Category Archives: Life

Urgency and Prioritization

For the last two years or so, I’ve been playing with a prioritization trick I picked up somewhere: choose 3 top priorities (I’ve seen and used this both in a weekly and daily context), and don’t do anything else until you have done those.

It’s been reasonably successful, until now. Now, it is very successful. Why? Because now I have 2-7 weeks until my child is born and I take weeks of paternity leave. So literally, I may only have two weeks to finish whatever I’m going to do this quarter and develop my plan for the next. Suddenly, the idea of only accomplishing top tasks is not simply academic. It’s very, very literal.

This has made things that I thought were important seem pointless. If I got these done in the next two weeks and then took leave, it wouldn’t really matter. Sure, I want to review employee engagement results with my team…but that pales in comparison to addressing the overwork a few of them are dealing with. Sure, we need to map out a commitment curve for our community…but not more than I need to send out our monthly communication with them. Sure, I want to create an orientation doc for new hires…but if I don’t get those hires approved it won’t matter.

Certainly, those things still should probably get done. Some, like the onboarding, I clearly must delegate. Some, like the commitment curve, will hopefully bubble back up if they’re important (and I should probably schedule some time when I return to mull on big ideas like this). Some, like the survey results, just won’t happen. And it won’t ruin anything.

I have found myself incredibly productive and engaged knowing that I have two weeks to accomplish these things, and these are the things, and nothing else are the things. It’s an attitude I hope to bring back with me once I return to work. The new most important thing will be my kid, so prioritization will be more important than ever.

Leadership is letting your team fail (safely)

“This is a bad post. Let’s delete it.”

My brain wasn’t wrong. It didn’t seem like a great post to me, based on my years of experience with content. But I kept my mouth shut. I let the post stay up. And, unsurprisingly, it failed.

Why did I do this? Because it’s way more convincing to learn from mistakes than from decrees.

Failure is Part of Learning

Think about your adolescence. Did you believe everything adults said, without question? No. You tried things on your own. You had crushing failures and exhilarating successes. You learned what did and didn’t work. You realized the world is relative and that you had to build your own system for navigating it. And hopefully your parents emphasized the right advice and rules: the ones that kept you alive while still allowing you to build your own personal spectrum of successes and failures. Too many rules leave you oppressed; too few leave you dead.

Failure is Part of Innovation

The professional world is no different. There are some hard lines, but not as many as you think; many of the major successes of the last few generations were due to bucking the status quo. It’s hard to argue with an employee that success is following the rules when Zuckerberg didn’t and is now worth 50 billion.

So how does one manage the business equivalent of a rebellious teenager? By letting them fail safely.

Too Much Freedom

I was managing a team of relative newbies, and our new project was content creation. They were fantastic at support, incredibly smart, and very empathetic – but they didn’t have a deep background in engaging content. I wanted to be the “cool boss” without too many rules, so I simply said: “Be creative.”

I told them to “think outside of the box.” I told them “there are no bad ideas.”

They came back with nothing.

Too Little Freedom

So I gave them more structure. I gave them brand guidelines and lots of examples. And they started to deliver! They had a direction to aim for, and so they moved.

Not all of it was good, of course. Some, to my trained eye, simply weren’t going to perform. At first, I said no to that content. But I immediately saw morale drop. They wanted to be creative – hell, that’s what I had asked of them – but I wasn’t letting them take risks. They trusted me, but they weren’t learning anything aside from my opinions. And it’s hard to get excited when you’re not learning.

Just Right

So I started saying yes. But I approved a lot of content I knew wasn’t going to perform. And? Most of the time, it didn’t perform. But the team was still excited and motivated.

Here’s the difference: They had been given the chance to experiment and see the actual result. They were much less likely to choose similar content again, because they knew firsthand what would happen. And they continued to be creative, because I gave them the freedom to.

By the end of my tenure, they were a content creation machine and could spot a high-quality piece of content from a mile away. Only occasionally did I have to weigh in, and often I was wrong!

As managers, it’s tempting to enforce rules and try to control people. We want a result, and the only way we know how to get it is by being in control. But this neither creates engaged employees nor scales.

Good managers give their team enough rules to avoid disaster and enough room to try, fail, and learn.

Always a CMXer

Earlier this year, I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I got to join a company I love and admire and work with friends.

I’m incredibly proud of my year at CMX.

