Archive for the ‘Empathy’ Category

What I’ve Learned Over a Career

September 19, 2019

By Peter Zaballos

Reflections Upon Retiring

I have officially “stopped working,” which is a way of avoiding saying I have retired. I’m still active on two technology company boards. Still very much on a number of near-vertical learning curves.

But leaving my professional role has caused me to look back. And looking back, it’s easy to see and feel what was meaningful — and what wasn’t — in 30+ years of building high-growth technology companies. Let’s start with what wasn’t.

What wasn’t meaningful were the financial and business milestones I had a hand in achieving,  because business metrics are outcomes — of strategy, execution, and culture — but they aren’t the end in themselves. They’re the means to an end. I helped three companies change the very shape of computing, and only one of these companies — LSI Logic — had the winning trifecta of brilliant strategy, incredible execution, and a culture of compassion and performance. C-Cube Microsystems and RealNetworks failed miserably on culture.

And along the way I met some incredible, incredible people. People with staggering intellect and, most importantly, people with huge hearts and abundant generosity. But I also met a lot of people with none of those qualities. And who seemed to become quite successful as well. That was puzzling and frustrating.

And the long hours I put into my different roles? Not a lot of meaning there. As a matter of fact, the further into my career I got, and the higher I rose in the executive ranks, the more jaded I became at the devotion to long hours. 

I wish I could have told this to my younger self, especially when my wife and I were in the thick of raising four children born over a span of five years. A few years ago, when I was at SPS Commerce, I heard a sales rep tell a group of people they had cut their honeymoon short by two days, at the insistence of their manager, to attend a meeting. As I sat there I thought — with the benefit of hindsight — that no meeting would be worth cutting your honeymoon short.

[And it told me about the real culture at that company. Not the one written down. More on this topic further down.]

And on a related note, I also grew weary of the need to always being “hard core” about competing, about winning, almost for winning’s sake, of what in the end were ephemeral competitions.

But when I think back to what was meaningful, it really came down to this: being in a position of power and authority to create the conditions where the people that worked for me could do their best work and discover their best selves. To set the tone, to shape the culture. To be able to actively work to achieve equality in the departments I led. And to be a voice on an exec team pushing for equality across the companies I worked at.

Equality created lasting effects for the people on my teams, and is the polar opposite of a business metric. The people on my teams were able to achieve and exceed business metrics/targets because they could be valued for their contributions. 

The first time I noticed inequity in a specific case was when I was at RealNetworks in 1999 — having joined through their acquisition of Vivo Software — and I inherited a department to run. The first homework I gave myself was to look at compensation across my teams, by role and by gender. I discovered one woman was paid substantially less than her male counterparts. 

It took almost a year of fighting process and bureaucracy to “true-up” this woman’s compensation. And it started me doing a similar analysis in every leadership role I had after that. But that was super tactical, from ground level looking skyward.

I think the first time I realized the impact I could have on equality and culture from the top down was when I wrote my first user manual when I was an exec at SPS Commerce. This simple document simply outlined what I expected of myself, my peers, and the people on my teams. 

Feel free to check out my User Manual

It was the act of writing this document where it dawned on me that not only did I have the ability to set a tone of equality in the orgs I led, but that I had an obligation to my teams and to myself to do so. I was literally kind of giddy over the next few months.

The flip side is that it was sobering to realize how much opportunity I took for granted as a man that women had to work for, fight for, or just resign themselves to never having. And I discovered this because once it became clear for my teams that our values and culture were real, the results were shocking:

  • That the  woman on my team (quote is above, sent to me and her manager) thanked me for making her feel comfortable and empowered to take time off to attend her kindergartner’s graduation.
  • I have had a woman tell me I was the first executive to tell her that taking care of her health in her very stressful role is more important than her job.
  • I have had a male boss ask me, every single time a woman on my team was pregnant, “Do you think she’s going to come back after maternity leave?” He never once asked me that question about any of the men on my team whose wives were pregnant.
  • On the day when we finally (after weeks and months of proposing this) had “equality” on the exec staff agenda, I had our male CEO open the discussion with “Well, I assume if we had an all-female leadership team that would be sexist.”
  • I have seen women on my teams treated like servants by men who were their peers — asked to literally get coffee for the men or rebook their hotels with better rooms when they were traveling as a group.

I have also seen people make amazing contributions and incredible achievements in their roles, when provided the conditions to be their best.

  • I witnessed a shy, unsure of-herself customer service rep make the huge leap into product management and then, over a period of 18 months, turn into a bad-ass, decisive, confident product manager responsible for more than half the company’s revenue.
  • I witnessed a woman who had previously sold cell phones at a Verizon store become a master of marketing and digital demand gen and, as a result, was headhunted to be a marketing executive at another high-growth technology company today.
  • I had the good fortune to hire two phenomenally talented product designers, one in his first role designing software. And by giving these people the freedom to follow their creative instincts, create a culture of design excellence that produced truly delighted users of their products.
  • I witnessed a two-member team apply record-breaking amounts of curiosity to become masters at digital marketing through constant reinvention and data-driven refinement. 
  • I hired a brilliant person from a shoe company into his first full role in marketing. He left a year later to go back to the shoe industry and has so far reinvented two blockbuster, multi-billion dollar international footwear brands.
  • My partners at Frazier Technology Ventures – Len Jordan, Scott Darling, Paul Bialek, and Gary Gigot – discovered that when we stripped away our egos we could have direct, blunt conversations about decisions we were making. This set the standard for me valuing the lack of ego as a chief hiring criteria.

What have I regretted? Well, I mentioned above, working long hours in the end just took time away from my family, and I really can’t point to a meaningful source of business satisfaction that makes up for that. Other regrets:

  • That I did not listen to that little voice inside me when I had to fire people — or ask them to leave — because they were not performing or were not able or willing to live up to the expectations for conduct I had for them. That little voice said to go the extra mile, to fight with HR and in some cases the CEO, to get these people a package that would let them leave gracefully.
  • That I did not listen to that little voice inside me and instead followed the advice of others in letting people go with the bare legal minimum in notice, disclosure, and dialogue. I expect those people left my departments feeling they were not treated with the respect they deserved, and earned, through trying as hard as they could.
  • That I did not put my own job at risk more often pushing for more equality as a company, pushing the CEO and leadership team to take a more difficult but right path. This is where hindsight really stings — when I can see I was right but was afraid or buckled under pressure.

