• Mentorship vs Management — Solving the problem


    Ok, so in my last post on the subject, I outlined the core problem surrounding mentorship and management in most businesses today.   This problem is seen everywhere from startups to bigger companies, but is probably most prevalent at larger organizations.  The core problem, succinctly summarized, is:

    • management and mentorship are separate things that require different skills and experiences
    • most companies make the mistake of likening the two and assuming they are one growth path
    • companies further err on the side of management, assuming it is more important and value

    The goal of this post is to explore some solutions to this problem.   Or perhaps more simply stated: ways to think about this better.

    How do you get mentorship and management right in your organization?

    First things first: you need to get mentorship and management right in your organization.  Step 1: Perhaps the best way to get started in that direction is to understand that the skillsets truly are different. Sit down and map out the roles within your organization, and better understand where your gaps are today.  If you don’t feel like you have any gaps today .. then go look in the mirror .. because you are probably going to be looking at the gap.

    Being an entrepreneur, I am most familiar with the world of small and rapidly growing businesses.  In organizations like these, the first thing you want to do is look at the founding team.  Are you leaning one way or the other as an individual?  What about your co-founders?   My guess is that at least half of a founding team is going to lean pretty heavily on the mentorship side.

    Why?  Because it’s pretty hard to get from ‘zero to business’ without being reasonably good at doing as opposed to managing.  Of course, in some rare cases, you have a founding team that is stronger at management than mentoring (but they probably had capital to begin with or had a very early stage backer).  In either case, however, the outcome is the same: the founding team needs to work quickly to putting a team around themselves that complements their skills.  For a team that is mentor-heavy, they need to get some rock-solid managers in place right away.  If they don’t, they will end up building a mentorship bias very quickly because the whole company will be good at doing, but very few people will be good at managing.  Google, anyone?  (To be fair, I am totally guessing that Google may be this way only because I have heard they have a very strong ‘doer’ bias and I know a few employees who have cited awful managers.)

    Step 2: The next thing you want to do is examine you reward structure. Is your organization assuming that mentorship and management are the same thing?  Are people being promoted and rewarded through one path?  In other words, are people being forced to switch from one path to the other in order to grow within the organization?   This is almost certainly going to be the case, even if it’s not completely wrong.  More likely than not, you will find small (but significant) biases throughout the org chart.  Map out the path again, this time, thinking critically about how certain functions of the business will need to be mentored.  Think separately about how and who will manage.  Overlapping the two roles into one person may be a reality given the constraints of your company today, but you should have a plan for growth that allows you to mature out of that thinking as soon as you can.

    Step 3: Think about things from a process perspective. Thinking about the people in the organization isn’t a bad place to start, but the processes need to be examined as well.  Again, given that your organization is likely to be biased today, you are probably only thinking about one side of the equation.  Well, actually.. because traditional organizational theory lends itself mostly to management, you are probably biased in that direction today (unless you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing.)

    Your management process should be structured around getting things done.   But your mentorship process should be about making things excellent (as well as making people excellent).  You should have a process for both.  Also, you should, in the long-term, have a process owner for both.  One is going to be your lead manager.. and the other will be your lead mentor.  You’ll probably want one of each for nearly every function of your business.

    What might this look like when it’s done right?

    Here is a guess it what it might look like from an org chart perspective:

    Doing it right involves equality and voluntary transitions.

    Why is it worth it to do this right?

    It’s not fair for me to recommend doing this within your organization without believing that it has real ROI.  Good news: it does.  Bad news: I don’t really have any proof (yet).

    So for now, without much hard evidence, we should just explore this intuitively.  Why does it make sense to think about mentorship and management differently in your organization, to structure the processes, the rewards, and the growth differently?  Because:

    • People will be getting way more awesome work done as a result of the best doers spending their time doing and the best managers managing.
    • When mentorship has been stripped out of traditional roles of management, your organization will be less bureaucratic, and will have way fewer managers.
    • By promoting and rewarding mentorship, you’ll have a more healthy mix of junior and senior people, which will allow you to get the most bang for the buck.
    • You will be able to obtain and retain the best talent in the world because most folks at that level realize what they love doing.  (It’s generally one or the other)
    • You will have better morale and happiness throughout your company — which will drive a stronger culture and will ultimately increase productivity.
  • Mentorship vs Management


    A surprising number of companies get management completely wrong.  So many companies, in fact, that I hesitate to write this post because I wonder if I am going to be giving away some sort of secret that no one in the ‘corporate world’ seems to know.

    The problem that I have seen in most organizational structures is what I call a ‘management bias.’   In order to understand the problem, we must examine the ways that people can lead in an organization.  I’d say there are basically two ways: mentorship and management.

