Category Archives: leadership

It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint…

What makes a career successful over the long term? How do you sustain (or even increase) your professional impact, while also deriving meaning and enjoyment from your life? This was the question I set about answering in my talk at StretchCon last week. To see my answers, you can watch the presentation. You can also view the prezi1966321_313990785474109_1977531760847682083_o

The Backstory

I asked eleven colleagues about their success. I chose colleagues who have made it to the C-suite (whether as a CEO, CTO, or another C-level designation) and that appeared to do it with balance between their professional and personal lives. Ten of the eleven responded, and nine of the ten shared thoughts before my deadline. I thank Chris Caren, Adrian Colyer, John Donahoe, Ken Moss, Satya Nadella, Mike Olson, Christopher Payne, Stephanie Tilenius, and Joe Tucci for their help.

I sent each of these colleagues an email that went something like this:

I am speaking about successful careers being about sustained contribution (and not a series of sprints, all-nighters, or unsustainable peaks). Would you be up for giving me a quote I could use and attribute to you? I admire your ability to work hard and smart, while obviously also having a life outside of work.

Their replies were varied, but as you’ll see in the video, there were themes that repeated in their answers. I shared edited quotes in the talk, and promised that I’d share their complete thoughts in my blog. The remainder of this blog is their complete words.

Chris Caren

Chris is the CEO and Chairman of Turnitin. We worked together at Microsoft, and Chris was (and sometimes still is!) my mentor. Here are his thoughts in response to my questions:

My philosophy:  I do my best work when my life is in balance — family, me, and work.  I need a routine of hard work, but no more than 9-10 hours a day, solid exercise daily, low stress (via self-control), 7-8 hours of sleep at a minimum each day, and the time I want with my family and for myself.  When I maintain this balance, I am maximally effective at work — both in terms of quality of thinking and decision making, and maximum output.  More hours worked actually pull down my impact as a CEO.

Adrian Colyer

Adrian was the CTO of SpringSource, the custodians of the Spring Java programming framework. We worked together at Pivotal, where he was the CTO of the Application Fabric team. Recently, Adrian joined Accel Partners as an Executive-in-Residence. Here are Adrian’s thoughts:

A great topic! Maybe the most counter-intuitive lesson I’ve learned over the years is that I can make a much more valuable contribution when I work* less. So work-life balance isn’t really a trade-off as most people normally present it (I have more ‘life’, but sacrifice ‘work’ to get it), it’s actually a way of being better at both life *and* work!

* ‘work’ in the sense that most people would intuitively think of it – frenetic activity.

When I’ve analysed this, I came to realise that when work crowds everything else out I often end up in a very reactive mode. But the biggest and most impactful things you can do – especially as a leader – don’t come about during that constant fire-fighting mode. The vast majority of my important insights and decisions – the things that made the biggest positive impact on the organisations I was working with at the time – have come in the space I’ve made around the busy-ness of the office to actually allow myself the luxury of thinking! Running, cycling, walking and so on have all been very effective for me over the years. But so is just taking some time out in the evening and not necessarily even consciously thinking about work, the brain seems to be very good at background processing! That time has also given space to allow my natural curiosity and love of learning to be indulged. In turn that creates a broader perspective, exposes you to new ideas, and allows you to make connections and insights that you otherwise might not of. All of this feeds back into the work-related decisions and issues you are wrestling with and helps you to make breakthroughs from time to time.

To the extent I’ve been successful over the years, I attribute much of that not to being smarter than the people around me, nor to working ‘harder’, but to creating the space to think.

John Donahoe

John is the CEO of eBay Inc. John was an enthusiastic sponsor of my work while I was there. When I asked John for his thoughts, he sent me a speech he’d recently given to the graduating class at the Stanford Business School. In it, you’ll find John’s thoughts of his professional and personal journey.

Ken Moss

Ken recently became the CTO of Electronic Arts. Prior to that, Ken and I worked together on, off, and on over a period of nine years. Ken was the GM of Microsoft’s MSN Search when I joined Microsoft, and left to found his own company. I managed to help persuade Ken to come to eBay for a few years. Here are Ken’s thoughts:

Always focus on exceeding expectations in the present, while keeping your tank 100% full of gas for the future. There is no quicker way to stall your career than by burning yourself out. I’ve seen many potentially brilliant careers cut short as someone pushed themselves too far past their limits and became bitter under-performers. It’s always in your control.

