— John Galsworthy
It’s easy to build walls. Any average, unskilled person can build a wall. All that is required is stacking objects on top of each other, in a row, as high as desired. The objects could be anything - stones, bricks, chain links, Rubix cubes - anything. Simply start stacking and voila - a wall. Very simple.
Bridges, on the other hand, are not easy. They require specific, high-level skill sets - geometry, physics, design, geology, construction, and more. They require planning, scouting, favorable conditions, and strong collaboration. The slightest miscalculation can lead to failure - injury…death. Unlike building walls, building bridges is hard.
Walls are segregating structures. They are built to keep people or things apart. And they are easy to build. As it turns out, segregation…is easy.
Fear, ignorance, hate - these are the things from which walls are built. All easy emotional states. This is why wall-building institutions such as religion proliferate so easily. Believers vs Sinners. Us vs Them. This is easy stuff to grasp. Easy walls to build.
The people that build walls will tell you that walls offer security. That they protect you from the ‘bad things’ on the outside.
But the funny thing about walls is that they do just as good a job at keeping things out as they do at keeping things in. The price wall-builders pay for security from the outside is freedom for themselves. In order to remain safe from the outside, you must stay on the inside. Entrapped by fear disguised as the need for security.
Bridges, on the other hand, are connective structures. They bring people or things together. They unite. But unlike segregation, connection…is hard.
And just as fear is the bedrock on which walls are built, it takes courage to build a bridge. The courage to face the unknown and potential differences. Courage to bypass the easy road to segregation and forge a path to connection.
Yes, walls are easy to build. But the payoff is enclosure. With each wall goes more freedom.
Bridges may be very hard to build, but they payoff is opportunity. Connections represent opportunity. The opportunity to connect, cross pollinate perspectives, merge contexts. Bridges build openness and transparency. And this is the fertile ground of progress.
Nothing good has ever come from separation, but almost everything good has come from connection.
ps - I’d be lying if I said this post wasn’t affected by Nelson Mandela’s recent presence in the news. If and when he passes, we will lose one of the best bridge builders the world has ever known. He’ll be impossible to replace, but my hope is that his spirit lives on and fertilizes many more generations of those like him…
In most every organization with a dedicated sales team, there is a clear distinction between the way the salespeople are compensated and the way everyone else in the company is compensated.
Typically, sales teams work under a traditional commission model. They earn a low (or no) base salary and a monthly commission based on their personal production (ie - usually a percentage of closed monthly sales). This means the monthly take home pay for a sales person can fluctuate violently. One month he/she could be flush with cash and the next not be able to pay the rent.
This is what I refer to as personal financial risk. When a person doesn’t know what he will earn on a monthly basis - and there is a chance that what they do earn won’t cover their personal monthly expenses - they are taking on personal financial risk. Sales people working under traditional sales comp models are taking on a great deal of this risk.
Meanwhile, back at HQ, everyone else in the organization is compensated under an essentially risk-free comp model. Engineers, marketers, product designers, CEOs — all make healthy, consistent salaries that do not fluctuate with the ebb and flow of monthly sales. These salaries may go up (with bonuses, etc), but they don’t go down. The people living on these comp plans do not bear any personal financial risk based on sales.
Why is it that only a select group of individuals in the company bear all the risks (and rewards) associated with whether or not your product sells?
The obvious answer - “Because the sales team is responsible for sales. It’s their job to sell, so they should be compensated based on how well they do. Not to mention that there is nothing more motivating than personal financial risk. A hungry sales person sells more product!”
Let’s leave the second part of this answer aside for a moment and address the first. The idea that salespeople should bear personal financial risk because they are ‘responsible for sales' is an obvious & easy answer. But, I would argue, it's also a pretty shallow way to approach the question. This is even more true with early-stage enterprises.
The reality is that the sales team sits downstream of many important decisions and activities - all of which have significant impact on the sales of your product.
- The CEO makes decisions around what markets to enter, the general product strategy, brand development, resource allocation for execution, the fundraising needed to support the product, etc;
- The Product team builds the product - makes decisions about feature development, UX, functionality, priority, etc;
- The Marketing team determines positioning, messaging, creative, placement, pricing, lead generation, etc;
- The Customer Suport team impacts customers’ experience with the product;
- The Legal team decides on the complexity of the contracts and terms surrounding a deal, etc
The earlier-stage your business, the more these upstream decisions impact sales. Therefore…IF:
- All of the people mentioned above, their decisions and their activities, have major impact on sales and;
- There is nothing that motivates performance like personal financial risk;
WHY ISN’T EVERYBODY ON A COMMISSION PLAN?
If you build a terrible product focused on the wrong market, why should your salespeople be penalized for that? At the same time, if you build a product that ‘sells itself’, why should your sales team reap all the benefit?
Imagine if everyone in your organization that has an impact on sales were on a commission comp plan. How do you think that would that change the way things happen?
- Do you think your product designer/manager would roll his eyes every time he received product feedback from the sales team? Or do you think he would be desperate to hear what prospects are saying about the product? Do you think he’d be calling the salespeople after every demo - dying to know what features would be important for closing deals? Do you think prioritization meetings would take a different shape? How fast do you think new features would be released?
- Do you think your CEO would spend less time busting the sales team for their numbers & projections or do you think he/she would get more involved with helping to close deals? Or doggedly finding solutions to issues that may be impeding sales?
- How about marketing? Is it likely that the maketing department would spend more time rooting for the sales team as opposed to criticizing them for “fucking up all my great leads”? Do you think more efforts would be focused on finding the ‘right’ leads - the ones that would close quickly? Do you think they would spend talking to customers and sitting in on demos?