What else I’ve learned along the way:

  • Your brand – personally and as a business – is built on how well you say “no.” You say no 10 time more than you say yes. Doing a good job saying no means you are creating 10 times as many positive word-of-mouth evangelists. It also means you keep your focus on empathy and humility.
  • And since you say no much more than you say yes, you’ll spend time with people who you won’t say yes to. Learn to give more than you take when you do this. Help them some other way. Introduce them to someone else who can help. Offer wisdom and experience.
  • Treating people well on the way out the door is as important as it is rare. Being generous to people you fire, who decide to leave to advance their career, or who are just not a good fit matters. A lot. It is shocking how rarely I have been supported by HR leaders and CEOs on this topic.
  • How a company treats the behavior of their salespeople and developers defines the culture, not the “values” that are written down. I have seen sales people lie (to customers, to me, to other employees) but suffer no consequences because they “deliver.” Same for developers. That corrodes the culture and causes the high-value talent to leave.
  • How a company handles equality defines the culture, again regardless of what “values” are written down. It takes real bravery to foster equality in a culture. It is always easier to let fear cause a company to tolerate harassment. We need more bold, brave leaders. We absolutely need more women leaders. And leaders of color. And leaders from other cultures.

So at the end of this phase of my professional life, I would say that what mattered, what was meaningful, what was important was creating conditions for people to be their best selves. And that how you treat people matters, enormously.

What’s next for me? I’m on the board of two tech companies in Boston and am for sure going to continue stay on steep learning curves there. 

And my wife and I are launching a program at Diablo Valley College (the community college I attended)  to help under-performing, high-potential students find their path (more on that in an upcoming blog post). 

I’m attending community college myself to learn Spanish. 

And I am learning to drive race cars

But most of all, I am going to keep learning to be better. At everything I do and am. If I learned anything from 30+ years building high-growth tech companies, it’s that you can always be better. You can always learn.

Unseen Entrepreneurs

September 12, 2019

Why are some innovators so easily overlooked?

By Peter Zaballos

I want to tell you about a serial entrepreneur I know in the small town I used to live in.

When my wife and I moved the family to Wisconsin in 2001, the state was “trending” — its economy was fairly strong and it was attracting entrepreneurs who were finding like-minded folks interested in bringing new ideas to life away from the intensity of the coasts. (This changed during the recession, and Wisconsin, at least, hasn’t really recovered.)

Image result for wisconsin

The region in general is one where there is not a lot of risk taking. For good reason — if you’re a farmer you control so little of what might make your season successful, you can’t count on abundance every year. Taking risks is hard, and being bold even harder. When I was a venture capitalist looking at investments in the Midwest and as an executive at a technology firm in the Midwest I ran into the same thing — a very complicated relationship with being bold.

That entrepreneur I know there, while born and bred in Wisconsin, seems to have the same high tolerance of risk that I do. And, like me, when they see a problem or opportunity they have a viable solution for, they can’t not do it — they simply just can’t let it go.

Let me give you an example. In our college town of about 14,000 residents — only about 8,000 are full-time residents (the rest are students living in rentals who generally leave over the summer) — a small farmer’s market in a parking lot of a hardware store on the edge of town brings a dozen or so produce, honey, and other vendors together with the people who want those things on Saturday mornings. People drive in, pick up what they need, chat with a vendor or two, maybe stop into the hardware store, and leave.

It totally works in terms of a marketplace, but it misses a bigger opportunity — creating a space that could bring the community together and foster business, cultural and social growth.

The entrepreneur I know was a founding board member of a downtown revitalization organization that was frequently asked by community members to bring the market downtown, where there are parks and greenspaces designed for public events and businesses that could use the added foot traffic. Multiple times the group reached out to the Saturday market — once going as far as scouting locations with them — but the Saturday market always ultimately declined to move downtown.

Everyone saw this as a problem with just one solution: get the Saturday market to move downtown. When the City Council asked the downtown group to try, once more, to establish a downtown market, the entrepreneur went outside of the box and proposed adding a second weekly market instead.

They were met with “Why do that, when we already have a farmer’s market?” and “Are you going to be able to get enough vendors or enough visitors and customers?” and “Isn’t it too late to start a market this year?” The entrepreneur didn’t know the answer to any of these questions, but they were willing to try anyway. So they proposed 1) a team of key stakeholders, including vendors from the Saturday market, to plan the market, and 2) that the new market be a pop-up, a proof of concept, to make people feel less anxious about the risk.

This is where their world and my technology startup world have a high degree of alignment. Starting a tech company is one long slog through “won’t big company X just kill you?” or “that’s not going to get to scale” — in both of our cases you create something by focusing on the very small number of reasons why it will succeed while ignoring the substantially larger number of reasons why it will fail.

The entrepreneur led a team through the process of researching the market, engaging key constituents such as city officials and understanding their concerns so they could be addressed, deciding what kind of market they wanted to be (Grower only? Arts and crafts? Dog-friendly? Live music? Food carts? More about the quantity of options or the quality of options?) and then, finally, deciding when and where it would happen. Subgroups focused on critical operations needed to make the market happen: working with the city streets division and the police to ensure public safety and needed infrastructure like trash pick up and caution cones; attracting vendors mid-season (to reduce perceived hurdles for risk-intolerant vendors, the entrepreneur had the key insight of waiving vendor fees for the first year); and getting the word out to the community, among others.

With clarity of vision and a well-thought-through plan, the team launched Whitewater City Market on July 21, 2015. The planned layout was for eight vendors: 17 showed up. By week five, 45 vendors were coming, and the community was showing up in droves.

