The #family channel

About 4 years ago, when an Allovue team member was expecting his first child, we created a #family channel in Slack as a repository for baby pictures while he was on paternity leave. As our team has grown and evolved over the years, the #family channel has remained one of my favorite bastions of our corporate culture.

Importantly, the #family channel leaves “family” open to interpretation. Diversity and inclusion are celebrated company values, so everyone’s definition of family is a little different.

In the #family channel, we share the joys of life milestones big and small: graduations, weddings, babies, haircuts, piano lessons, first days of school, vacations, meltdowns at the dinner table, science projects, new homes, workouts, renovation projections, pet snuggles, and all of the silly just-because moments that make us feel grateful and loved every day.

Because life happens, the #family channel isn’t all happy moments. We also share moments of grief: a death in the family, a relative in the hospital, a friend diagnosed with a terrible illness. While I welcome the daily dose of cute children and animals, the more somber updates have convinced me how critical the #family channel is to our work.

I’m not sure anyone has ever successfully siloed their “work life” and “home life”; it’s all just life. And frankly, why should we want to? To pretend that these categories exist in an emotional vacuum is to ignore the basic humanity of our coworkers and deny our team the opportunity to connect and empathize on a higher level. Our company culture is richer and our work is more fulfilling because we get to know our colleagues not just through their professional skills and contributions, but also who they are as parents, spouses, friends, siblings, caretakers, and fur-parents. We grow to understand each other as whole people.

The #family channel makes us better colleagues and managers. We subscribe to Kim Scott’s philosophy of Radical Candor – a management approach that exists at the intersection of caring personally and challenging directly. It’s naïve or delusional to dismiss the impact of personal matters (good or bad) on someone’s productivity at work. As managers, we must care about who people are outside of work and understand the circumstances of their lives in order to support and grow our team members to their full potential.

If your team doesn’t already have the equivalent of a #family channel, I encourage you to start one. Come for the cute pictures, stay for the meaningful connections.

Magically Redefine Your Team Roles and Responsibilities

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Last quarter, a few things happened at once with our team at Allovue. 1) We were at a major inflection point, shifting my focus as CEO from mostly on product development to mostly on sales & marketing 2) Our CTO’s wife was 7 months pregnant, so we wanted to free up some of his time to spend at home once the baby arrived 3) One of our senior developers expressed interest in more autonomy and more responsibility. Here’s how we redefined our roles & responsibilities in a process that we completely pulled out of thin air and resulted in everyone on our leadership team being happier and more productive in their jobs. I’m telling you: magic.

I gathered the leadership team into the conference room and started by writing our names on the whiteboard. One at a time, we went around the room and each person named every process or category over which he or she currently felt ownership and responsibility.

After everyone listed responsibilities, we made a list called “No Man’s Land” for processes that we felt someone needed to own, but no one had named. (Note: We also put things on this list that people forgot to name earlier, because we figured this was an indicator of a responsibility that was not high priority or top of mind.)

This next step is the most critical ingredient of the magic. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. I went around to each person again and asked them to tell me “Yes” for things on their list that they felt were the right fit for them, and “No” for anything on their list that they wished for any reason was NOT on their list – you don’t like it, you don’t think you’re good at it, you think it’s stupid… whatever. “Yes” items got a check and “No” items got an X and were moved to No Man’s Land.

At this point in the process, everyone had a list of responsibilities that they loved and felt were appropriate for them to own. Now we had to contend with No Man’s Land: all the things we felt were important for somebody to own, but either no one did, or the person who owned it until now didn’t want to own it.

For the final step of this process, we went through each item on the list and decided to either 1) assign it to someone else on the team 2) find a way to make it suck less for the person who crossed it off their list 3) hire someone to do it.

And that’s when the magic happened.

As we went through the list, my team’s secret interests, skills, and talents emerged as, one by one, people volunteered to snap up items from No Man’s Land and take ownership of them. Rosalyn admitted to secretly enjoying close-reading of legal contracts, whereas I hated it and had been slogging through them. Jason volunteered to take on Sprint Planning, a process that was a total drain for Ted, but a natural fit for Jason. Jake took ownership of all front-end and design processes, which had been awkwardly and inefficiently split between me and the dev team. Ted reclaimed some technical processes, once we realized that a week of time could set up playbooks to automate all the stuff that was wasting his time.

At the end of this exercise, there were only four items in No Man’s Land, and they exactly mirrored the job description I had just written up for our new Venture for America hire. MAGIC. We went around once more to confirm that everyone felt comfortable with their new roles. Ted said, “Wait – that list is my job now?” “Yes…” I said hesitantly. A huge grin spread across his face. It’s a really good day when your CTO is happy.

This entire process took 45 minutes.

