Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


5 Time Management Tips for Top Executives

Maren Kate Donovan

Maren Kate Donovan

I had the pleasure of talking with Maren Kate Donovan, the CEO of Zirtual on a busy day in New York the other day, regarding some insights she's developed around executive productivity.  She has distilled these down to 5 tips through things she's learned on her journey at Zirtual, where she has created a company that provides virtual assistant services to executives.  

She's learned through trial & error, watching more experienced people, and interviewing others who were already doing the things to which she aspired - an approach I love.  Here are her tips, along with some comments from me.

Maren's Top 5

1. "Hire people smarter than you."  Put another way, Maren says , "Don't be the smartest person in the room."  This is where you need to check your ego, and recognize that your success will be greater and more sustainable if you surround yourself with great people.

From my experience, this rings true.  After all, haven't we all heard the old advice that if you want to get better at a sport, you need to play against someone better than you?  

2. "Create a system of accountability." Set expectations by giving people a due date & time, and give them specifics about what you expect from them in terms of results.  Maren says this will help drive greater organization and focus.

I think what Maren says is true, but I'd go one step further - accountability is a two-way street, in that you can expect it all you want, but the other person has to accept accountability for this to truly work.  And that is where the clarity Maren describes comes into play: before you accept accountability for something, make sure you have a clear idea of what success looks like, and insist that you have the time, ability, and resources to deliver.

3. "Make sure your employees are familiar with your products." Maren believes it is vital that your employees understand your products, and how to use them.  Additionally, she recommends you share your expectations of product quality, responsiveness to customers, and other aspects that will come into play as they do their jobs.

She explains:  She often hires people who are experienced in "the business world," but when she brings them into her organization to function as virtual assistants (VA's), she needs to make sure they understand her expectations as a Zirtual VA.  She put them through hands-on training as a VA with a mentor, so they can learn and get feedback in real-time.  This higher touch model up-front pays dividends down the line, where they can work independently while still upholding Zirtual's standards.

I agree, of course, and believe this is critical to a couple of principles I hold near & dear: Know how your company makes money, and figure out what you need to do to stand out from your competition.  I also believe strongly in mentor/apprenticeship types of training - there is no substitute for doing the work when you want to learn quickly.

4. "Use the 'I'd have a drink with this person' test."  Maren believes part of success is in creating a connection with your employees and partners, and that you can tell if that is working by having a drink with them - whether that is coffee, tea, wine, etc.  That activity builds rapport, camaraderie, and helps a culture gel in a way that establishes behavioral norms within your company.  In other words, it is part of what makes it more than just a job.  I find that this kind of approach also helps you develop a natural, corporate, immune system that helps people who don't fit in your company decide to move on to their next gig - and that can be a good thing, believe me.

5. "Figure out what people are good at and leverage their strengths."  To continue along the lines of tip 4's theme of making work feel like "more than just a job," to keep people engaged, Maren suggests you spend time figuring out what your team members are good at and what they are passionate about.  Keep in mind that this may take you beyond the job they were officially hired to do.  She told me stories about people in her organizations that were financially-savvy and, even though their core job was something else altogether, she involved them in financial planning and analysis to keep them challenged and engaged.

I'm a big fan of this approach, too, because I believe it gets employees' creative juices going like nothing else.  It also gives you the opportunity to cross-train people in your team and build bench strength in your organization.  Furthermore, it helps with career progression, in that it makes it easier to provide more options for people who may want to move out of their current job into something new.

As a CEO herself, I asked Maren what her key advice is to new or aspiring CEO's.  Here are her thoughts:

Read everything you can.  Meet with other people who are doing what you're doing, or doing things you want to be doing.  Spend time networking to learn - ask other leaders to lunch, coffee, or just a phone call to chat.  Learn to use the power of delegation - for example, if you hire a virtual assistant for less than $20 an hour and your time is worth more than that, then you're wasting money by not finding ways to delegate tasks that don't play to your unique strengths.

Maren gives great advice, for sure, and I don't think its value is limited to C-level executives.  

What about you?  Do you have any best practices, practical advice, or tips for better time management?  Please share!

Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success. 

How can you hire people you'll never have to fire?

Over 8 years ago, I wrote about how to look at "things you'd hire on" vs. "things you'd fire on" and I still love that as a way to think about the things you'll look for when hiring people to join your team.  In my "day job" of cybersecurity, this is a frequent topic of discussion (in fact, I'll be on a panel at the RSA security trade show in a couple of months talking about Closing the Cybersecurity Skills Gap).

Today, I want to share some perspectives from Girish Mathrubootham.  Girish is the Founder and CEO of Freshdesk, which is a leading SaaS-based customer support software that seeks to help businesses promise, deliver and wow their customers. Girish has over 15 years of experience in building enterprise products and is on a mission to make the world a happier place for customers everywhere.

Girish has been talking a lot about how to hire long term employees that you will never have to fire, and focuses a lot on non-technical attributes (i.e. "not hard skills") when he hires.  It seems to work for him, so I recently did a "5 Questions" interview with him on this subject.

