Be Resilient in Your Networking

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Don’t let people get you down. I know that’s a pretty “duh” statement, but it holds true for so many aspects of life. Particularly those which you never thought would be the ones to turn negative.

Part of networking—and especially building your minimum viable network—is understanding that things in life can sometimes change on a dime, and not letting that reality affect your personal edge. It’s sometimes harder to deal with things that you assumed were going to be positive things—a new gig, a new introduction, a new assignment which was supposed to be your big break—than with the things you knew were a long-shot anyway. We’re wired to assign certain values of ease to the things we set as goals, and the ones which show more promise are supposed to work out well. But that’s not always the case.

The trouble comes in when those disappointments—the ones which were supposed to be big breaks—turn your personality from positive and magnetic to dour and cynical. When that happens, you end up losing twice; you lose the initial opportunity, and more importantly, you end up losing out on future networking connections which might yield new opportunities.

When these things happen, remember that tomorrow is always a new day, and that the whole point of networking is to open yourself up to new possibilities. Any one potential new contact could mean a huge payoff down the road, but it only ends in a good place if you continue to project an opportunistic mentality. It’s ok to be disappointed, that’s a valid emotion and part of life. But don’t let it rule your entire outlook thereafter. New things arise, and by building out your minimum viable network, you will be well-conditioned to take advantage of them. Be resilient in your networking.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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How Changing Your Perception of Cold Emailing Will Make You a Better Networker

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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Cold Emailing Is a Necessary Skill

A couple years ago, I wrote a piece on why you should think of cold emailing as an opportunity, not a chore. The post was a response to a piece Hunter Walk had written on the topic, and it got me thinking about how we perceive the practice of cold emailing. So instead of discussing today how you should go about cold emailing, I think it’s first important to take a step back and discuss how you should go about thinking about cold emailing.

I’ve sent thousands of cold emails—to investors, to artists, to other founders—and what I’ve found is that it doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in. In the end, the lesson is always the same.  

In every industry, cold emailing is a fact of life to some extent. Whether you’re in tech, pharmaceuticals, law enforcement, law, real estate, etc., you will send some type of cold email at some point for some aspect of your job. Normally the goal of a cold email is to make a sale; to get some potential client to purchase something. But even in professions where your end goal isn’t to sell a product or service, you will undoubtedly need to reach out to someone you don’t initially know at some point.

Why Your Perception of Cold Emailing Matters

The reason that changing your perception about cold emailing can and will make you a better networker is because it changes how you perceive and meet obstacles. Look at cold emailing as another arrow in your networking quiver, and especially as one of the ones you may need to rely on to start building your minimum viable network. Though warm, double-opt in introductions are obviously preferred, cold emailing/messaging is still be an invaluable skill.

Not knowing someone—not having a prior meeting with them and/or not having someone to make an introduction for you—is a major obstacle in life. It will keep you from making that important sale which could sink or save your company. Sometimes the only way to reach that person is to take a stab and take your chances with an unintroduced email.

Instead of fixating on the fact that it’s a cold email and you have no history with the person, however, focus on how you can state creating a rapport with them. Do not think about it as you giving them a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have—rarely do cold emails with phrases like “I don’t want you to miss out” or “you’ll kick yourself if you don’t buy/invest” work. Those are just annoying, and reek of desperation.

Be Positive and Opportunistic, Not Desperate

Your goal in any cold email is not to project desperation, it’s to project opportunity. It’s about letting the other person know that you’re genuinely interested in creating a rapport with them, and possibly starting a longer-term relationship. At the end of the day, the cold emails which emphasize a long-term relationship tone over a short-term sale win almost every time. They are opportunistic and serendipitous—this in turn is magnetic to the reader.

Change how you think about cold emailing and you will change the responses you get to cold emails. This in turn will help you build out a network that perceives you as positive and magnetic. That—maybe more than anything—is what will draw people to your network.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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How to Build Your Network by Creating Value and Good Karma

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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A couple years ago (before AngelList acquired Product Hunt), AngelList founder and CEO Naval Ravikant did an AMA on Product Hunt during which a founder (Brent Summers) asked a fairly astute question: “If you were just starting out again, what are 1-2 steps you’d take to surround yourself with successful people?”

