MBA Mondays: Guest Post From Angela Baldonero

Angela is SVP of People and Client Success at Return Path. She joined Return Path over five years ago to focus on the People job and she has added responsibilities since then. I asked Angela to write one of the guest posts in this series on People because she and Matt Blumberg have built one of the most impressive cultures I have seen and I asked her to tell us how they did it.


Just Say No

When Fred asked me to guest blog, I asked if there was a particular topic he wanted me to focus on. Fred replied “write about the single biggest move you and Matt made at Return Path to impact culture, teamwork, and development throughout the organization.”

For me, the biggest shift that we made was when we decided to stop trying to be like every other company and to instead actively resist changes that would not make sense for us. We started saying no, regularly and forcefully, to policies, systems and procedures that many companies adopt as they grow.  

Return Path was on a path to becoming a standard, if better-than-average company, with fun perks and all the systems and programs that you’re supposed to implement as you grow. However, that also meant that there was a demand for more policies and rules, it was getting harder to make decisions and people were often frustrated with the pace at which things got done. Collaboration was sometimes confused with consensus and creativity was getting stifled. There was a better way forward where people make good decisions without a phone book of instructions.

The day we committed to no, we were at an executive team offsite and trying to figure out how to implement some changes that would give more power to individuals to get stuff done. We kept getting caught up in the inevitable “What if someone screws up or makes a bad decision?” discussion. But then we stopped because we realized that we’d spent enough time on problems and exceptions. What if we turned the entire conversation around and focused on managing to the top? What if everything we do is focused on our top performers, the people we trust, the people who make great decisions, the people who can think critically and creatively and as a result can handle a bit of ambiguity? We set out to say no in four key areas.

  • Just Say No to Useless Brilliance
  • We’ve all worked with that brilliant person that the organization thinks it cannot live without. Unfortunately, that brilliant person can’t communicate or work on a team. So, most organizations put them in a box in an attempt to minimize the damage they inflict on the organization. But it never works because the boxes pile up and so do the silos.  And no matter how well constructed the box is, that brilliant person can simultaneously demotivate 20 co-workers AND usually doesn’t contribute much in the silo. It’s not worth it. We don’t tolerate brilliant assholes.

  • Just Say No to Policy Paralysis
  • Policies and rules are created to guard against people doing stupid things to control time and resources. Examples: paid time off, sick time, expenses, work hours, comp, social media, dress code, discipline and — my favorite — “the code of ethics.” The reality is, with clear direction 99% of our people make great decisions every day. The couple of misses we’ve had have been quickly resolved after a clarifying conversation. Instead of locking things down, we set them free. We’ve said no to creating a policy for every situation we might encounter.  Instead, we have unlimited vacation and sick time.  We have a common sense expense reimbursement philosophy (“spend the money as if it was your own”).   

  • Just Say No to Values Dilution
  • This is the toughest category and the one that requires the most courage. Saying no to things that conflict with your organization’s values is essential to ensuring your culture is alive and thriving. Not paying attention will quickly lead to meaningless values posted on the wall. For example, we value transparency which means we share the good, the bad and the ugly openly (and often). Our commitment to transparency was dramatically tested when we decided to spin off part of the business and needed to decide if we should alert staff ahead of a formal sale. We did what most companies wouldn’t – we told the staff. It was such a unique approach that we got written up in Inc. magazine (see article).  Our value – up there, on the wall – is that we say no to secrecy and withholding.  If we hadn’t told the staff about the transition we would not have been living that value. And everyone would have known it.

  • Just Say No to Executive Dysfunction  
  • We’ve all seen the all-important and all-knowing executive team. The team that has all the answers and yet isn’t able to execute. I’ve seen too many executive teams where personal relationships and politics are the real business drivers behind-the-scenes. Business is done over cocktails, after hours and not in broad daylight. Personal agendas trump team goals. People smile and nod politely in meetings, then leave the meeting and corner the CEO to say what they “really think.” At Return Path, we are fiercely committed to the health of the executive team.  We check in with each other on our individual and team development and are rigorous about giving each other feedback and holding each other accountable.  We work with a team coach (Marc Maltz) to work through the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team and develop our ability to be Multipliers within the organization. We are brutally honest with each other and exhaustive about looking in the mirror. We say no to executive dysfunction, personal agendas and being too busy to live our values. And it is the best team I’ve ever worked with.  

    A new world of work is being born around us. Most traditional HR practices are ineffective and irrelevant. The courage to say no to the status quo has given us the freedom to blaze a new path of freedom, flexibility and creativity.  And it’s a competitive advantage for us. Our turnover is lower than nearly any other company – in our industry or any other industry. Most of our new employees come in as referrals from existing employees. And our application to hire percentage is about 1.5% — meaning Return Path is harder to get into than Princeton.

    My advice to you is to set your people free to focus on important, high impact work and solve challenging business problems. That’s how companies will win now.

    #MBA Mondays

    Comments (Archived):

    1. Guest

      Since the mid 90’s this is exactly the argument that I have been making but in an industry that has lower skill demands and lower wages.Now what I observe is that HR has become nothing more than a moat around the executive/management kingdom; employees are seen as outsiders as a hoard that the company must be protected from.I have yet to meet a person who did not want to work, who did not want to do their best, and who did not want to contribute to the success of their employer and at 54 I have had tens of thousands of people walk through the front door looking for work.I have hired for jobs that were diverse; some required technical skills, some required vast experience, and quite a few were just minimum wage jobs.Whenever an employer tells me that they cannot find good employees then I can safely assume that they are a poor employer.Congratulations to you Angela and the enlightened leaders at Return Path.

      1. fredwilson

        so people are smart and they want to work at the good companies?

        1. Guest

          People want to work.Companies need people to work.The companies that find ways to take the pool from which they hire from and get those people to perform the tasks necessary to achieve their objectives are good companies.When your workforce is 85% sewing machine operators, a low skill job which starts at minimum wage and the pool you employ from is basically single mothers who are on welfare, you learn real quick how smart these folks are.If you can convince those folks that you can offer them a path from food stamps, childcare, medicad, and rent assistance to independence in 90 days and can lay it out on paper with your first benchmark at 14 days from first day of work, and you know the system as well as they do you come away impressed by the intelligence of people.Yes, people are smart and they have heard the new hire sales pitch many times.

          1. JLM

            .Our work defines us. Ask someone what they do and they answer: carpenter, manufacturer, VC, poet (I have a thing for poets), writer, doctor, plumberThey answer that question with their “work”.When we do not have our “work”, we are ill at ease. Why the issue of unemployment is so devastating. It goes to the core of our self definition.Me, I am a philosopher king, who just happens to be in business.Sorry, can’t sell that idea..

            1. FlavioGomes

              As you aptly stated, your work has contributed to your philosophy

            2. Angela Baldonero

              Good thread, although on this particular point I think we may be more defined by our work in NAmer than in other parts of the world.

            3. Patrick Campi

              My Dad used to say “who are you? Can you answer that question without saying what job you do..?” And for me, that’s the key.

            4. Guest

              JLM,I am just a simple guy and I aspire to be nothing but what I am.I find it surprising that since 1943 Abraham Maslow has given us the answer to dealing with people and work.Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, and Self Actualization.…I pass out Maslow’s book, Motivation and Personality, to every newly promoted supervisor/manager.

            5. ShanaC

              do you think maslow’s hierarchy always holds true – people tend to flux between each step of the pyramid

            6. Guest

              That is the big misconception of the hierarchy (Maslow never used the pyramid to explain his ideas)you do not travel from bottom to top, its not something that you climb up or fall down…We have all those needs to varying degrees all the time: the key for an employer or a manager is to understand how to balance those needs and how to motivate them (push the right buttons).Its easy to understand the first two, one being a paycheck and the other being job security the others require a more nuanced understanding of work and how it effects the psyche.So many employers can’t ever get beyond paycheck, fringe benefits (the carrot) and the fear of losing ones job (the stick) that they lose out on the really simple stuff like smiling at their employees and acknowledging their existence….