1. Girish, how do you recruit and interview for “passion?”  What are your biggest red flags when you evaluate a candidate?

Girish Mathrubootham CEO & Founder,  Freshdesk

Girish Mathrubootham
CEO & Founder, Freshdesk

"One of my favorite questions is to ask people to tell me things that they have done and are really proud of, starting from the time they went to school. This gives me an opportunity to identify if they have been passionate about anything at all. If you are passionate about something, with the proper push, you can be made passionate about work too.

"I often come across people who don't have anything significant to share but assure me that given an opportunity, they will perform. If someone hasn't done anything worth sharing their entire life, how can they expect me to believe that claim?"

2. You say you can teach skills, and you don’t use them as primary selection criteria;  how do you quickly get people up to speed on the skills they need to be successful?

"Let me explain the difference between talent and skill. The ability to draw well and having a great sense of colour coordination is talent; knowing how to use Photoshop is a skill. Writing good code is talent, knowing Java or Ruby on Rails is a skill. We hire for talent and allow people to pick up skills on the job.

"For example, our core development platform is Ruby on Rails, but until we hit 69 employees, we did not have a single engineer who knew Ruby on Rails when they joined us. We just focused on hiring good programmers and they learned Ruby on Rails in a few weeks.

"Of course, there is some short term loss of time in getting people up to speed. But our talent pool expands like crazy and we end up hiring some awesome people."  

3. What are the limits of this approach?  In other words, is this approach limited to specific types of industries or specific types of positions?

"You cannot always follow this approach blindly. There are several roles where specific knowledge is crucial. And hiring people who are experts in their trade is great for your company. So we are open to hiring these people as well. But it's not always that simple. Maintaining a high quality team when experts are hard to find, or expensive, is very tricky. So complement your team with talented people who can learn on the job. 

"Let's say I need someone to ensure that our Production apps are running at peak performance. My pick would be someone who has the right skills and experience in handling scale and who can tune our MySQL databases. I will hire someone with the right skill rather than someone who can learn these things over 6-8 months." 

4. When did you begin using this approach, and how has it benefited Freshdesk?

"We have been doing this right from the beginning. We hired someone who used to handle retail operations (and hated the job) as our marketing content writer. Our Product manager today was earlier with a telecom company, managing their 3G network infrastructure deployment. One of the engineers working on our Search, used to build firmware for Audi cars. We would have missed a lot of such awesome people if we had focused on skill-based hiring. "

5. What advice would you give to employers and rewriters who are considering adopting this approach?

"If you find awesome people with the right skills and talent, then hire them by all means. When good talent is hard to come by (which is usually the case) try relaxing the skills part a bit to see if smart people with the right talent can learn on the job. I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised."

I tend to agree with Girish's outlook on this topic, and have often said I try to hire people who have the ability to tackle problems they've never seen before, apply focused effort and learn what they need to know along the way.  Of course, I also look for people who can communicate well around complex topics, work well with others, and can aggressively pursue a goal without panicking.

What about you?  Have you learned any good techniques to find strong team members that you'd like to share?  I'd love to hear from you.

Humor at Work: What works best and when

Employee laughing.jpg

They say laughter cures all. They also say laughter is truly the best medicine -- and that can be true at work, as well as at home.

Laughter on a regular basis improves blood pressure, stimulates the organs and can reduce pain, according to studies. So if it helps promote all those things, why don't we have more humor in the workplace? A daily dose of fun - humorous quotes, timely (and appropriate) jokes, fun events, and other forms of humor at work can help relax employees, increase morale, and energize the social aspects of the workplace. Workplaces that see humor as a tool often find themselves with happier and more productive employees. This in turn can create a better business, one that sees regular increases in profits and results.

But in today's workplaces, the stresses often outweigh the lighter moments. Sure, companies say they have a happy, positive culture, but are they faking the culture? There are telltale signs that a company's culture is lacking in the workplace. Lack of care about any type of 'mission' statement; Senior managers don't walk the walk with employees; online reviews don't reflect the everyday realty and more.

What can company owners and employees do to make a more vibrant, fun-seeking company culture? For starters, a company's owner or top leader can make the initial charge to try to have more fun. But it takes honesty and some guts to share that. But employees may respond well to that.

Timing and Context

With all good humor, timing and context are important. Even if you are a funny person, cracking a joke about Obamacare during a serious office meeting about company health insurance costs may not be the right setting. Or suggesting that you use a company photo of everyone throwing money in the air, on  Minted photo holiday cards that you send to customers might not fly. In other words, keep in mind that not everyone has the same sense of humor.

Finding the right balance of timing, context, the moods of your co-workers and managers is all important for humor to flourish in the workplace. Take into consideration, too, that fellow employees are often more comfortable bantering with colleagues than with management. There's an uncertainty that reduces the idea to get funny around bosses. Employees aren't sure how humor will be taken or perceived over time.

