The World According to Slavet

Redfin and Our CEO

The World According to Slavet

The Great James Slavet kicked off Redfin’s brown-bag lunch program today, talking about the management best practices he’d rounded up from his salad days of founding a startup and running a business unit at Yahoo with hundreds of millions in revenue.

He talked about salsa dancing, veganism and love. He was humble, goofy and funny. He had useful formulas and ratios, an element I vow to incorporate in future presentations.James_Slavet

He challenged our towering VP of real estate, Scott Nagel, to out-last me in the plank yoga position, which Scott managed to do with the same stony-faced impassivity he brings to the many other trivial challenges he conquers every day (I collapsed after a minute). Then as we took our seats, James said another Greylock-company executive could hold a plank for three and a half minutes, even though she’d just had a baby.

But mostly James gave us really useful advice, in the form of a top-ten list of management best practices, delivered in Dave-Letterman order. Here’s James’s list:

10. Gelling: some managers at Intel had good teams and some made every team they led good. One such manager brought all of her direct reports over to her house to cook spaghetti, a ritual that helped the team gel. Everyone on the team went shopping together, and got to add her own ingredients to the sauce, or make her own dish.

9. Crystal clear expectations: what’s the goal and who owns it? James likes not only to talk about who owns a goal, but who supports that person, and who else needs to be informed about progress toward the goal. He called it OSI, for own, support, inform, as if everyone at Redfin knew what he was talking about, but we all just stared at him blankly.

And James believes that expectations have to be high. James always remembers what his salsa-dancing instructor told him in Big Sur on his sixth-date with his now-wife: my goal in teaching you is keeping you in the pocket between boredom and anxiety, but closer to anxiety. The most-aggressive goals often come from the team.

8. Team rhythm: John Rockefeller, the richest man ever to have lived, encouraged all of his direct reports to live in his neighborhood. His managers walked to and from work with him. This was the precursor of the daily standup. There’s a daily, weekly, monthly cadence that the team comes to expect from the manager.

Meetings can be a drag unless they’re well-run and crisp. Daily meetings should move quickly taking the time only to surface issues that can then be resolved offline. In his weekly meetings, James asked everybody to talk about one positive thing that happened that week; it sounds cheesy, James said, but it really set a good vibe. Then James used the rest of the meeting to dive into only one issue, asking at the end for a final comment from each team-member about what the group had worked out.

7. Individual flow: a quiet environment lets you get into the flow, in an almost-meditative, cranking state. It takes 15 minutes to get into this state, so if you’re interrupted every 15 minutes you never get anything done. You should be in flow over 40% of the time that you’re at the office. You shouldn’t have to come in early or work late to be able to get into the flow. This was my favorite of James’s recommendations.

6. Great communicating: you don’t have to be an inspiring speaker like John Kennedy, you have to be a good communicator like John Gottman, who expects a happy marriage to have five time as many positive interactions as negative interactions. The more specific positive feedback a partner gives, the better. What makes a communicator really great is how she handles potentially negative interactions.

5. Make decisions: Gum-baron William Wrigley said “the best thing is to make the right decision, the second-best thing is to make the wrong decision, the worst thing is to make no decision.” Once you’ve gathered all the information to make a decision, your job as a manager is to make a decision. You need healthy conflict in a meeting so you can work it out. James talked about his old boss at Guru, who spent his first seven weeks talking to every employee. It drove James crazy but the boss wanted to hear everyone’s opinion about the business, first because it might be valuable, and second because it increased the likelihood that everyone could get behind a decision once the boss had made it.

4. Reasons to celebrate: it’s very rare that a company celebrates its successes too much. Set goals a few months out so you have a good reason to party, but not years out.

3. Relentless learning: James’ boss at Yahoo came into his very first business review firing all kinds of questions at him. At the time it put James off, but looking back he realized you have to be crazily inquisitive, relentlessly learning if you want to be a great manager. You have to be curious like George. Children learn fast because they’re intensely curious little monkeys; don’t get to a stage in life where you stop learning. Keep getting 1% better, and your learning will compound year over year. I liked this one too, because I’ve seen so many people give up on themselves and just decide that they’re one way or another. I often repeat to myself my brother’s advice to his three-year-old daughter, “Keep trying! keep trying! Keep trying!”

2. Personal discipline & well being: James talked about the Incredible Plank Woman. Many great managers are disciplined outside of work, and take care of themselves so they can be intense at work. You’ll break down otherwise. Another top Internet executive came into a meeting with James on crutches, carrying a Tupperware bowl. What happened? He stress-fractured his leg trying to acclimate himself to different physical stresses, so he could handle the emotional stress at work better.  The Tupperware contained tofu and vegetables, because he ate healthy throughout the day to maintain constant energy. James did not mention anything about dental hygiene, but that’s important too.Nagel-Kelman-Plank

1. Inspiration and self-awareness: people follow you because of who you are. Jimmy Chitwood in Hoosiers is the guy who never says anything until the last five seconds of the state championship: “Coach, I’ll make it” and he did. This is James’s idea of a hero: humble but capable. Whom do you want to be like, what ideal do you want to embody?

Then James recommended a few books:

Peopleware, Tom Demarco

Conversationally Speaking, Alan Garner

Rockefeller Habits, Verne Harnish

When James was finished, we all dropped our piroshkis and went wild. If you have any questions, post ‘em here and James will do his best to answer. Thanks to James for coming! He has turned down the Cheesecake Factory gift certificate in favor of a Donor’s Choose-type donation…

Photo credit: KenGlide on Flickr, Janelle “Get-Outta-My-Face!” Saylor (what I like best about the photo is Ken Brush, smiling in the background as I try not to collapse; if you look very closely, you can see that Scott’s knees never really left the ground. I was thinking at the time what a shame it was that our old friend from the marketing department, the great Cynthia Pang, wasn’t there; she could comfortably watch the entire Lord of the Rings, Director’s Cut series from a plank position).

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