I wanted to take some time to write an internal blog post to the team about what it takes to be successful at NinjaOutreach (or any other company for that matter). I think, given the relative youth of the team, that this will be a useful thought post that will benefit you, not just here, but at whereever else you may go in the future.
Now, before I dive in, you’re probably wondering - where is this coming from?
Well, this week Mark and I have had a lot of “interesting” interactions with members of the team. Mostly, they have to do with people's’ future, their role, and their salary at NinjaOutreach - all very important things.
And since we try to be transparent whenever possible, I wanted to make an open statement about where Mark and I stand on these types of things, instead of just communicating them to people individually (as I have been doing).
Additionally, because we have a new employee review system in place, the next of which will take place in January, I wanted to make sure people, especially the new hires, have ample time to make the necessary adjustments to put them on whatever track they want to be on. That is to say, that if you want to get ahead, you should know what it takes to get ahead.
And finally, before I start the core part of this blog post, I want to preface this by saying that many of you will read this, see an example, and think “he’s talking about me!”.
And you’re right: I am talking about you.
But also know that you did not solely motivate me to write out my thoughts, but that it was you, and pretty much everyone else on the team, this week, last week, and in the past, that culminated into what I’m about to share. Basically, you are not alone, and pretty much everything I’m about to say applies to everyone, including marketers, developers, and designers, and for that reason, I’m not going to cite any names, because I don’t want people to get overly attached to the person mentioned, but instead think of how it applies to you.
So, let’s revisit the original question - what does it take to be successful at NinjaOutreach?
I think if asked this question, most people would probably respond with something like:
- Work a lot of hours
- Don’t take vacation, holidays, or time off
- Accept lower than average pay
Basically, the type of masochistic thinking that seems to have spread to our generation of employees. Give more and take less.
And while I do notice and appreciate everyone who puts in a full week’s work, those things are relatively low on my list of considerations.
In fact, some of the people who I think the most highly of on the team do not even hit their 30 hours a week regularly.
Working hard is good, but working smart is better. And while I see a lot of hard work, I see relatively less smart work.
Here’s what it means to work smart.
Nailing The Basics
A conversation about being a great employee cannot be started without first acknowledging what it takes to even be a good employee, and this is nailing the basics.
Meaning, you have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
Meaning, you have to be flawless about the simple stuff.
These are things like:
- Showing up to meetings, on time
- Completing your work, on time
- Putting in a full work week (30+ hours)
- Communicating about delays, illnesses, outages, time off, obstacles, etc, ASAP
- Taking a task that I mention in chat and doing it, despite the fact that I didn’t formally put something in Glip or Trello.
- Interpreting something as a task even if it wasn’t clearly formalized.
- Prioritizing your tasks consistent with business value / needs
These are the basic things that EVERY company expects from their employees, and unfortunately, but not altogether surprisingly, are the things that EVERY company struggles with (NinjaOutreach included).
I have had numerous conversations with many of you about all of the above, and from my perspective it’s very hard to move on to the “great” stuff, when there are still gaps with the “simple” stuff.
So, if you can do one thing today, make sure you are clear on everything that is expected of you, and then make sure that you are doing that.
You Have To Be Self Sufficient
From then on, self sufficiency is key.
Now, no one knows this, but in my spare time I help my girlfriend with her food blog, avocadopesto.com. (Yes, in my spare time away from work, I do more work).
This is a small operation, comprised of me, her, and one assistant.
So it often means I’m responsible for a lot more hand holding there than I am around here, for example, while here we have people who can teach a new employee how to use NinjaOutreach, there, I have to do it all myself. I literally wrote out a task recently that basically asked our assistant to create a template in NinjaOutreach, format it, and send it to me so that I could check that it was done right. That’s the level of detailed instruction I am giving on that side of the fence!
So trust me, I very much feel the pain of what it’s like to have to start from scratch with someone new and get them to the place where, luckily, most people on this team already are.
However, even though most people on this team are pretty self sufficient with the basics, there is still a big gap from where we are and where we want to be, and not even really just want, but need to be.
