How to be a small organization man or woman

Many HatsIn small organizations, each member of the team wears many hats. You have to. It’s not economical to have one person write marketing copy, another to pull Salesforce reporting, and another person make the copies and take out the trash. Often times, a single person must do some of all of the above. Everyone must pitch in to help complete tasks and responsibilities outside of his or her title, station or department.

In our office of 12, we have titles and reporting relationships like every company does. That said, the titles are loosely held, and the formal reporting relationship doesn’t matter as much as the working relationships do. You don’t ‘report to’ a superior as much as you are ‘accountable to’ your teammates. We frown on pulling rank to win a point, and invoking top managers’ names in order to get something done. We try to make the best idea prevail, regardless of its provenance. Another thing is that we don’t have anyone whose roles are strictly administrative. You make your own copies, take your turn vacuuming half the office once a month, and help put in the Costco order.

I like the way we operate, and believe that our ways are appropriate for our size. I also recognize that we aren’t a fit for everyone. There are folks who prefer the predictability of formal reporting relationships, and the security that comes with higher (or lower) rank. They’d prefer to have someone else take out the trash and order the water for the cooler. And that’s ok. But it’s tough to operate a small office with even just one person who is oriented in this (I’ll call) ‘big company’ way.

It’s not easy to tell during an interview process or even during the honeymoon phase of a person’s joining our team whether they are more ‘small company’ or ‘big company’ in orientation. But we’ve found that inevitably, people in the latter camp tend to ask a three-word question that all but confirms that they are not well suited for small company life: “What’s my job?”

On its face, it’s an innocent question. But the truthful small team answer (“To do with alacrity all that the company and the team need”) tends not to satisfy. The person asking usually wants a job description laying out in concrete terms what she or he is to do during work hours. Such a description is difficult to produce in a small company context, especially if the company is poised to grow. There are too many items to enumerate, too many uncertainties. So companies end up putting in blanket descriptors at the end, like: “Other tasks and responsibilities as directed by supervisor.” We do the same thing.

Clarity of purpose is important even for those in small, growing organizations. I encourage our teammates to ask what their roles are, and I give a clear perspective when they do. But there’s a tremendous difference between asking “What’s my role?” and “What’s my job?” The innocent-sounding “What’s my job?” often foretells the future appearance of its more problematic four-word cousin: “That’s not my job.”

My small organization cannot afford to employ those whose conception of role is necessarily explicit and who require their jobs to be spelled out. This will change as we grow. Over time, we must exercise the discipline of more strictly defined roles, because doing so will help support organizational integrity. But for the moment, the members of our small team are necessarily flexible. Put another way, if your burning question at work is “What’s my job?” my answer is always this: your role is to contribute to our team and our growth in all the ways you can.


Happy Birthday, John the Elder

John Cawthorne

John Cawthorne

On August 14, 2012, I lost a friend and mentor to complications from cancer. John E. Cawthorne not only saw me safely through my late teens and all of my twenties, but he also understood me well and encouraged me to be who I am. I didn’t always know who I am. I was shaped throughout college by my various run-ins with the establishment, the Black Student Forum in particular. I always said what I thought, and when I got in trouble for it, John would stand by me and help me feel rooted in my own perspective. I am deeply thankful for his influence. I would not have had the courage to be me in those days without his loving and active presence.

I also benefited in numerous material ways from John’s guidance. He told me to wait before declaring my advanced standing in college so I would not lose out on valuable scholarship dollars. He let me overload my schedule without charge so I could graduate early, and helped me secure a valuable and scarce residential on campus parking permit by letting me pick up a practicum ‘course.’ He even told me that the best place to park during home football games, when there was no student parking allowed, was a little side street called Chestnut Hill Rd. off Beacon St.

And oh the books. Over the years during and after college, he sent me a small stockpile of good books, both fiction and non. Among my favorites is the very first book John presented me after reading and grading my class journal for a seminar he taught: Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I also benefited from John’s longtime subscription to the Boston Symphony. I saw Seiji Ozawa conduct many times from John’s orchestra seats, and was enthralled to see one night that the soloist was none other than the great and now late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It was an unforgettable night. John used to say that someone would have to die before he would have a shot at a more central pair of subscription seats (his were off to the far left). Now, someone else will have a shot at his.

