Better Zoom Meetings

My partners and I hold weekly Monday meetings and about once a quarter, we do an extended, six or seven-hour version. Before COVID-19, we’d end the day with a dinner and a chance to socialize and decompress after a long day of portfolio updates and strategic planning. And, of course, before COVID we’d all be in person. Our discussions were lively, they were engaged and we’d often make use of whiteboards, sticky notes and other forms of interaction (we have a post card with a logo for each of our portfolio companies which we often make creative use of). They’re fun and super productive.

And then COVID hit and our meetings lost their soul (and their fun, and their interest, and – to be frank – some of their effectiveness). I wrote about my frustration of trying to hold “strategic” meetings (vs tactical ones) over Zoom a few weeks ago. Since then I’ve gotten a bunch of helpful feedback and I’ve spent time researching ideas for how to make these sorts of meetings more effective and productive. Here are a few of the things that I learned (and that we implemented at Foundry in our most recent “extended Monday” meeting this week). I’d love to hear other ideas and will update this post accordingly.

  • Prework. We often have some amount of pre-work for meetings but its even more important, I think, to prepare ahead of time for Zoom meetings. It’s also an opportunity to use the meeting for more conversational topics rather than reporting (see below), which can drag on in a Zoom. A brief exercise ahead of the meeting gets people thinking about the agenda and ready to jump in when the meeting starts.
  • The agenda order matters a lot. In thinking through the ordering of the agenda, put deep discussion items first. Unlike in person meetings where it’s sometimes helpful to ease into the meeting with some lighter topics, Zoom meetings are most engaged when people are fresh. Best to have the meatier items up front and save the end of the day for more informational topics. We also used the pre-work for this – pre-meeting exercises that resulted in update-style content being created (and then consumed) ahead of time so we didn’t have to spend Zoom time doing it.
  • A quick green/yellow/red check-in can be very helpful. I like starting most of my meetings this way – a quick stoplight check-in so everyone knows what frame of mind everyone else is in. It’s even more important over Zoom where some of the subtle cues of a person’s emotional state are easily missed. I have some meetings where people just put this in their Zoom name so everyone can see it in the chat (i.e., this doesn’t have to take up a ton of time). I also like starting longer meetings with a few deep breaths (10 works) so everyone can get in the present and clear their heads before jumping in.
  • Timed breaks versus topic breaks; frequent breaks. This is an important one. Zoom fatigue is real. Other than keeping meetings relatively short (hard for strategic meetings) one of the best things you can do to stay fresh is to take relatively frequent breaks. I like every hour to 90 minutes for longer meetings. And, importantly, these should be time based, not topic based. Have the discipline to stop mid-topic to take breaks as scheduled, rather than trying to power through them with a break as the “carrot” at the end (leads to rushed, incomplete discussions.
  • In-meeting engagement. Find ways for people to stay focused and engaged. Some kind of feedback task can be really helpful for this. For our last meeting, we went old-school with sticky notes to replace the usual whiteboard, and asking people to share feedback after each session. Zoom is starting to roll out some in-meeting collaborative apps. Tools like Miro, Lucidchart, and Stormboard are things I’m looking at.
  • Use grid view; stay off mute. Looking at and listening to one person for an extended time gets dull quickly. Allowing everyone to see and talk to each other at the same time help mimics an in-person meeting better and allows everyone to stay engaged. Having everyone stay off mute encourages engagement and keeps people off email.
  • Second screen for shared docs. The screen share feature on Zoom is fine, but it makes it harder to see everyone who is on the call. If it’s possible, try to have people look at shared docs on a separate device. If you have to screen share, keep it short and pop back to the grid view/no share frequently.

We implemented all of these ideas at our last Foundry meeting and it was much, much better. More engagement, more fun and we got much more done. It also allowed us to limit the meeting time (although it was still 5 hours, which is definitely the outer limit for Zoom meetings). Still not the same as in person but better. We’ll keep trying to improve.