            7. JLM

              .I am a simpleton and don’t even know what I am..

            8. Guest

              Now you are a simpleton and a few hours ago you were the Philosopher King….Obviously, you can be anything you set your mind to! 🙂

      2. Carl Rahn Griffith

        HR as a moat – nice description. Whenever a company mentions HR to me, I shudder.

        1. Guest

          I used to give annual speeches via the Chamber of Commerce to “HR Professionals” and I used to speak once a year to kids graduating with a degree in HR from the local university….It just got to the point where I realized they didn’t have a clue.

        2. mattb2518

          That’s why ours is called the People Team.

      3. Angela Baldonero

        Thank you! I love your third paragraph! Totally agree.

        1. Guest

          Thank you and the enlightened executives at Return Path!Most companies think that employees are going to take advantage of anything they are given…”Facts” such as most American employees do not use their personal days, sick days, or vacation days in a year and end up being either forced to use them at the end of the year, cash them in, or lose them never gets noticed.But we will always be thinking about that one person who could potentially take advantage of something.So on the look out for the negative, so focused on making sure that they are in control that they miss out totally on the benefits of employee self control.You need to publish your total hours of time off, for whatever reason to your percentage of time worked; I bet that you will have the lowest percentage of any company around.Imagine, the most liberal time off policy nets you the lowest time off costs! 🙂

        2. Guest

          Okay, Angela I have to let my sense of humor have its say….OMG! I said something that someone in the tech world agrees with!I may still have a little worthwhileness left in me!Okay, I feel better now….

      4. ShanaC

        why? I mean why, this so devaluing to the peopleness of an actual workforce.

        1. Guest

          Oh, the stories I could tell! :)Basically, a managers bonus is based upon units produced not how he/she values “peopleness.”High turnover becomes a HR issue not a production issue. Or, you can comfort yourself like lots of folks do by claiming that its the workforce…Sadly we have become a society where with success, with promotion, there has not come a sense of added responsibility.

    2. Avi Deitcher

      Angela, absolutely brilliant post.I think most of these stifling policies are made by “policy experts” and lawyers, obsessed with “what if something goes wrong,” trained to focus on the cost of not doing *something* policy-wise and ignoring the cost of doing so.Q: what happens when the company grows, and there is a disagreement, and eventually someone decides that the courts will resolve it? The courts – systematized lawyers – are not good at judgement (pun intended), and can make it difficult for companies that don’t have clearly defined rules, dos and don’ts?

      1. JLM

        .If you show up in court and do not have the underlying policies to support your position, you will write a very large check.I cannot tell you the number of times in the last 12 months that I have seen this very thing happen with charities, of all strange things, who were hauled to court by former employees.When we have advised the charities as to appropriate termination procedures, we are batting 1000.Don’t jinx me, please..

        1. Avi Deitcher

          Wouldn’t jinx you at all!I think Angela is spot on that this is far and away the best way to run a company. The problem is that when there is disagreement – and there always is – and it comes to outside arbitrators and/or courts – and it eventually happens – those people do not understand about the best way to run a firm. They only understand clear and rigid rules. If an employer doesn’t have them, the employer will lose.

    3. awaldstein

      Just say Yes to this post and its core spunk and brilliance!Not tolerating assholes, no matter how brilliant, at any level ,while seemingly obvious is actually a bold and game changing cultural move.Nicely done!

      1. RichardF

        It’s a really bold move, particularly when the asshole is a key salesperson

        1. awaldstein

          Or a brilliant developer. Or management.Anyone whose overt and community dampening wackiness is tolerated because of contribution is a huge deal to remove.

        2. fredwilson

          That’s the hardest place to enforce the no assholes rule

          1. andyswan

            And for good reason. She specifically said “useless assholes”, not just assholes in general. 🙂

            1. thinkdisruptive

              Are there useful assholes? Don’t all assholes exhibit the qualities that require them to be siloed for the sake of team performance?

          2. Abdallah Al-Hakim

            this post is taking a run at breaking ‘asshole’ mention record. As of right now I count 22 🙂

          3. Angela Baldonero

            Absolutely. Those are moments of truth for the exec team. Especially if the asshole in question is still on the exec team!

        3. Carl Rahn Griffith

          Such an old model of personality type required for sales. And still indulged. Crazy.

      2. Carl Rahn Griffith

        Indeed. So many assholes out there, still. I have had a lifetime’s worth of them. Too many, usually at my expense. They take many forms – egotists, sociopaths, arrogant, selfish, greedy.Get rid. Now.

      3. gorbachev

        Would you have fired Steve Jobs?

        1. awaldstein

          As a board member?You raise a good point.I grew up in the industry working for Jack Tramiel, Sim Wong Hu and a host of other amazingly powerful and visionary and driven people.All was not rosy every day. But we changed the world at times and I counted these bosses as my friends.There are exceptions to every rule.

    4. kirklove

      Great post. Thanks. “Don’t tolerate brilliant assholes.” perfect line.

    5. Sorry

      Fantastic Angela (and Fred), thanks!To demonstrate how right you are, I want comment on how my employer (which I really do like working for) goes wrong in each of your four examples. But the truth is I’m afraid to do so, as the employer may not appreciate it. So instead — anonymously! — I’m saying that, instead.

    6. William Mougayar

      That’s a pretty radical starting point but one that replaces a lot of non-sense by much common-sense.  The impressive part is that you codified and institutionalized that throughout the company. Many happy returns! 

      1. awaldstein

        nicely said william.

    7. John Best

      Thanks for this Angela.No amount of policy will stop a screw up. If its going to happen, it will. I love that you’re trusting the people you hire, and instead making the hiring process much more exacting. Best of all is the placing of the culture of the business at the forefront of that hiring process.

    8. Stanislas Polu

      Congrats! This must require a lot of rigor. Too often as an “employer”, one lets himself drift into compromission and behave exactly the opposite of what he had set out as an expectation for himself and his employees…This is probably the worst and the best part of the job when you get it right/wrong.

    9. John Revay

      “Instead, we have unlimited vacation and sick time.”There is a Boston based company called Hubspot – they have similar policy. – They were written up as one of the best places to work in Bean town.

      1. Trish Fontanilla

        Coming from a startup in Boston, I’d just like to say… that’s how we roll around here! haha Common sense rules are key re: attire, vacation, social media, etc.

      2. JLM

        .Isn’t it ironic.Someone does a great job AT work and their reward is they LEAVE work..

    10. William Mougayar

      Curious how do you resolve conflicts when an employee comes to you with an issue. And what is your attrition rate? 

      1. Angela Baldonero

        Voluntary turnover is < 1% while involuntary is around 11%. We resolve conflicts using a common sense and data driven approach. The ladder of inference is a great tool and we have an amazing team of People Business Partners who help facilitate tough conversations.

    11. JimHirshfield

      “Just Say No to Executive Dysfunction” – that’s the hardest part, isn’t it? The people that need to say no are the same people that might be producing the dysfunction.

      1. Angela Baldonero


      2. mattb2518

        The hardest. But also the most important.

    12. Mac

      Thanks for the post, Angela. As I build a new team over the coming months I’m excited about applying your ‘New Path’ guidelines. I wonder if your “new world of work” gains traction quicker, and is more successful, within the evolving internet/technology industry or is it more the existing culture…regardless of industry. Perhaps a combination of both.I look forward to sharing the results with you. Continued success.

