A Few Ideas for Enhancing Our On-boarding Experience

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I’ve been thinking about our on-boarding experience at Barrel. We have about 5-6 new hires who’ll be joining the team over the next 4-6 weeks. Training and outlining of expectations are at the top of the list, and we’ve been working hard internally to strengthen those. This weekend, I jotted down some other ways that we may be able to enhance our on-boarding experience. I thought I’d share them here:

A Barrel Timeline
We have a post on Barrel Info Center about how Barrel got started, but it’s a really basic overview and doesn’t highlight much of our achievements and struggles over the course of our company’s history. With our 8-year anniversary just a few weeks away, I think it’ll be worthwhile to start jotting some dates and digging up some pictures to compile a more detailed Barrel Timeline that we can share with new hires as well as our team. I’m sure people will be curious about how things were like at 4 people and then at 8 and then at 16 and some of the ups and downs we faced along the way.

Detailed Team Member Bios, Printed Up
We have brief bios of our team members on our Barrel website, but I think it’ll make a really impactful on-boarding tool to have a printed packet of everyone’s bio and photo to hand to our new hires. Currently, we always send out a bio of a new hire to the team before that person starts, but we don’t provide anything for the new hire in terms of information about our own people (except what they see on the website).

To get things started, we’ll give people a set of questions to help guide their bio-writing and make it a fun exercise. I think our team members will also appreciate getting a packet for themselves once we’ve put it together.

A Guide to How We Share at Barrel
I know that we review bits and pieces of this during on-boarding already, but I think it would be incredibly helpful if we provided a comprehensive overview of how we live our Core Principle of active sharing (the full statement is Inspire each other and the world through active sharing) and what tools and channels are in place. I started on a draft outlining how we use tools like Hipchat and Tawk, our internal link sharing web app, as well as weekly discipline meetings, our blog, our team email list, and BourbON Fridays to share in different ways. The key thing is to provide examples of the appropriate types of information to share through these different tools/channels and to encourage people to do it regularly and often. I think our internal team would benefit from a refresher presentation as well.

I think on-boarding is one of the most important touch points in the lifecycle of someone’s employment. Making the right impression, providing the appropriate guidance, and readily making available the proper resources will go a long way in the new hire’s perception of the company and their place in it. I’m certain that years from now, we’ll still be trying to tweak and enhance the experience.

Themes on My Mind

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I’m exhausted, but I’m having a good time. Every week, there are all kinds of stresses and challenges, but I’m mostly able to navigate and handle things, which is extremely satisfying. And best of all, I get to work closely with a team that I respect and trust deeply.

Looking back on my writing (I’ve continued to write 300+ words a day since late December 2013) and the books I’ve been reading, I see that there are recurring themes. I’ve decided to jot them down since it’s helpful for me to see these as a list. Here they are:

Giving and receiving feedback
Creating channels and a work environment where feedback goes up and down, side to side throughout the organization. Also making sure that feedback is constructive and candid.

Training and establishing clear expectations
Continual teaching across the organization by everyone as well as rigorous training programs and well-crafted sets of expectations for every single role in the organization.

Doing great work
Making the mantra of “under-promise, over-deliver” the default treatment for clients and pushing ourselves to create impressive work on a consistent basis

Telling our story
Tying together mission, vision, and principles to tell a unique story about our organization. Being able to answer the question of our company’s future in a confident, detailed, and compelling manner.

Hiring the right people
Expanding our recruiting efforts, building a great pipeline of talent, and making sure we’re proactive in gunning for talent rather than waiting for people to appear at our door. Also making sure we’re vetting people carefully and not hiring to fill immediate holes but to build a solid team.

Reinforcing our core principles
Finding ways to make our core principles more apparent and memorable to team members on a daily basis and introducing ways to energize the team about them.

Scaling up
It’s not necessarily about headcount, but it’s about making every aspect of the organization less ad hoc and more structured and repeatable. I want to scale up business development, recruiting, and our core activities like project management, design, and development. This means better documentation, better training, and better process. It’ll ultimately allow us to grow in headcount as well, which I welcome as another challenge.

Continuous improvement
How can we instill into our culture, in a systematic way, the process of continuous improvement in everything we do? At the project level and also at the company level? How do we properly document our process and also make sure it’s happening at every position? Kaizen interests me and the idea of a team member at any level being empowered to speak up to make things better.

