Tag: Business

How Performance Reviews Can Kill Your Culture

Performance reviews are designed to motivate and bring the best out of our teams, but they often do the opposite. Here’s how to bring out the best in your people.

***

If you ask people what’s wrong with corporate workplaces, it won’t take long before you hear someone mention something about being put into a performance bucket. The A bucket is for the best, and the C bucket is for the underperformers. The middle and most common bucket is B, as it spares the supervisor from having to justify why an individual is exceptional or on the verge of getting fired. The problem is that ranking someone against their peers is not the ranking that matters and is counterproductive in terms of building an exceptional corporate culture.

People hate performance reviews. And why wouldn’t they? You either come up short against the superstars, walk away being told to keep doing what you’re doing, or leave feeling like your days are numbered. In this common construct, no one is getting the information they need to properly grow, and a toxic competitive situation is created within the organization. Forced comparisons against others don’t accomplish what we want from them. We think it inspires people. It often makes them dislike each other.

The problem is the system.

The goal of performance reviews is ostensibly to help people become better, but forced ranking has two serious flaws. First, it doesn’t take account of individual rates of improvement. We’re all starting from different places, and we’re also all improving at different rates. If you always come up short, no matter how hard you try, eventually you can’t be bothered putting in the effort to get better.

The second, more important, argument is that forced rankings create a toxic environment that rewards poor behavior. When you’re pitted against your coworkers, you start to game the system. You don’t need to improve at all to get into the A bucket, you just need to make the others look bad. The success of one person means the failure of another. How likeable are you? How good are you at whispering and gossip? How big is your Christmas present to your boss? You can end up cutting others down to stand out as a star performer. But undermining the success of your coworkers ultimately means undermining the success of the entire organization.

Margaret Heffernan, author and former CEO, explained on The Knowledge Project how the relationship between coworkers is fundamental to the function of an organization:

“…the whole premise of organizational life is that together you can do more than you can do in isolation, but that only works if people are connected to each other. It only really works if they trust each other and help each other. That isn’t automatic. … You’re only really going to get the value out of organizational life to the degree that people begin to feel safe with each other, to trust each other, to want to help each other…What impedes the flow is distrust, rivalry, or not knowing what other people need.”

Most of us inevitably compare ourselves to others at some point. Chronic comparing though leads to misery. What matters is not what we do compared to what someone else does, it’s what we do compared to what we’re capable of doing. Both as individuals and in organizations, we need to pay attention to this gap—the gap between where we are right now and what we’re capable of.

Internal motivation is easier to sustain. We produce and push ourselves because we get this immense satisfaction from what we are doing, which motivates us to keep doing it. It doesn’t work the same way when your motivation comes in the form of external comparisons.

So what do we do instead?

If you must grade performances, do it against the past. Is she learning? Is he improving? How can we increase the rate of progress and development? Empower people to help and learn from each other. The range of skills in an organization is often an untapped resource.

Organizations today are often grappling with significant corporate culture issues. It can be the one thing that differentiates you from your competitors. Comparing people against their past selves instead of each other is one of the most effective ways to build a culture in which everyone wants to give their best.

Jeff Bezos: Big Things Start Small

An interview with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos touches on the timeless lessons he’s learned for business success. The three big ideas are (1) thinking on a different timescale, (2) putting the customer first, and (3) inventing.

What we’re really focused on is thinking long-term, putting the customer at the center of our universe and inventing. Those are the three big ideas to think long-term because a lot of invention doesn’t work. If you’re going to invent, it means you’re going to experiment, you have to think long-term. These three ideas, customer-centricity, long-term thinking and a passion for invention, those go together. That’s how we do it and by the way, we have a lot of fun doing it that way.

Ballet or Rock Concert?

When asked about the pressures of running a public company and meeting quarterly earnings expectations he said:

Well, I think that if you’re straight forward and clear about the way that you’re going to operate, then you can operate in whatever way you choose. We don’t even take a position on whether our way is the right way, we just claim it’s our way, but Warren Buffet has a great saying along these lines. He says, “You can hold a ballet and that can be successful and you can hold a rock concert and that can be successful. Just don’t hold a ballet and advertise it as a rock concert. You need to be clear with all of your stakeholders, with are you holding a ballet or are you holding a rock concert and then people get to self-select in.”

Big Things Start Small

While there is no one recipe that fits all, there are elements of what Amazon does that help.