    13. panterosa,

      Thanks for the phrase ”useless brilliance”, or as it is being used in comments, ”brilliant assholes”. I had a brilliant asshole tech genius who almost ruined many relationships for me. If I had known this phrase, I would have been even swifter in telling him goodbye. Now it is in my arsenal of red flags.

      1. Carl Rahn Griffith

        Pseudo Rock Star developers are some of the biggest offenders. Christ, they need micro-managing.Life’s too short. Business is even shorter, so accelerated, it’s like Dog Years.

        1. panterosa,

          Actually, this guy is a real leader in his field, and his other creds were in science so he was a dream fit – and many people said so. I brought him my project and his eye lit up like christmas morning.He had rock star behavior though, a lot of ego, and was late to everything. Perfect fit on paper, disaster in real life.

          1. Carl Rahn Griffith

            Oh dear, sounds very familiar. I don’t know why this behaviour has become so acceptable and thus so prevalent, relatively, in our field. The only other industry I have encountered with such a high % of such pointless meme personalities is in investment banking.Not a good parallel for our industry…

            1. panterosa,

              Carl, the sad part is he is not Pseudo Rock Star developer, he is a rock star. And having worked with rock stars his behavior was like theirs. Before I asked him, I asked a friend who had worked with him, citing her long ago trouble with him. She said she thought he was over it. Apparently not.NEXT!

            2. Beth Linker

              I think the “rock star” terminology (which has been around at least since I started my career) is a little bit to blame. If you come into the industry hearing that being really good makes you a “rock star”, it creates the impression that if you write good enough code then you don’t have to be a team player anymore.Tech is also a field where people who accumulate enough product/institutional knowledge get leeway because they are perceived as irreplaceable – “if Joe quits, nobody will know how the code really works.” That’s a management failure, because someone should be making sure that Joe isn’t writing stuff nobody else can comprehend.

            3. Angela Baldonero

              Great point.

            4. LE

              ” someone should be making sure that Joe isn’t writing stuff nobody else can comprehend”People tend to ignore something that might only be relevant if or when a future event happens. Most people don’t even do proper backups on their own computers or plan for a hard drive failure.Contingency planning is mind boggling.

        2. Trish Fontanilla

          Someone said salespeople, but coming from the tech world, I’ve totally seen the rock star developer brilliance being tolerated when it shouldn’t be. Yes, they may be a rockstar, but if they want to be a soloist instead of part of a band, that’s bad news bears (yeah I said). What’s worse is when they’re not nearly as passionate about product and team.

          1. Carl Rahn Griffith

            My father-in-law (eg) is a retired engineer and can still make anything from a lump of metal – an engine, for example. From a lump of metal.The skills therein are staggering. When he makes something he doesn’t act like some faux god or expect plaudits from everyone – he just gets satisfaction from creating something from zero. Something that will last.When I stopped coding – at Cobol(!) – I had some of that feeling at times – this was stuff built to last. I wonder if part of the ego issue is so much of what is done now – not just coding – is transient/disposable.It’s perceived by some to be an artisan act of tortured/creative genius.For a rare few I am sure it is. For the majority in the real world however it should be first and foremost be seen as a job. Do it well. Have some humility and perspective. Pride is not Ego.

        3. Donna Brewington White

          Micro-managing… not to mention the damage control.Parenting toddlers comes to mind.

    14. Susan Wilson

      It’s easy to be insecure about going against the norm. Great to hear an experience that validates the “easy” way that too many of us overcomplicate. Given my first start up raised money from Flatiron (i.e., Fred Wilson), I can honestly say that I wimped out and went against what I felt was best for the company because I thought our investors would kill me for it. It’s a decision that haunts me…even today! So thanks to both Angela and Fred for making me realize how wrong I was back then (i.e., b/c I realize now my gut was probably right in 1998 but the internet was too new and I was too young to have the courage to be THAT different). Tough to own that realization but it’s clearly my truth. So…It really wasn’t him (ok, them). It was me 0=)

      1. fredwilson

        We might have. I have learned a lot since then.

        1. mattb2518

          The trick with investors is to only ask their opinion if y want to get it or are likely to follow it. Otherwise, deliver great results, and they’re less likely to ask HOW.

      2. Carl Rahn Griffith

        Wonderful honesty, Susan. Empathy. This – painfully – resonates.I so wish I had questioned/confronted (demanded!) more from certain assholes in my business life – I have been way too civilised and tolerant/trusting of some odious jerks. But, ultimately, it is not their fault – assholes are assholes and oblivious to the damage they cause because of their sheer arrogance and stupidity. My fault for not removing them from the equation sooner. Never again.

    15. Cindy Gallop

      Truly excellent post, Angela. One that the majority of my previous industry – advertising – should be taking on board.

    16. FlavioGomes

      I’ll just have to say YES!! to this post. A fresh, common sense approach to business building. I’ve heard of some these measures being implemented elsewhere, and ive tried a few myself to great success.How many employees at Return Path? And Angela, have you found challenges with your approach as the company grows?

      1. fredwilson

        North of 300. Could be 400. In that range

        1. JLM

          .That is a size at which the leadership at the top can reach and influence every employee.At some larger size, leadership from the top is a bit too remote. The enterprise then must have subordinate leaders rather than just managers.This accounts for why small companies can be very, very good. They reflect the influence of a powerful leader..

          1. FlavioGomes

            It also feels as if Angela’s approach would nurture great leadership from within to help spread the word (“multiplier effect”). Organic, intrinsic peer review relationships that make it easier to spot and or correct weakness. I believe what matters most in that entire post is what Angela refers to as “Clear Direction”…this is the linchpin that makes what she says work so well in my opinion.

            1. JLM

              .I agree more with you, Flavio, more than you agree with yourself.I am not a huge fan of formal performance reviews but I am a big fan of constant communication, mentoring, coaching and talking about performance.Reinforce good behavior and sand off the sharp edges of behaviors needing a bit of improvement. Coaxing a good performance rather than administering spankings.The other thing is goal setting. Small companies never undertake good formal goal setting. It is time consuming and things are moving so fast that it is difficult to do.On the other hand, small companies can effectively use props like BaseCamp to ensure that projects are managed well and stay on track but that is not goal setting.Last thought: celebrate small and large victories to create a “camp fire” cultural legacy..

            2. Angela Baldonero

              We are currently around 360 (changes daily)… And paying fierce attention to how we scale. We have survived our first big hurdle in-tact which was our Int’l expansion.

    17. Tom Labus

      This was a great post, thanks Angela.What events triggered this shift? Did you see corporate mediocrity setting in down the line?

      1. Angela Baldonero

        Good Q. Policy/rule creation is a black hole… And not inspiring. It doesn’t feel good to not trust people. We were tired of the traditional path.

        1. mattb2518

          I’d add that while we always had a “People First” culture, we realized at some point that we had policies inconsistent with that culture. So to some extent, we were trying to make ourselves more internally consistent.

    18. Aaron Klein

      I spent Saturday in an annual all-day meeting for the community college board I serve on. As I read this post, I was pondering why we needed to implement this but also why it wouldn’t work, at least not immediately.And what struck me is that, without the ability to hold people accountable for their decisions, that framework won’t fly. In public institutions, tenure has departed from “being insulated from losing my job if the political leadership changes” and has become a “pocket veto enabling me to do what I want without interference from these pesky people elected and hired to lead.”Accountability sounds and feels scary but it allows this kind of “empowered creativity” to work.

      1. Donna Brewington White

        Accountability is the “check and balance” that holds it all together. Brilliant when it’s done organically, relationally.

        1. Aaron Klein


          1. Angela Baldonero

            Accountability is the glue. Sorry for the delayed reply, I was on a plane.

            1. mattb2518

              Not to get political, but this is why tenure is flagged as an intractable problem for education quality.