A few months in, here are some things that have resulted:

  • Our dev team velocity is higher than it has ever been. I attribute this to a combination of the fact that Jason enjoys Sprint Planning, and Ted has more time freed up to write code.
  • We have fewer errors in legal documents, because Rosalyn is a true Eagle Eyes and catches every. single. thing.
  • Rosalyn has also taken major ownership over customer on-boarding and project planning, demonstrating her unique strengths as a leader in this area
  • Jake has streamlined design processes, which has further contributed to increased velocity
  • My time has been freed up to focus on sales and marketing

Here are some of my key takeaways from this exercise:

  • Don’t let corporate dogma dictate the roles and responsibilities of your team.
  • Making people do something because “they’re supposed to” will drain your employees and slow down your team’s velocity. Sure, everybody has to do some things once in awhile that they don’t love… but make sure it’s really “once in awhile” and not “most of the time.”
  • Take a strengths-based approach. Hopefully, you hired people who are uniquely qualified to contribute to your team. Play to their strengths. They will thrive, and the whole team and company will thrive right along with them.
  • Listen when people ask for more responsibility. Don’t let talent and leadership sit dormant in the organization. This doesn’t mean promoting everyone to an executive position, but find ways to give people opportunities for leadership when they crave it. This might mean giving someone a leadership role over a single project or feature in the short term, and it might unleash new skills and talents you never saw before.
  • Just because someone “can” doesn’t mean they “should.” Founding team members tend to be multi-skilled individuals. It’s easy to assume that because someone is capable of doing something, it makes sense for them to keep doing it. Take inventory of these things regularly – can someone else on the team do it faster, with more joy? This goes back to the strengths-based approach: are people spending their time in the most efficient way, given the skills and talents of the team as a whole? Make sure that people who are uniquely qualified at high-value, mission-critical tasks are spending as much time as possible on those tasks.

I expect that we will return to this process as we grow, consistently reevaluating how team members are spending their time, and ensuring that we’re leveraging leadership capacity across the organization – because a happy, healthy, productive team is nothing short of magic.

If you try this magic process, or have done something similar, I’d love to hear about it!

Everything I know about being a CEO, I learned being a teacher

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“How can you be a CEO when you were just a teacher?”

This is one of the most common questions I have fielded as the CEO and founder of Allovue, an early-stage financial analytics company. Initially the question offended me; I prickled at the insinuation of all the worst teacher stereotypes: teachers aren’t as smart or shrewd as other professionals, teachers are lazy, teachers are fluffy.

Now, I’m amused by the question. After all, teachers are the unsung CEOs of the world. Teachers manage hundreds of people every day (who are not paid to show up!) Teachers prepare and present 4–6 hours of unique content every day, and are evaluated based on those hundreds of students’ ability to process and retain this new content. Teachers make all their own agendas, PowerPoints, and reading materials. They often buy their own presentation tools and office supplies — for over a hundred people. Sorry, no T&E reimbursements! They make their own photocopies of materials they created or purchased themselves. They give individualized feedback to over a hundred people on a regular basis. Hey, CEOs — when was the last time you reviewed and evaluated the daily work of +100 employees after doing all your own work and meetings for the day? And don’t forget to call all of your employees’ parents at least once a week to let them know how they’re doing at work! Great teachers are virtually superhuman masters of management and logistics.

I’ve come to realize that most of my favorite management strategies were fire-tested in the classroom, not a boardroom. Having taught students from kindergarten age up to the graduate level, I’ll let you in a little secret: managing adults is not all that different from managing children.

Public praise, private punishment

This is a staple of classroom management. Can you remember a time that you were called out in front of your peers for doing or saying something wrong? Can you feel your cheeks getting warm just thinking about it? Now, think about a time that someone praised you for a job well-done in front of all your colleagues. I bet your chest is still swelling with pride. This is a pretty basic tenet of human psychology: most people appreciate public recognition for good work, but feel humiliated by screwing up in front of their pals. Publicly chastising people for mistakes might create results in the short term, but it’s no way to build a strong culture in the long term.

As often as possible, we make an effort to let our team know about all the awesome things their teammates are doing — we also share a weekly newsletter with team shout-outs and appreciations, ranging from small helps (“Thanks for giving me a ride home”) to big wins (“Great job closing that sale! Coffee for everyone!”)

On the contrary, if something is going awry with process or performance, we address these issues privately with team members, and we focus on figuring out why something isn’t working and what steps need to be taken to fix the problem. It is difficult to consistently do this without egos and finger-pointing. We are not perfect at it, but couching these discussions in terms of finding solutions instead of allocating blame goes a long way.

Give credit, take blame

As a general rule, when something good happens, my team did it. When something goes wrong, it’s my fault. As the CEO, you have little to lose by accepting blame. It takes pressure off the team and frees up their mental space to focus on solving the problem. Are you sensing a theme here? People don’t function well when they’re embarrassed or scared.

As for giving credit, let’s harken back to Obama’s “you didn’t build that” decree. No matter how much of a 10x-programmer-visionary-wünderkind you are, it’s extremely unlikely that you built something great alone. Give credit where credit is due — and then some. Elevating others does not diminish you. Take every opportunity to credit your team, investors, advisors, and customers because this is an all-ships-rise-win-win situation.

Bring cupcakes

I don’t care if you are 5 or 50 — people love cupcakes. I have studied this extensively, and the effects of cupcakes on a classroom or office are the same: good cheer and a burst of productivity. We are lucky enough to have the gourmet cupcake shop La Cakerie down the street from our office and we are frequent patrons. Birthday? Cupcakes! Engagement? Cupcakes! Good press? Cupcakes! Thursday? Cupcakes! Celebrate each other. Celebrate wins, big or small. Celebrate just because you are all in this together, doing the hard things, fighting the good fight, and goddamit, you deserve a cupcake.