I’ve been fortunate to have been recommended or to have serendipitously come across some really great books in recent months that have influenced some of these themes. Here are their titles:

Building Capacity Before Going for the New Hire

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“If only we hired a person to do this, things would be so much easier.” I think this is a thought that’s crossed my mind many times over the years. And naively, I went ahead and usually hired someone.

Even recently, I heard myself talk this way when thinking about our business development efforts. Sei-Wook and I have been hoping to find someone to offload some of the sales activities that we do, including qualifying inbound leads and doing more outbound prospecting. The thought of nabbing a smart and driven individual to take on this work was very appealing, especially as the two of us have been mired in never-ending business development tasks. Why not post up a job listing and get the process moving?

One lesson I’ve learned from hiring (and firing) at Barrel is that it’s extremely important to understand that hiring someone doesn’t necessarily make all problems go away. In fact, the hiring may even be a distraction, especially if you expect that the new hire will magically make the problems disappear.

I’ve been toying with a checklist/questionnaire to help me vet my need for a new hire and, if absolutely necessary, then to plan for their hire. While I currently ask parts of these on an on-going basis, I think codifying them into some kind of framework will prove useful. I’ve written these down with a couple of things in mind: a) that the organization is one that is growing and doesn’t have all its departments and structures rigidly fixed and b) that the new hire could be for a position that does not formally exist in the organization.

New Hire Questionnaire

  • What is the role that we’re hiring for?
  • What is the problem that the new hire will help to solve?
  • If we could not hire someone at all, how would we go about solving this problem? What would it cost us in terms of time, existing resources, and money?
  • How will we ensure that the new hire is a great cultural fit, especially if this person is hired for a position/department that doesn’t yet exist?
  • What is our expectation for the new hire’s impact in the first 3 months? The first 6 months? The first year?
  • How will this new hire be trained? Who will lead the training and how will the training be structured?
  • If this is a brand new position, how will we empower the new hire to develop and institutionalize the position?
  • Who will the new hire report to? To what degree and how often will this person communicate with other members of the team?
  • How will this person fit into our existing workflow? What will stay the same and what will have to change?
  • How will we evaluate the performance of the new hire, especially if this person’s position/department has no precedent? Who will review this person and against what metrics?
  • If the new hire is successful, what does that look like? What will be different?

When I think about all of these questions together, what I basically see is my company’s need to build capacity in order to hire someone. I need to be sure that I have this person’s role mapped out thoroughly, at least to the degree that on day one, the training and assignments are clearly laid out. I have to examine my organizational structure and think about how the new hire will impact the way we work and communicate as a team. I need to think through not just about the short-term fixes this person may alleviate but also what the long-term benefits of having the new hire will mean for the company.

For the most part, we’ve been extremely lucky at Barrel to have hired some really talented and smart people. When I think about the misses we’ve had, they’ve usually come as a swift reaction to something unpleasant: an unexpected departure, a reoccurring problem that I didn’t want to deal with, or the hope that a particular individual could help us overcome an inadequacy and raise us to a new level. For new hires, these instances have resulted in a toxic environment characterized by unrealistic expectations, little guidance, hardly any training, and confusion about their place in the organization. In effect, they’ve been set up to fail. I can only attribute that to my own inexperience, naiveté, and laziness. But hopefully, by taking my time and being thorough, this is an area that I can really strengthen with a solid system that puts the brakes on hasty quick-fix decisions.

Why I’m Against Quantifying Productivity

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I got an email from MetaLab today that announced its latest software. It’s called Peak and it helps managers track what people on their team are working on in an automated way. It plugs in to popular apps used by people in the creative digital industry such as Basecamp, Harvest, Google Drive, and GitHub to show an aggregated feed of everyone’s activities. Peak looks beautiful as a web app and I’m sure it’s got the same polish as other MetaLab tools. But I think that in an effort to quantify productivity, Peak puts too much emphasis on the quantity of labor and none in the value created by the labor.