            2. PhilipSugar

              Yes, yes, yes.

            3. Aaron Klein

              Indeed. No question.

    19. Abdallah Al-Hakim

      Great post that in the end calls for building a team of brilliant individuals with common sense (the last part is what a lot of other companies miss).

    20. James Ferguson @kWIQly

      Angela,I blogged about similar non-compliance to norms here ……So where you say.>> Instead, we have unlimited vacation and sick timeWe say …>>Guide yourself – Work when you feel you can contribute most, and while you feel fresh. Prioritize carefully, take holidays as you need them. It is not macho to need to work an eighty hour week (but it happens), it is not cool to slope of and go skiing when the powder is great (but it happens). >>Perhaps this will create implicit team vs investability trade-off – if so – so what !Team comes first !

      1. Angela Baldonero

        Love it! And here is hoping for great powder days on the mountain this winter!

    21. JamesHRH

      AwesomeMy wife uses 5 Dysfunctions…..says it isBang on.

      1. mattb2518

        It is – and his newest book, The Advantage, is even better (and includes a lot of what’s in The 5 Dysfunctions.

    22. JLM

      .Great post and well reasoned. Well played.Like most things in life, the spice analogy works here. A pinch will work and a handful will ruin the stew.As it relates to policy issues, new companies make them up as they are leaving the cradle. When you have been running companies a while, they were written down a long time ago. You know which ones work and why.Plug and play without the creative friction.For new companies, much of the frustration is that you have to be diverted from your business to create the administrative cocoon in which it operates. It IS a time waster.As to issues like vacation, there is a nitty gritty accounting issue as you have to recognize the accrued value of vacation as a liability and you will ultimately have an employee who either retires, leaves or is layed off.That employee is entitled to be paid for accrued but unused vacation time. That is a thorny issue which must be dealt with.If you are buying insurance, then you have to have sufficient policy infrastructure to defend yourself in a crazily litigious world. Sad but true.In the final analysis, you are preaching the sermon of “loving” your employees in meaningful and tangible ways. While much of what you touch upon is ethereal, the “real” ways may be more important.Compensation, benefits, training, continuing education, office equipment, home office equipment and work at home to name a few.I like flat organizations run by real people who can relate and communicate with their folks, who invest real time and who are prepared to be caught off guard. Knowing the answer to everything is a danger.The most precious resource you will ever commit to your people is your time. Your genuine time. And not necessarily related solely to business..

      1. John Revay

        “The most precious resource you will ever commit to your people is your time. Your genuine time. And not necessarily related solely to business”Great way to end the comment – real genuine interest

    23. Kirsten Lambertsen

      What an inspirational post. I was nodding my head “yes” the whole read.In my last corporate job (a long time ago, now), this is exactly how I ran my department. And a lot of people above me and around me saw me as a heretic and a troublemaker. Yet, I had one of the most efficient and effective teams in the org. It’s really inspiring to read this and be validated.I am left with the same question that some others here have asked. How do you address the liability this might open you up to, in the event that a disgruntled employee takes his/her case to court?

      1. Angela Baldonero

        Great Q. Generally speaking, we are operating way above minimum requirements and are fine there. Do you have a more specific Q?

        1. Anne Libby

          I think that some people are reading “say no to policy paralysis” as having no policies.

        2. Kirsten Lambertsen

          Maybe @annelibby:disqus is right. As I tried to formulate an example to use, I found myself envisioning how it could work positively for you.For example, I imagine that if someone is felt to be abusing the unlimited vacation policy, you could direct that person not to take any more vacation for a certain amount of time. And then, if he or she still took vacation, that would be cause for dismissal (if you chose). If you ended up in court, you could demonstrate that clear direction was given.Am I on the right track there? You are working on a sort of ‘mutually agreed upon’ model for many things, and if you can’t mutually agree it’s the company’s option to terminate the relationship? (I’m just trying to imagine how a court would approach it.)

          1. LE

            “be cause for dismissal”Not my area of expertise, but under “employment at will” there are things that you can’t fire someone for. “You’re a woman and we like men” or “You’re black and we want someone white”. Other than that you don’t need a reason to fire someone. By “that” I mean things that the law prevents you from doing.That said as we know with patent trolls a leg to stand on is always important when dealing in any situation, legal or not. (As someone who used to do photography for lawyers I can attest to the shake downs that occur).Perhaps someone could comment on this.

            1. mattb2518

              I believe the rule in the US is that you can fire someone at will for any reason or no reason, just not a bad reason. Our policy is clear that performance is part of the equation, so enforcing policy is easy. It’s just to a policy about counting hours and days.

            2. Jim Ritchie

              My favorite, “this is just not working out…for me”, as coached by an HR attorney here in CA.

    24. Kyle Van Pelt

      I chuckled at the “unlimited vacation” mention..because it seems so counter-intuitive, yet it is SO effective. Being someone who studies the millennial generation very closely, and is a millennial, what you have mentioned in this post is brilliant and forward thinking.Gen-Y worker bees will certainly be looking for freedom and trust as most transition from a home with a helicopter parent. Replacing policy with personal responsibility and freedom is one of the best things you can do for great productivity out of Gen-Y.The challenge is in the interview process; I feel like interviewing has been coming up a lot lately in the MBA Monday’s posts. The reason I say this is because you have to dive deep to discover whether or not your potential employee can be trusted with this freedom or if they are just looking for a sweet compensation plan to come and sluff off.Great post. I would love to come and visit Return Path for a day or so to see what the office looks like and feels like!

      1. Angela Baldonero

        We would love to have you! Also, the recruiting process is critical. Ours is comprehensive and works well for us to identify capability and culture fit.

      2. ShanaC

        that is because we’re burnt out what craziness people did to our parents.

    25. LE

      Just Say No to Useless BrillianceWe’ve all worked with that brilliant person that the organization thinks it cannot live without. Unfortunately, that brilliant person can’t communicate or work on a team.Hah. Easily said hard to do. You are talking about prima donnas. Prima donnas get away with things because they are so good. Obviously it they didn’t provide value it would never get to the point of being recognized and the adjacent behavior being a problem. They would be long gone. Why does anyone stay in an abusive relationship? Easy to be rational from the outside, right?In “relationships” things never start off as immediate and obvious. They insidiously work their way into situations until it hits a tipping point (rock bottom?) and you are forced to act.You don’t know if some behavior exhibited early on is the tip of the iceberg, or just an early behavior that might just be an aberration and not appear again in quantities enough to be significant. It also depends on how capable you are in spotting behavior problems.Presumably, this is best done in the hiring and weeding out phase – in a perfect world anyway.Let’s take an example of a fictional prima donna situation here at AVC to illustrate.It is generally good practice to not have people make comments all in caps. [1] You also generally want people to explain themselves a bit as well. But @fakegrimlock is so brilliant we all “put up” with it. It’s not a problem, because nobody else does that and he’s so brilliant. But what if 20 people started acting that way? [2] And the comments were not brilliant. And all hell broke loose. And then the blog sucked both visually and quality of comments. That would totally kill what we all have going. So it is entirely possible that trying to identify a tip of the iceberg in FG early on would screw the pooch that we have here. Same with any prima donna. (Or the brilliant asshole at Apple.)[1] I making this up totally. I don’t think that grimlock using caps rises to the level of a prima donna in an organization or even on a blog. I just want to try to illustrate the point in a way that everyone can relate to it.[2] AFAIK, @fakegrimlock NOT TOLERATED ON HN. FEAR OF SLIPPERY SLOPE.

      1. JLM


      2. Angela Baldonero


    26. David Snitkof

      This is a great example of the value of treating adults like adults. People who are inherently motivated will thrive in an environment where they are trusted, empowered, and given high expectations. When companies put up too many rules, policies, codes, etc, people lose that sense of trust and ownership that is so valuable to a successful and healthy culture. Even nomenclature matters – people are “people”, not “resources” to be managed.Thankfully, it seems that more companies are starting to see the value of this type of approach.