    Mentorship is about:

    • being excellent at something
    • helping others become more excellent at that thing
    • creating process to review excellence
    • implementing the excellence review process
    • running a continuous learning program
    • taking the top folks on your team under your wing to help ‘train them to train’ others

    Management is about:

    • building clarity about what core objectives are
    • creating a process by which to divide and conquer tasks
    • defining how success is measured
    • creating a process by which to prioritize and execute
    • implementing the process by which to prioritize and execute
    • keeping track of who is focused on what

    You can see from the quick bullet points above that these two ways of leading actually require significantly different skillsets.  You may get the occasional rare person who is good at both, but you certainly shouldn’t count on it.

    So what’s the problem with most companies?  Well, they don’t realize the difference between the ways of leading above.  Instead, they assume corporate life is about one path and one trajectory.  Let me illustrate (the best way I can) visually.  We’ll use the example of engineering in most organizations.  Here’s what the typical career progression looks like:

    Most companies force their employees to switch from the mentorship path to the management path. Sad.

    As you can see above, and as you may be familiar with, most companies view positions of mentorship as ‘lower level positions.’  As such, a glass ceiling is placed above you.  If you intend to grow in your career (in compensation, stature in your organization, etc), then you must basically make a switch from ‘doing’ to ‘managing.’

    That’s such an unfortunate and painful trade-off!!  Why?  Because the people who often get recognized and promoted within an organization are top performers at ‘doing.’  That’s what makes them potentially great mentors.  But instead, the company will promote them into management, where they are completely unproven.  So, in most cases, you lose your best engineer and gain your worst manager. Talk about a lose-lose.

    There are plenty of other reasons that this approach is painful and misguided.    To name a few: you are compensating the person for the wrong thing.  They are highly paid by this point in their career because of how good they are at doing the activity in question (in this case, engineering).  But you are moving them to a management position, where they are relatively green and are likely to make serious mistakes.  This means that they are drastically over-compensated.  Furthermore, you are assuming that management is harder than it is. I hate to burst bubbles here, but management, at a basic level, is over-rated.  The primary reason for this is that people are blurring the lines between mentorship and management.  If you take the mentorship part out of management .. it’s basically administrative.

    Well, I have presented the problem in this post.  That’s a good stopping point.  Marinate in this for a while, and I’ll come back in a while with some proposed solutions.

  • Live blogging from IAS 10 — Designing for emotion and flow


    I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on some really interesting sessions here at IASummit 2010.  I have never tried to liveblog from a conference before, but why not start now?

    Here are my notes from the “Designing for Emotion and Flow” talk by Trevor van Gorp (@trevvg)

    • It’s important to take into account emotional states when you are designing a user experience.
    • There are two core dimensions of thinking about emotional states, for the sake of this talk:
      • Anxiety <–> Boredom
      • Unpleasant <–>Pleasant
    • Attention and arousal are directly linked.  Higher contrast designs drive higher arousal.
    • Somewhere between anxiety and boredom lays flow.  If it’s too challenging, people will be anxious.  Too easy, they will be bored.
    • Time and intent are the things that separate emotion from personality.
    • Novice users are focused on tasks that are less challenging.  They are more exploratory and less goal-oriented.
    • Experienced users, however, want more challenging and goal directed use.  They are less exploratory.   The greater the challenge, the more arousal.
    • You must match perceived challenge to the skill level of user.  This is the proper way to get the right sense of engagement.
    • You should focus on core elements that foster flow:
      • Clear navigation
      • Immediate feedback for as many user actions as are relevant
      • Balance the perception of challenge with the user’s skill level.  (Are they just surfing or are they trying to accomplish something?)
    • Adaptable interfaces can help drive the balance piece.  Users can choose the interface to suit their desired level of challenge.

    Overall, I thought this talk was pretty interesting, but the slides pushed through a little fast.  I hope Trevor posts slides online!

  • Create brand advocates.. not enemies!


    This past weekend was full of unpleasant customer service surprises for both my wife and myself.  While my initial reaction was anger and frustration, I have since calmed down and thought about what I could take away from the experience.  The short answer is: quite a lot of learning.

    What I saw in both of my weekend experiences was an alarming disconnect between what the founders set out to do and what the company was actually doing.  I think that’s what scared me so much.  I don’t ever want to look back and realize that I’ve created a monster!  As the company I work for grows, I want to be 100% sure that we scale our experience in a way that is consistent with who we aim to be from a character standpoint.