Satya Nadella

Satya became the CEO of Microsoft at the beginning of 2014. Satya was the VP of the Bing search team at Microsoft for around half the time I was there, and we have stayed in touch since. Here are Satya’s thoughts:

I would say the thing that I am most focused on is to harmonize my work and life vs trying to find the elusive “balance”. Being present in the lives of my family in the moments I am with them is more important than any quantitative view of balance.

Mike Olson

Mike is the Chairman, Chief Strategy Officer, and former CEO of Cloudera. We have interacted during my time at Pivotal, and also during my time at eBay. Mike was kind enough to invite me to give the keynote at Hadoop World in 2011. Here’s Mike’s thoughts:

I have always tried to optimize for interesting — working on problems that are important to me, with people who blow my hair back. The combination has kept me challenged and inspired, and has guaranteed real happiness in the job.

By corollary, you have to be willing to walk away from a good paycheck and fat equity if the work or the people are wrong. Money is cheaper than meaning. I’ve done that a few times. There’s some short-term angst, but it’s paid off in the long term.

Christopher Payne

Christopher is the SVP of the North America business at eBay. Christopher and I have worked on, off, and on for nine years. Christopher was the founding VP of the search team at Microsoft. He left to found his own company, his company was bought by eBay, he hired me to eBay to help run engineering, and he then moved over to run the US and Canadian business teams. Here are Christopher’s thoughts:

I believe strongly in the need to maintain my energy level in order to have the most impact in my career. To do this I find I have to make the time to recharge. For me this means taking walks during the work day, taking all of my vacation, and not being on email 24/7. With my energy level high I find I can be significantly more creative and productive over the long term.

Stephanie Tilenius

Stephanie recently founded her own company, Vida. While she’s spent parts of her career at Kleiner-Perkins, Google, and other places, we met at eBay where we spent around six months working together. Here are Stephanie’s thoughts:

… my point of view is that you have to do something you love, that will sustain you. You also have to know what drives you, what gets you out of bed, for me it is having an impact (for others it may be making money or playing a sport, etc.) You will always be willing to give it your all and you are more likely to innovate if you love what you are doing and constantly growing, challenging the status quo (stagnation is really out of the question, humans don’t thrive on it!). I am committed to my work and to constant innovation but also to having a family and I could not be great at either without the other. They are symbiotic in my mind, they both make me happy and a better person. I have learned it is about integration not necessarily perfect balance. If you integrate life and work, you are much more likely to be successful. The other day my son was out of school early and our nanny had an issue so I brought him to work and he did code academy and talked to some of our engineers. He enjoyed himself and was inspired.

Joe Tucci

Joe is the Chairman of EMC, VMware, and Pivotal, and the CEO of EMC. I met Joe in the interview process at Pivotal, and have worked with him through board and other meetings over the past year. Here’s Joe’s thoughts:

Being a successful CEO is relatively straight forward… 1st – retain, hire, and develop the best talent, 2nd – get these talented individuals to work together as a team (do not tolerate selfishness), 3rd – get this leadership team to embrace a stretch goal that is bigger then any of them imagine they can attain, and 4th – maniacally focus the leadership team on our customers (always striving to exceed their expectations)

I enjoyed giving the talk at Stretch, and interacting with these colleagues in putting it together. I hope you enjoyed it too. See you next time.

Learning Lessons from the Apollo program

I’m fascinated by the Apollo program. It’s a triumph of human endeavour that we sent twenty-four men to the moon, and twelve to the surface between 1969 and 1972. It was a program built with reliable 1950s-designed equipment, and computers far less sophisticated than a cheap modern wristwatch. Achieving Kennedy’s audacious vision was made possible through teamwork, planning, hard work, and ingenuity.

Recently, I decided to learn more about the early Apollo missions to understand what work went into getting us to the moon. It’s an incredibly story, and perhaps more interesting than several later missions.