Ever since John passed away, there’s been a recurring memory I have had. In 2002, I had a fleeting summer romance with a young fellow across the river at another college, mostly long distance as I was in Boston and he in Atlanta. One day as I went about my business at the research center where I was interning (a center founded by John), my young lover sent me an email declaring that he no longer deemed it appropriate to speak to me. He would devote himself to God, he wrote, and eliminate my affections as they presented a distraction.

I was stung and yet delayed in my reaction. In a trance-like state, I managed to forward the email to John, perhaps with a romantic quip about the end of an affair. And after casting about for a minute or two, I made my way down from the third floor of Campion Hall to his office suite on the first floor. I had scarcely set foot into his lobby when I saw him rushing out of his private office, hurriedly putting on his signature tweed blazer with elbow patches. Seeing me, he gave me a look of utter compassion, gripped me tightly in his arms, and led me into his office as the tears started to flow.

I didn’t know I needed to cry until John’s reaction showed me it was ok. I didn’t know I wanted anyone’s support until I saw him already coming to get me and was touched by his pressing concern. I didn’t know how I would get past it all but he would always say “It’s ok” — with a certain intonation on the oh-Kay — and an emphasis on one’s darker emotions being perfectly admissible in the conscious world. The world wasn’t what was ok, and the people around us were often less than ok, but what we felt and thought, however inappropriate and unformed for public consumption — those were always oh-Kay to John. And they thus became oh-Kay to me. Later, it turned out that my young boyfriend’s jealous mother had conducted the hurtful email charade and not him, but we broke up just the same and all was, indeed, oh-Kay.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that tight hug in the two weeks since John died. When I closed my eyes, I could feel it. I remember everything about that moment in such sharp relief. I feel small and helpless, and abandoned — just as I felt when I went wandering down to John’s office that hot and fateful day in August 2002. It hurts me deeply to know that he will not, this time, come rushing out en route to find and comfort me. This one is for me alone. And I owe it to John to, at last, be oh-Kay.

Happy Birthday, John. I love you, and I miss you. I hope you are free from pain, and shooting the shit and chain smoking with your black, female God. Bottoms up.

How do I know you’ll be a great co-worker when I’ve never worked with you?

Every day, I am searching for new members of my team or extended team. As Co-CEO of a growing senior services company, I can’t co-lead effectively unless there are great people with whom we can share the work.

What do I mean by “great people” for our team? My answer here is not different from the ones that other CEOs at Valley firms often give: smart, energetic, committed, willing, motivated, pleasant, mature — these are some adjectives we’d like to check off in our interview process. The emphasis changes depending on who is speaking, what the job entails, what the company culture is like, and so forth. And I’d say further that most hiring managers I know don’t care what gender, age, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, and other attributes candidates have. We just want them to be great to work with, and to deliver excellent work.

So how do I figure out whether they would be both before I actually start working with them? Well I can’t. Even the very best in the hiring business only get it right half the time, according to an excellent organizational consulting firm I have moonlighted for and co-written with. What I can do is aggressively weed out the ones that I know won’t work out. Here are some notes from actual candidates I have interviewed and vetted. These would not have worked out.