[I]nside our culture, we understand that even though we have some big businesses, new businesses start out small. It would be very easy for say the person who runs a US books category to say, “Why are we doing these experiments with things? I mean that generated a tiny bit of revenue last year. Why don’t we instead, focus those resources and all that brain power on the books category, which is a big business for us?” Instead, that would be a natural thing to have happen, but instead inside Amazon, when a new business reaches some small milestone of sales, email messages go around and everybody’s giving virtual high fives for reaching that milestone. I think it’s because we know from our past experiences that big things start small. The biggest oak starts from an acorn and if you want to do anything new, you’ve got to be willing to let that acorn grow into a little sapling and then finally into a small tree and maybe one day it will be a big business on its own.

Step By Step Ferociously

The Latin phrase gradatim ferociter Is a Bezos favorite. What does it mean?

Well it means step by step ferociously and it’s the motto for Blue Origin. Basically you can’t skip steps, you have to put one foot in front of the other, things take time, there are no shortcuts but you want to do those steps with passion and ferocity.

Loving What You Do

Not every day is going to be fun and easy. That’s why they call it work.

I have a lot of passions and interests but one of them is at Amazon, the rate of change is so high and I love that. I love the pace of change. I love the fact that I get to work with these big, smart teams. The people I work with are so smart and they’re self-selected for loving to invent on behalf of customers.

It’s not, do I love every moment of every day? No, that’s why they call it work. There are things that I don’t enjoy, but if I’m really objective about it and I look at it, I’m so lucky to be working alongside all these passionate people and I love it. Why would I go sit on a beach?

 

Footnotes
  • 1

    Source of interview: https://twitter.com/producthunt/status/1125038440372932608?s=11

The Importance of Working With “A” Players

Stop me if this sounds familiar. There is a person who toils alone for years in relative obscurity before finally cracking the code to become a hero. The myth of the lone genius. It’s the stuff of Disney movies.

Of course, we all have moments when we’re alone and something suddenly clicks. We’d do well to remember, though, that in those moments, we are not as independent as we like to think. The people we surround ourselves with matter.

In part, because we tell ourselves the story of the lone genius, we under-appreciate the role of a team. Sure, the individual matters, no doubt. However, the individual contributions are supercharged by the team around them.

We operate in a world where it’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything great as an individual.  When you think about it, you’re the product of an education system, a healthcare system, luck, roads, the internet and so much more. You may be smart but you’re not self-made. And at work, most important achievements require a team of people working together.

The leader’s job is to get the team right. Getting the team right means that people are better as a group than as individuals. Now this is important.  Step back and think about that for a second — the right teams make every individual better than they would be on their own.

Another way to think about this is in terms of energy. If you have 12 people on a team and they each have 10 units of energy, you would expect to get 120 units of output. That’s what an average team will do. Worse teams will do worse. A great team will take the same inputs and get a non-linear outcome. The result won’t be 120; it’ll be 360.No matter where you’re going, great teams will get you there multiples faster than average teams.

Here is a quote by Steve Jobs on the importance of assembling “A” players.

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

Building a team is more complicated than collecting talent1. I once tried to solve a problem by putting a bunch of PhDs’ in a room. While comments like that sounded good and got me a lot of projects above my level, they were rarely effective at delivering actual results.

Statements like “let’s assemble a multidisciplinary team of incredible people” are gold in meetings if you work for an organization. These statements sound intelligent. They are hard to argue with. And, most importantly, they also have no accountability built in, and they are easy to wiggle out of. If things don’t work out, who can fault a plan that meant putting smart people in a room.

Well … I can. It’s a stupid plan.

The combination of individual intelligence does not make for group intelligence. Thinking about this in the context of the Jobs quote above, “A” players provide a lot more than raw intellectual horsepower. Among other things, they also bring drive, integrity, and an ability to make others better.  “A” players want to work with other “A” players. Accepting that statement doesn’t mean they’re all “the best”.

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team.  The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

Footnotes
  • 1

    A play on a quote by Bill Belichick

Earning Your Stripes with Patrick Collison [The Knowledge Project #32]

On this episode of The Knowledge Project, Patrick Collison (@patrickc), CEO, and co-founder of Stripe shares wise insights on success, failure, management, decision making, learning and so much more. Grab a pen…

Patrick Collison


Subscribe on iTunes | Stitcher | Spotify | Android | Google Play

On this episode of the Knowledge Project, I chat with Patrick Collison, co-founder and CEO of the leading online payment processing company, Stripe. If you’ve purchased anything online recently, there’s a good chance that Stripe facilitated the transaction.

What is now an organization with over a thousand employees and handling billions of dollars of online purchases every year, began as a small side experiment while Patrick and his brother John were going to college.

During our conversation, Patrick shares the details of their unlikely journey and some of the hard-earned wisdom he picked up along the way. I hope you have something handy to write with because the nuggets per minute in this episode are off the charts. Patrick was so open and generous with his responses that I’m really excited for you to hear what he has to say.

