “football IQ.” In politics this includes an ability to read audiences, to self-edit and self-correct in real time, and to sense effortlessly how your words will sound to people on the other end. Right after Sarah Palin’s pick four years ago I guessed that she was going to have trouble with the surprisingly onerous demands of a national campaign. Now I am struck that we’re still seeing indications of limits on Romney’s “political IQ.”

“Court vision” and “ball sense” exist in a business context too, and I think it goes beyond polish. I’m reminded of my post a couple years ago on the “it” quality — the total package of qualities that so surpass simply “smart” that you’re left saying the person has the “it” factor.