Naval’s answer?

Share freely.

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In so many words, Naval had underscored what I believed in work as well as in life: that introductions and great networking are a function of good vibes and positive karma. “Paying it forward” as Naval articulated.

Confidence and Good Karma Beget a Good Reputation

Everything good that’s happened in my professional career has come my way as a result of being open and sharing what I knew with others. Most every paid writing job I’ve had came my way because I published freely and shared ideas with people who were then in a position to throw some work my way. When I got into tech, opening myself up helped cultivate a paradigm in which new and exciting opportunities came my way, sometimes serendipitously. 

This is arguably one of the easiest things to learn and implement in your strategy as you build out your minimum viable network. When you know some something—when something is your wheelhouse and you can provide great feedback or ideas on something or to someone—do it, and don’t get caught up in the “what/when will you pay me?” question in the beginning. The good opportunities will follow, and compensation—monetary and otherwise—will materialize when the relationships have had time to germinate.

I’m not advocating for always doing work for free or selling yourself short. But this series isn’t about the hard realities of making money; it’s about how to put yourself in a position to cultivate long-term relationships that yield a broad, engaged network over time.

To Naval’s point, if you figure out something you’re really good at—something you know will benefit other people—then prove you’re the person they need to come to for that. How do you prove it? By showing people you’re confident and comfortable enough in your abilities that you’re happy to simply pay it forward.  Project this confidence, and you will become infinitely more attractive as a prospective network connection. You create your minimum viable network one relationship at a time, by building your reputation as always being around, and always being the right person for “that thing.”

Transactional Relationships Are Short-Term Relationships

This is a solid example of what Chris Sacca calls creating value for others before asking for it for yourself. By going out and doing things for other people—in this case, sharing what you know—without being transactional, you begin to make yourself indispensable, and therefore attractive as a candidate for someone’s network.

Transactional relationships make for short relationships—they are expendable as soon as they outgrow their utility. Symbiotic relationships, however, continue to grow and evolve as the people do, and this is born out of an ease of interactions—free exchange of ideas perhaps—between the individuals.

Plant the Seeds of Value

The best example I can give at the moment is this series: I know that I’m good with people. I like people; I like talking to them and building bridges between them.

So this is an exercise in how to help others do it. You want to start to gain influential followers on Twitter? Share things you know and freely reference other people in your blog posts and podcasts—and always credit them, because that’s a wonderful back-street way of building credit for yourself. Highlighting others’ value highlights your own value.

When that value seed is planted, it continues to grow—one connection, one lukewarm intro at a time—until you look back and realize you now have a minimum viable network that can allow you access to almost anything.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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Take Breaks—Burnout Kills Networking

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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As I’ve been writing this series, I’ve been reflecting on some of the most difficult things about networking, and one thing that always pops into my head is the reality that taking breaks is so important. We don’t really think about networking as something you should take a break from; after all, why would you ever stop networking? Ever stop hustling? How can you possibly build your minimum viable network if you’re not always grinding away?

The answer is because burnout is so incredibly detrimental, and burnout can occur so easily when you’re putting so much energy into meeting new people. Relationships take effort to properly maintain, and it’s easy to lose sight of the focus they take to build. Taking time to give your mind a rest and reenergize will do wonders beyond what you think. By giving your mind a rest and time to recharge itself, you end up sharpening it, and let new ideas sink in which you might then use for your networking thereafter.

It’s always worth noting that the reverse is similarly true: trying to talk to people when your head isn’t in it will tell the other party that you either 1) don’t take proper care of yourself, or 2) that the discussion and/or face-time really isn’t all that important to you. Even if neither of these things is true, the result is the same: you make exactly the impression you don’t want to make. Instead of coming across as gregarious and magnetic, you will not be persuasive, engaging, or opportunistic, negating the entire point of the networking.