At Barrel, a year has made a big difference in our thinking about time, value, and effectiveness. Late last year, I remember poring over the reports generated by Harvest, the time-tracking software that we’ve used for the past seven years. We’ve always mandated time-tracking for everyone as a way to capture data about how many hours a project takes and also to create hourly reports for clients who we charge hourly for services. But as our projects have grown in size and the number of projects per team member has gone down, it’s become less and less important to have precise tracking. For example, if I know that someone is splitting their time roughly 50/50 on two projects over a span of 4 weeks, I can assume that they’ll have spent around 70 or so hours on each project (about 17.5 hours per week per project each week using a 40-hour work week, discounting some hours for internal tasks and professional development). And since we price almost all of our projects with a fixed fee, I don’t have to worry about billable hours but focus more on making sure a project gets done by the agreed date. As long as the price of the project is high enough to cover my base cost (employee salary plus overhead over the duration of the project) and give me a good profit margin, I don’t have to get too granular about how each hour was spent. In fact, the ideal scenario would be to totally decouple the notion of cost from the value we create for our clients. I haven’t quite figured this out yet, but I think it’ll be something where someone would gladly pay a flat $100,000 fee for something that, in leveraging a proprietary process or some technology we’ve developed, may cost us hardly anything to implement. That’s a tall order for a company like ours competing in a crowded field and fighting commoditization, but I think it’s a really excellent goal to pursue: the ability to price based on value.

So getting back to how we’ve changed in the past year: while we still track time, we don’t stress over the number of hours logged each week like we used to. There was a time not long ago when we would be alarmed if our team didn’t log a certain number of hours each week. We took it to mean a lack of productivity. We had our project managers check in on people and make sure everyone was logging a certain number of hours each week. Incredibly busy weeks made us feel like the business was doing great because it meant we were doing lots of work. But this was fundamentally flawed thinking because the number of hours didn’t necessarily correlate to results, and results are why clients come to us and agree to pay us.

Here are some example scenarios:

  • Lack of communication between designer and developer leads to a problematic implementation that then requires many hours to tweak and fix, which in turn leads to more time spent on browser compatibility testing; everyone on the project logs lots of time.
  • A designer spends many hours crafting elaborate icons which look great but don’t add much value to the client’s content and is ultimately not even used on the final site
  • A project manager spends hours putting together an incredibly detailed project schedule only to learn the next day that everything has to be adjusted because the client can’t commit to certain deadlines and meeting dates

More hours don’t necessarily translate to great work. In fact, working smart sometimes means working less. And I would rather have someone who is effective in producing results working 10AM-6PM than someone who produces less results but logs 12 hours a day. It took me a while to come around to this line of thinking as I’m the type who likes to work 12 or so hours a day and will linger at the office past dinnertime on most nights. But I’ve become more and more comfortable with people leaving 6PM on the dot as long as they’ve been effective. The goal for me, and I hope the organization, is to go beyond even the 10AM-6PM workday mindset and perhaps even the restrictions of geography, making it possible for people to work from anywhere at anytime as long as they’re able to communicate and collaborate with teammates without a hitch and produce consistent results.

With Peak and its automated feed that displays the number of emails sent, designs uploaded, hours logged, or code committed for each person on the team, I think the assumption is that more of everything means things are going great (although they do make the point that it monitors for people being overworked as well). Perhaps this could be the case, but I think it’s also dangerous to show reports like “Most and Least Active Employees” and use quantified productivity as a measure of performance. Peak’s value proposition is that by empowering managers with an easy way to track what people are doing, they’ll be less likely to interrupt their employees, leading to even more productivity. I think this line of thinking misses a deeper problem: do managers really need to keep track of what people are doing? If a manager is truly effective, I would imagine that employees would be motivated to deliver results and feel ownership of their assignments. And in this case, the manager’s job would be less about keeping tabs on people but more about identifying opportunities to help employees do even better. I think this is where Peak could have been a totally different tool. Rather than quantifying the number of design uploads per person for the manager, it could be a tool that allows everyone in the company to see all the great things going on each day. Any hint of quantified productivity would be stripped away and the focus would solely be on each piece of output that’s shared. The designers on your team could see what other designers are creating through a feed of uploads on Basecamp. Developers can see an aggregated activity feed of all the code commits on GitHub that day. Project managers can see the latest spreadsheet someone has saved down in Google Drive. The goal of this open and visual team activity stream would be to cross-pollinate ideas, break down project team or discipline silos, and give everyone in a company a better way to share knowledge.

In our line of business, where we use computers to create designs and code in creative ways for our clients, knowledge is extremely valuable. Knowledge is ultimately what allows us to come up with effective solutions. Knowledge is also something you can’t squeeze out by committing more hours. It comes about by creating the appropriate environment where people are given opportunities to explore, learn from each other, and challenge conventional thinking. I’m still learning to be a better manager each day, but one thing I’ve become more and more certain about is that my role is less about monitoring and more about finding ways to create the conditions for everyone to be effective.


