A few years back, a peer saw a copy of a Board of Directors report I submitted as CEO of a company. A Powerpoint presentation accompanied the report, but the report itself had piqued her interest. She specifically wanted to know the reasoning behind the order of topics.
Clarity and precision are paramount when communicating with the Board. The Board is responsible for guiding an organization’s strategic direction, and its decisions are rooted in the information presented. Consequently, the format and order of the reports provided to them should not be an afterthought. Instead, it should narrate a compelling, holistic story of the organization, moving from the future to the present and then reflecting on the past.
The following order seemed obvious to me. I wanted to tell a story with the primary focus on our future. Here are the five points I focused on:
(Note: I am leaving this somewhat generic due to protect the confidentiality of the organization.)
Culture is the cornerstone upon which any organization is built. It shapes the vision, values, and long-term aspirations. By beginning a report with culture, we are essentially starting with the future. Culture informs where a company wants to go and what it hopes to achieve. It outlines the north star that guides decisions and actions. By understanding and cultivating the right culture, organizations set themselves up for future success, making it a natural starting point for any narrative.
Every company’s future hinges on its talent. The people who come in every day bring the culture to life, innovate, and drive success. Presenting talent next positions them as the present-day architects of tomorrow’s achievements. Talent provides a bridge between the aspirational elements of culture and the concrete aspects of operations. They represent the organization’s commitment to the future and indicate the steps being taken in the present to ensure that the future is bright.
Every time I am asked about the future of an organization, I point to talent – who we have building that future and who we are missing. People are the heart of innovation.
Moving into the operational aspect brings the narrative solidly into the present. This is the heartbeat of the day-to-day, where plans meet execution. By understanding operations, the Board can see how effectively the company is running right now. It answers the question, “How are we currently executing our strategies, and are we set up for success?”
Sales, as a reflection of the organization’s current market position, continues the story of the present. It provides real-time data on how products or services are being received, how well the company is competing, and where there might be opportunities or challenges. In many ways, sales are the culmination of the efforts of culture, talent, and operations.
Finances close the report by grounding the narrative in reflecting past decisions and their outcomes. The general financial health, liabilities, and cash flow give a comprehensive view of where the company stands as a result of previous actions. It offers both a look back and a basis for future forecasting.
In essence, this five-point report format tells a cohesive story: We begin by setting the scene with our future aspirations (culture), introduce our main characters and their actions in the present (talent, operations, and sales), and then reflect on how past decisions have shaped the current state (finances). This narrative not only provides a comprehensive view of the organization but also ensures that the Board remains future-focused while being grounded in the realities of the present and lessons from the past.
Breaking the Ice: Bridging Dissent and Loyalty
If you’ve ever found yourself holding back a contrary opinion at work, or biting your tongue during a heated family dinner, you’re not alone. The idea of dissent is often shrouded in fear and misunderstanding. However, when I read Ozan Varol‘s telling of Netflix’s 2011 Qwikster saga regarding the risks of confirmation bias in Awaken Your Genius (A MUST READ!), a fresh perspective emerged as I thought back to my experiences and how I internalized dissent — the concept of dissent as a vibrant expression of loyalty.
Reimagining Loyalty: The Dissent Paradox
We often equate loyalty with quiet compliance and unquestioning agreement. Yet, what if loyalty’s true essence is found in thoughtful dissent? A culture that embraces dissent is one that champions transparency, diverse viewpoints, and continuous improvement. Such an environment instills loyalty among team members, making them feel acknowledged and heard. It also breeds loyalty towards leaders who show openness and commitment to their organization’s betterment. Dissent, when conveyed respectfully and professionally, can send a powerful message: “I care so much about you and this organization that I am willing to be vulnerable to ensure we make the best possible decisions.”
Surely, dissent can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when it means challenging authoritative figures who influence your career. Yet, when an environment that supports dissent is fostered, it can trigger breakthroughs, personal growth, and the formation of a united, robust team.
So, let’s examine Netflix’s story about their 2011 Qwikster debacle and how they transformed from a company where a Vice President later told Hastings, “You’re so intense when you believe in something . . . that I felt you wouldn’t hear me. I should have laid down on the tracks screaming that I thought it would fail. But I didn’t.”