The entrepreneur and their team worked furiously to keep up: collecting stats, taking surveys, meeting every week to assess what went well, what didn’t, and adjusting accordingly. And with clear consistent communication and a continuous process improvement approach — the market came to feature local craft beer and kombucha and moved from its initial location to one that provides more shade, among other improvements — the number of weekly vendors grew to 60 (after swelling to 90, a number unsustainable for the size of the town), and the visitor count routinely exceeded 1,000. 

This is significant in a city of 8,000 full-time residents. Imagine creating — out of thin air — a forum that brings more than 10% of a community together. Every week. 52 weeks a year. Because, by popular demand, the market runs year-round, moving inside a local library on Saturday mornings November through April where about 20 vendors offer eggs and kombucha and bread and winter vegetables and aquaponically grown greens and the like. The market is sustainable, generates income for vendors and its parent organization, and supports two part-time paid internships.

And there are numerous unseen benefits to the market. In recent years the community lost its local grocery store, so the need for locally produced food is even more critical. The market offers “incubator” spots free of charge to new vendors for up to three markets so they can test whether there’s a market for what they have. Because there are two markets in town — the other one continues to happily plug along — having two places to sell his produce helped at least one farmer stay in business and on their farm.

And the large number of customers make for fast innovation: the market’s honey vendor went from testing home-brewed kombucha with customers to bringing it to the market, launching Komboocho Brewing, selling it at multiple markets and finally commercially canning and bottling it and making it available in retail locations in less than two years.

The Whitewater City Market is also the only place I know where you can get your axe sharpened while enjoying a wood-fired pizza.

Truly a success story, and one of many I can tell you about this person. Before I introduce the entrepreneur, tell me — who did you imagine them to be? 

If you pictured a man, you wouldn’t be alone. The image most people tend to have when you say “entrepreneur” is generally about mostly men building high technology companies. Lots of growth. Computer science nerds. Engineering chops. 

What if I told you that entrepreneur was my wife, Kristine?

I wrote earlier about the painful lessons Kristine and I learned when we decided she would leave her career to care for our children and I would focus on my career. It did my career well — I’ve spent it entirely in high growth technology startups and as a venture capitalist. Hers, not so much. So, over the years she’s thrown her excess capacity into side projects that combine her strategic ability to see viable solutions to an unmet need and and her dogged focus on process and communication to actually get the job done.

The more I witnessed the success and trajectory of the Whitewater City Market, the more it became apparent that I was, in fact, married to an incredible entrepreneur. Starting a city market was exactly about seeing a need no one else has seen — or, if they had the idea, was unwilling or unable to see through to fruition. Because, in life as as in tech startups — ideas are cheap; it’s execution that matters. 

And the skill and insight to do this is the same whether you run a tech startup or a nonprofit. The need to deeply believe in the value of your solution in the face of — best case, aggressive indifference, but more often disbelief or opposition — is exactly the same. And the need for funding, to be constantly fundraising and making due with what your financing will support — also exactly the same. 

Don’t believe me? Let’s see what key challenges both for-profit and nonprofit leaders face:

  • Identifying a truly unmet need. That’s easy to say. Maybe it’s better framed as “seeing the potential for a solution when no one else does.” It’s the same whether you are building a software-defined anything or bringing a community together.
  • Assembling a leadership team. Whether you’re a venture-backed startup or a community market manager, finding competent leaders who can scale what you’re doing is hard. And essential. 
  • Leading. Leading with a capital “L” is essential to any business breaking new ground. This is so much more than leading employees and volunteers. It’s about orchestrating buy-in from all the people and entities that have an influence on your idea. Investors, partners, government entities, neighbors, and even competitors — they all need to see the potential and follow.
  • Communicating a vision. This is inextricably linked to leading. But in a nonprofit you are leading people whose compensation is not financial. Communicating a vision to inspire volunteers is sure a lot harder than doing it for folks you are paying to listen to you.
  • Orchestrating change. I mentioned before, in both for-profit and nonprofit startups the biggest execution challenge a CEO will face is orchestrating the massive change this new opportunity is going to require. It requires focusing the one reason you will succeed and ignoring the tens or hundreds of reasons why you might fail. 
  • Persisting despite setbacks. Another key quality of leading is pushing yourself and your team over the hurdles and regrouping and persisting when you hit a wall — and you will. Managing setbacks and outright failure is one of the most difficult and most vital aspects of leadership. 

It’s pretty much the same challenges — the difference is in how we reward success (or not). But despite the similarities, I have seen the bias against non-profit street cred first-hand when my wife and I go someplace and meet people, frequently other folks from the tech industry. When they ask what I do and I explain, there’s this instant acceptance and validation. And all I usually say is something like “I ran marketing at a cloud computing company.” And truly, all my companies have ever done is solve a fairly technical problem that, unless you’re in DevOps or are a CTO, you won’t understand or appreciate. But I get instant credibility and interest.

When Kristine explains what she does, the conversation path is short and awkward, and she is generally received with what amounts to “well isn’t that nice, you’re helping people.” I have seen the eyes glaze over, and I have rarely heard anyone ask a follow-up question. It really annoys me, because that rigid mindset is the kind of mindset that prevents seeing an incredibly successful serial entrepreneur at the top of her game.

I say “serial” entrepreneur, because the market is just one of the side gigs she manages on top of her day job in marketing and communications at the university in town. She’s not unlike Marc Beniof, who saw the potential for software-as-a-service and faced a full decade of “smarter” people telling him his idea would never work. (That idea was SalesForce.com.) Originally I’d compared her to Elon Musk, who started and runs multiple companies, but but both my wife and my daughter pointed out that he is rather creepy in terms of his relationships with women. 

What’s the tie-in with Beniof and Musk? In the same way people wonder how Elon Musk can run three companies at once, the people in our community (and I) wonder how Kristine can run all three of the businesses she is the founder and CEO of (more on the other two in another blog post) in addition to her day job at UW-Whitewater. She does it because she can’t not do it and she puts in the hours to make it happen. Just like all the entrepreneurs I know.