An incremental approach

Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo mission to fly in space. It was a confidence-builder, and the first time three people had flown together in space around the Earth. After eleven days in 1968, the crew returned having tested the command module and successfully made a live TV appearance.

The Apollo 7 crew during the first live broadcast from space

The Apollo 7 crew during the first live broadcast from space

The critical pieces of Apollo 7 had flown earlier. The earlier unmanned Apollo 4 and 6 had tested launching a similar unmanned command module and returning it to earth, while Apollo 5 had also tested the same Saturn IB rocket that was used to launch Apollo 7. Apollo 7 was focused on testing putting three astronauts in space in what was a now-trusted setup.

Apollo 8 was a shorter, six day mission. Three men flew to the moon, orbited it a few times, and returned to earth. They were the first to fly atop the Saturn V rocket — the smaller Saturn IB rocket used in Apollo 7 wasn’t sufficient to reach the moon. The Saturn V had been tested in Apollo 4 and 6. This was an audacious mission — testing both a manned Saturn V mission, and visiting the moon. Behinds the scenes, it was a tough sell to management — they didn’t like being that aggressive. But it made sense as a mission: the lunar module was behind in development and wasn’t ready to be tested, and there was fear the Russians might get Cosmonauts around the moon in 1968.

The far side of the moon as seen from Apollo 8. The Apollo 8 crew was the first to ever see the dark side of the moon

The far side of the moon as seen from Apollo 8. The Apollo 8 crew was the first to ever see the dark side of the moon

Apollo 9 was a return to an incremental approach. The mission orbited the earth, tested the lunar module in earth orbit (that would later be used to land on the moon), and included a space walk to test the spacesuits. It also included a rendezvous, which was necessary with the command and lunar modules being separated.

Testing the Apollo 9 lunar module Spider in earth orbit

Testing the Apollo 9 lunar module Spider in earth orbit

Apollo 10 was the full dress rehearsal for landing on the moon. It was time to repeat the test of the lunar module, but this time in moon orbit. The lunar module detached from the command module, and the crew descended to within ten miles of the moon’s surface. They then returned to rendezvous with the command module, and journeyed back to earth. In total, the crew spent eight days in space, and the mission was a huge success — so successful that Apollo 11 was the mission that met Kennedy’s goal in July 1969.

The Apollo 10 lunar module Snoopy returns from almost landing on the moon

The Apollo 10 lunar module Snoopy returns from almost landing on the moon

Interestingly, many people at NASA thought early in the Apollo program that Apollo 12 was likely to be the mission that landed first on the moon. Perhaps if Apollo 9 had happened before Apollo 8 (as was originally planned), there might have been two separate missions to test the manned Saturn V and then a manned Saturn V to the moon. Certainly, if something substantial had gone wrong between Apollo 7 and 10, Apollo 11 would have been repeating validation of the space craft, space suits, and processes.

The tortoise beats the hare

The Soviet Union went all-in with Soyuz 1. It was the first flight of the new Soyuz spacecraft and Soyuz rocket, and was planned to be a rendezvous with the three-manned Soyuz 2. The mission had problems from the start — a solar panel failed to deploy, and this delayed the launch of Soyuz 2. The weather turned bad, and Soyuz 2 didn’t launch. This was fortunate, as the parachute on Soyuz 1 didn’t deploy due to a design fault, and the single Cosmonaut died on reentry. If Soyuz 2 had launched, the crew wouldn’t have survived.

Vladimir Komarov, the cosmonaut who died in the ill-fated Soyuz 1

Vladimir Komarov, the cosmonaut who died in the ill-fated Soyuz 1

This was 1967, a year before Apollo 7. The Soviets went for broke, testing rockets, capsules, rendezvous, and more in one mission. On paper, it looked like they were ahead. The result was failure — and an 18-month delay in the program, and ultimately failure to get to the moon before the Americans. Indeed, Soyuz 4 and 5 in early 1969 eventually completed the mission aims of Soyuz 1 and 2.

The tortoise beat the hare. It was a pretty fast tortoise, but you see the point. The pragmatic approach of trying one complex new component in each mission ultimately made the Apollo program successful. Doing everything at once didn’t work. There’s something in that for all of us. See you next time.