- How about your legal team? Do you think your contracts might get a bit lighter, easier to understand and be free of the sticking points that impress lawyers, but needlessly complicate sales? Do you think ‘processing’ time on deals would get a bit quicker?
What else do you think would change?
Next time you hear a CEO say something to the effect of "we are sales-focused organization" or "at our company, everyone is in sales" - ask him or her how he pays his people. If everyone is in sales, then is everyone bearing personal financial risk tied to revenue? How about him/herself? How variable is his/her monthly take home pay? Is he bearing personal financial risk?
Do I recommend that you should build out comp plans so that everyone in the organization bears personal financial risk attached to sales? Maybe. If you feel that it’s ok for some of your employees to bear personal financial risk attached to revenue, then I do recommend this plan. Everyone in.
Of course, the risk with this plan is that it creates a short-term focused organization. It disincentivises experimentation and investment in longer-term initiatives that may be good for the company. But again, if you are going to require anyone in the organization to take on this risk, everyone should. I think this is especially true in early stage businesses that are dependent on revenue for survival. All in.
The alternative to everyone taking on personal financial risk is no one taking on that risk. But that’s the subject of another post…
There are companies and organizations that have people with the title, Director of Special Projects. It’s an ominous title and generally means someone who works on either ‘secret projects’ that require confidentiality (mostly b/c they are illegal or immoral) or projects that don’t fit cleanly in any specific department in the org chart - generally, shitty projects that no one else wants to work on or support.
In either case, Director of Special Projects = Director of Shitty Projects.
But what if this wasn’t the case? What if the Director of Special Projects was someone whose job it was to make things…well….special? What if this person was someone who moved around the organization and looked for opportunities to add a little magic to different initiatives (product, marketing, sales, HR, facilities, etc)? Someone who was charged with helping a company differentiate the experience of buying from, working for or collaborating with the company?
The reality is that in many companies, and especially in startups, people’s plates are so full with the work that just needs to “get out the door”, that no one has the time to even think about how to make their work…special. I’m not saying these people don’t want their work to be special, it’s just that very often ‘make it special’ isn’t a priority. ‘Making it special’ is not something that is generally found on the roadmaps, Gant charts or the spec sheets that run most businesses. There is no Excel formula to project the effect of ‘Specialness’, making its ROI elusive at best; ‘Specialness’ is not easily expressed in a press release; nor can it be explained in a business plan. “Making it special” is, therefore, very often trumped by “make it done.”
Yet it is always the special things, the little touches, that define the great products and the great brands.
If this is the case, then why shouldn’t every company have a Director of Special projects to fill the gap between the work that needs to get done and the work that needs to be more special? Or better yet, a full Special Department - a Ministry of Magic - to ensure that the company doesn’t overlook the ‘special’ things in their quest to go beyond the average. For many companies, I think this is a great idea.
But at the same time, I would argue that the truly special companies will have no need for this role at all.
The great companies have ‘being special’ infused deep in their DNA. These companies don’t need anyone with the title Director of Special Projects because everyone carries the mentality. The people at these companies work just as hard making their work special as they do making it done. Special touches at these companies are not only allowed (i.e. - not frowned upon or given lower priority than ‘on-time’ and/or ‘on-budget’), but encouraged and celebrated.
For the best companies, finding a person to fill a ‘special’ role is much less important than finding a way to build a ‘special’ culture.
(And not for nothing, I would argue that for many of the best companies, it is the founding team that plays this role of Director of Special projects from day one - making paying attention to special details a standard operating procedure, insuring that the culture grows and scales with that mentality).
With all that said, if you do want to find your company a Director of Special Projects, here is a bonus job description you can post on your recruiting board.
SEEKING - DIRECTOR OF SPECIAL PROJECTS
Our Director of Special Projects will be in charge of creating and driving initiatives that make our company more special. You will work across departments to identify opportunities to make the people who buy from us, work for us or partner with us…smile.
We’d say that we require a college degree for this position, but we’d be lying. We don’t really care where, or if, you went to school. In fact, if you didn’t perform well in a standard, industrialized educational setting, that’s probably better.
Skills & Requirements:
*Natural Leadership - This is very important asset for this position. You will often be working with cross-functional teams on things they may or may not think is important. Often times, the execution of these special initiatives will be outside the scope of someone’s regular job, so you must be able to inspire a group to take on what might seem like “extra work.”
*Likability - Also very important. You must be the type of person with whom people LOVE to work. The right person for this role will naturally find his or herself in high demand. People within our organization should be queuing up - begging - for your help. Not only because you help make their work better, but also because working with you is a highlight. A joy.
*Creativity - Goes without saying. The key to success in this position is creating differentiation. New, fresh ideas are the currency that will define this role.
*Non-linear career trajectory - Someone with a non-linear career path will be more successful at this role - given that there is no linear path to this role AND nothing linear about the work you will do in it. You must be comfortable with an environment of curvy lines.
*A background in some form of visual and/or performance art is preferred.
Other Helpful Things:
*You must have an active ideas journal. And an even more active portfolio of executed ideas.
*You must have failed many times in your life - AND be willing to laugh about it.
*You must have tried to surf at least once.
*You don’t have to draw, but you do have to doodle.
*Your hobbies represent a full-time job.
*You don’t have to know how to code, but you can’t be afraid to learn.
*You must believe in dragons, Hogwarts and Umpa Lumpas. And love them all - for different reasons.
*And you can’t be a lawyer.