    The demon mullet-man of Parkside Cafe

    OK, so let’s recount the stories.  My first experience was at a small restaurant at Stinson Beeach called Parkside Cafe.  My group of 8 people walked into the restaurant and asked for seating.  They told us the wait woundn’t be long, so we all sort of stood in the doorway.  I then asked the host where the restroom was, and he looked me up and down and then said that the nearest one was out on the beach.  That means that I had to go outside of the restaurant and walk about 120 yards to find a public bathroom spot out on the beach.  So my friend (who also needed to use the bathroom) and I went searching for it.  We eventually found the bathroom, used it, and walked all the way back to the restaurant in the cold San Francisco beach wind.

    We got inside, sat back down at the table, and eventually began to warm-up.  By the time we had ordered, another two folks who were in our group decided that they needed to use the restroom.  So we explained to them how you have to walk out onto the beach behind the restaurant.  On their way through the restaurant, they ended up finding a bathroom INSIDE THE RESTAURANT.   They came back and explained the situation, and I can still vividly remember the hot anger shooting down my spine.  I was absolutely furious.

    Why would the host send me and my friend out into the cold wind to walk 120 yards to use the bathroom when there was one right there in the restaraunt?   Of course, as soon as I found out, all sorts of things were flying through my head.  Was it personal?  Did this person simply not like us?  Was it racial?  Was I being discriminated against?  What the hell was going on here?  Either way, I needed an explanation.

    Now here’s the critical piece.  Let’s zoom out and meta-talk about this situation.  You have an angry customer who just had an inexplicable experience.  This is bound to happen in any organization anywhere in the world.  The key question is, how are you going to deal with it? How are you going to resolve the situation, rebuild customer trust, and move forward in a way that makes the customer happy?

    And here is where they dropped the ball completely.  As soon as the server brought me my appetizer, I asked to speak with the manager.  That’s when a weird look hit her face and she said, “Oh, I’m sorry.. there is no manager here right now.”  WTF?  There is no manager in the restaurant?  On a Saturday night.. for DINNER?  I said, “Ok, who is the ranking person in the restaurant right now?”  Her response: “Uhh… I don’t know.. I don’t think anyone.”  Ok — at this, fury is now what I’d characterize as rage.  You mean to tell me that you don’t have a manger in the restaurant, and you don’t even have a sense of who can be relied on to solve this problem?  You mean to tell me that your restaurant is built on a zero-empowerment culture?   AWESOME.

    So then, the host (who had a mullet btw.. which makes the story that much better), came over to the table and said “who has a problem here?”  Wow.. this guy must have been trained in customer service.  I said, “me.”  I then asked why he sent me and my friend 120 yards away to find a bathroom when there was one in the store.  “Oh, well, bathrooms are for seated customers only.”  What the hell does that mean?   We were waiting to be seated.. are you telling me that I wasn’t a seated customer?  Why is that distinction even relevant?  Then he says my favorite thing of all: “You had to tell me you were a seated customer.  You can’t just walk up and ask where the bathroom is, or I’ll send you to the beach.”

    Ok, Mullet-Man.  Let me get this straight.  I need to know the secret f&#king password to ask you where the bathroom is, without having ever been to this restaurant before in my life?  Are you listening to the pure stupid that is drooling out of your mouth right now?   Also, this begs the second question — why did you even come over to my table to talk to me? You didn’t apologize.. you weren’t empowered to do anything.. and you basically just told me that it’s MY FAULT for not knowing the secret bathroom password.  Way to go.

    So, I figured that when our food would come out, they would do something (albeit small) to compensate us for the terrible experience.  That’s when I saw an extra order of sweet potato fries.  (Sweet, free fries.. that at least helps).  Later on, I found those fries in the check and ended up paying for them, even though I didn’t order them.

    I left this restaurant feeling truly sad for the founder/owner.  As someone who has started companies before, the idea that you could create such a terrible experience for one of your paying customers without ever even knowing it is truly terrifying.  Whoever runs that place will never even know what happened to me.  Whenever the manager chooses to show up to work, no one is going to tell them that there was a pissed off customer that they did absolutely nothing to help.  They’ll never even know there was a problem.

    PODS being the sleep thief in the night

    So, about as soon as I got to bed on Saturday night, I found my wife’s phone ringing.  It was about 5am, still dark outside, on Sunday morning.  I pick up the phone, and I realize that it’s a PODS recorded message.  Deja Vu.  They called at 5am yesterday too.  I had forgotten about it because I was awake that morning already, and I silenced the phone to prevent my wife from waking up.  The second morning, however, was when I started to realize the ludicrousness of what was taking place.