Delivering a Tough Message

A colleague of mine was recently disillusioned with a significant change that had affected them. They’d had a 1:1 meeting with their manager, chatted amicably about work for 25 minutes, and then the manager had dropped the bombshell in the last 5 minutes of the meeting. There wasn’t enough time to discuss the change, the person felt betrayed, and the meeting ended on time and with many questions unanswered.

Many people avoid the tough topics, dislike conflict, and don’t want to deliver tough messages. Unfortunately, it’s part of professional life — and here’s what I’ve learnt about how to do it.

Open with the Facts

If you’ve got something important to share, start by sharing it. Anything else you say before it will be ignored, seem trivial in hindsight, and you may even look rude for not getting started with the important topic. Take a deep breath, say “I’ve got something important to share with you”, and launch into the punchline: outline the conclusion or outcome you want to share.

Be very clear about the facts. For example, “Thanks for meeting me today, Bob. Unfortunately, you were not successful in getting the manager role: I’ve decided to promote Jenny into the role of team manager, I’ve let her know, and we will be announcing it tomorrow”. Here’s another example: “Sammy, we will not be launching your team’s Wizzle product. As a leadership team, we have decided to cancel the project, and reassign you and your team to the Zazzle initiative”.

Don’t get interrupted during the initial discussion. Politely tell the person you’re talking to that you’d like to finish. You owe it to them to share the complete outcome before they get a chance to have a conversation about it. If you want to explain how you got to the conclusion, do it after you’ve shared the conclusion — it’s a huge mistake to walk through the blow-by-blow account of the decision making process while holding back what decision you’ve made until later.

Minimize the Surprises

If you can, don’t surprise people. Lay the foundations for an important conversation by discussing what you’re thinking in the weeks or months that lead up to the decision. If you’re canceling the Wizzle product, hopefully you’ve spent weeks with the team talking about how it isn’t going well, sharing your concerns, and being clear that it isn’t meeting expectations. It’ll then be less of a shock when you make a change.

Sometimes, you have to surprise people. If you’re telling your boss you’re leaving the company, you probably haven’t been talking about it to them for months. That’s ok.

Don’t hide behind others

If you made the decision, own it. Don’t say “we” when it’s actually “I”. Don’t blame others, and don’t bring others unnecessarily into the conversation. Have the courage to own what you decided — you might not be loved for what you’ve decided, but you’ll be respected for having the courage and conviction to own your decisions.

Managers often have problems owning performance discussions. I’ve heard the story many times of a manager saying to an employee “I wanted to give you a 4.0 but my boss decided to give you a 3.0, I’m really sorry”. In 95% of cases, the manager really did drive the outcome — they didn’t put the person at the top of their list, they didn’t unreservedly advocate for the employee, and they were honest about one or more performance issues. So, own it: “When I got together with the leadership team and discussed your performance, I decided your performance was what was expected of someone at your grade and I’ve given you a 3.0. We have an amazing team, and you’ll need to work on three things to be a 4.0 at the next review”.

Conclude clearly

Make sure the conversation has been clearly understood. If you can get the person to play it back to you, you’ll be sure that it’s been understood. If you’re worried that it hasn’t been understood, you should follow it up with a written communication (an email is perfect) soon after the meeting. Indeed, this is often a good idea — I do this when I’m worried there’s room for misinterpretation, or that the decision or actions won’t stick how I want them to.

Above all, be courageous

You’re got past the initial discussion, you’ve conveyed the tough information you decided to share. Don’t change your mind. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t lose your cool. Nothing good ever comes of reversing a tough message in the heat of the moment.

Be calm. Courage doesn’t imply sternness or (worse still) yelling or anger. Be serious, but be rational, empathetic, and fair. Make sure you listen and be respectful. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

Good luck. See you next week.

Writing a Performance Review: Part Two

I blogged recently on the topic of annual employee performance reviews. This post continues the story and discusses what I’ve learnt about writing performance reviews.

The Basics of a Review

As I discussed last time, the reviews I deliver typically include a few elements:

  • Sharing company-specific performance ratings
  • Explaining what went well
  • Explaining what didn’t go well
  • Sharing expectations of the employee as the manager

Structuring a Review

I write reviews in paragraph form and hand over a printed copy. I follow up with an electronic copy.