So why am I writing this? It’s hard not to acknowledge that this is most certainly a love letter to my wife. But it’s also a letter of admiration to an inspirational entrepreneur from a guy who spent 30+ years building technology startups and lamenting that people starting and running “nonprofit” businesses are not seen as peers to people running for-profit businesses. And when I say “people” — I really mean women as well as people from diverse backgrounds.

Kristine isn’t just “behaving entrepreneurially” but is in fact a kick-ass serial entrepreneur. Maybe you have one in your community. You should tell them that.

Unthinking Power and Authority

September 4, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

This past week my wife and I moved our youngest of four children to college – totally fun and a momentous occasion for the three of us, and the family as a whole. And it was an awkward, even painful learning moment for me in how easy it is for men to assume positional authority and ignore better input from women.

Image result for not being listened to

In this case, we were moving our son into a college outside New York, and wisely chose to fly there instead of doing the 14+ hour drive (which we have done one too many times with one of his older brothers and older sister). We landed at JFK and I picked up a rental car and headed to campus. I grew up in California and am definitely a product of that state’s car culture – I don’t mind driving at all, I kind of like it. And having spent 10 years living in Boston, I also have gotten completely comfortable in driving amidst the aggressive chaos that is northeast urban auto jostling.

I now travel with a phone case that plugs into the dashboard, so am good about getting our coordinates in Google and letting that take the load of getting us from starting point to destination. Early on Google had a disclaimer on their directions that said something like “do a reality check before following these instructions” and that is precisely where I ran afoul of getting us from where we started to where we needed to go.

My wife on the other hand is confidently old school. When we travel the first thing she grabs is a printed map. She is as awesome at orienting herself with a map as she is adept at using it to explore and get to the destination. We’ve taken some wonderful vacations where her annotated and highlighted paper map of where we went and what we explored is such a rich record of time well spent.

What made this drop off at college different from the other three is that my wife and son had been to the campus earlier in the year and spent a fair amount of time exploring it and getting to know it. And there was me with Google and at the wheel of the car striving to get us to where we needed to go from Google’s perspective. And that’s where the humbling learning moment for me started to take its slow motion trajectory.

As we got closer to the campus I was following Google and my wife was following her experience and astute sense of memory and direction. As we got to the campus I was trying to find what Google was telling me to look for, and my wife was telling me what she knew from experience and her sense of direction. I effectively ignored her until it was too late. And I can try and explain why “ignore” was not really ignore, but this is where it doesn’t matter what I feel or think, but what she does, because she is on the receiving end.

The analogy I will use here is as spot-on as it is uncomfortable. If a woman feels she has been harassed, it really doesn’t matter what the harasser feels or how they interpret the circumstances. The sole “owner” of that perspective is the one on the receiving end.

But what ended up happening was a fairly tense exchange that shut us both down in the moment. Her lingering frustration later caused her to have to speak up and effectively justify why she should have been listened to and considered. And me trying to justify my behavior around being focused on getting to the “destination.” – which in hindsight is ridiculous.

From her perspective she was put in the position of (a) having better information and (b) having her better information ignored and dismissed. Sound familiar women?

But at the time I had both position (I was the driver) and authority (google maps) – and we were conditioned that when we drove places it was my position and authority that made the final decisions. Nothing malicious here, but over time, it put me in the position of being the decider. And in this case, I sure was deciding. And my wife was sure feeling not listened to or considered.

At the time neither of us realized any of this. We both just shut down and simmered. Until we found the right parking lot, and our attention conveniently shifted to this wonderful day and our son’s new adventure at college. We avoided the fact that if I had been listening to her we would have been where we were supposed to be sooner, with less stress, and more focus on our son’s first day at college – which for she, me, and him was such a wonderful, wonderful moment to savor.

It wasn’t until much later that night, after we had flown back home and were on our way (with me driving) from the airport to our house. It was then my wife brought up the whole experience. And it was through the process of unpacking the issue that we both reached a point where we able to focus on how each of us felt, which is where the real conversation happened.

We talked about how we became conditioned to me being the driver over time and that there were a few ways to address this. One might be her driving more when we are together, especially when she knows the terrain more. Which is a good alternative, but to me feels a bit “brute force.” Switching the position and the authority. To me the real solution is creating the conditions where I listened to hear and she could feel heard. That’s the harder solution.

I take women’s equality seriously. Yet here I was, repeating a pattern of male behavior and causing my wife to repeat a pattern of feeling ignored or dismissed. It was pretty easy to respond so unthinkingly – isn’t that the opposite of thoughtfully?

And it made me consider how hard it is to create the conditions where these kind of conversations can take place. In most workplaces women don’t get that safe place to share their thoughts like this and be vulnerable. They just learn to deal with being dismissed and not heard. We have to be able to do better than this.

Because in those moments, the focus needs to be on how to get to the destination as efficiently as we can – whether a marketing campaign or an algorithm – and savor the moment of why we are all together, working on a common goal.

 

Being Mansplained To And The Opportunities That Are Missed

July 25, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

I’ve certainly been aware of mansplaining and am generally sensitive to it. But I have seen it happen less than I have had women remark on it. And they remark on it with a sincerity and authenticity that is breathtaking.

It was on a recent business trip when I experienced this myself, first hand. I was traveling with a woman who is on one of my teams, and we were visiting some of our sales regions to review our marketing plans and priorities to get feedback and engagement. One of those invaluable investments of time that ensure we develop campaigns that are relevant and have impact.

And before I go further, the story I am about to tell involves really talented, experienced, and caring people – we have an awesome culture and that’s one of the many reasons I love being here. But that is also the point. Even with talented people in a great culture, this can happen.

That’s certainly one way to approach this

At the first meeting we had a handful of sales reps in the room, and before I’d even gotten to the overview of our plans one of the reps spent literally ten minutes explaining how demand generation worked. Ten minutes.

How his prior company did it. The concept of a buyer’s journey. The need to ensure you have marketing plans directed all the way through from the top of the funnel to the sale.

Some of his pronouncements were on target — many interpretations of how marketing gets done from the vantage point of a sales rep. I sat there and every so often responded with “that’s certainly one way to approach this.”