Unpacking Netflix’s Dissent Chronicle
Netflix’s 2011 Qwikster episode serves as a captivating case study of this principle. The announcement of Qwikster, a proposed standalone DVD-by-mail service, ignited a customer backlash and led to a significant dip in the company’s stock price. Netflix later reversed the decision. They also took a more important and long-term critical step. Instead of dismissing this setback, Netflix’s leadership used it as a springboard to create a culture that cherishes dissent.
To ensure that dissent is identified and expressed before a significant decision is taken, Netflix has implemented various systems across the organization. For instance, when a Netflix team member has a proposition, they often circulate a spreadsheet asking colleagues to evaluate the idea on a scale from -10 to +10 and to add comments. This system is not designed to serve as a democratic poll. Rather, it’s a tool aimed at facilitating feedback collection, measuring the magnitude of dissent, and initiating frank discussions.
This system and, thus, the leadership recognized that averting future blunders required an environment conducive to voicing concerns and challenging decisions. This ‘dissent-farming’ culture nudged team members to express their views, even when these contradicted leadership decisions. This dissent, in turn, embodied an intense loyalty towards the company’s mission and vision.
A key point is that this dissent collection occurs before a decision or course of action. Doing such after can often be destructive and cowardice.
Hyper Loyalty: The Dissent Evolution
Netflix’s adoption of dissent reshaped its organizational culture and redefined the meaning of loyalty. By nurturing dissent, the leadership demonstrated their commitment to the company’s progress, thereby winning their team’s loyalty. Team members, by articulating dissent, displayed their unwavering dedication to the company’s success, symbolizing a paradoxical form of loyalty.
Netflix has gone from a culture where a VP did not feel he would be heard to one where Hastings stated, “To disagree silently is disloyal.”
The Last Word: Welcoming Dissent
In conclusion, dissent, when encouraged, appreciated, and constructively employed, can transform into a beacon of hyper loyalty. It underscores a commitment to shared goals, respects the multiplicity of perspectives, and cultivates a conducive atmosphere for growth and progress. Loyalty, therefore, is no longer synonymous with passive compliance; it is about caring enough to express disagreement, defy the status quo, and advocate for improvement.
The next time you encounter dissent, whether at work or over a meal with your family, don’t view it as a challenge. Instead, recognize it as a profound act of loyalty and a deep-seated expression of care.
Every year, the holiday season rolls around, and with it often comes the daunting task of annual strategic planning. Traditionally conducted in December, this practice, upon closer examination, may be less than ideal.
Let’s dive into why a rethink may be in order (aka. Why I hate this practice and your team probably does, too.)
December is holiday season, a time when employees are either on vacation or mentally preparing for festivities. The period is rife with distractions, making it challenging to focus on annual planning. Consequently, strategic initiatives and long-term goals may be rushed, rather than thoroughly considered.
Despite its portrayal as a time of joy, the holiday season can be emotionally taxing. Family pressures, feelings of loneliness, or memories of lost loved ones can complicate this time of year for many. Add these to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD affecting nearly 3 million people annually, peaks during the darker months of December and January.
Demanding tasks like annual planning during this period can exacerbate these emotional challenges, potentially leading to a decline in mental health and productivity. Moreover, this could create a pressure-cooker environment where employees feel they must suppress personal feelings for professional obligations. This approach not only undermines individual well-being, but also the creation of a supportive, empathetic workplace culture.
Frankly, many people are just trying to get through the holiday season without a blow-up with their inappropriate uncle who goes on random political rants or their crazy cousin who believes birds aren’t real. I don’t like contributing to the craziness.
By December, most are winding down and looking forward to a break. After a year of hard work, employees are often mentally and emotionally exhausted. This fatigue can negatively impact the quality of annual planning, with critical thinking and creativity suffering.
Annual planning relies on data from the current year. However, in December, this data set is incomplete. Planning without the full picture can lead to unrealistic goals or misguided strategies for the upcoming year.
The time constraints of December often result in rushed decisions. Annual planning—a comprehensive process that includes reviewing the past year’s performance, setting new goals, and developing strategies to achieve these goals—requires time. If compressed into a short timeframe, the quality of decisions may be compromised.