For example, I want to be able to say things like:
We want to make an ebook, make us an ebook.
And have that followed by a complete start to finish strategy and execution of ideation, creation, and promotion. Basically, take a concept, make it a reality, and then make us money from it.
Instead, I usually have to say things like, we want to make an ebook, now come up with 10 ideas for what we could write about, and show me them in 3 days.
And so on and so forth until we have basically made our way from beginning to end.
Being able to do all that yourself is what it means to be self sufficient.
Now, the mistake here is in thinking that self sufficient means I don’t want to be involved. That’s not true.
The distinction here is not about how much I am involved, but about who is in the driver’s seat.
Right now, with basically everyone’s projects, Mark or I are in the driver’s seat. We set the meetings, we set the agendas, we set the strategy, we oversee the project to completion, we follow up on the results.
All of this occupies an enormous amount of mental space in our heads. Sometimes I just sit and stare at my computer and have to think about whether or not I am forgetting something.
What a great employee does is takes the driver seat away from us. They come to me, ask if they can set up a meeting to discuss the project, present their agenda / strategy, walk me through in the meeting, deliver the results, on time, based on a schedule that they set.
And yes, I realize that you may not know how to create an ebook, or whatever it is you’re being asked to do, but the truth is neither do I, but I’m 100% confident that if I was in your shoes I could figure it out. There are a million articles online to help with basically everything we do. You have to be confident to go out, research, learn, and then come back and deliver what is being asked of you, as opposed to relying on us to write it out step by step.
So, that’s the big distinction, and it’s what we’re trying to get everyone to, because it would allow us to not be so knee deep in everyone’s tasks so we could focus on the bajillion other things we need to do.
You Have To Take Initiative
In addition to being self sufficient, we’re looking for people that aren’t just order takers, but who are creators.
People who add things to the marketing board, or the product board. People that see inefficiencies and make suggestions about improvements. People who create tasks for themselves. People who get involved in marketing by using other products or reading blogs and coming back with suggestions. People who see an old customer support ticket that has been sitting for a long time and take action on it even though it wasn’t assigned to them. People who recognize that they have some free time and take on a task that wasn’t assigned to them or offer to help someone else who might be overloaded instead of just sitting there or working a light week or waiting for a meeting with me.
There are a few people on the team who I think are REALLY good at this, namely Tarek and Yakup although I have seen other people do it as well (And yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to name names, but that was more about the criticism stuff, not the positive stuff).
All the time these guys are saying things to me like, I think this is important, we should do this. Or this needs to be a higher priority. Or this process is inefficient or incomplete.
I don’t always agree with their suggestions, but when I do the business is better for it, and that’s the type of free thinking that makes a great employee, because as we take on more tasks, it becomes harder and harder for me to see the opportunities that we have for improvement at the ground level, so you have to voice it.
You Have To Make What You Do Visible
It will probably surprise you to hear that there is work being done on this team that I don’t know about, and the same goes for Mark.
In fact there are people on this team about whom I’d be much more likely to ask Mark:
“What does this person even do?”
Than to ever suggest that they get a raise.
Now, don’t take that too literally, I’m exaggerating slightly to make a point, but the point is that although we have a small team it’s large enough and there are enough internal interactions that occur only between team members that I’m just not aware of all of it, all the time.
Common examples of this would be:
- You do work on tasks that primarily fall under Mark (or vice versa).
- You do work for other members of the team which they ask you directly to do to support their own work.
- You do partial work for a larger project and it’s not clear to me exactly what that is.
- You do certain weekly / monthly tasks that as a result of their recurring nature go relatively unnoticed.
Does it make sense now why I might not be 100% aware of every single contribution you’ve ever made?
Assuming it does, and that this applies to at least some portion of your work, you’re probably wondering - how do I make my contribution known so that I can get what I deserve?
What I don’t want everyone to do is message me or Mark and say hey, I did this, or I’m working on this. I want to know, but not necessarily in a way that interrupts me.