      1. Angela Baldonero

        Yes! We are not resources we are people with big, full lives. Thank you for highlighting this key point!

    27. LE

      “Instead, we have unlimited vacation and sick time. “Let me throw some “jade” on that thought just for balance. Age of work force, family, and people’s other obligations play into this. I would also question whether long term as the work force ages, and the shine wears off in what you are doing, and unemployment drops, or the economy or demand for your product changes, if this can be kept up without creating an adverse impact on your profitability. I also wonder if this can actually scale and to what extent. (I don’t know the answer but in general things that work on a small scale don’t always scale well, right?)”A new world of work is being born around us. Most traditional HR practices are ineffective and irrelevant. The courage to say no to the status quo”I think people have to separate what works in a particular situation given certain factors, and what can work “in general”. Southwest Airlines could get away with things that the legacy carriers couldn’t because they designed that way from the start and, most importantly, didn’t have the drain of pre-existing routes and obligations. In this sense the ideas presented here are really good obviously as they point out things that people starting companies should keep in mind.

      1. JLM

        Here are the “rules” of the road as it relates to the stuff that can get you sued in the real world.1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended; 2. the Civil Rights Act of 1991; 3. the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”); 4. the Older Workers Benefits Protection Act (“OWBPA”); 5. the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); 6. the Equal Pay Act; 7. the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”); 8. the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (“COBRA”);. 9. Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”); 10. the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act;11. Sections 1981-1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code;12. Any and all State or local laws pertinent to employment discrimination or non-discrimination ordinances; and13. all claims for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongfuldischarge, breach of contract or any other tort or contract claim whetherarising under state or federal law.Now, if you don’t ahve appropriate policies on these matters, then you can expect to lose a lot of lawsuits.

        1. LE

          I got fined for $33,000 (in today’s dollars) by violating the FLSA lawsuit was actually “Elizabeth Dole” v. (our company). Pretty cool. Bob Dole used to be a big deal.The issue was very simple. You didn’t have to give employees breaks but if you did give breaks they had to be of a certain time period. We were 5 minutes short. WTF! Go know!Or I should say “Oh No!”.It just took one disgruntled employee and the DOL was on it! It didn’t help that their office was about two blocks away and an investigator could easily walk to our offices. (I’m speculating on that but it certainly makes intuitive sense that they wouldn’t have flown in for something this small.). I did tons of research in the Penn Law Library trying to build a case (lawyers wanted to much money and didn’t think there was much they could do). I was like Sean Penn in Fast Times “I can fix it!” I met with the head of the office (dressed up for that meeting..) and it was like trying to move a stone wall. The guy just sat there. It was an unbelievable experience.[It was actually pretty funny my ex father in law had done an alarm system for the head guy in the DOL region a few months prior and said to me something like “he likes me I’ll take care of it” thinking he was like a mafia don or something. So he calls the guy and the guy immediately recuses himself. “No mas no mas”. I think that’s why when I met with them I got such a hard time actually.]In the end I dreyed and dreyed and I got the “local” office head to cut it in half. I guess I just wore him out. After he agreed I thanked him like the undertaker who did the favor for the godfather. I then said “oh, one more thing can I have a few years to pay this out?” He said sure. I didn’t need to pay it out but it’s always necessary to give kick back on deals lest the other side thinks they cut to good a deal. It was quite a process to extract my head out of his butt as well.

        2. Anne Libby

          She’s not saying that they don’t have policies, though…which is something I’m reading in other threads here today.Treating people well, following the law, and having a good severance policy/agreement can save you a lot of grief.

        3. Angela Baldonero

          Yes, I totally agree. We take compliance seriously and work to ensure we are meeting minimum requirements AND MORE. We are also attentive to unconscious bias and ensuring opportunities are available and accessible to everyone. Great points here, it isn’t a free-for-all, it’s a responsible set of decisions.

          1. Donna Brewington White

            “it’s a responsible set of decisions”Ah, so you hire grown-ups?

        4. Guest

          Oh, I totally agree! I had a personnel and fringe benefits manual (which is now divided into separate manuals, that total well over 100 pages. Every employee got one every year and they sign off that they got it and have read it. Then once a year I had all the managers and supervisors over to the house on a Saturday and we socialized and went over the manuals.The bottom line was, even for the CEO and President, both of whom were owners, that nothing happens in regards to HR, employees, and or fringe benefits without me being involved before hand.The buck stopped at my desk….Act without prior coaching from me and you were fired.The CEO’s son lost his job that way as did a Plant Manager who was a dear personal friend of the President’s and the godfather of the President’s only daughter.It takes a few years to establish that authority but once you do, and if that person is viewed as a “straight shooter” by management and employees equally, then that person becomes “the law.”Policies are only “cover your ass” band aids; its the executive head of HR that wins lawsuits by being proactive rather than reactive.

        5. James Ferguson @kWIQly

          @JLM – I know you are a massive USAphile, but one advantage in living in a part of the world that is not horrendously litigious is that thereby gravity is reduced – or more precisely – The world doesn’t suck so bad over here !

          1. JLM

            .I would be the first to admit that the American legal system and the bar is perhaps the biggest liability of American business.On the other hand, we have the most enforceable contract law environment in the world.It is essential to avoid legal entanglement. Nobody makes money in a courtroom other than lawyers..

            1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

              So we can agree there !And I must agree contract law has to be enforceable (very little experience with US system but I take your word for it).Regarding the avoiding of entanglement – that is primarily a cultural issue and I think Angela made some good points.Bat I am sure you spotted, it was the cultural aspect that I was pushing and I know you don’t mind me teasing 🙂

            2. Guest

              Like an old attorney friend of mine told me many years ago when as a young man I exclaimed, “But there’s a principle involved here…”He said, “Only if you are willing to pay the interest on your principal…”Having been through four lawsuits involving contract law I can attest to the ideal, “…It is essential to avoid legal entanglement..” Sadly for some companies/people “legal entanglements” have become a business strategy.If you can go the distance the checks at the end of the process are quite large but not all that fulfilling.

      2. Dan

        Regarding scale – As I read this post, I couldn’t help but think of the software company I worked for out of school. When I started there 5 years ago there were 3000 employees, there are now 6000. Even more drastic is the growth from 1999 when there were well under 500 (EDIT: originally said 250, I think there were actually a few more by 1999) employees.Over that period of growth, retaining culture was top of mind. In the last 2 years, it became the number one priority. There are no internal budgets, dress code is officially “when customers are present, you must be wearing clothes” and every month there is an all staff meeting, simulcast to Europe that is mandatory for all employees. The number one driver for shutting down the company for 2 hours every month is to “teach culture”.Since the company has now outgrown the 6000 person auditorium, they are building a 580,000 sq ft 11,000 person auditorium to make sure everyone can still come together to talk.The CEO gets up at every meeting and starts with a reminder that “we share more than most companies. The good, the bad and the ugly. We trust you to use this information appropriately”.If you trust your employees, recognize that the best only want to work with the best and provide the accountability to let “leaders” emerge at all levels of an organization, the mentality of being transparent and limiting structure can scale. It’s not easy and it’s a huge investment. This company regularly turns away sales if a customers position/culture aren’t primed for success, as defined by this software company. They shut down business for division meetings, all company meetings and team meetings on a monthly basis.They are able to run this way because they are private and have no plans to sell or accept outside investment. They are an extreme case study to be sure, but they’ve given me incredible insight into the things I want to instill as I look to establish my own company culture.