Understand that taking a day off to not be on social media or be a face in the community is good. People will chalk up your absence to the normal things (work, family, health, etc.), and when you come back, you’ll project a more energized and engaging persona. It’s easy to get caught up in the fast-paced milieu of networking, but don’t drive so hard that you burn yourself out.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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How to Piggyback Without Stealing Credit

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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In a previous post, I discussed how lurking can be a beneficial strategy to building a network because it enables you to absorb aspects of a topic of conversation before needing to jump in. Part of strategically lurking, though, is not only learning from others’ ideas, but using them to take the next step in the discussion.

There’s a precise way to do this, however. You don’t want to come across as someone who steals ideas or thunder from others; that will not endear you to the very people you want to be in your network. Constructing a minimum viable network means understanding how to use someone else’s ideas as a jumping-off point for your own without coming across as conniving or self-centered.

Understanding the Balance

Rule number one in this whole scenario is giving credit where credit is due. If you’re using someone else’s idea as a jumping-off point, then make that clear to everyone else. No one will think poorly of you for giving credit where it’s due, but you will absolutely self-sabotage if you look like someone who needs to control a whole conversation in order to get your point across. Worse, you don’t want to steal someone else’s insightful point and misrepresent it as your own.

In my experience, the answer is balance. Take all the time you want to lurk in a conversation, absorb new material and ideas, craft a point, and deploy it when the time is right. I’ve been in a conversation threads many times where I’ve seized on the specific point made by a VC or other founder, but taken time to craft a response. The feedback is almost always positive because a thoughtful response beats a quick response any day. The opposite side of the balance therein is making sure that credit for your thought or response goes to the right person; if someone’s initial message or point gave you a new idea or perspective, acknowledge that and run with it.

By taking time to examine conversations closely and add nuance, you do two things simultaneously:

  1. You validate the other person by virtue to referencing their point; you essentially show others that that person’s point is worth considering, and
  2. You show others in the conversation that you can be patient, sit and absorb information, learn new concepts, synthesize context, and use all of that to develop your own original points to share

Validate Someone Else, Validate Yourself

Show people that you can be patient and thoughtful. In the end, this will do the most for you because it’s a human calculation. When you validate someone’s point, you validate their experience and knowledge, and that has an endearing effect on people. People like to associate with others who are patient, who give credit where it’s due, and who can build on previous concepts to create new ones.

The goal is not to come across as the number one expert in that industry; the goal is to show people that you can sit back, be patient, learn from others, and use that to contribute meaningfully to a group dynamic. Done correctly, this tactic can open you up to numerous new conversations and fields, and has the potential to tell the successful people in those fields that you’re someone they should keep an eye on.

Anyone can go read a book and spit back information that someone else has already written. But it takes real skill to be able to synthesize knowledge from others and use it to take the next step while simultaneously crediting the appropriate sources. That is that skill that will tell an investor or other founder that you’re someone whom they should get to know and take seriously. This is how you will build your minimum viable network in all areas, even ones that are new to you.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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The Lucrative Strategy of Lurking

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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There are many times I find myself lurking in conversations with topics I know very little about, but which I’m very interested in learning about. It can feel daunting to try and contribute something meaningful to a conversation when 1) you’re unfamiliar with the topics, and 2) it’s around other potential experts. The preferred strategy of many people is to avoid these situations altogether; after all, the last thing you want to do is look like a dummy in front of someone whom you respect and/or want to make a good impression on.

But this does a disservice to yourself in the long run. Intimidation is a normal and valid feeling, especially when you’re new to a particular community. But avoiding the situation entirely doesn’t solve either your goals of learning more about the respective topic or making a good impression on the people you want to notice you.

A Better Strategy

A much more lucrative strategy is lurking, something which I do continuously on community sites like Twitter and Product Hunt. For me, topics like music-tech and networking are my wheelhouse; I feel very comfortable discussing them and putting my two cents into discussions, even when the other participants are people that I might somewhat

For me, topics like music-tech and networking are my wheelhouse; I feel very comfortable discussing them and putting my two cents into discussions, even when the other participants are people that I might find intimidating by virtue of their success alone. When topics shift to other industries, though, like med-tech or AI, I feel less confident in my ability to contribute meaningful comments simply because I don’t know as much about those particular areas.

