Brad wrote a fun post a couple years ago about rituals, including one about The Annual Dinner that he and Amy, Fred and Joanne Wilson, and Mariquita and I have been having not quite annually for almost 15 years now. His most poignant comment (other than that apparently he and I are both getting larger and greyer in sync with each other) is about the power of marking the passage of time together with the same group of people. We have a similar tradition at Return Path that’s worth noting in the context of my reboot program since it happened a few weeks ago and was part of the reboot cycle.
On the first anniversary of Return Path’s founding, I took my co-founder Jack Sinclair and our first two colleagues, Matt Spielman and Alexis Katzowitz, our to lunch where we shared lessons learned from the past year at the company and predictions for the company in the coming year with each other. Jack, George Bilbrey, and I continued doing an end-of-year meal tradition with those two conversation topics for over a decade. The last three years, since Jack left to join Stack Overflow, George and I have continued the tradition on our own. Although some of our conversation every year isn’t really for public consumption, I’ve always regretted not blogging some highlights of it. The tradition is a very powerful one of reflection and retrospective, which is deeply ingrained in Return Path’s culture, as a means of continuous improvement through renewal and refreshing.
Last month, we came up with a few good lessons learned that are featuring in my reboot. Here they are:
- Growth covers up a lot of weaknesses. While we still have a healthy growth rate as a company, it’s lower than is used to be – as is the case for all companies as they grow and face the law of large numbers. What’s interesting, though, is how many weaknesses growth can cover up that start getting exposed as growth slows. Think of it as an analogy to Technical Debt, call it Organizational Debt. It’s the accumulation of small decisions over time to take an expedient path on a particular item. It’s the “oh, we’ll throw a body at the problem now and automate the solution later” type thing that never gets automated, then gets compounded when the hired body needs to be replicated, then managed, then turned into a department. You get the idea.
- Executive playbooks must be applied flexibly. As is true of many growing companies, we’ve hired a number of outside senior executives over the last few years. Some have worked out and others haven’t. One thing we’ve learned, though, is that there’s a bit of a myth sometimes around the “I have the playbook” claim, the same way there’s a myth around hiring sales people who claim “I have a Rolodex” (or whatever the current version of that is). Every company is unique, even in the same space. Every situation is unique. What makes an executive great is the ability to take learnings and experiences from prior roles and companies, both good and bad, and apply them thoughtfully to new situations, not the ability to run the same play over and over again in exactly the same way. Sure, there are core business processes or systems that can be applied consistently, but most of those don’t require senior executive expertise.
- Know the job your customer is hiring you to do and what the alternatives are. This is contemporary product management language, but it really rings true. No matter who you are, no matter what job you do, you have a customer. That customer is paying you something for a reason. That money could go somewhere else. Keeping that reason top of mind (and understanding when and why and how it shifts) is critical to developing the right solutions.
George, thanks for a decade and a half of reflections together (among other things!).