        1. JLM

          .In a public company, that would possibly be “material non-public information” the inappropriate disclosure of which will get you a stay at the big house.Not finding fault with the approach which I think is great, but just splashing a bit of reality on the situation..

          1. Dan

            Oh, if they were public there’d be a lot of other things they’d have to give up. Rule number one posted in every bathroom, of which there are hundreds, is “never go public”.

            1. LE

              “because they are private and have no plans to sell or accept outside investment.””no plans”Companies are people and people change in terms of their thinking and what is important to them over time.If you’ve ever fallen in love and then gotten divorced you will understand what I mean by this.

            2. Dan

              Certainly people change. That’s why the CEO has made such an investment in culture, because that persists after people change.Now, it will be very interesting to see what happens when the founder leaves, but succession has been in the works for awhile. It will be more interesting in another 25 years when that person changes.While not iron clad, I understand there is a living trust set up. It stipulates three things “Never go public/be acquired, CEO will always come from R&D and hold music will always be classical”. No joke.Customers love this about the company. It’s a big part of their success.

            3. LE

              Why don’t you see if your CEO would like to do a MBA mondays post here assuming of course Fred would allow it.

            4. Dan

              I would love that. I no longer work there but will float the idea. She’s super private though, so I don’t think it will go anywhere.I was talking with someone yesterday about this very topic – I really hope they let someone do an academic study of the company.

            5. LE

              Must be…I was just thinking about companies similar to Epic this morning. Weird. Part of the moat around epic is that they are selling to organizations that couldn’t possibly move quickly and abandon them even if they wanted to. (Similar to IBM in the earlier days.) And they aren’t a producer of a product (like steel) where another low cost provider can come in and take them out. They don’t have to worry about the fickle nature of consumers and companies that can be nimble and change on a dime. It’s not like you are going to redo your hospital based systems, you’d have to rip everything out. Long sellling cycle though. Brutal.It’s smart that she keeps a low profile given the nature of her business. Nothing eggs the competition on more than ready a rosy piece in a business magazine. I notice also how low key the website is as well.

            6. Dan

              Just found this gem from 2002…one of the few articles you’ll find.Company culture is definitely the focus.

            7. LE

              Funny I had just tracked that down from the few distinct clues you gave.

            8. John Revay

              you are good

        2. LE

          “This company regularly turns away sales if a customers position/culture aren’t primed for success, as defined by this software company.”Could you explain this further? Particularly “turns away sales if a customers position/culture aren’t primed for success”. What does that mean? Some examples please.

          1. Dan

            Sure, I can try. Its a medical software company. They work exclusively with multi-hospital systems, Academic, Childrens and safety net organizations. In a company of 6000, they have under 10 sales people. They approach sales in a way unlike anyone I’ve ever heard of.Customers come to them. They’ve create “partnerships”, not vendor/customer relationships.If an organization doesn’t meet their qualifications (too small, inexperienced internal team or IT department, in a country not on their list for expansion, etc.) they reject the rfp. They’ve left a lot of money on the table over the years. This has started to shift a little bit in the last few years as the government has mandated purchase of Electronic Medical Records (what they produce), but they still maintain a fairly selective approach to sales.They tell customers “no” all the time and no longer do any non-standard development, regardless of an organizations willingness to pay.Enhancement requests are submitted by customers and voted on annually during a user group. Every customer gets the same number of votes, regardless of size.They’d be considered crazy/stupid by a lot of traditional business minds…but they are doing well over a billion annually, have zero debt and have grown at nearly 20% annually over the last 10+ years.Their campus makes google look boring.It’s insane. Truly.

            1. LE

              “They approach sales in a way unlike anyone I’ve ever heard of.”But then again you are only 5 years out of school.”If an organization doesn’t meet their qualifications (too small, inexperienced internal team or IT department, in a country not on their list for expansion, etc.) they reject the rfp. They’ve left a lot of money on the table over the years. “This is quite common and just good focus. I can always tell a good salesperson by how quickly they size up the opportunity and pass on it. Inexperience salespeople want to take all deals believing “it can lead to something big you never know!!!!”. Same with companies.”They tell customers “no” all the time and no longer do any non-standard development, regardless of an organizations willingness to pay.”It’s good they draw a line in the sand like that. You can’t be all things to all people. Of course when business starts to drop (if it does) you will see that thinking go out the window. It’s easy to be disciplined when things are on the upswing.”Every customer gets the same number of votes, regardless of size.”That would never work for Boeing. It makes total sense, once again generally, to pay more attention to your good customers. No business customer of a bank wants to wait to speak with someone while the branch manager deals with some grandmother mutchering over the $500 CD she is renewing. If your CEO is at a tradeshow and he is speaking to some small noodnik and one of his biggest customers comes up I find it hard to believe he makes the honcho wait. If he is able to do that he’s got quite a moat on his hands there.

            2. Dan

              Fair – I never claimed to have multiple experiences to draw on. I still think they’re pretty novel.”I find it hard to believe he makes the honcho wait.”Also fair point. There’s definitely some unofficial weighting of “votes” that goes on. In general, it’s pretty open though.”Moat on his hands there”.Oh, you have no idea. There is literally a moat around the dungeons and dragons themed building…complete with draw bridge. She’s a very detail oriented executive.

            3. Guest

            4. Dave Pinsen

              “They approach sales in a way unlike anyone I’ve ever heard of.Customers come to them.”I assume they had to find customers initially though, when they were starting out, no?

            5. Dan

              eh, maybe a little, but not in the conventional sense (before my time, so I just have stories/history to go on). Company grew out of a database built for the university hospital. Really took off when Kaiser decided to buy over much bigger companies. Even in that sale, as the little guys they refused to negotiate terms and rejected Kaiser’s request for equity.To this day they “don’t negotiate”. Everyone pays the same thing (unless you’re a safety net/care for the indigent, who all get the same % discount).

            6. ShanaC

              Am I allowed to say this: As a patient, I really dislike Epic because I need data portability of myself. I feel siloed and unable to do anything *sigh*

            7. Dan

              Oh, you’re definitely allowed to say it. There are a ton of problems still to solve in hc (understatement of the year), which is great for me as a startup software company, but not great for me at a patient and member of society. Data portability is definitely a gap.If you have a doc on Epic, you should check out the Lucy PHR and MyChart…it’s far from perfect (PHRs in the traditional sense are pretty worthless imho), but it does provide you better data portability than most. You can at least download your CCD.

        3. ShanaC

          what company is this?

      3. Brandon Marker

        I was looking for the comment basing the unlimited vacation on culture that already exists. Not sure there is an answer for this, but I wonder what would happen if a couple of people started taking advantage of it. Would the culture easily remain and self-police itself? Or would others grow spiteful of the vacation/BS sick time?I doubt there are many solid employees at a startup that stay away from work because of a cold or a little fever. But how fast do the dominoes fall? If it gets out of control, what is he conversation like to rope it back in? And then if it doesn’t settle down, how do you take that “unlimited” away without it being negative?That rule really gets my thought process churning on a company with more than 8 people. My previous experienced contained a piece that I would call “managing the manipulators”. Return Path must have a REALLY strong culture, and Kudos to them for that!

        1. Angela Baldonero

          Thanks. We haven’t had any abuse. Vacations still need to be approved by a person’s manager. The focus of the discussion is ‘is the work getting done on-time with excellence?”

          1. Brandon Marker

            rewarding those who are performing at a high level accordingly, not by a strict policy. I really like it. Thanks for the response!