But it was ten minutes. Of him explaining to me what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. And I’m really good at marketing. A two-time CMO. The first CMO at my current company. But he explained it all to me.

When the meeting ended, my female colleague and I shared a laugh about it all. To me, it felt like a single occurrence.

No way, really? Is that how you do that?

Two days later we met with the entire sales team for the region. And as I was reviewing our plans for marketing, there was an active discussion and then a series of mini lectures on how to do our marketing well, which culminated with a discussion of competitive analysis and a sales rep reminding me “don’t reference our competitors directly in our marketing.”

At this point I lost patience and — in front of everyone — replied “no way, really? Is that how you do that?”

When the meeting wrapped up, I pulled my colleague aside and asked her “is this what mansplaining feels like, is that what happens to you?” And she rolled her eyes and said “yes, all the time.”

So when I saw the awesome tweet featuring an “Am I mansplaining” flowchart from Kim Goodwin I felt like I understood this a bit better.

Men, study that flowchart. Commit it to memory.

The opportunities missed

But what really happened in my exchanged with these talented salespeople here was a series of missed opportunities. By leading with explaining and not questions, it both annoyed me and focused my attention on being explained to, and not on exploring what we could all be doing together to ensure our marketing had the greatest impact possible.

It would have been awesome if these conversations had started with “can you tell me about how you’re going to approach marketing?” instead of “this is how we did it at my last company.”

And when you consider that what happened to me were isolated instances on this trip and that it happens to women systemically – the greater issue is how much opportunity is unexplored when men talk over women, when men lead by explaining and not by asking questions.

We lose all lose as a culture by letting mansplaining persist, but women bear the professional and personal consequences of confronting it every day, of having their ideas ignored or talked over.

As I have posted before, men just glide through life feeling little if any of what women feel every day — encountering obstacles, biases, and mansplaining and being talked over.

On this business trip, I visited this landscape but so easily could return to my male-centric journey through my career. Women are not so fortunate. Men can help here. When you have that urge to explain, ask a question.

There is no “career path,” just a network of relationships

March 30, 2018

And how you get from one adventure to the next

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater College of Business and Economics, on the subject of career paths. And the title of my talk was “There Is No Career Path.”

I wasn’t all that that creative. Steve Jobs made this point in his Stanford Commencement speech in 2011, six years before he died. His point was that a career path is only visible in hindsight. The “path” is produced by following your interests and talents. But I want to take that a step further.

My observation is that your career is a product of the relationships you develop along the way in your job along with following your interests and your talents. Notice I didn’t say college alumni networks. One of the points I made to the UWW students was I attended two of the top five universities in the world (Berkeley and MIT), and my alumni networks have produced zero jobs for me.

Networking

But the relationships I developed at LSI Logic, at C-Cube Microsystems, at RealNetworks, and as a venture capitalist at Frazier Technology Ventures have produced six incredible jobs, and have formed the foundation of my career.

When you unpack “relationships” there’s a lot to examine. For me, relationships are formed by establishing trust and credibility with the people you work with and for. And you do that by doing what you said you would do. By speaking your mind. By being honest. By acting with integrity. By being in a culture that aligns with your values.

Your network of relationships is fundamentally about about your personal brand.

That’s right, your personal brand is made up of the people you work with. How well you communicate to them. How well you support others. And that all involves . How you treat them. Those experiences, those memories persist. They’re your personal brand.

Finding the next adventure

And here I am, at another juncture where I am about to move to my next adventure. I left my role as CMO at SPS Commerce in early January, to return to Seattle. Family reasons draw us there, and I really wanted to get back to my roots – building category-creating technology companies.

And it’s this network of relationships that is guiding me. Which made me think of another set of conversations I’ve been having with folks I know – about how instrumental these relationships are to discovering your next adventure.

I’ve been employing the method that has propelled me to where I am now, and which I know will get me to where I want to be next. It involves four activities:

Hone your story – What this means is having clarity about what it is you want to do and what you’ve done to prepare you for this, and it’s being sober and humble about what you’re really good at. And finally, it’s about being compelling about why this next adventure is right for the role and for you – and for whoever it is you will work for.

“Your story” is what you say after you meet someone, you exchange pleasantries, and there’s a pause. You then tell the story. Why you’re there with them, why there is context, and you paint a picture of your future that they might be able to help you with.

Lots of conversations – This is the foundation of the process. This is where you start speaking to lots of people who might be able to help sharpen your focus, sharpen your story (you’ll be telling that to them), and who might know someone else who you might meet. But fundamentally you are asking someone to spend time with you. To help you.

It’s awesome your contact will meet with you, so be considerate of their time. Thank them. And make sure you see if there’s anything you can do to help them. It will make you feel less bashful about asking for feedback, or to be connected to someone else.

Considerate networking – Expect and insist on “double opt-in introductions” – this means the person connecting you someone needs to check with that person to confirm they’re interested BEFORE making the introduction . Only after that person agrees to be introduced, then expect the introduction. This means there’s mutual interest in the conversation.

This also introduces an obligation to responsiveness on your part. That means as soon as you see that email connecting you to the other party, respond promptly – before the other party has to. Your contact is doing you a favor, so demonstrate grace by making it easy for them for them to find a time and place to meet. And while you’re at it, be considerate of the person who made the introduction. In your reply, move that person to the bcc line of the email. That way they will see that the connection has been made, but they are not burdened with seeing the 7+ email exchanges that went into finding a date and place to meet.

Let go of the outcome – This is the hardest part. The only part of this process you can control is your ability to meet with people, tell your story, and explore where this all takes you. What it won’t do is provide a linear path to an awesome next role for you. But enough of these sincere conversations, where you’ve been considerate and forthcoming, will produce a conversation, at some point, that will point to a person or a role, that is exactly what you’re looking for.

It’s that simple. I can tell you every one of the awesome opportunities I am exploring right now have followed these four steps. And it has had nothing to do with where I went to school.

And like with you career – there is no deterministic path you can see stretching forward. Just a network of relationships guiding you down the road.