The Meeting as Experience Design

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I’ve been trying something different at work. I’ve started to spend more and more time prepping for my meetings and being conscious about the experience I create for people who attend them.

Back in September, I got some really good advice from our leadership coach Peter Oropeza on running meetings. Peter, who’s been helping me and Sei-Wook for the past several months as a consultant, sat in on a meeting at Barrel and took notes as I led a group of 10 people through a brainstorming exercise related to our company’s business strategy planning. Afterwards, he provided feedback that made me realize how ill-prepared I was for the meeting. In fact, what I realized was that I just hadn’t put in the time to really think through the entire meeting in terms of its structure, its pacing, and the experience of its attendees. For someone who champions “great user experiences” on the Internet, it was clear that I was oblivious to the shitty experiences I was creating with my meetings.

A meeting without a clear goal is a meeting probably not worth having. Peter explained that it was always helpful to remind people about the goal of a meeting. In fact, he suggested that I write out the goal on the whiteboard for everyone to see at the start of a meeting. Like a good navigation at the top of a website, I think having a clearly articulated goal serves as a stabilizing reminder for both the person leading the meeting and the participants. I also learned that it’s important to thank everyone for being a part of the meeting and to introduce the meeting with its goal. I realized that I had a tendency to jump right into the meat of the meeting without any lead-in, which might have been a jarring experience for others.

The most challenging part of the feedback was on the content. My main takeaway was that creating a few slides or loosely blocking out twenty minute chunks of topics simply wasn’t enough to run a tight meeting. I had to go more in depth and flesh out each segment of the meeting, almost to the point where you could say it was scripted. This might include the exact instructions I give for an exercise or the things I write on the whiteboard. It might also include reminders to call on people who’re quiet or questions to ask to keep the discussion going. If I was going to be prepared, then all possible scenarios, like user flows on a website, should be carefully thought out.

At our next meeting that Peter observed, Sei-Wook and I came in with a meticulous game plan. We had spent about 3-4 hours writing up and rehearsing for our strategy meeting. This time, I thanked everyone for coming, noted that Peter was here to observe (I had neglected to do this before), appointed a time keeper, and stated the goal of the meeting, pointing to what we had already written out on the board for everyone to see. Sticking to the script, we ran our exercises, made sure people got out of their seats to interact, and reinforced the exercises with meeting goal. Participation was strong and evenly distributed among the group, and we could feel the energy level higher than it had been in previous meetings.

Overall, it felt great to run a well-organized meeting. It didn’t feel like a drag on people’s time, and we felt that people left the meeting energized rather than drained. The time invested in preparing for the meeting had truly paid off.

Today, I had the opportunity to run a smaller meeting about an upcoming initiative. It was only a four-person meeting but I decided to put in the prep work, creating a slide deck and printing out calendars to do a scheduling exercise. I followed the template from my lessons learned: I thanked the three others who joined me today, I made sure I introduced the goal of the initiative, and I walked them through four clear sections. We then used the whiteboard to figure out together the best way to schedule all the different activities that would help us complete the initiative. When I saw that we had a bit of extra time, we used it to do a quick UX exercise to move one of the activities forward. We finished right on the dot, not a single minute past the hour we allotted for the meeting. Later on, I followed up with an email to recap the meeting including an Evernote link that had photos of the whiteboard, the Keynote presentation I used, and the key deadlines that we agreed on for the schedule.

My initial thought on preparing so much for a meeting bordered on dread. To see myself spending that much time again and again to run a good meeting just seemed like a ton of work. But when I think of a meeting as a design challenge, it becomes a different animal. It’s no longer something I dread but something that has so many possibilities and so many areas for continual improvement. It’s not only about sharing information or discussing topics but also about setting the tone, providing inspiration, making it interactive, providing context, obtaining feedback, documentation, copywriting, and even information architecture. And if I can run good meetings enough times, I believe I will pick up techniques and exercises that can be used again and again, like a designer who has a strong collection of vector icons or a developer with a vast snippet library.

I feel like I’ve just only begun to understand how well meetings can be run, and I’m excited to further explore this medium.