          2. LE

            I find policies like this fascinating.They remind in a way of the ability to take all the plastic silverware you want at the convenience store or an all you can eat buffet (size of plates is like the “still need to be approved” governor..)The reason for “no limit” to me is based on human behavior.If you tell people how much they can take people will take up to the limit you set (and with freebies) probably a little more. If you don’t say anything you are limiting what people will take because people will tend to take less than any number you set in advance. But if the number is set to low they will get pissed off. So it’s no win.With vacation, if you say “you can take 4 weeks” everyone will take 4 weeks or be owed the time.If you say “unlimited” some people will take less and some more but I believe the average will work out to be less than the number you set in advance. In any case I will guess that your average vacation time (adjusted for pay) works out lower than if you set an arbitrary number.Same with sick pay. You can’t set a reasonable number of sick days w/o having people take or be owed those days.I don’t know whether Fred sets a limit to his pitch meetings. But that would work the same way. If Fred says “you have an hour” people will take an hour and feel entitled. If Fred says “take whatever is reasonable” most people will probably feel lucky to get 20 minutes of his time.

      4. Angela Baldonero

        Great note. The concept of “unlimited” and other flexible benefits are designed to be ‘make it work for you’ and ‘take what you need to make your life work’ balanced against ‘produce amazing high quality results on time’. Flexibility is needed more by some people than others. Lots of people can work remotely now if it also makes sense for the business. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

        1. ShanaC

          Why do you think there still is this thing against working at home?

          1. LE

            “thing against working at home?”My personal feeling is that it’s easier to loose your job when you work out in the field. Whether that means home office or some other position where you are not in everyone’s face and they aren’t observing “how hard you work” and don’t know you *as* personally.The reason for this is simple. It’s easier to fire someone when you don’t have a connection to them every day that has built up in the flesh. And there is less worry moral wise with other employees as well. Nobody likes to fire people.While people will probably argue with this thought, saying that “all else is never equal” and give reasons why it’s not true and only performance and results matter you can’t discount the benefit of human contact in making decisions when layoffs are necessary. Consider this. Do you think it’s harder for the CEO to fire her administrative assistant or to approve the firing of any person out in the field who they only have a slight connection with and don’t interact with in person?Of course there could be edge cases where it helps you keep your job if you aren’t in everyone’s face as well. This is a general concept and specifics matter obviously.

          2. mattb2518

            Because its harder to manage. Because some employees can’t work effectively from home — making it managing by exception, not by rule. Because sometimes teams do need to meet face to face.

          3. Anne Libby

            One reason: over 50% (how much depends on which researcher you ask) of what we communicate comes from non-verbal cues.Pure and simple, it’s more effective (and efficient) to put all of our communication skills to work. As we catch up to technology, no doubt we’ll learn the specific skills required to be effective working remotely. We’re not there yet.

    28. William Wagner

      i see a common problem with the useless brilliance, i’d rather call it “creativity for the sake of creativity” i.e. ignoring any greater motive than just making something novel. making some random novelty is not a challenge because a challenge has a satisfying ending, when a novelty is “successful” we say wow, that’s neat and put it away in the closet. when something novel serves a purpose we can say that it may not be a brilliant idea in itself, not a hard technical challenge to solve really, but it retains its usefulness and satisfies as a technical challenge worth solving

    29. AlexHammer

      This is one of the best posts I have ever read. Simple, clear and powerful.

    30. lydiasugarman

      It’s so encouraging to see this approach being implemented at companies like Return Path and embraced by the commenters here. There are still plenty of naysayers who will poo-poo this “soft” approach. This is an essential part of the more collaborative, collegial approach to building a company. Many times when it’s proposed by a woman, it’s dismissed as impractical and unworkable. Return Path is living proof of a successful exception to that outdated thinking!

      1. mattb2518

        If you do this well, it’s not a soft approach at all. You can be tough as nails on performance.

    31. Guest

      Policy paralysis and values dilution are such gigantic problems for growing companies today.. Well, maybe they’ve always been, but I think there is a large gap between the way they probably used to be handled right up until the 80s and early 90s and the expectations being carried into the workforce by newer generations – also the increasing speed with which tech companies evolve or fail is a huge part of this gap too.It’s great to see people being vocal about recognizing this gap, finding ways to tackle it head-on, and seeing that practice as a competitive advantage rather than just a cost. It’s the corporate-wide equivalent of the “20th century worker” vs. “leveraged hacker” (heh) performance gap. I’m sure mistakes will be made and, five years from now, we will look back at some of them and say “that was just a silly idea”, but I feel the people who are willing to go through that process and focus on getting it really right will see huge advantages for years to come.

    32. Donna Brewington White

      Angela, what you’ve shared here is liberating and powerful.Amazing how necessary “no” is to unleashing the bigger “yes.” Still learning that one, but more and more I am convinced that focus is everything and nothing creates focus like knowing what to say no to.Was struck by “collaboration was sometimes confused with consensus” — That’s huge! Consensus sounds good and has merits but it can be crippling and sometimes is a cop out.From skimming the comments ’nuff said on the brilliant assholes, except there is no reason that this person should ever be hired. I hope that everyone resonating with this post is re-thinking their hiring process because that is the easiest and best time to reject useless brilliance.”A new world of work is being born around us.” Return Path is showing that it can be done. Innovation goes way beyond product. Bring it.Thank you, Angela!

      1. Angela Baldonero

        Thanks Donna!

        1. Robert Thuston

          Love the emphasis on “no” rather than “yes” as well. And my personal fear in managing is exactly what you emphasize with it, the discipline to stick to decisions like this. In managing a company, your ability to say “no” will further define your success than what you say yes to (Peter Drucker and Steve Jobs ephasize this). Great post, Great format, Great take-aways.

    33. scott hampton

      This is a great collection of practical advice and observations. Thank you, Ms. Baldonero.The challenge in many organizations is, of course, that you really do have to hire people you can trust, and then trust them.I hear a lot of people talk about responsibility, but one seldom hears about people being given authority. Wisdom isn’t fashionable…… is where I elaborated just a bit on what I thought was most pertinent.

      1. David Snitkof

        Great point, Scott, on responsibility vs. authority. The former without the latter can result in having a “person to blame” instead of a person who is truly responsible for and empowered to drive the success of a project/product/etc.

    34. Dale Allyn

      Brilliant post, Angela. Thank you.Transparency, accountability, constructive criticism, honesty, freedom and trust. These are such important elements of a well-functioning team, yet so often poorly defined or executed. Return Path and your team are an inspiration.

    35. Mark Gannon

      Our value – up there, on the wall – is that we say no to secrecy and withholding. If we hadn’t told the staff about the transition we would not have been living that value. And everyone would have known it. Living the values is always the hard part. I admire management teams that can do this.

    36. K_Berger

      Great stuff!My concern, though, is the one person that doesn’t make good decisions. Not the 1%, since most of the time it can be handled as you said, but that one bad hire who takes you down an ugly legal path. Have you had a situation like that? Do you have systems of some kind in the background to protect you from that?

      1. Angela Baldonero

        It depends on the circumstances. We have plenty of safeguards but at the end of the day no amount of them can protect you from poor judgment.

    37. Otto

      Congratulations on being different. It takes courage to run with the hunted. I used to work for a Big Bank and as I was reading this post I was thinking, “yeah, there was none of this.” Some of the perks were nice, but the culture was stifling. I think the only way corporate culture will generally change for the better is if start-ups have the guts to be different and stick with it as they grow, rather than emulate their bigger more staid competitors.One tweak on brilliant assholes. Sometimes a good person is just in the wrong place, gets frustrated by it, and is unfairly labeled asshole. Why don’t they leave? Inertia, dependency, lousy job market, etc. One thing that can hold back a team is stereotype and then forcing people you’ve stereotyped into the wrong position, or silo, which would bring out the asshole in anyone.

    38. Leslyn Kantner

      In my last entrepreneurial stint, I admit to being caught up in attempting to conform to many of these “policies” that old school philosophies felt were essential and basically it was a lesson in futile frustrations more often than not. I applaud you for having the courage to stick to your convictions and be different! This is exactly the kind of environment I want to create as I grown with our newest venture!