AI is a great example. As much as it intrigues me, I’m still trying to understand enough to contribute major points to a discuss. So I lurk; I sit back and read viewpoints from others who know more than I do about these things and then try to surmise my own original thoughts based on them. Then, when the time is right and the conversation is right, I try to add a new viewpoint.

The Benefits of the “Lurk and Listen” Play

This strategy has two major effects early on:

  1. It relieves you of having to come up with a bombastic and earth-shatteringly brilliant point under the gun, and
  2. It allows you to absorb information and knowledge from others in an unassuming way, learning from their years of experience and insights 

A third, possibly hidden, result of both points is that when you do feel confident enough to contribute a point of view to the conversation, you have time to carefully compose exactly what you want to say. Flinging tweets off left and right is for subjects which you’re very confident speaking about, not for new ones you’re trying to understand. Shooting from the hip on something you don’t fully understand can backfire dramatically.

Lurking is a great strategy precisely because it requires so little effort, except for focusing on learning from others. It teaches you how to receive information in an age when we’re told we need to be continuously providing it. Additionally, absorbing information at your own pace has the added effect of making you feel more confident about a topic.

It’s not a quick or flash strategy, but it works. Learn to lurk and listen, then move when the time is right.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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Win Where You Win

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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When building out your minimum viable network, it’s easy to feel as if you have to be great at everything—or at least be good at the “right” things. This is something I especially struggled with when getting into tech; I felt that because I didn’t study engineering at Stanford—because I excelled in other areas—that I somehow had to shift my strengths to fit the “right” type of strengths for the tech startup scene.

Understanding Where You Come From

But I was wrong, and it took a lot of self-exploration to see that.

In the end, I know at least three areas where I excel that help me stand out from the crowd:

  • I’m a good writer/editor
  • I’m good with people
  • I know that the music industry is my wheelhouse

It’s important to know where you win, and be comfortable with that. There are tons of people who will always know more about SaaS than I will, who will always be more suited to design than I will, and who will always find bitcoin more interesting than I do. There will for sure always be tons of people who will win at engineering in ways that I won’t.

And over time I’ve accepted two things:

  1. I don’t need to be good at those other things to be valid and valuable
  2. By winning where I win, I can become the “expert” in those respective areas

Becoming an Expert in Your Field

Over the last few years, I’ve cultivated an image as being a good writer/editor, being a good people person, and knowing a lot about the music industry. And that’s mainly where I stick.

I’m always down to jump into a Twitter conversation music streaming because I have a decade of experience in music. I’m comfortable enough in my own viewpoints and experience to hear other’s points without feeling an attack on my own validation. This is a mix of confidence in my own experience and comfort in my industry.

The result is that I write and tweet extensively on music, and that people reach out to me when they want to understand something that’s happened in the music world. I love discussing royalties, licensing, artist dynamics, and content distribution.

Win where you win. If you know a ton about video and Snapchat, then make that your flagship quality. Run with it. Write about it, tweet about it, and take a stance on it. Even if you expand your quiver of arrows later on, become “the video guy” or “the marketing woman” that everyone has to know in that respective field. Developing that persona will tell others that you know much more than the average joe.

Keep in mind that it’s very hard to become an expert on something without taking a stance on something in your field. Being ambivalent will only take you so far, and might even tells others that you don’t know enough about it to make a definitive decision. This is not a perception that you want to promote. Be willing to put your money where your mouth is; people rarely remember when you write an article with a flawed thesis, but it’s very memorable when you write a piece with a new point of view that turns out to be right on the mark.