December annual planning leaves little room for flexibility. Once the plan is set, it becomes the roadmap for the following year. However, business environments are dynamic, and rigid plans made in December might not be adaptable enough to accommodate unforeseen changes.
Finally, it lacks intellectual honesty to believe we will get the best of people during December. Why would we want anything less when planning the important work for the next 12 months?
I am putting out this post now as we enter summer here in the northern hemisphere. These months will zip by with vacations and jam packed weekends. Before we let December sneak upon us, it’s worth reconsidering this practice given its potential drawbacks. Now would be the moment to adjust the timing or approach to annual strategic planning to improve the quality of strategic decisions and pave the way for greater success in the years to come.
A few weeks ago, I blogged about why I think people should spend less time on email. I discussed some reasons why one could be spending too much time on email. I confessed my challenges with this at one point in my history. For me, it was about accomplishing something to demonstrate value and self-worth and needing breaks when dealing with complex challenges. I now check my emails less than five times per day.
Perhaps the reasons why one excessively clings to email did not resonate. Perhaps a belief that immediate responses are critical when dealing with clients and employees, and perhaps that belief trumps the causes. Perhaps one did not finish reading the post due to an audible ding indicating the arrival of a new email. I heard similar feedback when I gave this advice to the aforementioned panel.
Regardless of the reasons why one is always on email, there are numerous reasons to change. The financial and productivity reasons should be enough. Yet, it is not the most prominent reason to change.
It can destroy relationships. Period. I am not talking about reading email while at dinner with loved ones. I am talking about the relationships with the people on the other side of the email.
It comes down to reality, expectations, and commitments.
Imagine someone wants to send a package via FedEx. The package is not needed until Christmas which is more than two weeks away. She steps into a FedEx store and decides to send it via FedEx Ground. The package should get there within four days which is more than enough time.
After leaving the store, the agent and the entirety of the FedEx team size up the situation. They unanimously decide to send the package FedEx SameDay after seeing the holiday wrapping paper. FedEx never notifies the customer of the priority change. The package is getting there today, and they are not charging the customer for this upgraded delivery. The customer is ecstatic when she receives a call saying her package arrived the same day!
This happens repeatedly for every package the customer ships with FedEx. It continues through the holidays and for weeks afterward. The customer always chooses FedEx Ground. She always pays the price of FedEx Ground. Yet, packages are repeatedly delivered FedEx SameDay.
The customer eventually discovers this happening, and she is ecstatic. It is a deal for the customer, and FedEx never waivers or complains.
It’s reasonable to believe the customer would no longer select the truly needed priority when sending a package. FedEx never committed to anything other than four-day delivery. Regardless, it has always delivered same day. The customer has been trained to expect SameDay service.
That is the case until the one time FedEx a package must get there tomorrow. The customer now has a decision. Should she send it next day or ship it ground?
If she choses next day, she is now paying additional for the same service that has always been delivered at no extra cost. She may feel this is outrageous because she knows FedEx can do it for the same price as four-day. She may have the opposite reaction and feel this is acceptable as an insurance policy. Yet, I question if this is the feeling one wants a customer to have.
She may consider it financially foolish since packages have always arrived the same day. FedEx has never let her down – SameDay, every day. So, she ships it ground and takes the risk. FedEx is not aware of the imbalanced expectation or the risk. If the package doesn’t arrive on time, the customer is upset and probably realizes she is at fault. It still negatively impacts the relationship because her expectations have not been met.
How did the situation get here? It was a relationship created with initial good intentions by the vendor. It devolved. The misalignment between services purchased and services delivered has created a relationship no longer based on honest expectations. That’s where the problem crept in and began to eat away at the core of the relationship.
As a format, email does not innately convey a priority or expected reply time. It does not even contain a requirement to reply. It needs to be explicitly stated.
If a recipient instantly reads and replied to an email, the tone and expectations are potentially being set for the conversation. When it repeatedly occurs over multiple conversations and is not based on committed priorities and time requirements, the expectations on the relationship between the parties is altered.
People are being trained to expect replies not aligned with committed response times. In customer service, clients are being trained to expect this level of service regardless of the contract or service level agreement. As a leader, teams are being trained this is the expectation of each other and from their leader. This is also the expectation when a customer emails.