Resume Coaching Resource

If you’re not familiar with Energize Colorado, I’d encourage you to check them out. Energize CO is a volunteer organization working to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in Colorado. As part of this they just launched a pilot Resume Coaching program geared toward people whose jobs have been affected by COVID-19. This is a free resource utilizing volunteer recruiters from some of Colorado’s best companies and staffing agencies. If you’re interested in learning more, sign up here to schedule a resume coaching session. Energize Colorado is also offering help with business guidance, mental health, procuring PPE, and other resources to help Coloradans navigate the personal and professional hurdles of the pandemic (all listed on their website – check it out).

As a reminder, Foundry Group helped set up the Colorado #Covid-19 Talent Network for those looking for employment in the tech sector. If you’re a recruiter and looking to hire, please check out all of the great talent available on our portal. If you’ve lost your job or it’s been scaled back due to COVID-19, add yourself to the talent list. Job seekers can also view a list of Colorado companies who are currently hiring on this site.

Lastly, don’t forget that the COVID-19 Finance Assistant Network (FAN), a volunteer group of CFOs and other finance professionals that I helped set up, is available to small business owners who need help applying for government assistance, preserving cash, modeling and understanding the new realities of their business, and any number of other fiscal challenges due to the pandemic. The FAN is open to any small business owner in any geographic location (i.e., not just in Colorado).

This is a challenging time for so many of us but all of these resources are free so please make use of them if you need (and please let others know about what’s available). I love seeing Colorado coming together to support businesses and people that need help through this time.

 

Colorado’s State-Wide Mask Order

Yesterday evening, Colorado Governor, Jared Polis, announced a state-wide mask order directing Colorado residents to wear a mask or face covering while in indoor public spaces. Citing the rise in COVID-19 cases in the state, Jared said, “…Masks are the ticket to the Colorado we love and a critical part of supporting Colorado’s economy and prosperity. The best way to support Colorado workers and businesses right now is to wear a mask.”

I’m proud of this decision and more broadly the way Gov Polis has handled the pandemic for Colorado. His proactive approach, which is has been a mark of his leadership style, has been tremendously beneficial to our state’s handling of the crisis – both in terms of our population’s health as well as the health of our economy.  The evidence is overwhelming that wearing masks slows the progress of the virus and saves lives. Unfortunately, other states such as Georgia are eschewing mask orders and turning their backs on the data showing that face coverings are very effective in spreading the virus. It’s so disappointing that this has somehow become a political issue and not one of common sense. And while I’m really pleased about Colorado’s decision, I’m truly worried about the populations in other states who aren’t thinking reasonably or who are putting politics ahead of the health of their people. Stay safe out there. And wear your mask!

Vacation in the time of Covid

I’ve written a few times about the importance of taking vacation time and I had the opportunity to take most of the week off a few weeks ago. It was good but not great (and different than I expected). In the past when I’ve gone away on a trip, I’ve been successful at truly unplugging. But there’s no getting away during Covid. I imagine I’m not alone in this but I find that when I’m at home and taking time off it’s difficult to completely disconnect. That was true the other week – I was only able to do a fair job of avoiding work and almost felt guilty about setting an out of office on my email (I nearly forgot to do it, in fact – perhaps my subconscious pushing back on my taking the time in the first place).

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that fewer people are taking time off this year. Americans already have challenges with getting away and unplugging – apparently Covid is making that worse. I also suspect that when time off is taken, it’s less relaxing and less of a real break (I’m projecting here, clearly, but I have heard stories from others who have tried to get some time away during the pandemic that recounted similar challenges).

I don’t have the answer but the reason I’ve written about it a couple of times is that I think it’s a real issue. We need to think about ways other than just creating long weekends for ourselves and our employees to take time away and be disengaged from work. Maybe others won’t struggle the way that I have with taking “staycation” but I suspect that many will.

I think this is something we should be paying attention to. People are already stressed and stretched – finding ways to recharge is especially important now. If anyone has any ideas or strategies for themselves or their teams, I’d love to hear about them in comments.