Which brings up the further point: be generous with your knowledge (to a point). If people in your network start coming to your for your expertise on a subject, give it to them. Prove to them that you’re priceless as an asset in understanding that industry. When you cultivate this persona, guard it with your life. You don’t always have to be right, but never let anything shake your confidence in your knowledge of your industry. Confidence grows over time, but the best way to help cultivate it within yourself is to put yourself in positions where your opinion and/or viewpoint are integral parts of the overall conversation.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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Forget Building a Network—Build Relationships Instead

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


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For many people, the prospect of building a network is daunting. It requires putting yourself out there, and for any number of people, this constitutes being confident in ways that may not come naturally. But because so much of life seems to depend on who you know and who you can get access to, networking seems to be, at the very least for some people, a necessary pain.

But in so many ways it need not feel this daunting and arduous.

Why Networking Sucks

Make no mistake, meeting people can be difficult if schmoozing doesn’t come naturally. But the mistake to avoid making is in the perspective of how you go about “building your network” as opposed to how you should actually perceive going about it.  

The fact of the matter is that “networking” as something we do—something we go to events for, listen to motivational talks on, read how-to books on—is presented in an overblown way. In so many words, it’s overrated and superficial.

AngelList founder and CEO Naval Ravikant tweeted it so concisely just a few days ago:

Anyone who’s ever been to a networking event has more than likely experienced a similar reality: many of the other people there are there to drop titles, salaries, company names, and other supposedly impressive credentials. These, in turn, are meant to persuade other “targets” at the event that Person A is too important not to notice and/or connect with. It’s why so many of these events are dry, useless, and why so many successful founders, VC’s, and business operators simply forgo them.

So If Building a “Network” Doesn’t Work, What Does?

So what does work?

In short: relationships.

Where the act of networking fails, relationships succeed over and over again. Networking events feel transactional; relationships feel genuine.

Where networking comes across as superficial and self-serving, relationships immediately feel more symbiotic and mutually beneficial. And where the former requires a somewhat unnatural, car-salesman-esque confidence, the latter relies simply on one’s innate personality.

It’s a fair point to note that relationships require much more effort and more time than “networking” does; after all, networking is done by handing someone your business card, and relationships can take months, if not years to cultivate. Most people don’t want to spend the time or effort to do that kind of work.

And they only do themselves a disservice for their laziness.

Time Is on Your Side

The first basic thing to understand is that time is on your side when building relationships. Utilize it. Be willing to do the work that it takes, usually over a longer period of time than any “networking” event usually runs. Put in the hours—don’t be lazy.

Once you shift your mindset from transactional networking to focusing on long-term relationships, a lot of the intimidating—and therefore daunting—parts begin to take care of themselves. The prospect of having to prove to someone else that you’re worth their time works quietly in the background as the relationship develops. Instead of heading to a networking event and trying to get someone to meet up for a follow-up coffee (something VC’s especially seem to detest), understand that there’s no reason anyone should make time for you after 20 minutes of talking (unless you’re a really good talker).

Relationships happen naturally; they can’t be calculated to work in a specific time frame and they can’t be forced. Natural development—as slow and tedious as it might seem in some moments—actually helps to strengthen the potential relationships precisely because it doesn’t feel cheap and transactional.

I have never had good outcomes when I’ve tried to force relationships in the past. The best thing to do is make patience one of your virtues—things will happen in the right time frame. And I say this as someone who isn’t a patient person by default—I’ve worked very hard to become a more patient man. All of this, though, will yield a much better result in the long run than any networking event ever could.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

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The Minimum Viable Network: Introduction

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A few months ago, I was discussing with my friend Jason Rowley how it seemed to me that so many people on Twitter talked about how to build and ship a minimum viable product, yet didn’t seem to be utilizing similar strategies to build their networks. A lot of thought appeared to be given to the prospect and process of building a product prototype, but little seemed aimed at cultivating the seeds that real networks take to germinate into robust synchronicities.

For those unfamiliar with it, the “minimum viable product” (or MVP) concept is a strategy for efficiently building, releasing, gaining feedback on, and improving a product and/or service with as few financial and personnel resources as possible. It’s become a mantra in the tech world, and there are whole books and courses dedicated to understanding how best to achieve this.

(Another friend, Andy Sparks, is currently working on a project compiling some of these great resources for founders.)  