Are you training your customers to expect messages read and replies faster than the commitment? Are you training your team that this is the modus operandi for customer emails? For your emails? Are you training your spouse that replies must be instant?
Each day is an Instant Replay
They say what we display is symptomatic of addict behavior
– Eminem “Love Song”
Respect in a relationship is built on met expectations and commitments. Unmet and unreal expectations are critically harmful to relationships. There is no need to create additional ones that will inevitably fail.
Finally, it is potentially insulting. It is about saying that you will set the priority regardless of the sender sending it via a mechanism that implicitly has no real priority. It is about you saying that you are smarter than the sender and will be the one to protect everything by setting this priority and replying immediately.
All of this adds up to being destructive. It can be destructive of your relationships with your team, your customers, your friends, and your family.
Up until a few years ago, I had always disliked the charity pictures of a company representative, usually the CEO or President, giving a big (in physical size) check to a charity representative. It seemed the opposite of what I had always been taught about helping others. One helped for one reason – because it’s the right thing. I believed the big check was about the photo opportunity, the press release, or the kudos from peers for the company.
I missed something though. I mistakenly viewed it as a public stunt to benefit the company. The reality is that it serves the charity more. It gets the charity exposure. It encourages others to help or, at least, ask how and if they can help. The need to give exposure is why we purposely and purposefully change our approach to our involvement. Last year, Forbes profiled our commitment to the startup community. Providing exposure to how others are helping is only part of our change regarding community engagement.
Lives are busy, and very few people have the time to wake up every day to think about how to better serve their communities. Even fewer have the time to volunteer despite wanting to do so. Thus, in 2016, we’ve announced our “16 in ’16” volunteer program, to provide Contegians paid time off to serve their communities.
The decision and ability to do this stemmed from three key factors:
1. Our Mission – I am proud of how often we talk about core values which guide our day-to-day. Our mission guides the long term. Our mission is to empower those around us, specifically Contegix stakeholders. This includes our customers, partners, and members of the Contegix family. Yet, the stakeholders extend beyond our digital and physical walls. They extend into our community.
2. Our Success (Through Hard Work) – A core measure of our success is the growth of our people, specifically their skills, their knowledge, their personal development, and their impact on the community. Over the past few years, our individual and collective hard work has been rewarded. We have achieved significant success, and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so. I have always believed this success and growth is what delivers sustainable financial results. That’s the reward but never the goal.
3. “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” – I am reminded of this religious-inspired quote from John F. Kennedy. Regardless of religious or political affiliation, I believe this concept stands and is core to humanity. The selfless help given by many during the recent flooding echoed and demonstrated this.
With this in mind, Contegix will be engaging a company commitment to empower and help those in our larger community. Each Contegian will be donating nearly 1% of her time to empower and help those around us. Every Contegian is expected to volunteer for 16 hours in 2016. This is in addition to our current company-wide commitments of time.
As part of our core value of respecting people and time, every Contegian will be provided paid time off to volunteer at the following organizations:
“Do well by doing good.”
— Benjamin Franklin
I have lately been thinking about everything we have built at Contegix. We have accelerated the pace of innovation significantly over the past 3 years. The changes are profound and reward our customers daily. I was reminded of this in how we addressed the leap second addition in 2015 vs. 2012. In the end, it comes down to doing a series of small things – regularly, consistently, and successfully.
As the author and voice of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle coined the phrase “The little things are infinitely the most important.” Doyle was not alone, as similar philosophies have been preached by numerous people, from Darren Hardy to John Wooden. The former wrote a book on this, called “The Compound Effect”.
John Wooden, the former head coach of UCLA who won ten NCAA national championships, stated “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” He also demonstrated this point at the start of every season. The first thing Wooden would do with new college basketball players was sit them down and teach them how to put on their shoes and socks. Wooden considered this the initial lesson for “everything we would need to know for the rest of our lives.”
Yet, in our culture of instant gratification, instant cloud provisioning, and burstable needs, everyone wants success rapidly, which has become a requirement for many businesses. Waiting simply is not an option for many people and businesses; however, doing the small things takes time. Doing the small things is what allows doing great things. Contegix doing the small things in an intelligent manner is how we fulfill these customer’s instant needs.