Instead, try to be slightly more passive, but still visual. For example, you could have yourself added to the task on trello, either with your image, or by making a checklist and having your name assigned to a certain aspect of it.
But in addition to that, and this is the thing that every single one of you should be doing, but that I would bet dollars to donuts no one is - you should be keeping tracking of your contributions in a separate spreadsheet, which can be handed off to me, or your respective manager during the time of your personal review, or during weekly / bi weekly meetings with them.
This spreadsheet should probably contain:
- The name of the task
- A description of the task
- The relative dates you were working on it
- Any references that can be cited, such as
- The trello card
- The glip task
- Deliverables like designs, blog posts, etc
- A summary of the results of your work aka what business value did it have?
If you are not keeping a log similar to this you are doing yourself a very severe disservice, because you are basically allowing yourself to do work that may go unnoticed and unappreciated.
And when it comes time to hand out money, who do you think is going to be more convincing - the person who has a hundred things to show me from the last six months and who has been communicating them to me weekly as we meet, or the person who I think has done good work, but I can’t remember exactly everything they did?
If you don’t have something like this yet, it’s not too late to start. Go back, go through your old tasks, and build one since the last review, and keep it up to date going forward.
You Have To Do High Value, Results Oriented Tasks
I’m going to expand upon what I just said by elaborating on the last part, aka, the results that your work produced.
At the end of they day, the only thing that matters from the company’s perspective are the results that your work has on the business.
- Are you saving someone time? How much?
- Did what you do increase traffic? How much?
- Did what you do improve the app’s performance? How much?
- Did what you do decrease the volume of support tickets? How much?
- Did what you do get us more customers? How many?
Think of your tasks are the basis of an internal resume, and every time you meet for a review, it’s like applying to a higher position.
A simple example of this could be something like the following:
You manage our Twitter accounts, which means you post interesting articles, oversee the tools we use to automate part of our Twitter engagement, and respond to customers who reach out to us on Twitter, etc.
The results for something like this could be as simple as saying, when I started working our Twitter account had X followers, and now it has Y followers. Or, here is how our traffic from Twitter has increased over the last few months.
I’m not providing this as an example of a crazy, high value adding task, but more to illustrate how you can take even the standard work you do and apply some sort of value to it.
Now, when you look at your spreadsheet with a summary of all your tasks, and then try to fill in the part about results, are you having difficulty?
If you are, it could mean that you aren’t doing enough tasks that provide results for the business, and if that’s the case, it may be the result of you not taking on enough high value tasks.
You’ve all seen the slides about the company / marketing / development highlights in the state of the business address, right? As a general rule, you want to be doing those things.
Look, all of us, including myself, have some degree of admin work that we need to do. These tasks need to be done, even though they don’t provide a ton of results for the business.
But the majority of your work should be focused on things that GROW the business and not just MAINTAIN it, and that growth is what you want to quantify / illustrate, even if it’s just a very rough estimate, because that’s what’s important to determining who deserves a raise.
You Have To Be Direct And Persuasive
Here’s the last piece of the puzzle - you have to be direct, with me, and with everyone else you interact with.
Believe it or not, I don’t always have everything figured out in my head down to the exact calculations. I’m typically trying to balance employee happiness with company goals; wondering how to balance external growth (hiring) with internal growth (salary increases) - and doing it all with incomplete information.
So, I don’t really mind when people just tell me what they want, regarding their salary, or their work, or anything else. Unfortunately, even when I put people on the spot, I usually get a silly answer that doesn’t help me at all.
An example of this is the following.
Occasionally, I have asked people things like “What do you want to be getting paid?”
And the typical answer I get is something like “Oh, I just want to do good work here, and if I get more money, I really appreciate it!” (often followed by a bunch of silly emoticons).
Congrats! You aren’t getting a raise. This is code word for “I’m satisfied to wait my turn”. Time for me to ask the next person!
On the other spectrum, I sometimes get something like “Dave, can you increase my salary to X amount?”