During the course of our conversation, though, it struck me just how much people’s strategy seems to differ when it comes to building and maintaining one’s network. It occurred to me after some reflection that this is because building a network—cultivating relationships—is everything that the MVP strategy is not. Whereas the MVP strategy is barebones (bootstrapped), fast, clean, efficient, direct, and requires comparatively little personal nuance, building real relationships can be robust, messy, time-consuming, arduous, abstract, and doesn’t just require a human touch, but a touch all your own.

And as I thought more about it, I began to conceive of a new idea—a new strategy: the Minimum Viable Network.

How could one build a network without having the same benefits that others might have? What if you don’t have the “required” skills? What if you’re in a different city than many of the other people you want to connect with? What if you’ve studied something different in college? Or not gone to college at all? What if your passion and drive is in an industry that others already consider over? What if your overall strengths are different and sometimes hard to articulate?

A lot of these questions came from a place of personal experience. I’m in the startup tech industry, and yet:

  • I live in Atlanta, not San Francisco, LA, or New York
  • I studied history and art history at Brandeis, not engineering at Stanford
  • I’m a non-tech founder; I don’t code
  • My passion is music; my first startup was a music-tech startup
  • I still see huge signs that music—an industry many argue is already over—is still very much up for grabs
  • I don’t excel at code or designing, but I’m a good writer and I’m good with people

I began to think about all the strategies of the MVP process and how to augment them for the MVN process. Bullet-points and adages need to become more fluid—less rigid—and the length of time needs to extend greatly, from trying to build and ship within a couple of weeks to focusing on cultivating a persona and relationship over the course of a few years.

People, after all, are not products, and won’t act as such. They are irrational, emotional, passionate, driven, and abstract—everything which the MVP doesn’t account for. In the end, it’s all about the human calculation factor.

So this will be a continuing series on how to do just that: understand people and relationships, and how to build your own Minimum Viable Network.

Among other things, I’ll discuss:

  • How to approach people and broach new relationships
  • How to be valuable without being aggressive
  • The difference between reading someone and manipulating them (strive to understand the first, never do the second)
  • How relationships evolve over time
  • How to work with flighty or mercurial individuals
  • How to weigh potential relationships
  • How to match-make
  • How to create a personal brand as “someone to know”  

Life is relationships.

Let’s begin.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

Uber Chaos, and How to Fix It

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Background

The tech world is awash this week in phrases like “sexual harassment,” “toxic values,” and “#DeleterUber” after a blistering blog post from Susan J. Fowler went viral on Sunday night. The post describes the sexual harassment that Fowler experienced during her year working at the transportation company. And it has exploded everywhere, from BuzzFeed and TechCrunch to Recode, Vox, and Huffington Post.   

Yet in all the noise that’s come down about the piece, there hasn’t been a real discussion of what appears to be the root cause of the problem: why Uber’s professional environment was allowed to reach this level of discrimination. Only by understanding that can Uber and other companies begin to reform their corporate policies and cultures.

We can already see the outlines of the usual responses of a corporation under fire for sexism and harassment: statements of outrage at the highest levels (Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Uber board member Arianna Huffington), assurances that these types of things do not represent the corporation’s ideals and will not be tolerated, promises of an investigation, the offending sexual harasser has already been shepherded out of the organization, and the HR managers who responded in such a woeful manner to Fowler’s complaint of sexual harassment undoubtedly will be next. And as necessary as these things are to hear and read, none of them will change anything in the long run because they fail to deal with the root causes.

Where the Problems Come From

As with any environment where sexism and discrimination exist, it all goes back to the corporate culture. And so to solve systemic issues, one must deal with the corporate culture. While the most incendiary aspects of Fowler’s post deal with sexual harassment and her experiences trying to report it, the harassment—which I will discuss in a moment—is but the symptom of a larger corporate issue of sexism.

In Uber’s case, the main problem can be distilled down to three main things:

  1. An environment where egalitarianism and respect were not prioritized.
  2. A weak and ineffective HR department with no real power.
  3. The evaluation of women through a prism of prejudice.