If you make it a habit, it can help.  For example, my company's headquarters location has a monthly "recess" in which we all gather together in the kitchen for a party for about an hour.  Each month, a different department hosts it, selects the theme, provides the refreshments (including some adult beverages, and decorates the place.  It has become a very popular event that people look forward to and it's a good place for some socializing with people you don't see much during the normal business day.  

Culture Drives Humor

In many ways, the culture makes the humor in a workplace. If your work culture is stiff and formal, weak attempts at humor and levity will fall flat. In a culture that's looser and full of guffaws on a more regular basis, you can really see some humorous efforts rise. That's according to Michael Kerr, who runs the business consultancy Humor at Work and is author of "The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank" (Dec. 2013). Workplaces that are more creative and innately innovative tend to have more humor within. It's all about feeling relaxed in an environment. With more relaxation and chances to bend the rules, a work culture can open itself up to more humor from its employees.

By removing emotional anxiety in the workplace with a more light-hearted tone, employees will get a strong sense of empowerment to create projects and programs. And these initiatives could help with team building, recruiting, office communications, morale and overall productivity in the workplace.

Effective metrics drive the results you want

This week I attended the Gartner Security & Risk Management Summit in Washington, D.C.  I attended a lot of very good sessions, but the one that left the biggest mark on me was a session called "Metrics That Matter," delivered by Jeffrey Wheatman.529 3218902

I went to this session because I've had a lot of conversations with information security executives this year, and a common question is "What should I really be measuring?," or they make comments like "I report on a lot of things, but I am not sure what the top indicators are that I should roll up to my executive team."

My initial reason for attending this session was for my "day job" as the CTO of a tech company, but I feel like I can "generify" Wheatman's guidelines to apply to anything that needs to be measured & tracked.

  1. Effective metrics must support the business's goals, and the connection to those goals should be clear.
  2. Effective metrics must be controllable. (In other words, don't report on things that "just happen" - report on things you can drive up or down with your own, direct actions).
  3. Effective metrics must be quantitative, not qualitative.  If you need to measure something "softer" like customer satisfaction, find a way to make it quantitative, such as with a method like Net Promoter Score.
  4. Effective metrics must be easy to collect and analyze. (Wheatman says "If it takes 3 weeks to gather data that you report on monthly, you should find an easier metric to track.")
  5. Effective metrics are subject to trending.  (Tracking progress and setting targets is vital to get people to pay attention)

This set of guidelines really resonated with me, and I am going to run my metrics through this regimen to make my own metrics better.  If you're a Gartner client, there is a detailed research report from Wheatman on this topic, and I suggest you grab a copy.

I've also learned that it helps to simplify how you report on metrics.  When dealing with executives, stick with small numbers and primary colors - and when you get senior enough, try to boil it down to up/down, happy/sad.

What about you - do you have any best practices to share around metrics?  Could you apply these to your own individual metrics or self-improvement goals?

Seeing the Big Picture

Last week, I got a copy of Kevin Cope's new book, "Seeing the Big Picture: Business Acumen to Build Your Credibility, Career, and Company." This is a great primer on how to figure out the real way your business works - I'm talking about money and profitability.Big Picture book image

I wish I'd had this book a year ago. I work for a company that was purchased by a private equity firm last year, and I've had to learn a lot of new things about the financial aspects of business, as they were thrown at me. A lot of what I learned e hard way is presented very clearly in this book - along with some additional information I'm sure I'll need in the near future. Do yourself a favor and learn about it before you need to apply it.

You see, a lot of us know the basics - "A business should bring in more than it costs to run the business." But there is a lot more beyond that to help us use real data to not only run our businesses, but improve them and make them sustainable and profitable in the long term.

Knowing the key elements

Kevin Cope does a great job of explaining aspects of the business in a very understandable way, whether you've got a financial background or not. The sections include:
  • Cash
  • Profit
  • Assets
  • Growth
  • People

Each of them is detailed in a way that unfolds very well - each section builds on the last, so you can better understand the relationships between these key elements of a business. He also does a great job of linking them so you can understand the interplay between these 5 elements.

Furthermore, Cope explains how to use and interpret some of the "artifacts" you'll encounter as you dig into the financials of a business, including how to read a balance sheet, how to interpret an income statement, and how to get real meaning out of financial reports.

One of the concepts I've had to learn about through hard knocks is EBITDA (Earnings Before Income Tax, Depreciation, and Amortization) which is a key indicator tracked by the private equity firm that owns my company. Cope explains this very succinctly in the book and relates it to the 5 elements, above.

Not just for managers

One of the things I love about this book is how relevant it is for anyone who wants to add value to the business they are involved in. This will add a lot of value for managers, but it will also help any individual contributor better understand how they can contribute to making the business more effective. In other words, if you want to figure out how and where you can add value to your company's success, this is a great book for you.

Cope also talks a lot about how you can use all of this information to make better decisions about your business - such as how you can make pod decisions about when to save earnings, when to reinvest them in the business, how to look after both short-term and long-term horizons for your business.

If you want to brush up on your financial acumen and learn some techniques to help you add more value to your business, grab a copy of "Seeing the Big Picture" - it's like a crash course MBA.