I’ve experimented with several different approaches, and have settled on the following general structure:

  • One paragraph summary of the review: I thank the person for their contributions, communicate the company performance rating, and outline the structure of the document. It’s a good idea to disclose the rating early in the document, it gets key information out of the way and allows the person to focus on really reading the rest of the document
  • A section that describes “what went well”: A series of paragraphs that explain the person’s contributions, why they were valuable, and any suggestions you might have as to how they could be even better. I’m typically reflecting on the goals we agreed when I’m writing this section, as well as reflecting on what I’ve seen, heard, and feedback I’ve received; I discussed last time the topic of how to solicit feedback
  • A section that describes “what didn’t go well”: Same deal, but this time focusing on where there are problems, why they are problems, and what you’d like to see done differently
  • A section that describes “areas for focus”: A few, specific things you’d like to see that are areas for growth. I’m often writing things about future challenges I see in the person’s career, and new skills or competencies that need to developed
  • A one paragraph summary and conclusion

I strive to be balanced. I work hard to ensure that neither the “what went well” or the “what didn’t go well” sections dominate. It doesn’t matter whether the overall performance was outstanding or below expectations, there are always constructive, useful things you can say about performance. My observation is that most people want to hear where they can improve and what they can do better.

My typical reviews are around two pages in length. I’ve received much shorter reviews that were valuable and longer ones that weren’t. I’m not sure length matters — but substance does.

Reviews are important. They’re often tied to financial rewards, they’re written (and so they have gravitas), and they’re usually part of a formal process. It’s therefore important to write down honest, important, business relevant feedback.

Many managers struggle with being transparently honest in reviews. It’s hard to be critical, it’s hard to confront performance issues, and it’s hard to tell someone great that they can be better. As a manager, it’s your obligation. It’s a topic for another time, but this process becomes much easier if you’re honest in every 1:1 about how you see the performance of your employees — the review should never be a surprise.

An Example Summary

Here’s an example of the opening section that I might write:

Sam, thank you for contributions in 2012. I have rated you as <performance rating>.
You made positive contributions to building our next generation platform, hiring and leading the enablement team, and developing your skills in software engineering management. Well done! You did not deliver the new enablement engine on time, have not partnered successfully as we need to with the product team, and you need to continue to grow your presentation skills.

That’s it. A short, to-the-point summary of the document. It doesn’t have to include everything you discuss later — just the key points that you want to highlight, and those that were critical to your decision on the performance rating.

An Example What Went Well Section

I start my “What Went Well” section, imaginatively, with the heading: What Went Well.

I write a few paragraphs, at least as many as the highlights I’ve picked out in the summary section I discussed above. Each of the paragraphs explains what I think and why, and likely includes quotes from others (that I gathered through the feedback process) that support what I want to say. When I’m writing this section, I’m looking at the feedback I gathered from the person’s peers, reports, and other key people that the person interacts with. I’m also thinking about goals and results.

Here’s an example:

Project Alpha exceeded its goal of increasing the business by 3.5% in Europe. Several folks commented on this including examples such as “Thanks Sam for driving the European business, it’s been a pleasure partnering with you” and “You’ve really turned around the story in Portugal, you should feel proud”. It was exciting to see you delivering for Europe, particularly given the language complexities. In particular, it was good to see the successes in translation and price normalization. You also shipped some great work in North America (but missed the goal, that’s discussed later in this review).

Here’s another example:

You’ve made excellent progress on communication and meeting skills. We talked in our review last year about being more concise, letting others communicate, and letting others drive meetings. I can see great progress here – thanks for taking this feedback and working on it. People are noticing too: “I enjoyed working with Sam this year, he’s really developed into a solid communicator”.

An Example What Didn’t Go Well Section

Call me imaginative: I start this section with the heading “What Didn’t Go Well”. It’s ok to call a spade a spade, but you could also use a euphemism if you like such as “Opportunities for Improvement”.

I use the same structure and format as the “What Went Well” section. Paragraphs. One per major point. At least as many as the summary points I made in the introduction.