Board Diversity / Network Diversity

Fred Wilson’s recent post on diversity was thought-provoking on several levels and got me thinking not just about board composition but more broadly about the question of networks and how relying too heavily on existing networks can limit the diversity of those networks. There are many things that we (meaning the tech and venture industries, but I’m also shining this light on myself here) need to do to better promote and support equity and diversity in our work. To some extent at the core of this challenge is that many of us have limited diversity in our own personal and professional networks (see this interesting take from Rick Klau of Google on this topic). Fred’s post helped clarify one of the real challenges of limited networks because in large part the search for outside board members is an exercise about the network of one’s current board members’ networks. Companies typically look for new board directors on their own (meaning they typically don’t engage a search firm) and the result is that most new board member are either directly connected to their existing board or management team or one degree away. That’s incredibly limiting, even for a group (tech entrepreneurs and investors) that considers itself very networked.

One of the things that’s really hit home with me over the past weeks as I’ve reflected on why I have done such a poor job promoting diversity across my work (and venture more broadly has) is that I/we need to do a better job of proactively building networks that include more diversity. I recognize that this is hard – it’s something that I’ve been consciously trying to do for years and I know from first hand experience that it takes both time and effort. On the board level, supporting organizations such as The Board List, himforher, and The Valiance Funding Network are good ways to jump-start the process. But conscious and deliberate effort is required to both recognize that many of us have limited networks when it comes to diversity and that we can do more to expand those networks. There’s a change in mindset that needs to accompany this and I’d encourage us to embrace it rather than ignore our network shortcomings or rationalize them away (there are tons of interesting people from all sorts of backgrounds out there – it actually doesn’t take that much work to find them and start connecting).

Fred also talks about the challenge of opening up new seats in the board room. The basic issue is absolutely correct – board rooms are too static. In economics, there’s a term known as business dynamism. Ian Hathaway and Robert E. Litan, in a report for the Brookings Institution describe business dynamism as “the process by which firms continually are born, fail, expand, and contract, as some jobs are created, others are destroyed, and others still are turned over.” Importantly they go on to note that “[r]esearch has firmly established that this dynamic process is vital to productivity and sustained economic growth.” Almost like a living organism, economies stay healthy by constantly building and changing. It’s a balancing act between growth and consolidating market power and new businesses and new ideas nipping at the heels of incumbents. The US has historically had relatively high dynamism and it is one of the factors that has been credited for America’s relative advantage in net job creation and the overall health of our economy.

Contrast this with the behavior of corporate boards which tend to be extremely and stubbornly static. They start with the founder and initial investors and typically when new investors come in, more investors are added to the board (rarely replacing an existing investor, more typically just adding to the number of people around the board table – for whatever reason, people are loathe to get off of boards once they’re on). We know from research that having more than three venture investors on your board is correlated with lower outcomes. Fred’s point in his post about creating board turnover is both helpful in terms of thinking about opening up spots for other diverse candidates but also in terms of enhancing the overall health of an organization by bringing in new ideas and new thinking. Bringing dynamism to the board level would be beneficial on both counts. 

I took a look at this across my own boards (I’m on 14 company boards at the moment – subject for a different post about the optimal number of board seats…). My average tenure is over 5 years. I have several boards where I’ve been on the board for more than 10 years. Most of the board’s I’m on change their composition rarely outside of adding a new investor (I wasn’t able to quantify exactly but board’s I’m on add or remove a board member on average about every 4 years). It’s clearly a problem and one with both an easy solution (introduce more prescribed board turn-over) that’s at the same time very hard (a CEO I work with suggested this idea and when I volunteered to be the first person off the board was told that no, that wasn’t what they were thinking).

Still, I’d push us as an industry to think about how these two dynamics intersect. We know from studies that diversity at the management and board levels leads to better business outcomes. We know in other contexts, dynamism is helpful to systems. Perhaps we can and should bring those two ideas together.

Functional Versus Strategic Meetings on Zoom

Like a lot of people, I’m stuck on Zoom for most of the day, although I’ve tried to mix in some regular phone call meetings – even when Zoom would be available – just to give me a break from time to time. I’ve found that Zoom works reasonably well for functional meetings and for information sharing / webinar-style meetings. When I say “functional meetings”, I mean executive team meetings, check-ins, and board meetings – ones that are fairly informational and have a relatively set agenda, but likely the kind of meetings that you have on a regular basis (weekly or monthly).