It thus becomes necessary to examine the typical corporate mentality, and how this mentality contributed to the current situation at Uber.  

Ineffective and Reactive Corporate Mentality

As with most corporations, it is clear from Fowler’s post that Uber prioritized “high performance” and bottom line-data points over an egalitarian work environment. Time and again, Fowler describes reporting issues to mid-level and upper management, and receiving the typical—but completely inadequate response—of “well he’s a high performer,” or some such phrase.

Employees in any corporation will do what they believe they need to do to keep their jobs and to get promoted, and visa versa, will refrain from doing things that they believe will jeopardize their job security or advancement. If employees believe that sexual harassment will not be met with remedial action, they will feel empowered to engage in it. By contrast, if they feel that sexual harassment could get them fired, they may think twice before engaging in it. This is not complicated.

Elaborately stated corporate policies against sexual harassment, typically contained in an employee handbook, are a good first start but won’t by themselves end sexual harassment. Despite the best intentions at the highest levels of the corporation, it is clear that the message at Uber was not effectively communicated to the broad base of employees, including mid-level managers. Why this is so springs in large part from Uber’s corporate structure which is actually typical of most every corporation in America. Fowler’s post provides a public service because it reveals that the problem was also caused in part by Uber’s corporate organization.   

HR with No Real Power

Fowler goes on to write in her post that she was told by upper management that they would not feel comfortable punishing the sexual harasser. This reveals three new things:

  1. The corporate priorities are to protect their fiscal bottom line.
  2. HR is not seen as contributing to the fiscal bottom line.
  3. As a result, upper management essentially makes all of HR’s decisions, and HR is essentially powerless. Given this, is it any wonder that HR told Fowler that they were not prepared to do anything?

Since the HR department recognized its inability to deal with the situation, it effectively told Fowler two important things:

  1. HR knew it was harassment, but that they were not prepared to do anything about it.
  2. Uber’s concern for the sexual harasser’s “high performance” was more important than Fowler’s right to work in a workplace free of sexual harassment.

In fact, HR’s response that it “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part” highlights an intent on HR’s part to excuse sexual harassment and to marginalize victims of sexual harassment.

Here’s the main issue: most HR managers have to persuade the line managers to agree with their recommendations regarding appropriate remedial action. This inherently plays out in a conflict of interest for the managers who have no incentive to remedy sexual harassment if it will result in losing an executive who has generated revenue for the company.

Because so much of corporate upward mobility is tied to revenue generation, those who generate the most revenue and do so most efficiently are most likely to reap the rewards of that work (i.e. promotions, bonuses, etc.). As such, these managers have no corporate incentive to make waves, and every incentive to keep things quiet, and make sure they go away.

Thus, HR managers’ hands are tied in most cases since they typically do not have the power to override the mid-level managers. Even when outside consultants are brought in to “assess” the situation and recommend solutions, those solutions are only as effective as HR’s power to enforce them. Stripping HR of this power and incentive almost ensures that none of those potential solutions will be effective.  

The real solution is to give the power to HR to decide upon the appropriate corporate response without the involvement of upper management, and even against the wishes of upper management, which institutionally will be loathe to part with a “highly performing” employee who is ostensibly contributing to that profit sector’s bottom line.

As Uber can now attest, a properly functioning HR department contributes substantially to the bottom line by avoiding the mess it is now in. It is time to view the HR departments as equal contributors to any corporation’s bottom line, and to give them the corresponding power to deal with issues such as sexual harassment which if not treated properly will substantially take away from a corporation’s bottom line.

A Vicious Cycle

It is clear from Ms. Fowler’s article that the sexual harassment did not exist in a vacuum. It was facilitated by sex discrimination throughout the corporation. I’m no statistician, but a diminution of women in the corporation from 25% to 6% would not seem to be explained by a suggestion that all those women left for better jobs or were inadequate performers. Especially in a universe where managers feel empowered to tell women that the corporation will buy leather jackets for the male employees but not for the female employees, it seems more likely than not that at least part of the reason for the reduction in female employees was caused by sexist attitudes in the corporation.