Here’s an example:

We have had great discussions last year about updating the headcount spreadsheets in a timely fashion, and you reflected in your self-assessment that you’re not doing this. I’d suggest you focus on time management and prioritization — I will support you in developing these skills, including helping you find the right courses you can take. I expect that this is the last year we’ll be having this discussion, and that we will have solved this problem before our next review.

And one more:

I saw development in your ability to think strategically this year, but you can continue to grow in this area. A few people reflected in their feedback to me that you could have taken on more strategic initiatives, or ran with some of the more challenging problems that you saw.  In many of the meetings you’re in, you seeing technical problems that remain unsolved and that you could play a part in driving. You should focus on driving one or two strategic, significant changes this year.

Both of these examples end with a clear call to action and clear expectations. Be clear about what it is you want to see happen.

Areas of Focus

My areas of focus section (titled “Areas of Focus” in my reviews) lists things that I think the person should focus on. They’re not necessarily weaknesses, they’re more often areas where I think the person will need to develop or focus for the future. It’s my advice section.

Here’s an example:

  • Continue to focus on presenting material at the right level for the right audience
  • Many folks worry about your work/life balance (and the example it sets for others)
  • Hire folks who complement your skills

The conclusion

I keep this short. I emphasize the key points, and wrap up with best wishes for the next year. Here’s an example:

You will have a challenging year in 2013, Sam. But I am confident you will do great in the new team, new role, and with your new challenges. Stay focused on strategic thinking! Good luck!

See you next week!

Five tips for Delivering a Presentation

I wrote a few weeks ago on writing a presentation. This week, I offer a few thoughts on delivering one – in no particular order. I’m working on my sequel to my post on performance reviews — expect it next week!

Eye Contact

You want to portray confidence. You don’t want to mumble. You want to engage your audience. Here’s my simplest tip to achieve all three: make eye contact with the audience. Pick out a few friendly faces – people you know who want you to succeed or just people who look friendly – and look them in the eye. Move between those folks as you deliver your presentation.

The side effects are you won’t look down and mumble. You will face the audience and not the slides (the slides aren’t that interested in your talk). You won’t look like you’re only trying to impress your boss (it sure freaks me out when someone spends the whole presentation looking at me). You’ll look like you’re in command as you survey the crowd.

Body Language

Stand up, go to the front, take charge of the room. But don’t plant yourself in one spot – plan to move every few minutes; for example, stroll from one side of the projector screen to the other, or move from the lectern to center stage.

Don’t rock. Plant your feet. Don’t freeze your arms. Make a few gestures – you can even plan to do these every minute or two.

Change your facial expressions every now and then. But not as much as a news anchor – don’t raise your eyebrows every second sentence like they do.

Don’t Read Notes (or Memorize)

Don’t write out your speech. You’ll kill the presentation. Please. For the sake of everyone who is listening. If you must, write a phrase per slide on some palm cards.

Memorizing is the same as writing it down. You will kill the audience.

Only newsreaders can do this, and you are not a newsreader.

Don’t Read Slides

Don’t read the slides to the audience. They can read, and that’s why you’ve put the text on the slides. Again, you’ll kill the talk.

Here’s how I see the role of slides: they’re the key material, and your job verbally is to add flavor to what they’re saying. Relate a story, add an extra point that wouldn’t fit on the slide, point out a key fact, or summarize the key message that the slide is conveying.

The worst thing you can do is to read the slides and track the text with a laser pointer. I hate laser pointers.

 It’s (almost) Impossible to Speak Too Slowly

Earlier this week, I was watching the first election debate in Australia, between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It wasn’t a debate per se, more of a press conference. And as I was thinking about writing this blog post, I was watching and listening for their presentation styles. I noticed careful use of body language, eye contact, and saw the Prime Minister use notes in the form of phrases. Whether either is charismatic is in question, but they are certainly practiced speakers.

What I noticed most was how slowly they spoke. Try an experiment: watch this video (or any video of a leader), and count the number of words they speak in a minute. Now, at work or school, count the number of words a presenter speaks in a minute. Compare and contrast people you think are great, and those that aren’t – you’ll quickly see that the ones you like generally speak slowly.