Here are just a few of the things we cover:

  • The biggest (and most valuable) mistakes Patrick made in the early days of Stripe and how they helped him get better
  • The characteristics that Patrick looks for in a new hire to fit and contribute to the Stripe company culture
  • What compelled he and his brother to move forward with the early concept of Stripe, even though on paper it was doomed to fail from the start
  • The gaps Patrick saw in the market that dozens of other processing companies were missing — and how he capitalized on them
  • The lessons Patrick learned from scaling Stripe from two employees (he and his brother) to nearly 1,000 today
  • How he evaluates the upsides and potential dangers of speculative positions within the company
  • How his Irish upbringing influenced his ability to argue and disagree without taking offense (and how we can all be a little more “Irish”)
  • The power of finding the right peer group in your social and professional circles and how impactful and influential it can be in determining where you end up.
  • The 4 ways Patrick has modified his decision-making process over the last 5 years and how it’s helped him develop as a person and as a business leader (this part alone is worth the listen)
  • Patrick’s unique approach to books and how he chooses what he’s going to spend his time reading
  • …life in Silicon Valley, Baumol’s cost disease, and so, so much more.

Patrick truly is one of the warmest, humble and down to earth people I’ve had the pleasure to speak with and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation together. I hope you will too!

Listen

Transcript

Normally only members of our learning community have access to transcripts, however, we pick one or two a year to make avilable to everyone. Here’s the complete transcript of the interview with Patrick.

If you liked this, check out other episodes of the knowledge project.

***

Members can discuss this podcast on the Learning Community Forum

Chris Voss: The Art of Letting Other People Have Your Way [The Knowledge Project Ep. 27]

Negotiation expert Chris Voss (@VossNegotiation), former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and author of the excellent book, Never Split the Difference, offers some hands-on negotiation training.

Chris Voss

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify | Android | Google Play

Whether you’re buying a car, requesting a raise at work, or just deciding where to eat out with your spouse or partner, your negotiating skills will determine how pleased you are with the outcome.

Today, we have the special opportunity to learn some of the most effective tactics and strategies from a true master, Chris Voss.

Chris is the former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and author of the excellent book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As Though Your Life Depended On It.

In this fascinating conversation, Chris shares how you can use the same techniques that have been field-tested in some of the most high-stakes, pressure cooker situations, in your daily life.

If you want to become a better haggler, a better communicator, or a better listener, don’t miss this episode. It’s packed with actionable insights you can start using today to be more persuasive and grab hold of more of what you want in life.

Here are just a few things we cover:

  • What it really takes to be great at negotiating (most people approach it all wrong)
  • How to keep your emotions in check in a negotiation
  • The three different voices you can use to connect with your counterpart and put them at ease
  • How many of us “take ourselves hostage” in negotiation and ruin it before it starts
  • The biggest time-waster (and profit-killer) that plagues so many negotiations
  • The main problems with traditional negotiation techniques (BATNA, etc.) and how they’re leaving lots on the table
  • The “negotiation one-sheet” Chris uses before entering into any negotiation (and how you can use it, too)
  • How to use an “accusations audit” when you’re structuring winning deals (this is brilliant)
  • One technique to get your counterpart to spill their guts when they’re trying to be tightlipped.
  • “Prospect theory” and how to use it to your advantage
  • Maximizing employee satisfaction in the hiring process so you get the best talent… and keep them!
  • How empathy saves time and makes you more likely to get what you want in a negotiation
  • The power of deference (and when to use it)
  • Chris’ go-to tools that work best on all personality types, in nearly any situation
  • How intentionally getting the other party to say “no” substantially increases the success rate of a negotiation

And much more.

It’s time to Listen and Learn

Transcript

A transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately ($7).

More Episodes

A complete list of all of our podcast episodes.

***

Members can discuss this post on the Learning Community Forum

Batesian Mimicry: Why Copycats Are Successful

One of our first interview guests for The Knowledge Project was the former NFL executive Michael Lombardi. In our interview, we discussed topics ranging from the nature of leadership to decision making in a football context. Mike is one of the wisest thinkers associated with the game.

We heard Mike on an NFL podcast recently, and in a brief clip you can listen to here, Mike makes a fascinating comment on differentiating between a Mimic and the Real Thing:

“There’s two kinds of snakes you come across. There’s the Texas Coral Snake, and the Mexican Milk Snake, and they both look exactly alike. The Texas Coral Snake is dangerous, it’s venomous, it can kill you in a minute. The Mexican Milk Snake can’t do anything to you; it’s an impostor.”