However, when I’ve held meetings that were more strategic in nature – such as open-ended planning meetings and those to talk about general strategy – they haven’t translated to Zoom very well. These meetings tend to run longer and I’ve struggled with video conferencing as the medium because it feels like there’s something missing – the body language in the room is hard to read and it seems easy to lose people’s attention, even from the very start. I find it’s even easy for me to lose attention in this setting and stay fully engaged. It’s harder to follow the more open ended conversations that “strategy” meetings lend themselves to and it’s just harder to stay engaged. This isn’t “Zoom fatigue” – that’s real and I definitely feel it many days – but something else.

I’m wondering if other people have noticed this and if anyone has any ideas for ways to improve that dynamic. We’re all stuck on Zoom for the foreseeable future, which had been working great for more functional meetings. But as we at Foundry have moved from tactical meetings related to Covid/PPP/our weekly Monday meetings to planning meetings (portfolio reviews and in particular our quarterly off-sites that we’ve been doing since the start of Foundry), they’re just not translating as well to Zoom. Bring remote has had many advantages in terms of productivity (no travel, no driving to/from work, lots of focused time) but there are plenty of draw-backs and this is a big one in my world.

If you have ideas and suggestions for ways to counter these issues, please weigh in – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Make Juneteenth Meaningful

I’ve always been aware of Juneteenth but I’ve never done anything in particular to mark it. I’m sorry about that and it’s not something I’m proud of. For me and clearly for a lot of other people this is changing. I hope it can be a part of what perhaps – finally – will be a movement to change the way people of color, and specifically black people, are treated in our country.

I found this reflection on Juneteenth from Daria Hall particularly poignant. It’s short but worth reading if you have a moment. There are many other authentic voices online today talking about what the holiday means to them who are worth listening to as well.  “There are deep parallels between the delay of democracy and emancipation reaching Black people in 1865 and the Black experience today, ” as Hall writes in her piece.

I don’t know what you’re doing today. Actually, maybe I do – I’ve watched too many people on Twitter and other platforms fall all over themselves to show how suddenly woke they are to something that has been celebrated in one way or another for almost 150 years. I hope you’ll make today about more than a personal social media moment.

I don’t care what you do today, but I hope it will be meaningful. Juneteenth isn’t just about a day in the calendar. It’s about the actions we take the other 364 days of the year to create meaningful change in our society. If we’ve learned anything new over the past few weeks since George Floyd’s murder, its that this change is too long in coming. And long overdue.

A Few Days

This last weekend, I took the weekend off along with a half-day on Thursday and a full day on Friday. I called it a mini-vacation and it was fantastic. I turned off email and (for the most part) social media and enjoyed some digital free time. Like many of you, I’ve been running hard the past few months. Long days, working weekends, etc. Spring break was skipped and we’re running headlong into summer. At some point we all need to take a moment, ideally a few, and recharge. A week off right now felt like a step too far, so I decided to start with a smaller step. It was a good reminder both of how needed it was as well as about the importance of taking what you can.

I was talking about this with a group of CEOs on Monday when I was back. We had a good conversation not just about the importance of their each getting a break, but also about how to encourage people throughout their organizations to recharge. As part of this discussion we also talked about summer planning and how they’re approaching the summer schedule in general and encouraging employees to get some vacation time in, even if the lock-downs prevent them from venturing far from home. I was encouraged that a number had already communicated to their teams a handful of different workflows for the summer. Some were experimenting with Fridays off for a month or 6 weeks. Others were instituting half day Fridays for the full summer. Most were talking about digital free weekend days (in some cases full weekends) where Slack and email were strongly discouraged across the company (meaning that everyone was offline at the same time and where this was a shared expectation across the entire org – days to unplug, which used to be what we used weekends for without having to give/get permission).

These pauses are so important for both mental and physical health. Even if we can’t take traditional vacations with travel right now, there are opportunities to get outside and hike, go camping (even if it’s in your backyard) to break the routine and monotony of the past couple of months. I’d encourage you to think about it for yourself and for your team or organization.