About 150 words per minute is about right. That’s hard to execute when you’re up on stage – so my practical advice is just to slow down. Speak as slowly as you can – nervousness will make sure it actually isn’t too slow, you’ll go a little faster than you intend anyway.

A Word on My Personal Style

I always walk off stage thinking that I made a mistake in one way or another. That causes me to reflect on what didn’t go well – and to try and capture it, and avoid the same mistakes twice. Here are a few things that I’ve learnt along the way:

  • If I work in humor early, the body language of the audience becomes more positive, and I relax (and become confident, and present more effectively). I try to lighten the mood early – but only when it’s appropriate!
  • I always write my own slides. I can’t present other people’s slides with confidence
  • When I’m repeating a talk, the third time is always the best. Before that I am rehearsing, and after that I am going through the motions
  • When I’m nervous, I gesture too much and I touch my face. I think about putting my hands in a position (such as one hand in a pocket) and keeping them there, and allow them to move only occasionally
  • I practice the endings of my talks. Starts and middles I can do, ends tend to drift. One trick I use is to learn who or what is coming next, and to introduce it in some form. For example, I might say “I would love to spend more time with you today, but I know you are all looking forward to Jenny speaking to you about Hadoop internals. I hope you’ve enjoyed the presentation, and I look forward to seeing you all again soon”. Or something like that. I also clearly signal the end of the presentation verbally

I love to run surveys about large meetings that I run to see what I can learn. I also always ask people in person what they thought of my presentations. If there’s a video, I’ll skim that too (which is always painful – I don’t know anyone who likes watching or listening to themselves). I think I am pretty good at spotting my own flaws – most people are their own best critics.

See you next week.

Writing a Performance Review: Part One

Many companies formally review the performance of employees, and most include a written performance review. This post is the first of two posts where I discuss what I’ve learnt about writing performance reviews and offer a few tips.

The Basics of a Review

Reviews typically include a few elements:

  • Sharing company-specific performance ratings
  • Explaining what went well
  • Explaining what didn’t go well
  • Sharing expectations of the employee as the manager

A manager should at least annually deliver a written review and talk it through in a 1:1 meeting that’s focused only on the review. Some managers send the review, say, an hour before the meeting to give the employee time to read it before the discussion. Other managers print and hand out the review at the beginning of the meeting, and give the employee time to read before the discussion begins. I personally prefer the latter approach — it allows me to react in real time to questions and gauge what’s important for the subsequent discussion. The former approach has the advantage that it gives the employee time and space to read the review.

Gathering Data

Before I write a review, I gather content. There’s a few places I go:

  • Notes, recollections, and emails that reflect on the employee’s performance against their agreed goals. I have regular, weekly or bi-weekly 1:1s with my direct reports, and in these we often discuss performance
  • Reflections from the person I’m reviewing. You’ll find it very helpful to ask your direct report to write down their reflections of their performance and send them to you
  • Reflections on the person I’m reviewing from others. I ask all of the person’s direct reports, peers, and selected other people who they interact with to give me their reflections

Start, Stop, and Continue

Here’s how I go about gathering feedback on the person I’m reviewing. I send an email like this to their reports, peers, and selected other folks they interact with:

Hello,
I have found that gathering feedback on the performance of my direct reports is one of the best ways to assess how they are doing. Please provide your candid feedback, which I will summarize and share anonymously.

To keep it simple, I am asking you to email me three things each that <name of person> should:

  • start
  • stop
  • continue doing

I will take all of the feedback and synthesize it into the review so your comments will be kept confidential.

Please provide your feedback by <date I need it> to <my email address>.

Thanks, Hugh.

Synthesizing the Content

Once I’ve got the replies, I look for consistent themes, great anonymizable examples, and points that help me reinforce the messages I want to share and those that align with the personal reflections of the person. I often include near-direct quotes from the responses, I’ve found they are powerful ways to convey messages. I frequently rewrite or rephrase the quotes so that language styles and quirks don’t give away who contributed the feedback.

By the way, it’s also useful to ask the person you’re reviewing to write their reflections in the Start, Stop, Continue model.

Next in the Series

In this follow up post, I share what I do next — how I put together a review and share it with the person I’m reviewing.