What Can I Do? Thoughts on Nurturing a Culture of Self-Initiative

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Watching ESPN last Sunday night, I was struck by a comment that analyst (and former Super Bowl QB) Trent Dilfer made about championship teams and what makes them different. He talked about how players on a championship team were different in mindset. They always ask themselves: “What can I do to help my team? How can I be better?” These players do not wait on others to make the first move. There are no dependencies or excuses; just a dead-on focus for ways they can improve and contribute to the team as individuals.

As someone who hires for and manages a team, I’m curious about how I can better encourage a culture in which members of our team default to a “what can I do” attitude. I think for the most part, everyone we have has exhibited this type of behavior. From time to time, I’ll notice that there are comments that point the finger at other teammates, at clients, or at the lack of an existing process or policy. I know I’m guilty of this as well, especially in moments of frustration where I feel a bit helpless. So the challenge is, how can I help minimize this and foster an environment that emphasizes taking initiative and continual self-improvement?

I think a big part of it may be in the way I engage with my employees. I’ll have to do a better job of moving away from a “this is what you should do” stance and asking key questions in a way that empowers. The questions may be as simple as: “what do you think?” or “how would you approach this?” The goal would be to nurture and coach people by consistently encouraging them to think through problems independently and to feel more confident about trying different approaches without the fear that I may disapprove or reject. It’ll take practice and some work, and it’ll also require me to be both open-minded and very patient, a tall order for someone who draws confidence on getting things done quickly and loves to solve problems on the spot.

When I think about the type of culture I’d love to build and see in action, I imagine a team that is self-motivated and one that constantly finds opportunities in new challenges. It’s a team that handles adversity in stride and is selfless in crediting teammates while relentless in doing better the next time. It’s a team with a patient and trusting leader who empowers everyone to find their own way. I can see that there’s so much I can do as an individual to help set us in that direction, and in the scheme of things, any difficulty in changing my ways will totally be worthwhile.

Imminent Behavior Adjustments: Asking for Input and Being Open to Feedback

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I’ve been getting leadership coaching at Barrel the past few months. Sei-Wook and I have been working with Peter Oropeza of Oro Consulting to identify our strengths and improvement areas and to develop action plans to help us grow as leaders.

Last week, I met with Peter to review my ASSESS personality test, my ASSESS 360 feedback from direct reports and Sei-Wook, and my Hogan Development Survey, which shows how I behave when stressed. Peter also interviewed various people at Barrel and combined feedback from these interviews with the results and analysis of my tests.

Leadership coaching has been a really intense and engaging process. There were moments of anger and disappointment as I reviewed my test results (especially the 360, which comes with anonymous comments from my direct reports), but after I let the feedback marinate in my mind and reviewed them with Peter, I think they’re spot on, and I have major work to do.

These are not the only areas I need to address, but I’ll focus on them because they feel the most important to me and are related to each other: I need to be consistent in asking people for their thoughts rather than bowling them over with my mandates; I also need to be better about receiving and processing feedback rather than taking a defensive posture.

Asking for input is something I’ve sacrificed on many occasions for the sake of speed. As a boss, it’s much easier to come up with an idea and implement it right away. I’ve fallen victim to this convenience on various occasions, hatching numerous internal programs and policies without getting much input from other team members. It’s a behavior that’s satisfied my drive to get things done but something that’s detracted from my ability to lead. I’ve seen some of my very well-intentioned initiatives cause resentment and anxiety because I failed to involve others in the process. It’s not that I need everyone’s buy-in because the final decision is ultimately up to me and Sei-Wook, but making and enforcing that decision without discussion can send a strong message to the team without us ever meaning to.

One way to address this is to be more pro-active in asking for input. I’ve seen this work out beautifully the past month with our Barrel Strategy Task Force. I recruited volunteers to help me and Sei-Wook brainstorm and figure out the direction of our company. I’ve structured our weekly sessions to revolve around different topics that require participants to come prepared with their thoughts and ideas. This format has been great for sparking spirited and honest discussions in an encouraging environment.

I have other initiatives in the works that will be good tests for me. As I reach out to various people, I’ll take careful note of how I interact with them. It’s one thing to ask but another to be genuine and encouraging, even when receiving feedback that may be very critical of the initiative. I’m going to focus on keeping an open mind and turning my answers from a dismissive “I don’t know about that” to an enabling “Interesting, tell me more.” The same goes for scenarios where an employee approaches me with a new idea. Rather than trying to poke holes right away or countering with what I think is a better approach, I’ll pause, let the person finish, and ask more questions. I’m hoping this leads to a more fruitful conversation.