  • The gunner who wanted too much: A young man who had just graduated from a top 50 college wanted an entry-level Business Development role. I liked his sense of hustle and his answers to my questions were sharp and insightful. I didn’t think much of it when he referenced right at the outset that he was looking at a few other things. Good candidates often parallel process several opportunities. But then, when I eventually extended a verbal offer, he very clearly wanted to use it to drum up competing offers. He also wanted a significant bump over what I had offered (because, he hastily explained, his new landlord required that he make a certain amount), as well as equity (from a company that does not have an equity plan). It was too many asks, and I realized that he wanted way more than this company could give for someone of his profile — namely an unproven without a track record of success. I also realized that he didn’t understand the nature of the job I was offering him: the opportunity to work on real projects that matter, and have significant responsibilities and learning experiences that would pay off over his career. It was a poor fit. I passed and wished him well.
  • The woman who wanted too little (and too much): This woman was a recent mom who had left a fairly high-powered job at Fortune 1000 firm. I liked her. She was easy to talk to. She also gave crisp, clear descriptions of projects she had worked on and assignments that had ended successfully. But there was a catch: She only wanted a part-time job that was also flexible. She also did not want to have any set meeting times. Plus, she wanted to be a remote employee. It was tough to imagine onboarding a new person and getting her integrated into a team without the aid of face time, regular meetings, or even the promise of a certain minimum number of work hours in a day. Perhaps this was a roundabout way of saying she was not interested in working with my team. Perhaps she didn’t really want to work anymore, and this was her way of testing herself. I do understand the allure of motherhood, and that new moms often don’t want to go back to work right away. But I don’t know of any company that could agree to the terms she laid out unless the work didn’t matter very much, or she was the only person in the world who could do it. Either way, it would not work for us.
  • The both/and woman: Before I tell this story, I’ll say this. Folks who are stuck in jobs they don’t like often have a love/hate relationship with them. On one hand, the job pays the bills and has been ok enough to stick around. On the other hand, there are aspects of the job that cause one to yearn for something more, and to troll Craigslist in search of alternate realities. And in between, there are usually some things that amount to adverse incentives: the flex time, the loose discipline, the lack of standards, the low workload, the easy street, the list goes on. These feel nice to have, and can make a bad job oddly sticky. The woman who came in to interview was quite impressive in her fearless approach to understanding what the job was and whether she would be successful at it. She was both expressive and direct. She described the frustration of being at a firm where she wasn’t learning anything, and had no real responsibilities. (The new job would have had plenty of both goods.) But when presented with the option to join the team, she hesitated. She wanted to take the extended vacations she had planned. She wanted my partner the other co-CEO to train her on weekends and nights, when she gallantly offered to come in to work (between her two vacations). She wanted more money. And so on. I had prepared an offer letter, but never sent it. I finally tired of her many asks, and rescinded my verbal offer. In the final analysis, she wanted to keep the perks of her job while adding the challenges of a new one. Her decision required a tradeoff — one that she ultimately did not want to make. Too bad.

Whenever we say no to a candidate, I wonder if we are letting someone go who actually would be a great new member of our team. We learn about the false positives in the hiring business, but not the false negatives. I am aware that the three people I have profiled here could have been awesome. But in the moment of truth that always comes in major decisions on work, life, and love, all three ended up showing me what they valued most in that moment. And it was not an opportunity to join our team.

What happens when you grow old?

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
— T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

What happens when you grow old? Do you look and dress differently? Do your habits change? Do your perspectives change? What is different? (What stays the same?)

I’m abstracting as I tend to, but the concrete starting point is a recurring thought about my dear grandmother. She recently fell down a set of concrete stairs and tragically lost the ability to walk unaided.

“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” rings in my ears. I cannot imagine my Korean-speaking grandmother ever saying that (in any language). In my mind’s eye, I see her crumpled against the cold stairs of my aunt’s three-story concrete building, which doubles as a residence and place of business. I don’t hear much beyond a low whimper. I wonder how long it took for my aunt or my aunt’s housekeeper to realize she was missing and to find her. And immediately I feel a pang.

To be honest, when I think of my grandmother navigating a set of stairs, a tandem image emerges: that of a toddler trying out a set of stairs before she can balance and sustain her weight on one foot. The toddler instinctively grasps for the banister and goes slowly, step by step. There is usually a mother nearby, keeping a watchful eye and encouraging the child along.

My grandmother does not want to be compared to a child and would be disapproving if I told her I had. She does not want me, her daughters, or anyone else keeping watch over her walk down any stairs. If any of us uttered a word of encouragement, she would feel patronized. The truth is that my grandmother has a very clear memory of when she used to be able to run up and down those same stairs. That capable person is alive and well in her mind’s eye.

In her mind’s eye, she is creative, resourceful, and whole.

This is a realization that makes me stop short: She rejects today’s version of herself. This is not who she is. She is an accomplished teacher turned retiree who gardens on the roof of her middle daughter’s building. The small plot is startlingly productive, and I easily slip into comparing her four decades’ crop of grade-school students with perfectly grown pimentos, lettuce, and tomatoes. If she gives up her garden, who is she then?

What’s next in old age is unclear but clearly less desirable. I have to fundamentally accept aging as a slowing down and as a giving back of abilities I have carefully honed over a lifetime. It would behoove me to forget or just let go of a younger, abler me. My grandmother is not good at this. And I don’t think I will be very good at it either.

The understanding is a powerful one, but I don’t know how to convert it to being helpful. I don’t want to make my grandmother feel three years old again. I also don’t want to confirm that she is 83 by buying her a cane. I want to help her feel strong and able — at whatever middle age she wants to be. And she has been helping me with some inspiration:

I recently learned that she uses a long sturdy umbrella in place of a cane. What a clever idea! Both have curved handles and can support her little body. But one makes her feel old and broken. There must be a great many more umbrellas out there. Umbrellas for sunny days: I think that’s what you need when you grow old.