Enough

I’m not entirely sure where to begin, so let me start with stating what should be obvious:

Black Lives Matter

That we can’t seem to agree on this in America is 2020 makes me some kind of mixture of sad, angry, screaming, crying, depressed. But how I feel and what I think isn’t important. In fact as a white person, especially a white man, my “feelings” are and should be beside the point. It’s the experience of black people that matters and they are experiencing racism daily. I don’t know what it’s like to have to think twice before going out for a jog. Or getting into my car. Or taking a stroll in a park. I get to take that for granted because of the color of my skin and the privilege it brings.

From my vantage point there was a moment in time about a decade ago when it felt like racism was for the most part going away (the talk of a “post-racial” society). It never was and my perspective was from the lily white perch of my privileged existence. Had I even bothered to ask my friends of color I would have known this to be the case. I know many other white friends who felt this way as well. We were not only wrong, it allowed us to lull ourselves into a sense of complacency.

Donald Trump is a racist. But he is a symptom of our problem, not the cause of it. He is incompetent. He takes every opportunity to divide us as a country and he openly and clearly encourages racists among us (can we stop saying “dog whistle” – there’s nothing subtle about his words or his actions – he’s a bull horn to racists). He must be voted out in November. But getting rid of Donald Trump doesn’t get rid of racism and more fundamental changes need to be made to our policing system, law enforcement more broadly (the prosecutors, jurys and others who have proven to be powerless to act in the face of police officers time and time again turning to murder as an outlet for their anger or incompetence), our criminal justice system and the systemic incarceration of black men. Our society has become more and more unequal and less and less compassionate and caring. We’ve lost ourselves as a nation.

I have some ideas on how to be a part of the solution. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option (and I believe doing so makes you a part of the problem – the cops in Minneapolis who stood by while their colleague murdered an innocent black man last week were not bystanders, they were accessories to his murder). But I think that’s for another post. This one isn’t about telling people what to do or how to feel.

It’s to say simply that Black Lives Matter.

To the many who are suffering and hurting, I’m sorry. I won’t pretend to know how you’re feeling. But I do know that we can and must make meaningful changes. Enough.

Uncertainty

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the relationship between uncertainty and mental health. Specifically, it’s well-documented that uncertainty drives significant anxiety. This is logical on many levels but what I didn’t realize is just how deep-seated it is. In a time when there’s an incredible amount of uncertainty, I think this is something that everyone needs to take a step back and understand. Even people who haven’t lost jobs, don’t have loved ones impacted by COVID, and whose kids are doing well in online school are affected.

Uncertainty provokes a kind of “fight or flight” response in the human brain. As we try to escape the idea of uncertainty, we analyze a situation in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. In other words, we worry in order to eliminate uncertainty and reassure ourselves. Frequent worry can lead to anxiety or depression and some individuals are more susceptible to it than others. It turns out that if you’re particularly vulnerable to uncertainty, you’ll have a heightened reaction to it in the same way someone who is allergic to a bee sting will react to that. For some people, it’s just a nuisance and for others, it’s more threatening. People who don’t tolerate uncertainty well fall prey to needing constant reassurance, procrastination, double-checking everything, and needing to do everything themselves all of which exacerbates the initial problem and leads to more worry and anxiety.

The future is always uncertain and we cannot prepare for every possible outcome so tolerating some level of uncertainty in our lives is essential. Establishing healthy routines (eating, sleeping, activity), staying present, and avoiding isolation are all good tactics for maintaining your mental health. Another is to focus on what can be done versus all of the unknowns. Obviously in this time of incredible uncertainty (work, life, kids, summer plans, camp, school in the fall, family, loved ones that are vulnerable, did I already have Covid, etc.) this becomes even more important.

I’ve been trying to think about how to apply these ideas to work and to life and looking for places where I can help reduce uncertainty for myself and for others. There are not a lot of things right now that we have real control over but this has led to decisions such as the one I posted recently about Foundry keeping its office closed until September. It’s a small thing but it allows everyone at Foundry to make plans and at least have more certainty in this one thing.

I’d encourage you to consider this for your own life. Especially for those readers (CEOs, managers, etc.) who are in a position to make seemly small moves that could remove uncertainty in the lives of those around them that could actually be very meaningful.