    39. Lauren Sperber

      Great post! Generally I love the idea of saying no to policy paralysis and policies that cater to the lowest common denominator employee. However, I’m actually quite opposed to “unlimited” vacation policies.Many of the most conscientious and dedicated employees I know struggle to balance adequate away-time with their hectic work lives, especially if they are in roles that have no obvious “down cycles” (for example, I’m a product manager) that are “good times” to take a vacation. This is even more challenging for startup employees because every day is high stakes during the early stages of a company. Having a proscribed number of vacation days that “must’ be taken per year can actually be quite liberating for employees who fall into this category.

      1. mattb2518

        It does become another responsibility — both the employee’s to take time off, and the manager’s to push recalcitrant people to do it. This “un-policy” can only work with certain cultures — but I doubt that a set number of days is widely viewed as liberating. Cultures like that tend to have people who don’t take much time off and look for vacation payout/accrual.

    40. Youssef Rahoui

      Great article, thanks!

    41. PhilipSugar

      Sometimes the absence of limits causes limits.So saying you can take as much time as you want seems great, however given that choice, there can be huge pressure to not take vacation. My wife rented a beach house Tues-Tues this week. I can do whatever I want but I just cut short a vacation because I’m traveling Tues-Thurs and then because of scope creep I took a Friday morning meeting after my redeye, and then what the heck I needed to take a meeting on Tues.afternoon, so I’ll leave early.I like to tell people you are required to take three weeks of vacation or you lose it. Go!I like to tell people you get one week of personal improvement at a conference, seminar, etc. (we have people at Blackhat today) use it or lose it!As much sick time as you want sounds great, but what happens when somebody has a bad back issue from a motorcycle accident in their twenties??? Twenty years before you employed them???? Keep them on the payroll forever??? Dealing with it now.But I agree managing to the lowest common denominator sucks. My policy has always been, I might look at your expense report so think about that. Surfing the web? Don’t go someplace that your mother or my mother would be embarrassed. Personal stuff at work? Give me what you get. Take care of stuff you need to at work and do the same for me during your personal time.But to end, when you’ve gotten sued by an idiot, and 10% of the world is bat shit crazy, it is hard not to try and protect yourself. You just have to limit it.

      1. mattb2518

        We encourage people to take 3-4 weeks off. We do TRACK vacation taken, even though we don’t pay or enforce differently around it. Turns out almost everyone takes as much vacation as they did before we changed our policy to “open,” but tracking it gives managers a tool to make sure people are recharging their batteries.

        1. ShanaC

          what happens if people don’t take vacation?

          1. mattb2518

            I’m not sure we do something formally around this, but I know of many instances where managers strongly encourage someone to take vacation – to the point of insisting. Matt

            1. Bryan J Wilson

              I can attest to this!

      2. LE

        “10% of the world is bat shit crazy,”How true. Not only that but from what I understand mental illness starts to manifest at a particularly young age. My wife reminded me of this with respect to the movie theater gunman who was also a recent phi beta kappa.”Keep them on the payroll forever???”My guess is that this falls under some disability policy. Not speaking for them but I would think they have clearly defined what the word “sick” actually means. And it doesn’t mean “long standing illness” even if that illness happened after employment started.

      3. JLM

        .10% of the world is bat shit crazy15% of the world knows or is related to a bat shit crazy lawyerthese two percentages do not overlap.

        1. FlavioGomes


        2. gorbachev

          Your numbers are too low.

          1. JLM

            .I was trying to be sensitive to lawyers. I have an intimate personal relationship with a lawyer, my wife..

            1. PhilipSugar

              I am usually accused of exaggerating to make a point. It is funny when I bring up narcissism of board members and bat shit craziness of employees and and you brought up lawyers I am accused of being too low.

            2. JLM

              .Funny thing about both Boardmembers and lawyers, you can go for years with their bat shit craziness masked and then — boom — it comes out and you realize that it may be genetic.I must say that every year I have at least one episode in which I go home and pinch myself with a set of pliers to ensure I am not existing in a parallel universe..

            3. PhilipSugar

              I am sitting in my hotel room in Vegas and my next door neighbors must think I am crazy. I am laughing so hard. I absolutely love the pliers comment. I have stumbled around like a drunk trying to “see where the hell did that come from????” Literally turning in circles trying to figure out where it came from.

            4. JLM

              .Glad I did not exaggerate where I pinched, eh?Is Vegas picking up any?Last time I was there it was a freakin’ ghost town..

            5. PhilipSugar

              That’s even funnier. Vegas seems to be doing ok. I judge by the cab lines and checkin lines. Seemed to be doing ok, although room rates are way too low. We have people at the TI and Paris right now and the rates are well below $100 which means they are trying to fill them. It is the weekday, and it is 105f.

            6. JLM

              .It is almost worth it to go to LV for the food at those rates.Nevada, a state built on prostitution, gambling and dinner buffets.Is this a great country or what?Stay safe..

    42. ShanaC

      Why does it seem to be there is this big fear of NO – no is freeing.

      1. FlavioGomes

        Selflessness is counter intuitive to no in the context you are suggesting. Not till one fully appreciates the capacity of their resources and realizing you can’t please everyone all the time will a No become an important tool in decision making. I think however that Angela’s interpretation of no is different in her example where she is implying saying no to suffocating roadblocks to team synergy and execution.

    43. Scott Barnett

      In one of my last companies, we used to preach “give people responsibility and respect, and they will be responsible and respectful.” It’s amazing to me that people totally take their queue from upper management – it’s guaranteed. So, if executives are open, honest, enabling, then the employees will be too. It’s such a simple formula, but yet as you mention so well, we always seem to focus on the fringe cases – the “what ifs” instead of assuming that people will do the right thing most of the time.I have used this type of philosophy in sales negotiations – I always assume the person I’m negotiating with is operating in good faith. It’s possible I may get screwed over, but the other side only gets a chance to do that once. And for the rare occasion that this does happen (and it has) my negotiations with the larger majority are so much easier (and faster) because of this philosophy.

      1. FlavioGomes

        I like your sales approach.

        1. Scott Barnett

          Thanks! It has worked well for me so far 🙂

    44. Aatch

      I’m a developer working at a start-up and I’m hoping that I can help push the company in this direction as we grow. One possible issue is that the owners all have their own businesses. But these businesses are different to a tech startup, they have a reasonable amount of unskilled staff, and an existing ecosystem to work in. Now, it’s fine in those businesses, but I’m worried that policies will leak over here. I find that I work best when I can do what I want, rather than having a rigid framework that doesn’t allow me to casually gut the entire code base as an experiment over a week.I think the key part for engineering talent at least, is to promote a sense of professionalism and reasonable responsibility. I have worked at places were any mistake was a terrible travesty and it was horrible. Being scared to death of failure just means that people won’t do anything.

    45. EmilSt

      This is absolutely amazing! Congratulations!Being able to manage a company focusing on good stuff is huge achievement. People should live their life same way.

    46. andyidsinga

      Love it the post – gonna print and put on the cube wall :)…except the part about application to hire percentage – recommend reading Joel on Software about this http://www.joelonsoftware.c

    47. HRDeYoung

      Angela,Thank you for this post and a peek into what you, Matt and Return Path’s executive team have built. This is such great leadership modeling for other companies.In order to build and sustain what you have, there has been alot of deliberate and careful execution of the agreed upon cultural DNA framework. This only happens when leadership pays as much attention to the organism as it does to the business. And the CEO steers true to that vision. What a great competitive edge.You should go on the road and speak at HR leadership venues because we need to hear success stories and ways to get there. I would pay to hear you speak about the part you played and what you learned.