Five tips for Writing a Presentation

I’ve had hundreds of chances to experiment with presentations, through teaching, invited talks, and day-to-day presentations at work. If there’s a mistake you can make in delivering a presentation, I’ve made it. Today, I’ll share with you the top five things I’ve learnt along the way — hopefully, they’ll help you write a great talk!

One major point

You’ve been asked to give a presentation that’s less than an hour in length. My advice: deliver one major theme or point to the audience – you want them to leave unambiguously ready to understand, believe, act, or follow the point you’ve made.

Don’t share two or more major points. The audience will leave with different key takeaways. Or, worse still, you’ll confuse the audience or seem rushed in your delivery. And you usually won’t land that key message that you want the audience to act on or evangelize for you.

What is a major point or theme? It depends on the length of the talk. If I was speaking for an hour, I’d design a talk that lands a broader theme than if I was speaking for fifteen minutes. For example, in an hour I might land “how to deliver a great presentation”. If I was speaking for fifteen minutes, I might land “tips for verbal presentations”.

What if you have to speak on two topics in one session? For example, your boss wants you to present to her boss on two topics next week. Write two talks: start and finish the first, change decks, and start and finish the second. Consider having question time between the two. Pretend you’re two different speakers coming up to the podium.

One slide every two minutes

Rule of thumb: one slide for every two minutes of presentation. A one hour talk, thirty slides maximum. A fifteen minute presentation, seven slides. Really.

If you fly through slides, you’ll seem rushed. If you stay on one slide, you’ll kill the audience with boredom.

If I’m speaking for an hour, I restrict myself to thirty slides maximum — I’m always tempted to have more, and every time I do I regret it. If anything, err on the side of caution: I’ve given a few one hour talks with twenty or fewer slides, and it’s worked out fine.

Keep the slides simple

A slide with the right amount of content

A slide with close to the maximum amount of content. I’ve delivered this one a few times, and it’s hard to get through it in two minutes.

I like to have four to six lines of text on a PowerPoint slide. I try to avoid sub-bullets. I definitely wouldn’t have more than eight lines of text; I know when I reach eight that I’ve got two slides of content.

I dislike quadrant slides, they’re too complex for a presentation. I dislike two-content slides too — the ones that have text on the left and an image on the right (or vice-versa). If I want to include an image, I typically make it the feature of the slide and accompany it with at most two lines of text above or below the image.

Signpost the structure

I include the following signposts in most talks I deliver:

  • A title slide, with talk title, my name, company, and contact information

    An example title slide with talk title, my name, company  and contact information

    An example title slide with talk title, my name, company and contact information

  • An overview slide that explains the structure of the talk to the audience; that way, they know what to expect, it helps them to know when to ask questions and what’s going to be explained

    An overview slide. Usually the second slide in my presentations, and there to outline the structure of the talk

    An overview slide. Usually the second slide in my presentations, and there to outline the structure of the talk

  • An occasional subsection slide that shows we’ve arrived at a major section in the talk

    A subsection slide that explains where we are in the talk structure. I'll typically include two or three of these in a longer talk, and they'll reference back to the overview slide

    A subsection slide that explains where we are in the talk structure. I’ll typically include two or three of these in a longer talk, and they’ll reference back to the overview slide

  • (Sometimes) A concluding slide that contains the key points from the presentation
  • A subsection slide that includes the phrase “Questions?” or “Q&A?”

    A final slide asking for questions (and doing a little advertising)

    A final slide asking for questions (and doing a little advertising)

I count these slides in my “two minutes per slide” rule; these don’t come as free extras.

Be careful with the colors, design, transitions, and builds

When you’ve got Microsoft’s Powerpoint as your tool (or something fancy such as prezi), it’s tempting to include lots of slide builds, transitions, zooming, and animation. Resist. These are very often a distraction — and can lead to your audience thinking you’re more about style than substance.

I particularly dislike builds. Why? Because it looks like you’re hiding something, and it doesn’t give the audience the chance to read, understand, and put what you’re saying in context.

Afterword

I was fortunate to work with Justin Zobel for many years, and developed my early presentation style with his coaching. His book is worth the money — highly recommended for anyone who needs to write and present in the field of IT or computer science.

See you next week.