    Get this: PODs set an auto-caller to call us every 15 minutes, beginning at 5am, until we woke up and answered!  Are you serious?!  So when we picked up the phone, the recorded message tells us that the credit card on file is no longer working and that it must be replaced.  OK, I probably could fix that sometime after 5am.  So I checked my email to understand more about why they called me at 5am.  They had just emailed a day ago with this message about the card being expired.

    So, I’m thinking to myself:  Here I am, a paying customer who has paid on time for the last year and half, paying thousands of dollars into your service.  And your excellent customer experience is as follows:  Send an email.  Wait 24 hours.  Harass via phone beginning at 5am, and calling every 15 minutes until user wakes up furious.  User may have guests in town for holiday weekend.  Proceed not to care, and act like a collection agency.  Call back next morning at 5am.

    So, my wife, naturally furious.. calls them back to solve the problem and to understand why they are treating us like total garbage.  After talking with customer service, we find out that there was actually NO PROBLEM WITH OUR CREDIT CARD AT ALL.  They just had to re-run it and everything was fine.  Did you not think of doing that before you called us at 5am and seven different times thereafter on Easter Sunday?   And when we complained.. saying that we expected to be treated better.. all they could do was put us on the line with a platinum customer service represantive?  First of all, what does that even mean?  Second of all, what are you going to do for us?

    Again, let’s meta talk.  You just massively screwed up.  You treated a paying customer like dirt for no apparent reason.  This customer is angry and it won’t take much to ease the anger.  Step 1 — try apologizing.  Step 2 — do something to make them feel like they are worth something and that you appreciate their business.  I don’t know, give them a month free.. send them a gift…we’re not talking about breaking open the piggy bank.  Just don’t do NOTHING. That’s the easiest way to create a brand enemy.

    And that’s exactly what PODS did.  The customer service rep repeated (over and over) that there was nothing they could do.  They were sorry that their automated system called us nearly ten times beginning at 5am.  The best they could do was to ensure it didn’t call again (by charging us!!)  Of course, it did end up calling 2 more times after that.

    Why is it so damned important not to suck at this?

    So, I’ve had time to reflect on this, and I realized just how important it is to learn from these two awful experiences.  The first question people ask (and most times, they just jump to the answer) is: are these people just terribly inept or actually flat-out evil?  I mean, let’s think about it.  When the owner of that restaurant started it.. was she thinking.. “hey, I want to ruin peoples’ saturday nights for living?”   I am going to guess not.

    Do the extremely-well-compensated executives at PODS sit in a room around a whiteboard thinking of the dumbest possible ways to proceed forward strategically?   Or do they just sit around and guess at ways to make remarkably pissed off customers?  I mean, what else is someone left to conclude?

    But that’s just the thing.  It can’t really be that way.  I mean, these are probably MBA-carrying experienced executives that are known for being hotshots at what they do.  By most normal measures, they are probably considered to be great leaders.  After all, someone on that leadership team must actually OWN the division of customer service.  They CAME UP with this ‘phoneblasting strategy’ to recover payments from delinquint accounts.  They presented it to a team that nodded their heads and said, ‘yep, we gotta do this.’

    And that’s the part of all this that keeps me up at night.  What I have come to realize is that all this stuff is really ‘user experience’ in the end.  The way you treat the customer at every touch point comes together in aggregate to create their experience with your brand.  If you don’t wholistically approach your strategy for each touch point.. you can never consistently deliver a quality experience.  And much like with Web UI, the secret to user experience lays in the details and in the corner cases.  You have to actually foresee what the user is going to feel like.  And when in doubt, you have to actually test the experience.  Or at the very least, ask the user to guess at how they will feel.

    These two experiences make me think twice about how we scale our business.  After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Intentions are not good enough.  We need to build an organization where people are empowered to do the right thing.  Where people WANT to do the right thing.  It’s not about the customer always being right.  The customer is often times wrong.  Instead, its about treating them with respect making sure they understand they are valued.   And when you screw up, fix it.  Turn them into a brand advocate .. not a brand enemy.

  • Agile office space continued


    Ok, so I have had the opportunity to sink my teeth into workplace design a bit more in recent days.  My recap of requirements is as follows:

    • We need collaborative space — so that people who are working on laptops/workstations can work together seamlessly.
    • We also need space that allows people to focus and get work done on their own.
    • The space has to look good and feel good for the employees – because we want to attract the best talent and keep them happy.
    • The space has to align with our culture.  We’re a creative company to whom style matters.
    • We are on a budget, and we’re still a scrappy young company, so we don’t want to be ridiculous.
    • The workplace must be agile and allow us to adapt to change quickly and easily.

