This is the fourth article in a series of blogs to share many of the lessons I have learned helping technology companies move “onwards and upwards” over the last two decades.
(Full disclosure, it has been over half a year since the first three blogs came out. I got deeply entrenched in my search for the next organization to apply these lessons. My quest, fortunately, ended at Dotmatics, the world’s biggest scientific R&D platform aimed at giving scientists easy access to data for better and faster decision-making. We help organizations like Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson make the world a healthier, cleaner, and safer place to live. Quick quiz: Can you guess why I chose this list of Dotmatics customers?)
In the first three parts of this series, I wrote about getting advice, making sure the top two focus areas are cash and great people and then ensuring the next key focus area is customers.
Now, I move on to a lesson that hit me in the face recently, the value of caring.
I was walking home from dropping my 10-year-old off at her elementary school last Friday morning. As I always do in my time-obsessed, efficiency-seeking way, I had a 15-minute business call lined up for the walk home.
This call was with a former boss from Goldman Sachs, who I nicknamed “Killer” back in my Analyst days due to his relentless and unwavering work ethic. He and I both serve on the Board of Advisors of a 50-person cybersecurity company in Canada.
The call was predominantly me, OK, maybe all me, passionately sharing my concerns about the CEO’s focus. It is worth noting that the CEO is a wonderful person with immense leadership potential. Still, I was very worried that he wasn’t spending sufficient time speaking with the early adopters of his product.
For the last couple of quarters, sales numbers have missed targets. There’s been lots of talk about demo best practices, marketing programs, product positioning, sales team effectiveness, partner distribution opportunities, etc. However, there has been very little talking about the customers actually using the product.
So, question number one, in my mind, should always be around product-market fit or, put more bluntly, the answer to the ultimate question, “does the dog hunt?”
This call came days after the first-ever, 700-person, global kickoff event at Dotmatics (aka InsightfulScience), the company where I am now President. During the event, we ran through the company’s history, starting with the acquisition of a 14-person company, GraphPad, intently focused on building easy-to-use graphing and analysis software for scientific research. We told the story about how Harvey Motulsky, the brilliant-scientist founder, would spend one day per week responding to help desk support tickets.
Not looking at help tickets. Not talking to the people on his team answering those tickets. Actually responding to the tickets himself. Helping customers. Understanding how those customers actually used the product. It is not a coincidence that over 1.5 million scientists globally now use his product.
The same behavior trait, talking to users directly, is a recurring theme throughout every best-of-breed scientific application that we have acquired.
(For data lovers out there, the average Net Promoter Score for these solutions is over 70!)
Anyway, my passion for products and customers is leading me astray here…
The reason I tell this story is: Killer, my former boss, has been a mentor to the CEO of the Canadian company for almost two years, and he finished the call – once I finally stopped talking – by calmly and very genuinely sharing three words:
Thanks for caring.
These three words jolted me off my customer soapbox, and I felt a sudden sense of pride.
Yes, I did care.
I really do care about the CEO, his business, the cybersecurity challenges faced by his customers, and caring really does matter in many different ways to a lot of different people.
Another great piece of advice, which I had received six years ago when I started at my last company, then popped into my head:
People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
So, I am feeling pretty good about myself and super appreciative about being reminded of this life lesson which led me to think back to what a jerk I felt like just over a month ago.
As the holiday season approached, I saw how incredibly well organized my wife was, as she is every year, in getting gifts for our four kids, cousins, teachers, friends, the mailman, and the kid’s bus driver!
(Note: she runs a thriving residential architecture business, Mary Mckee Design, so it’s not like she doesn’t have a lot to do)!
Mary also puts together an annual photo calendar for my relatives, not hers, mine. Seeing my wife be so considerate, I decided that I should probably be getting some gifts for my new colleagues and direct reports.
As I thought about each one and a gift they might appreciate (and something I could get to them in 72 hours), I realized that I knew almost nothing personally about some of them despite working together for over four months.
To make matters worse, in one case, I had sat through over 25 internal interviews in the last month as we interviewed candidates and re-organized his 130-person group. After being on dozens of Microsoft Teams calls with him, I knew the left side of his face, the growth pattern of his beard, and his home office better than my own.
But as I went to write him a short holiday note, I realized that I didn’t know how many kids he had, nor how old they were. To use an expression that my two teenage boys love, “Brutal!”
In Eric Schmidt’s excellent book, Trillionaire Coach: The Leadership Handbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, he talks about how Campbell (as CEO) started every one of his weekly leadership meetings by going around the room and having someone share a personal anecdote, all as a way to get to know people better and show that you care.
I’ve tried this, but my obsession with time and efficiency hasn’t allowed me to do this regularly (I am the guy who fills a 15-minute walk home with calls).
At one of my previous employers, we would have our weekly Leadership Team meeting from 9:00 am to noon every Monday morning, just when I was rearing to get into a productive work week. And it would often start late. I even took to showing up around 9:08 so as not to waste eight more minutes with small talk. The Chief People Officer at this incredibly high-performing organization hit me over the head with a verbal paddle one day, “Yeah, the last thing you would want to know is whether people had a good weekend or not.”
OK, before you think I am a total jerk, I do actually care about people and make a point of devoting half the time at all quarterly offsites to building trust and communication and getting to know one another. But I don’t always act that way on a week-to-week, or daily basis.
Rightly or, more likely, wrongly, I am in the mindset that the puck has dropped, and the hockey game is on.
While this may be true on the ice, where it’s pretty tough to ask the new person on your line about how their kids are doing in school, this is not the case at work.
We had a new person join our leadership team last month. As part of his introduction, I had each person share a fact about themselves– that rest of the team didn’t know – to help this new team member get to know them.
Out came stories about people having been in the army, having pursued PhDs in unexpected fields in university, being able to make amazing carbonara, winning “Mr. Sexy” contests while on vacation…
It was a really nice exercise and took less than 15 minutes.
Maybe Eric Schmidt and Bill Campbell have a point. Showing that you care and are genuinely interested in knowing more about your colleagues than the red-yellow-green ratings on the quarterly metrics has a lot of merit in business.
Either way, I would argue that it’s a more fulfilling way to go through life.
Now that I’m back in the hot seat, I will keep these blogs shorter. So I’ll save my story about caring mattering as much to customers as it does to colleagues, but I think you can guess the punch line.
Thanks for caring.