Which is direct, but lacks any degree of persuasion. This person is also unlikely to get what they want, because they haven’t proven that they’ve earned it.
The right answer is to say something like:
“Dave, if you have a few minutes I’d like to talk about my salary at NinjaOutreach.
You do? OK good.
I’ve been working hard over the last few months - here’s a few things I’ve accomplished:
(link to the spreadsheet).
Now, I’m currently getting paid X, and I’d really like to move up to Y in time for the next review.
So, can you please tell me, in your mind, what do I have to accomplish between now, and then, to make that happen?”
If you give me something like that, firstly, I will respect you for doing what no one else is doing, which is being direct, polite, tactful, and pragmatic.
But secondly, I will work with you to set the proper expectations, and, if you complete them, and we have reasonable growth for the company to support it, we will give you the raise you asked for.
Simple, isn’t it?
Conclusion, And A Myth Busted
Many people have it in their minds that companies, including NinjaOutreach, are basically trying to get the most help for the least money, because of course that is the best for their bottom line.
However, believe it or not, that is not the case here.
We genuinely want to increase people's’ salaries. In fact there are many people who I feel are probably underpaid, and I have some personal goals to raise salaries for some select individuals.
But I don’t want to increase their salary “just because”, but because it’s actually been earned.
I want people to come to me, with the business case in hand, and for me to be able to say
“You’re right. You have been adding a lot of value to the business and you deserve a raise.
You’ve met the expectations we talked about, so here you go.”
And we’ll both feel very very good about it.
Because if you aren’t earning your increases, but are just getting them by sticking around, or because I feel bad that we aren’t paying you enough, you’ll quickly reach your limit.
We’ll only feel bad to a point, up until we feel you are fairly paid for the value you’re providing.
A few observations I've had that I'd like to mention that will hopefully make us all more effective workers.
Basics, Basics, Basics - Remember the article I wrote last year about nailing the basics (see the master document). You still have to nail the basics. Showing up to meetings, on time, ready to contribute. Communicating if there are issues going on, if someone is sick, if there are family issues, or if you're traveling, etc. As long as you communicate something in advance / as soon as they become known to you, you'll basically never have to worry about something being shocked / upset.
If you don't have enough work - ask for more! Do gut checks with yourself on Wednesday. If you haven't put in 15-20 hours after Wednesday then reach out to me or Mark about adding something on your plate for the rest of the week. Even better if you can plan out your week on Monday and anticipate slow weeks. Remember everyone is supposed to be putting in 30+ hours and communicating with us if that isn't possible.
The reverse is true as well. If you have too much, then try to think through how long each of your tasks will take and then let Mark and I know so maybe we can provide suggestions, introduce tools to make something more efficient, or take something off your plate. Always be on the lookout for tools (free and paid) that can improve your workflow.
If you don't communicate with us we cannot do anything to help!
Incomplete work is better than no work - don't hold something back because "it's not ready". Show us what you have, as long as what you have represents significant work despite it not being 100% complete. Otherwise we'll just assume you haven't done anything.
Break up your tasks - don't try to deliver the whole thing at once. Often this leads to you missing the mark or leaving things out. A better approach is to take a large task and write out a process / plan for it. Then send that over to Mark or I.
Now, that doesn't mean you should just do nothing during that time. You can
a) work on something else OR
b) work on exactly that, but then if we see that something is missing or wrong we can notify you before you go out and deliver the entire thing. Just say "Hey Dave this is what I'm planning on doing, let me know if you have any suggestions. I might suggest something or say nothing.
Either way, when you deliver the final result, if something is missing, it's on us NOT you.
Get your priorities straight- You should know what your top priority is for every week. If you don't, ask us.
This leads to what I call "Questions For Monday", to be pasted wherever it is you work.
Questions For Monday
"Do I know what the most important thing is that I should be working on this week?"
"Do I have enough work to keep me busy? Do I have too much?"
"Do I know when all my meetings are this week and can I make them all on time?"
"Is there anything that is likely to prevent me from completing my main objective this week or from putting in a full week of work?"