Asking for input and being open to feedback are very critical adjustments to make as a manager and aspiring leader. It’s one of those no-brainer leadership qualities that I’ve read in numerous books and articles (“A great leader listens,” “A great leader is open-minded,” etc.), but one that I didn’t realize was a glaring weakness of mine. In thinking about the big picture, it’s incredibly important for me to take action and make progress. I’m passionate about building a company that nurtures creativity and collaboration. It’s hard for me to achieve this and inspire others if I’m perceived to be a roadblock in these very activities. My goal is to continually evaluate my day-to-day behavior and identify opportunities for deliberate practice. As our leadership coach Peter told me, it’s like learning a new move in basketball. Initially, I’m not going to be comfortable using my new “go-to” move, but once I keep using it and eventually have it down, it’s going to be extremely useful in helping me perform.

Proactive Communication Relieves Employee Anxieties

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We’ve had a lot of people come and go at Barrel in the past year. Only a couple can truly be called resignations. The rest have been a combination of internship programs ending and temporary employee agreements expiring. A few have been firings. There’s a unique story to each of the employees who’ve left, so to me and Sei-Wook, there hasn’t been any alarming trends. We’ve viewed these as natural activities for our business, especially as we’ve grown in headcount in the past few years.

But to someone working as an employee at Barrel, especially those who’ve gone through periods of little or no activity for long stretches at a time, any uptick in turnover can be unsettling. Most employees don’t keep track of which team member is a temporary contractor or which one is an intern. When a team member leaves, it’s a big deal. Someone who was present at lunch everyday or a part of project teams is now no longer at the office. If they witness 4-5 departures in the course of 6 months on a team of 30, it can feel as if there’s something going on.

We’ve found that it’s vital to clearly communicate to our team when someone is about to leave. Even the departure of an intern who’s come in a few times a week during the school year can feel jarring if there’s no explanation of why the person no longer shows up to work. For people who resign or have ending contracts/internships with us, we announce early and have farewell drinks in their honor. When it comes to firings (which, thankfully, have been very infrequent), we’re more cautious and follow up with an email to the team or an all-team meeting to reinforce our cultural values.

Even with all the communication, people will still feel uneasy when they think there’s more activity than what’s “normal.” It’s been helpful for us to have one-on-one conversations to assure team members and to share our thoughts on why a contract wasn’t renewed or an intern hired full-time. These conversations also give us the opportunity to learn about the impact of someone’s departure and what they miss about that person. It’s information that’s helpful for us to consider when thinking about future new hires.

There’s no silver bullet to relieving employee anxiety. What may seem cut and dry to the owners may seem totally different to those whose employment is in someone else’s hands. From my own experience, the most effective approach has been to establish consistent communications with the team and to share as much as possible. And with these communications, I’ve tried to encourage feedback either in the form of in-person conversations or through our anonymous feedback form. We may not always like what we received from the anonymous feedback, but it’s additional data that helps us to reflect and think through ways to get better.


Five Podcasts I’ve Been Listening to Lately

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In addition to the daily in-take of e-newsletters, blogs, and books, I’ve become enamored of the podcast format. It’s a great way to passively gain knowledge and a lot of very useful content is being generated these days through this medium.

I use my iPhone and the Podcast app to subscribe to my favorite shows. I’ve noticed that my listening skews towards things related to business and startups (and the obligatory This American Life). This makes sense given the type of work I do everyday, but I’ll be venturing out to other subject areas to diversify my listening habits.

Here are five that I’ve found to be worthwhile in recent months:

Smart Passive Income
This podcast by entrepreneur Pat Flynn is packed with good information for anyone aspiring to start their own small business using the Internet. I love how he even breaks down his monthly income to show how he makes his own money using the methods he advocates. The length of his podcasts vary, with some being over an hour and some being in the 40-minute range. He usually has guests that range from other small business owners to experts in SEO and marketing.

New York City History: The Bowery Boys
Whenever I’m walking or biking around New York or taking a long car ride somewhere, I like to pull up a Bowery Boys episode about some building, neighborhood, or historical figure. Hosted by two best friends Tom Meyers and Greg Young, the podcast is well-paced and often very entertaining. I’m always excited whenever Robert Moses gets mentioned (I have a fascination with Bob the Master Builder) in the episodes, which happens pretty often. A couple episodes I enjoyed: the history of Prospect Park and the story behind the Verrzano-Narrows Bridge.