    So far, I’ve had the opportunity to research what other interesting companies have been doing with their workspaces.  I’ve also done some research on what some of the leading workspace design companies have come up with.  So I feel a little smarter on the subject.

    Here are some things that are really interesting to me:

    Pair-Programming Stations

    The more I think about it, the more I think that having workstations like the one shown below would be really solid for pairing:

    If you want to insert best practices into engineering, you have be willing to walk the walk.  You can’t just preach it and then ask two people to cram together around a 17-inch MacBookPro.  It’s not realistic, and it doesn’t jive with human nature.  If people aren’t comfortable in the pairing environment they are put in, they will just stop pairing.  (Duh.)

    Collaboration for Bigger Teams

    I think the above is relatively doable.  But what about for larger collaborative teams?  How do we get a workspace that suits the needs of 3-4 people working together on a creative project?

    I was checking out the local Steelcase showroom and I saw a few things that really piqued my interest.  One was a collaborative space that allowed people to share what they were looking at in real-time.  It’s called “media:scape.”  Unfortunately, they don’t have great pictures up online, but these will give you a sense:

    The idea here is that anyone can just walk up to a space like this and sit down with their laptop.  They can then work collaboratively as a collaborative team, easily tapping the ‘puck’ on the table to have the larger screen show what they are working on.  Does that sound productive and effective to you?  It sure does to me!

    I am just thinking about how much time and effort (and thereby, money) that we’ve spent in the past just trying to get setup to show other people in the room what we are working on.  That problem is exacerbated significantly when there are multiple folks in the room trying to show people what they are up to at the same time.

    Finally, and potentially just as interestingly, this kind of setup is totally useful from a user testing standpoint.  Being able to easily sit around a table with a testing participant and have a small group in the room observing their interactions would be fantastic, and apparently not that hard to set up!

  • Agile office space


    I had a remarkably interesting week.  First of all, I realized that we needed an office space last month here in San Francisco.  (At ModCloth speed, we need everything last month!)  With the rate at which we are planning to hire, it’s critical that we find a solid space that suits our needs today and gives us a tiny bit of room to grow.

    But the more exciting part, of course, is thinking about how to design the space.  I think that workplace design is easy to overlook.  By that, I mean that people won’t give it the attention it deserves.  Of course, they’ll buy furniture, they’ll go through the motions.. but they won’t REALLY THINK ABOUT IT.

    That’s what I am trying to avoid when I think about building out our San Francisco office.  In the end, a lot of life boils down to ‘user experience.’  Whether you are shopping on the web, playing golf at a well-designed course, or sitting down at your desk to get some work done, someone SHOULD have thought through your experience and worked to to make it pleasurable and easier.

    I guess that someone is me.  Given the urgent timeframe, it’s up to me to get smart about this really quickly.  So here’s what I’m thinking:

    • Collaboration is of critical importance to any creative organization, ours included.
    • Most workspaces don’t REALLY center around collaboration.
    • People especially don’t think about the realities of human nature.
    • Furthermore people don’t think about the ‘little things’ that drive usability, or lack thereof.
    • Form is important, but function is more important in a space that people work for 8 or more hours each day.
    • We want to promote an atmosphere of collaboration as well as distraction-free work, somehow at the same time.

    We’ll have a variety of roles at work at our San Francisco office:

    • Marketing
    • UX Design
    • Graphic Design
    • Product Management
    • Engineering
    • Administrative

    It feels to me like most of the people in the workplace will be collaborating in others in cross-functional teams.  If not all the time, then people will be working in teams for at least some part of their day.

    How do we effectively promote that kind of work?  What we really want in these collaborative workspaces is for people to be able to work in close proximity and to share what they are working on with other people when that’s useful.  At some point, their teammates and colleagues will want to share back.  But the whole day won’t be sharing.  Just the times that need that collaboration.  (Unless, of course, they are engineers doing full-time pairing — but we’ll come back to that.)

    In an ideal world, people would even be able to seamlessly collaborate on the same workstation from time-to-time — using different sets of mice and keyboards to drive the same machine.  This way, they can all collaborate in real-time on something.

    But once a shared understanding has been built within the cross-functional team, it’s likely that people will need to do some heads-down (distraction free) work on their own.  Working in a group-setting all day would make it nearly impossible to actually get anything done.  So they’d need the ability to get into the zone and focus somehow.   Does that happen somewhere other than the collaborative space?  In other words, can people move from a private place to a more collaborative space throughout the workday?  Possibly.

    So what does that workspace look like?   Well… that’s what I am trying to figure out.  Would love insight from others.  I’ll continue this thread in another post soon…