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

ball-625908_1920

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!

If You Can’t Do Anything Else

Every theatre kid has a moment (or many moments) when they consider pursuing a career in acting.

I had my moments. Every few months or so for the decade between middle school and college graduation (the heyday of my theatre career, as life would have it), I would threaten my parents with pursuing acting. I even declared a second major in Theatre second semester of freshman year (which I later demoted to a minor).

I remember the popular maxim that often accompanied these ambitions: “You should pursue a career in acting if you can’t do anything else.” It wasn’t until several years post-college that I learned there were actually two interpretations of this adage.

I had always interpreted the phrase to mean that you should pursue acting if you couldn’t breathe without it; if you felt as though you would truly perish from asphyxiation, choked by your own unfulfilled potential on the screens and stages of the world. (I was a little bit of a drama queen, and perhaps prone to hyperbole.)

Another friend interpreted it more literally: you should pursue your thespian ambitions if you simply have no other skills with which to barter in the game of Life. If that is your one talent, then you may as well play your hand. If you can do something – really, anything else – definitely do that instead.

I still like my version better. It has poetic conviction: give me the Backstage listings or give me death!

In any case, my theatrical ambitions didn’t pass muster by either definition – I loved (and still love) theatre, but felt I could be happy leaving it as a hobby. In fact, I feared the opposite: that I would rely too heavily on the art as a meal ticket, take parts I didn’t love in shows I didn’t believe it, and slowly start to resent it altogether, the way people spoke of being sickened at the sight of ice cream after a summer scooping sticky globs of the stuff. And supposedly, after four years of a good college education, I had other marketable skills to lean on. (Time will tell, I guess.)

I spoke to a young(er) entrepreneur-in-waiting last week, and he told me he had a list of about a dozen business ideas he was thinking about pursuing. Without seeing the list, I told him none of them was the right one. He asked how I knew, and I said that when he found the right problem to solve, he would unquestionably know it to be the one to pursue. He wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

Two years ago, that is how I felt about a problem that I later started Allovue to solve. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt certain of my impending death, crushed by the weight of regret (there’s that hyperbole again!) It’s a feeling not so unlike lovesickness. I couldn’t do anything else.

I think founding a business is a pursuit worthy of hyperbole. There’s plenty of rejection, the odds are not ever in your favor – it’s really not so different from a career in acting, when you think about it. For every break-out celebrity, there are thousands of people getting typed-out all day. For every Uber, there are thousands of wantrepreneurs honing their “Uber for X” pitches. Unless you’re Richard Branson or Elon Musk, you probably can’t just pick an idea off a list.

You should only pursue your business idea if you can’t do anything else.