This is why we focus on seemingly small things, such as color coding and labeling every cable, rigorously testing patches, and still performing manual data center walkthroughs just in case. It’s why we put so much emphasis on process, procedure, and security. Customers do not become loyal brand buyers by accident. Our partners choose us because they know the details they should not have to care about are also the one’s that we put front and center.
The reality is that what we do is hard to do at our level. We have to take a series of small steps in rapid succession, each with precision accuracy. We achieve big things by relentlessly focusing on small things. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard. I am often reminded of this when I walk through our data centers. We take time and go through painstaking details to ensure everything is right.
Our core value of rapid accelerated growth is about the growth of our stakeholders – customers, partners, and employees. We must adamantly strive to incrementally get better each day, by doing the little things correctly. These compound upon each other. This is what makes a difference and allows our customers, partners, and employees to build greater things, especially themselves.
I was recently asked the question “What companies do you admire?” In the technology industry, it would be easy to pick the suspected companies – Apple, Oracle, eBay, Square, Atlassian. Many of these companies started as an idea, developed amazing cultures, and have grown to accomplish technical feats that have changed the world.
Yet, my list is comprised of 2 companies well outside the tech industry. In fact, one is in manufacturing and the other is in entertainment.
Lincoln Electric – Innovation in product and employment culture in a commoditized industry.
As a company, every new product and service we create is almost immediately outdated the moment it is released. Competitors, both new and old, can and will target anything successful we accomplish. This means that we must remain diligently focused on our people and the culture to outpace and deliver for our customers. Our innovation and delivery are concretely linked to this, similar to Lincoln. We want the best talent.
Lincoln is somewhat well known for their guaranteed employment. While most may consider their “Guaranteed Continuous Employment” model as archaic, the reality is different. It is locked to a continuous performance improvement and merit-based compensation for those who meet the benchmarks. More important, it and other cooperative programs bring forth all challenges and potential ideas. This includes innovations in the creation and delivery of products and services.
Contegix does this today and must continue to do such going forward. This is critical to our continued growth and is epitomized in our core value of Rapid Accelerated Growth. Rapid Accelerated Growth is about the growth of our stakeholders – talent, customers, partners, vendors, etc. Our mission is to help them grow, and we believe this will inevitably translate to growth of our top and bottom lines.
Disney – Operational excellence and brand loyalty.
Disney is well known for both operational excellence and brand loyalty (internally and externally). I had the opportunity to personally experience both a few years ago on a Disney cruise with the family. Minor tasks, such as cleaning the handrails, were just as important as the major ones. Disney realizes the minor details leave an impression and make a difference. In the case of the handrails, cruises are notoriously known for outbreaks of infections. Just the mere visible nature of cleaning the handrails allows the guests to be more carefree. Cast members (not employees) are fully engaged in the brand of Disney. It hit me when I watched stingrays trained to respond to a Mickey Mouse cutouts. They knew food would be available when they saw the cutouts.
These traits are the exact ones at the heart of our “Go Beyond” philosophy.
As the holder of a customer’s electronic livelihood, we are committed to a level of operation excellence that parallels the best, including Disney. One can see it in our minor details, from the meticulous cabling where every cable is labeled and color coded to the architecting of solutions to meet an individual company’s needs.
Brand loyalty is about our internal and external customers. Similar to Disney, we believe that we must build an exceptional customer relationship with every stakeholder, including our talent, our customers, and our partners. The power of this connection will continue to drive employee retention and customer loyalty. Even when presented with other options, this allows us to deliver an outstanding value for both as we “Go Beyond”.
Last month, the New York Times published an op-ed by Thomas Friedman titled “How to Get a Job at Google“. The premise of the article is that Google has reduced its dependency for candidate evaluation around traditional measurements of academic success and traditional leadership.
It’s interesting to see Google change their interview approach over time. Originally, you had to attend the best university. You had to have the best grades. The interviews were notoriously grilling. You had to be the best of the best. (Note, there was never any definition of what “the best” was.) According to the article, their core areas of focus are now around general cognitive/learning abilities, emergent leadership, humility, and ownership.