This industry destroys value

I am the co-leader of a company in the medical alert / medical alarm industry. Our industry and service are immortalized by the tragically effective marketing slogan “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” (a registered trademark of Life Alert, and before that, LifeCall). Their commercials are a part of television Americana from the 1980s.

Help! I’ve Fallen!

The service, as the classic commercial demonstrates, is pretty simple:

  1. You pay a monthly fee for the medical alert / medical alarm service. The fee gets you a device that you plug in, and a smaller wireless device that you wear.
  2. The wireless device is a simple push button. When pressed, it sends a distress signal to the plug in unit, which dials a private emergency dispatcher.
  3. The dispatcher accesses a database with instructions on how you want your calls to be handled. They can call anyone you want or send your local 911 responder.

Why is this service valuable?

  • For starters, pressing a button is easy. 9-1-1 is an easy number too, but when you’re in a real emergency, going to a phone and dialing three numbers can be challenging. (Our own customers have reported to us many situations when they “forgot how to dial 9-1-1.”) The same problem challenges smartphone users. The advent of smartphones makes many things possible. But in a true emergency, you don’t want to unlock your smartphone with your shaking hands and tap the “Emergency Call” icon. It’s not easy enough.
  • Related, the help button does one thing well. It belongs in the class of goods that you only want doing one thing well: fire hydrants, smoke detectors, emergency brakes, and the like. The classic medical alert is not laden with extra features like pill reminders, fall detectors, and GPS. It is a simple button that triggers a call.
  • And finally, the medical alarm is one of the few devices that provides passive support. Active support in senior care is the nursing home, or home healthcare. No support is, well, no support. Passive is on demand support. It doesn’t intrude or make you feel surveilled.

So far so good, right? Niche industry of $1bn that provides a specific service to fill a specific need. So let’s now view it through the lens of Porter’s Five Forces:

  • Threat of New Entrants – Pretty high. It is easy to be a mom and pop in this industry. Many industry players provide, effectively, franchising services for people who want to be in this industry. Just as any mom and pop can open up a diner, they can open up a help button shop. Grow it over time, and it can become a strong regional player. If one strong regional player buys another strong regional player, you have the makings of a national business.
  • Threat of Substitutes – The biggest substitute is doing nothing. People don’t like wearing the button (because it can make them feel old and unpretty), so this is often a delayed purchase. By the time you realize you need a help button, it may actually be time for a nursing home.
  • Buyer Power – Usually the buyer is a first-time buyer, so there isn’t much of a knowledge base. That cuts both ways: a skilled seller can probably make hay. A self-serve model or unskilled salesforce will end up competing on price, which puts the power back into the buyer’s hands. (Most salespeople in this industry are not skilled.)
  • Supplier Power – There aren’t many quality suppliers of dispatching services or medical alarm equipment. The suppliers own the market. (And unfortunately, the vast majority don’t innovate.)
  • Competition – Tons. Cf. “Threat of New Entrants.”

Oof. I come from the restaurant industry, which is notoriously difficult to succeed in. This industry’s similarly weak strength has me wondering whether I should ask my old boss at Panera Bread for my job back. Especially when I realize that players in this industry behave in ways that defeat us all.

Two Men Walk into a PERS Conference…

No, this is not the start of a bad joke. PERS, for the record, is “Personal Emergency Response System,” the formal name of our industry. The two men are folks on my team, and they went to the PERS industry’s only conference, MAMA. Their mission was to catch up with other players in the industry, and to listen and learn at the lectures and discussion sessions. A topic of particular interest was a spate of robo-dialing targeting senior citizens that had been reported throughout the country. It was so aggressive that the Federal Trade Commission was investigating it (and still is). Reports of people being targeted by the robocalling are rampant.

Good industries respond to epidemics like this with alacrity and purpose. They stamp these transgressors out because what they do gives everybody a bad name. This industry does not. In fact, at the PERS conference, our company’s two representatives walked into a meeting about robocalling to find a lawyer explaining how to do it and thread the needle so that the activity cannot be found illegal. Complicit in the presentation is our competitor who puts on this conference.

This is wrong. We serve a vulnerable population of Americans. We have to protect them, not gather in smoky backrooms to find legal loopholes to screw them without getting caught. We have to stop the people who are destroying value. We need to do better by those we serve.