 

Why video games are awesome preparation for life, and careers. By Peter Zaballos

March 23, 2018

And why adults get video games wrong

Recently, my world has been totally rocked with the multi-player game “7 Days to Die” which is a zombie apocalypse game that my children and I play together, even when scattered across the country. Sunday at 7 is our time, and we generally play with me in one city, each of our kids in other cities, and some of their friends in other cities as well.

7DTD is a game where every seven nights (in game) a zombie horde attacks, and the rhythm of the game is to spend your time between hordes preparing. It’s all about cooperating, and dividing up the work – where the work can be scavenging supplies, making building materials and tools, crafting weapons and ammunition. And developing a plan to defend ourselves. We all log on, and setup a group phone call, and there’s a constant stream of updates, suggestions, and help.

Here’s the base we’ve created. My main skill is converting rocks and sand into concrete. You can see how we put that to use. BTW, this base was shredded later that night (horde night). We survived, but the base took tremendous damage. Which caused us to assess what had gone right, wrong, and what our next defense setup would need to look like. We figure out what’s working, what’s not, and adapt. This is what I do at work every day. Except for the zombie horde. At work it’s competitors.

7DTD base

It’s an easy way to spend five hours without even realizing it. And it is a rock solid environment to hone the kinds of skills any of us needs to get through life, and succeed in our careers.

But every week it’s the same focus. We develop a plan to build defenses, a plan for how we’ll cooperate and support each other because we all have different skills and resources. And like all plans, they become obsolete the moment the zombie horde arrives. Here we are at night, my avatar’s name is RaceCondition (inside computing joke there) and the view is from one of my son’s avatar. We’re all so relaxed because since hordes swarm every seven days, and it’s day 58, we can more easily gather like this at night (in this shot we’re at an abandoned city looting).

7DTD crew

But before going on, let me tell you about how my children (and their friends) and I got here.

It may be that our family is unique, but I really doubt it. Our kids grew up playing video games. Freddi Fish was a big hit when they were little. They played them on the desktop computer we had way back then.

But even then the play had a strong social component to it, since we had four kids in five years, there was lots of group play involved. Two or three of our kids would be crowded around the monitor watching the other play, and there’d be banter throughout the game.

When the subject of getting a video game console came up, my wife and I proceeded cautiously. We’d “heard” so many scary stories about them. About how people’s kids would disappear for hours/days/weeks into a basement TV room and waste away there, living this solitary existence staring into a screen.

What we got wrong about video games is how incredibly social they are. And how much the games foster problem solving and collaboration.

We started slowly, with a Nintendo Wii. And it was fun. Mostly family fun. And soon the topic of an Xbox surfaced. Their friends had them, and over time we reluctantly agreed. There we some conditions, the biggest was that the kids would need to pay for it themselves, along with the games they wanted. So they saved, and did.

What ended up happening totally surprised us. This was full-on social pandemonium. There’d be upwards of a dozen kids at time in our basement – some playing – but most watching the others play. And the conversations, laughter, and screams of delight that grew and grew as the games progressed could be heard throughout the house.

We also witnessed our kids spending so many hours playing with all their friends and spending those hours talking…about the game, about life, about anything and everything. And there’s a growing amount of research showing video game play does create better career skills.

Which is why I was so touched when our youngest child, four years ago, suggested I learn to play Halo. He was patient, it took me literally almost a year before I didn’t feel completely incompetent. But we played through Halo 2, then Halo Reach (as far as our children are concerned, the franchise effectively stopped there). Eventually I would even get invited down when all the other friends were there and play with them, and hold my own.

I went on from that to play through Portal, Portal 2, and Bioshock Infinite. All three of these are phenomenal problem solving games with awesome story lines. Portal 2 is worth playing just to experience Stephen Merchant as the voice and personality of Wheatley – likely the single best voice performance in a video game, ever..

The more I observed how our kids played these games with their friends the more it looked like the environment I like to foster on my teams at work: goal-focused, team-oriented, sharing data to make better decisions. The more it looked like the environment I strive to live up to in my User Manual.

So of the many good decisions my wife and I made as parents, one was being open minded about video games, and trusting our children to make good decisions about how to embrace video games. We learned a lot as a family there, that has helped prepare our children for career success.

International Women’s Day – and why it is essential. By Peter Zaballos

March 16, 2018

Here’s my belated post commemorating this important day

Last week week we celebrated an important and urgent topic. Treating women equally. International Women’s Day. Treating women equally to men is the goal, and I’ve written about what I think that looks like.

But every day we see what it doesn’t look like. And this is easy for me to write, because I’m a man, and I don’t see and feel the many ways women have it harder to make it through their days.  I saw something recently, last week, that reminded me of the importance of this topic, and why we have work to do to achieve equality.

I ran right into that last Friday. I was listening to a new podcast about legendary business rivalries. The podcast is called Business Wars (I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to inadvertently send them traffic). During an episode on the Nike/Adidas rivalry there was a sponsor ad for Plated – one of the many meal delivery services.

The host of this podcast is a man. And this is how he described Plated’s offering:

“I was so impressed by the quality of the delivery, and my wife was blown away by the step-by-step instructions, the whole family was knocked out by the flavor…”

I had to skip back 30 seconds to listen to it again. Did I really just here this male remark at how his wife, and only his wife, was surprised by how easy this meal was to prepare? Isn’t that one of the gender stereotypes we’re trying to remove from daily life? The wife in the kitchen, the husband standing by?

I dashed off an email to Plated (the only address I could find was their customer support contact – help@plated.com) and to the podcast’s publisher, Wondery via their PR firm (jon@RLMPR.com also the only email address I could find). Here’s what I sent (could have edited it better, but I was pissed off and impatient):

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 10.36.22 AMAnd guess what? I got a machine generated auto-reply from Plated, and nothing from Jon Lindsay Phillips, who is the Executive Director of RLM Public Relations, listed as the media relations contact for Wondery. It’s been a week now.

I held off on writing this post until now to give either Plated or Wondery a chance to respond. Hoping to hear them acknowledge the mistake and vow to fix it. That was disappointing.

I’m no longer subscribing to Wondery’s podcasts and I have no interest in supporting companies like Plated who promote gender stereotypes.