Startups for the Rest of Us
This fast-talking podcast by two “solopreneurs” Mike Taber and Rob Walling covers a range of topics related to being a bootstrapped entrepreneur. The hosts speak from their personal experiences and talk about things like “7 Tips for Becoming a Better Manager” or “Growing Your Business Past Employee Zero.”

Seth Godin’s Startup School
This isn’t an on-going podcast show but a set of 15 podcasts that are excerpts from marketer Seth Godin’s Startup School in 2012. There are some really useful nuggets in these that’ll get you thinking about business models, the “connection economy,” and permission marketing. I’ve always been a huge fan of Seth Godin since I first started my business in 2006, so this was a really neat way to get a recap of the things he’s been writing and blogging about over the years.

This is a fairly new podcast by Cameron Moll, a designer-turned-entrepreneur who runs Authentic Jobs. I’ve followed Cameron Moll’s work since back when I used to design all of Barrel’s sites, so it’s been cool to hear him interview other business owners and talk about his own transition from designer to business owner. Guests have included people like Jason Fried of 37Signals and Greg Hoy of Happy Cog. Excited to hear more of his interviews in the coming months.

Trying to Stop Being an Email Asshole

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There are many days when I feel like email is my job rather than a tool that helps me to do my job. It’s what I check the moment I wake up and the activity that sucks a good chunk of my time each day. I’ve been good about keeping “inbox zero” and reducing subscriptions (I use unroll.me), but I’m eager to read the latest messages and figure a way to reply as quickly as possible.

Because I treat email with such urgency and importance in my work, it’s become a very big source of stress and tension. Add to that the fact that I’m a manager who relies heavily on email for information, status updates, and confirmation, and it’s easy to imagine how I end up putting so much weight into every message I read and write.

To show you how bad it’s been, here’s a scenario that’s boiled my blood over and over again over the years: I email an employee and ask for an update on something I’ve assigned. This email usually comes at an odd hour, either really late at night or very early in the morning. The employee does not reply the next day. When I recall that I had sent a message but no response has been received in more than 20 hours, I feel disappointed. My first assumption is that the employee has forgotten about the email. I then wonder why the employee didn’t just respond immediately after reading the email. The reply would’ve been a simple one-line answer. By this time, I might fire a reminder follow-up email, but if I don’t, then I can find myself starting to stew. It’s not a good feeling, and sometimes I assume very negative things.

When I think about why I feel the way I do with emails addressed to employees, I realize something: I feel entitled to a quick response from those who work for me. It’s a power dynamic that I’ve come to expect as the norm, and if the conditions aren’t met, it upsets me. If I think about my email interactions with clients, there’s no such expectation. I’m hardly upset if they don’t reply back for a week. There are definitely client emails out of the blue that may cause stress, but these I quickly forget since I don’t see our clients in person everyday.

There’s something to be said about employees who are prompt, efficient, and responsive in their use of email. I appreciate it when people respond right away and give me quick and to-the-point answers. I often give mental props to those who respond to my emails at odd hours. But I’ve come to think more and more that it’s unhealthy and unproductive to be upset about delayed or forgotten responses. I need to approach email communication from a default mode of trust rather than entitlement. If someone hasn’t answered me right away, I need to trust that the person had good reason not to or may simply have forgotten with no ill intentions. This may sound really obvious, but for someone who’s had issues with micro-managing people, I need to constantly make myself more aware and stay away from bad habits. Basically, I just need to let go and stop being such an asshole when it comes to email.

Sometimes the best way to learn is to turn the mirror on myself and examine with brutal honesty. I can recall times when someone has poured hours into an email addressed directly to me only to never get a written response. I know for a fact that I forget to respond to emails at least once or twice a day. And I’ve been guilty of reading only bits and pieces of emails, too lazy to read everything a person has written. And yet, I’ve never felt bad about these things and instead, I’ll implore people to “keep bothering me” or “be more aggressive” in getting my attention. I’ve always told myself that entitlement is something I really dislike, especially when I see it in other people. It’s high time I adjusted my behavior and realize that I can be more than the grumpy guy slouched over his keyboard reading and writing emails.