Mike got the idea from my friend and CEO of Glenair, Peter Kaufman. Following Mike’s lead, we chose to dig in a little further.

***

Turns out there are a host of Coral Snake Mimics, all designed to look exactly as fierce as the true bad guys. Besides the Mexican Milk Snake, there is the Scarlet King Snake, the Florida Scarlet Snake, and the California Mountain Kingsnake. (At least.)

For an example, here are the Texas Coral Snake on the left and the Mexican Milk Snake on the right. Pretty damn close!

220px-lampropeltis_triangulum_annulata

According to Wikipedia, the Texas Coral Snake’s venom is a “powerful neurotoxin, causing neuromuscular dysfunction”, and terrifyingly describes its bite as coming from “a pair of hollow, small, fixed fangs in the front of its upper jaw, through which the venom is injected and encouraged via a chewing motion. Due to this method of venom delivery, a coral snake must bite and hold on for a brief time to deliver a significant amount of venom…”

The Milk Snake, on the other hand, is described as a pretty ideal pet: “The Mexican Milk Snake adapts well to captive care, and its smaller size and striking colorations can make it an attractive choice for a pet snake. They are normally docile, and not typically apt to bite or expel musk.”

So, how is it that these two look alike? It’s due to a phenomenon called Batesian Mimicry.

In the 1850s, the naturalist Henry Walter Bates found a certain set of butterflies who were clearly not of the same species but whose wings looked almost the same to the naked eye. After thinking it over, Bates eventually figured out what was going on: While the butterflies which were toxic to potential predators (the “models”) were able to operate freely and relatively unmolested, there had also developed a “mimic” population of butterflies which wasn’t toxic at all, yet still went untouched!

In fact, biologists eventually figured out that the more toxic and dangerous the “model” was and the more frequently they appeared in the local population, the easier it was for its “mimics” to get by! Predators simply wouldn’t take the risk of mixing up the two. If there aren’t as many “models” around or they aren’t that dangerous, the mimics have a harder time.

This is a wonderful model, and in the practical world we live in, a similar phenomenon abounds: Copycats or “pretenders to the throne” are often very effective, very convincing “mimics” of the true champions. They dress the part, they talk the talk, and they know what buttons to push. But in the end, they are merely chauffeurs.

We see a very Batesian effect at work: The more impressive the “model,” the more effective its mimics can be in convincing people they too are impressive, and in all the same ways. But for every Warren Buffett (just one by our count), there has been many “future” Warren Buffett’s. For every Steve Jobs, there have been many “next” Steve Jobs’.

In fact, sometimes even just appearances can be quite convincing: now-disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was very fond of wearing a very Steve Jobsian black turtleneck outfit.

It seems almost a law of nature that success will be copied, sometimes in a very disgraceful way. (Charlie Munger thinks that the fundamental algorithm of life is “Repeat what works.”)

Because they can be very convincing,  we must be wise enough to watch out for Batesian mimicry — even in ourselves.

This brings up an interesting, at times paradoxical, question: Who can best tell the difference between a Coral Snake and its Mimics? The Coral Snake itself.

The real thing knows a fake. Charlie Munger once commented on this in relation to the field of money management:

“It’s very hard to tell the difference between a good money manager and someone who just has the patter down. If you aren’t a good money manager yourself, rather than trying to pick one, you’re probably better off with a low cost index fund. ‘It takes one to know one’.”

***

An insight this good is only possible through continued study across the largest and most relevant fields of study. Peter got this idea by studying biology, a field full of incredible insight but, strangely underappreciated by most “non-biologists”. It’s not just ideas about predators and prey, but niches, competition, co-evolutionary arms races and a whole host of others which give us massive insight into the human world.

Peter realized that studying across fields like biology and physics is something like buying an index fund: It works because you captures all the important companies traded on the public exchange, not just a select few. That means you capture the massive winners, which tend to greatly outweigh the failures.

Studying across all of the important fields gives you the same advantage, except it’s even better: If an index fund buys a new position, it must sell something to do so; consequently, the “big winners” can only impact your portfolio in a limited way. But if you come to understand a new Great Idea, you don’t have to give up the ones you already know! This is a great advantage.

And so it’s worth taking the time to work on learning all the big ideas you can find, not just the ones you want to learn. In that search, you’ll find a host of big winners you didn’t even know existed.

If you liked this post, you’ll probably also love:

The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems — How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It’s important to have both tools available at your disposal.

The Founder Principle: A Wonderful Idea from Biology — In his brilliant The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen gives us not only the stories of many brilliant biological naturalists including Mayr, but we also get a deep dive into the core concepts of evolution and extinction, including the Founder Effect.

Biology Enables. Culture Forbids. — From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.