The surprising thing is I had been pointed to Business Wars by Reid Hoffman’s “Masters of Scale” podcast, which is outstanding. And Reid Hoffman is someone who is a strident supporter of women’s equality. My next stop is to drop him a line. As an avid listener of his podcast, I expect to hear back pretty quickly.

Women have a hard enough time being treated fairly, without companies like Plated putting more obstacles in their way. Or rather, perpetuating obstacles that urgently need to be removed.

In the meantime, men and women can make dinner. And do. And men and women can support each other at home. And do.

Cabals of Women

September 24, 2017

Sunday mornings are “read the paper” mornings for my wife and me. Today she got to the NY Times before me, and casually remarked “did you know there are cabals of women in Silicon Valley whose goal was to subjugate men?” Well, no dear, I didn’t. I worked there for a long time, never ran across those.

The article quoted an engineer who said “he had realized a few years ago that feminists in Silicon Valley had formed a cabal whose goal was to subjugate men.”

This so wholly encapsulates what happens when power shifts. The rising power scares the incumbent power. The rising power is demonized. Cabals. Subjugating men. Right.

The article was about how gender equality is faring in Silicon Valley, and shined a light on the fairly predictable “backlash” men are feeling as the tech industry, and society, come to terms with the inequities women face forging careers and lives in today’s society.

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Credit: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

And I use the term “predictable” because women’s equality is fundamentally about the shift in power. Men following the lead women provide. Men taking direction from women. Nothing scary about that, unless you’ve never seen this before, never experienced it before. Fearing this change is actually to be expected. That doesn’t make the change any less important, or urgent.

No one gives up power easily. And the transition is messy, by definition. Will companies over-correct and set quotas? Sure. Will some leaders interpret this shift as a mandate? Likely. But the direction of change is the important factor to focus on.

That doesn’t diminish the merit of the objective, or the urgency to establish more inclusive, diverse, and equal workforces, and as important, the ability to measure members of the workforce on their contributions.

From a purely capitalist perspective, businesses should be running towards this change. That bastion of capitalism, McKinsey, has even coined a term for this business benefit – The Diversity Dividend. Businesses are performing less well than they would be with more women in leadership roles. Businesses are underperforming, and women (and minorities) are the key to improving business performance.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the men who are afraid of losing their power and role definition as we make this transition.

This quote summed it all up for me, from Jon Parsons, an attorney representing two male Yahoo employees: “No eyebrows are going to rise if a woman heads up fashion,” Mr. Parsons said. “But we’re talking about women staffing positions — things like autos — where it cannot be explained other than manipulation.”

And why might that be? Are men better at cars than women? So, women are better at fashion? How does that explain that the majority of fashion houses are led by men?

What Mr. Parsons is really saying is he’s comfortable with women having leadership positions in fields where he and his clients, presumably, do not have careers or interest. But when it comes to fields where men have been more historically leaders, well yes, men should be leaders. Well, because they always have been.

Welcome to a new world. It’s going to be a messy ride to get there. But we’re headed there. As uncomfortable and scary as that might be. And whatever discomfort that causes males as they make the adjustment, be patient. It’s taken women over 100 years to get to this juncture in the business world. Match their patience.

I am a feminist because of my sons

November 27, 2016

I think I was part of the problem for longer than I realized.

As a man, I simply assumed everyone got treated the same. Got paid the same. Was listened to equally – because I sure was listened to. And they paid me well for what I did and said.

And then I started to feel naïve. At first it was noticing that the women on my teams seemed to be paid less than the men, for the same positions. Then I began to notice women get talked over. I began to see women apologize for voicing an opinion in a meeting. I saw men look right past women’s ideas and contributions. Rarely out of malice. Worse — out of blindness.

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I’ve come to realize that women do have a more difficult journey in society today, if they want to have the journey of opportunity and acceptance that men do. Society treats women differently, has different expectations of them.

And generally speaking the ones who notice this are women. Men mostly glide through their careers, like I used to. Thinking everyone is treated the same, with the same access to opportunity.

And I grew up in an era where the term “feminist” was synonymous with “radical” — a fringe viewpoint. A crazy, minority voice. But the more I noticed, the more it became urgently clear to me that “feminist” is not a fringe response to how women are treated in our society, it’s a sane, measured, reasonable response.

The more women outnumber men in education, the more they aspire to secure leadership positions and positions of authority, “Feminist” describes the moment of truth in society as it makes room for them. Learns to respect them, adjusts to following their lead. So yes, I am a feminist.

When I look back on the journey to this realization, it’s punctuated with some specific experiences. Sources of inspiration and heartbreak. But they share a common theme: an injustice.

THAT’S NOT MY IDEA

I was on a volunteer board almost a decade ago. It was for a public/private partnership where the other board members were the city manager, the chancellor of the local university, the head of the local community development authority, and others — staff from the city and university, local business leaders. The tone set by the city manager and chancellor was open and welcoming.

We were focused on building a business incubator facility. At the time we were in the early stages of site selection, budget sizing, and developing fundraising strategies.

There was one meeting I will always remember. We were in the midst of a fairly strident discussion of two different site alternatives and approaching an impasse. One of the city staff members spoke up and proposed a novel, creative third alternative. No one picked up on it. She suggested it again, no one picked up.

I spoke up, and said “Susan (not her real name) has a really good alternative” and I summarized it. Engaged conversation ensued. I was more than taken aback. When more than one person said “Let’s go with Pete’s idea,”  I had to stop the conversation to remind everyone that it was not my idea. It was Susan’s.

I was flabbergasted. Susan and I exchanged glances. Hers one of hurt and appreciation. She was a thoughtful, insightful human. Well versed on the pragmatics of city mechanics and finances. This was the first time I’d personally witnessed what I now know to be a common experience for women.

TRUE-ING UP SALARIES

In every role I have had as a manager, I’ve had to tackle the same problem. The women on my teams were generally not paid the same as the men. And I’ve worked for some of the most progressive and technologically advanced companies in the world. I know there were no overt intentions to pay women less than men for the same jobs, but it happened. Every time.