If those sexist attitudes are not eradicated, they will provide a warm Petri dish in which will grow the next cases of sexual harassment. Harassment, like any other resulting symptom, results from something, and in this case that something is a corporate environment that has been stunted in its ability to prevent such problems before they arise.

While attitudes and seminars are discussed regarding how to handle sexual harassment and/or discrimination issues when they arise, the real solution is to ensure an environment where that doesn’t happen, not because people are discouraged from reporting issues, but because people are discouraged from engaging in any inappropriate behavior in the first place.   

At the same time, it should be made clear by action at the highest levels that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Diversity training should not only be mandatory, but it should be attended by the CEO, who by his or her simple presence will give it the importance it needs to be effective, or by his or her absence would give the unintended signal that profits are more important than dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination.

It is more difficult to deal with ingrained sexist attitudes than with the more obvious cases of sexual harassment. If management has a predisposition to view female engineers as somehow less talented, women will be judged through a prism of sexist attitudes, resulting in women receiving lower performance evaluations. Then the failure of women to advance in the corporation, or their dismissal, will be ostensibly explained by the lower performance evaluations. It is a vicious cycle: women are initially perceived as less talented than men, resulting in lower performance evaluations, which ostensibly “prove” that they were less talented after all.

Meltdown and How to Fix It

The response to Fowler’s blog post, in words at least, has been biblical. Coverage from all the major tech media sources, as well as incendiary tweets from a variety of high-powered individuals in the tech community. If Fowler hadn’t already been working at Stripe, she likely would have found her email inbox flooded with job offers this morning (my guess is that happened anyway).

Uber has the opportunity and ability here to actually effect immediate change and help its image—if it’s so inclined.

Kalanick responded to Fowler’s blog post with a staunch statement that the actions described therein are unacceptable and will be met with swift termination. Uber board member Arianna Huffington similarly voiced sentiment about how the Uber board intends to conduct an independent investigation and get to the bottom of the issues which led Fowler and other women to leave the company.

I’m glad to hear that Kalanick and Huffington appear to be taking this matter seriously. But doing an independent investigation—even if it turns up some managers behaving inappropriately—will do nothing in the long term unless Uber’s upper management is committed to adjusting its corporate philosophy and structure, and making sure that this change is felt throughout its ranks. Being outraged by Fowler’s experiences at Uber is a good first step. The next step is to deal with the root causes of her experiences.

If Kalanick and Huffington really want to effect change, there are three things they must do:

  1. They need to structure, or restructure, their HR department so that the Head of HR reports directly to Kalanick himself as CEO, and has the ability to override mid-level and upper-level management regarding appropriate remedial action.
  2. Kalanick and Huffington need to restructure the corporate mentality so that HR is not viewed as a drag on the company’s bottom line, but instead is seen as saving the company money by resolving these issues before they make their way into the public eye.  
  3. Kalanick and the Uber board need to make it crystal clear that diversity and harassment seminars are mandatory, not simply suggested, and they should attend those seminars personally.

How Other Companies Can Be Proactive

Corporations at the highest level—and that means CEO’s—need to make it clear that sex discrimination and by extension sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They need to do this by not only saying so, but by acting so. They should give real power to HR departments to deal with sex discrimination and sexual harassment without the participation or approval of line management.

Managers whose subordinate employees are found to have engaged in sex discrimination or sexual harassment should see the trajectory of their careers affected just as if the profit sectors they manage had lost money. If sexism and sexual harassment costs employees their jobs, it won’t happen. It’s just that simple.

Other companies would do well to examine their own corporate structures. While the hashtag #DeleteUber looks great in a tweet, it doesn’t actually change anything. Real change will only come when those who are supposed to deal with discrimination and sexual harassment have the power to do so, and when it is made clear at the highest levels that discrimination and sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

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Thanks to Dad, Kiki Schirr, Elissa Shevinsky, and Arlan Hamilton for reading parts and drafts of this.

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Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.