This shift is the difference between “what you know” vs. “who you are” as a candidate. At Contegix, we have spent the last 5 years placing more emphasis on the “who” than the “what”. We learned a few lessons along the way that experientially highlight and predict the long-term success of a team member based around who they were. An example I often give is our support engineers.
We have absolutely brilliant engineers as part of our team. They manage, monitor, and maintain our customers’ infrastructure everyday. They ensure systems are performing and respond to technical challenges. This work is based upon what they know. The “who” aspect of our engineers is around their ability to deliver passionate customer service while performing this work. We cannot lose sight that this infrastructure can and does have an impact on customers’ livelihoods. Being the best engineer, but then being insensitive to the customer, leads to failure.
Furthermore, in the world of evolving technology, the “who” of an engineer will guide how she/he will be able to grow, adapt, and rethink. We need people who are excited by and able to build the technology. They should be able to deliver technology to our customers while not being overwhelmed by it.
Of all the candidate attributes, I would take this a step further and state that (true) leadership is the core attribute. It is the critical, all-inclusive “who” trait for which every company must evaluate candidates. This is regardless of the position or role in the company. True leadership shows itself in every place, from small team settings to times of challenge.
It takes true leaders to take ownership of challenges. It takes true leaders to be humble and allow a more qualified or experienced team member to temporarily lead a team. This is the truly open minded approach. Can one truly lead if they ignore new facts and drive their team off the cliff due to ego?
Leadership has been the trait most critical to growing Contegix. Building and adding great leaders has had a profound positive impact on the culture. Having folks who are willing to be humble leaders, who are open minded, and are willing to take ownership, significantly increases our capacity for progress, innovation, and, most important, customer service.
Having a successful business hopefully means having customer accolades and cheers. It also means customer complaints. Thanks to our amazing staff, we have very few complaints. Our internal scores and feedback mechanisms reiterate the happiness of our customer base. Yet, no company can escape customer concerns nor should they even try. I advocate that companies should embrace and hug each and every customer communication, especially those where we did not perform perfectly.
For Contegix, the most critical reason why customer complaints are healthy related back to our core values. Nearly every complaint touches upon at 3 of our core values – Respect People, Time & Data, Foster Communication Through Transparency, and Rapid Accelerated Growth.
It is impossible to have zero customer complaints. The only way to achieve this would be to have zero customers. We are blessed to have very few complaints. It’s how we deal with the few we do get that defines us and our relationship with our amazing customers.
For most companies, 95 percent of what they do is what EVERY company has to do – build and service a customer base, human resources, accounts payables, etc. Instead of focusing on that, businesses should be focusing on the five percent that makes them unique.
The products and services a business has, how they deliver those products and services to customers, and the company culture built around them – those three things are what a business needs to focus on. It’s their “five percent,” if they want to leverage their company’s uniqueness, and innovate in the business and technology space.
A business will win in the business and technology space by having people engaged in its unique company culture. Company culture is possibly the biggest part of the five percent that makes one unique, and dictates where a company heads and how it heads there. It’s easy when there are only three to five employees, when everyone knows everyone. But as the company grows, there are problems sourcing and selecting the right people. Companies need to know what they want in employees, to build the right culture.
People are hired for what they know, but are fired for who they are. Too many companies hire for the what, not the who. Companies need to know what they want. For Contegix, we need people who are brilliant, agile, but more importantly, they have to know how to TALK to the customer. We need people who understand Linux, and also understand how it impacts the customers. When stuff breaks, because tech always breaks, our people need to understand how that impacts the customer.
Aside from our company culture, Contegix’s five percent is the products and services we have, and how we deliver them. We can supplement what IT departments need. Businesses say things like, ‘I don’t want to maintain a server room. I just want to take my equipment, and put it somewhere I know will be safe and secure.’ We help people get the innovation gap back by helping companies cope with increasing IT needs with managed services, with colocation, with cloud computing. And once they have the innovation gap back, they can focus on their own five percent.
At Contegix, we don’t just want to sell you ‘computing.’ We also want to be there to help you understand what the right thing is for you, and to help you understand how technology makes your company better.
So what’s your company’s five percent? Talk to us, we’re happy to listen.