I coined a term for this: “true-ing up salaries.”

Today I am fortunate to work for a company that shares my values and vigilance. We do examine pay by role and gender to ensure people are paid the same regardless of gender. And I am fortunate to have a role as a senior executive to be able to set a tone and effect policies to ensure we have equal pay for equal roles, that regardless of gender your career path is based on the merits of your contributions. Making this real requires both awareness and action.

SHERYL SANDBERG, ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, AND THE MISTAKES I’VE MADE

When my wife and I met we both had career-track jobs. Me in technology marketing, and she in textbook editing. Within two years of getting married, we had the first of our four children (we would have four children in five years), and without either of us really thinking through the implications, my wife decided to quit her job and become a full-time mother — trading a professional job for a 100+ hour per week job with no pay while also squeezing in 5-10 hours a week of freelance editing.

It’s not so much that we talked much about it, it’s just it was the easier, more obvious choice. I made a lot more money than she could. It just made sense. It was expected. And no one at my office ever asked me if I was coming back to work after the births of any of our children. But that question gets asked of pretty much every pregnant woman. It’s this unspoken societal set of norms that make it easy to not question assumptions. To not think through the alternatives, and the consequences. That’s what we did.

It wasn’t until almost fifteen years later, when during the Great Recession my wife needed to go back to a full-time job, that we realized how much a price that decision had cost her. She was able to resume her editing career — right where she had left it. Meanwhile, I had continued to progress far ahead in mine, further exacerbating the gap between our careers and earning potential. And the fifteen years were spent. She couldn’t get those back.

Some years later, reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg was a revelation to me. Here was a woman brave enough to share her personal journey through this landscape, to call out just how hard it is for women to travel the same path men do. Social pressure, income inequality.

I read Lean In with equal measures of excitement and shame. How could I have been an enabler to the outcome of my wife’s career path? How could I have not done more to think through the implications, to be a better partner? We both made decisions informed by culture, momentum and inertia. Easy at the time, costly in hindsight.

lean-in

And when Anne-Marie Slaughter penned “Women Can’t Have It All,” it felt like I’d read something written by a soul looking over my shoulder during those decision moments — someone looking over both my wife and my shoulders.

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As a husband, I let my wife and our family down by not taking a more active role in questioning assumptions, understanding the need to think about consequences of choices — whether intentional or choices made by a lack of an act.

DREAMFORCE EQUALITY SUMMIT

This past October I attended the huge Salesforce.com conference, Dreamforce, and witnessed a session in the Women and Equality Leadership Summit. It was phenomenal Leyla Seka moderated the session where Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sarah Kate Ellis (CEO of GLAAD) spent more than an hour discussing the challenges (and opportunities) women have pursuing leadership roles in business and society. Frank, honest conversation. I found it illuminating, inspiring, and urgent.

df-equality-summit-2016dreamforce-equality-summit

But in a room of about 1,000 people, I was one of maybe 100 men. That was profoundly disappointing and frustrating. Women already know about the challenges they face. While it surely was valuable for them to be there together, where were the men? Men need to be actively engaged in this conversation. A disproportionate number of them in the very positions that can effect change, and they’re not even participating in the conversations.

I HAVE THREE SONS

My wife and I have four children: three sons and a daughter. I am so tired of hearing men called out for gender discrimination verbalizing platitudes of support for women and bringing out the “well of course I’m opposed to discrimination, I have a wife and daughter(s).”

That so, so disgustingly misses the point. You should be vigilant because you have sons. The behavior and values you live inform your sons about what equality looks like and feels like, because inequality affects them, not just your daughter(s) and your wife.

WHY I AM A FEMINIST

I am a feminist because I want to create an environment where women and men get judged equally on their merits, and I want my sons to be fully engaged in creating that world. Where men and women have their ideas heard. Where men and women get paid equally for the same roles.

I am a feminist because I don’t ever want another woman to have her idea appropriated.

I am a feminist because I don’t want to “true-up” salaries for the rest of my professional life. I am a feminist because I want women to have the same opportunities as men.

I am a feminist so that society encourages and makes it possible for men, and women, to be equal care givers. So that either men and women get asked “are you going to stay home after the birth of your child?” or better, the questions stops getting asked, of anyone.

I am a feminist because I want my sons to be active and engaged in creating the environment and “normal” I strive for. A ‘normal” where men and women have their ideas heard.

And I am a feminist because I want my daughter and my sons to see how men can be a part of the change, become leaders, and be blind to gender in the decisions they make and the actions they take, as they live their lives.

Preparation for an upcoming blog post

November 27, 2016

I’ve been working on a post about feminism and the different paths women face in careers and society that men don’t face. Here are a few resources that have both informed my journey and point of view, and have helped me understand the landscape better:

Salesforce.com Dreamforce Equality Summits – Salesforce.com is a company that walks its talk about values and equality. When ___ raised the issue of gender equality in pay to CEO Marc Beniof, his reaction was to dig into the data. And they found they had a problem, and spent $3M “true-ing up” salaries. Their focus on equality at Dreamforce is equal parts inspiration and pragmatic.

Dreamforce 2016

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Dreamforce 2015

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Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – this book polarized and galvanized the professional world. Perhaps not the first book to highlight the different ways women are treated in society and their careers, but an unapologetic outline of the landscape.

lean-in

Anne Marie Slaughter’s Women Can’t Have It All – the most read article on TheAtlantic.com, ever, this was a counterpunch to Lean In and laid bare how women face different pressure to succeed in their careers while also being the primary caregiver to their children. Pressure men do not face.

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Bitch Media – This is a thoughtful feminist publishing group that takes complex issues and orchestrates measured discussion and evaluation of the factors creating inequality for women, and the means to address them. The tone is serious and unflinching.

bitch-media

Bitch Media’s Popaganda podcast – And for folks who like to hear their discourse about feminist topics,  Popaganda provides interviews and discussions of a wide range of feminist topics. And the range will present the listener with subjects that may be on the edge or even outside their comfort zone, but that’s good.

popaganda