When I joined, there was a legacy of great CMX Summits and CMX Series events but not a lot of process and structure. The team was expanding into new areas (like their amazing training course) and we all agreed that CMX Summit needed to become a more efficient machine and CMX Series needed an actual strategic plan.

Evan Hamilton CMX Summit

Since then I’ve run two CMX Summit conferences, greatly improved the documentation and processes around them, and added a bunch of additional creative elements I was excited about (lightning talks, spaces for introverts, more networking opportunities, tracks, improved breakout sessions, and even a marching band). I developed an in-depth plan for expanding CMX Series and helped with the process of hiring someone to run it, which is just one of the things I’m really excited to see from CMX in 2017.

I’ve accomplished the goals we set out when I joined, and it’s time to pass the torch. CMX has the pieces in place to take the company to the next level. The next step is focus. I’m really excited about the team they’ll be hiring, which will give them not just more hands on deck but deeper skills and energy in specific areas. There is so much more CMX will do, and I can’t wait to see them pull it off in 2017.

I’m wrapping up my time as an employee but I’ll always be a member of the CMX community. I’ve been to all but one CMX Summit (Someday I’ll beat your record, Tim Falls!) and been a member of the community since the beginning. Getting to be part of building CMX bigger and brighter has been a dream come true. Now I’m incredibly excited to participate in the CMX community without having to check my spreadsheets and clipboards.

What’s next for me?

I’m excited to move on to my next community adventure, and to bring with me everything I learned from being deeply involved in the hub of the industry. I’ll spend the first part of the year consulting with as many companies as possible, helping spread the gospel of community and implement all the strategies and tactics that this year has added to my playbook. Later in the year, I’d like to find my next long-term home, a company that wants to invest deeply in community and customers, where I can lead a team and generate win-wins between company, customers, and employees.

If you’re interested in working with me as a consultant, check out my new consulting page. If you have a full-time opportunity that you think might be a fit, get in touch. You can find more info about my experience on LinkedIn.

Thank you to everyone who made this a spectacular year. David and Carrie at CMX, who taught me so much. The CMX community, for your endless contributions to our cause. The CMX speakers, who generously donated their time and let me soak up their lessons. All of my friends and colleagues who helped make connections and offer advice.

I will always be a CMXer, and I can’t wait to join you in more adventures!

The next challenge

In community management, we often reference Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


First and foremost, it states, humans focus on the need for food, shelter, safety, etc. (Not much of a surprise there.) It’s only once these are met that they can—and will—move up the hierarchy. We’re never content, us humans. It’s what makes us great, and leads to moon landings and the Mona Lisa and Third Eye Blind’s self-titled album.

I’m lucky enough that I frequently have achieved the “esteem” level of the hierarchy. I feel my work is valuable—I help people connect and accomplish things.

But like many of the lucky people in the first world, I’m always chasing self-actualization. I want my actions to mean something more than a good day’s work, or a promotion, or an award. I want to be changing the world for the better.

I chased this with UserVoice, helping companies treat customers better. I chased this with ZOZI, helping people live more active lives. And I’m very excited about my next attempt: Starting in June, I will be taking the role of Community Lead at Coursera, helping them achieve their lofty goal of providing universal access to the world’s best education. They—soon to be “we”—are truly trying to change the world for the better.

As always, this transition is not without sadness. I’ve learned an incredibly amount at ZOZI from my manager, my coworkers, and my employees. We created some great things—moving our customer satisfaction from sub-80% to 100%, launching the ZOZI Journal—and we’ve helped many people get out in the world. Leaving was not an easy decision, but I believe it was the right one. Regardless, as with UserVoice, I wish the ZOZI team all the best and will be closely following their progress (and using their product).

At Coursera, I am going to be working with some of the most brilliant people of my career on some very juicy challenges. Community is an integral part of Coursera, and they already have some great community programs. I won’t lie; my excitement sits right next to a very talkative fear, sure I won’t accomplish my goals. But truly, isn’t fear the path to self-actualization?

Thank you to everyone who has ever helped me, from my bosses to coworkers to many community managers I’ve interacted with. I’ll need you now more than ever—expect some emails and coffee dates. 🙂 And yes, I will continue to see you at Community Manager Breakfast.

Wish me luck!


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

What if you subtracted “women” from that question?

For most* questions, if you replace “women” with “someone” and you get a different answer, there’s something wrong. Either there’s a institutional issue you should address, or you’re being sexist.

Take the case of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was asked what advice he’d give to women who want a raise (and might be uncomfortable asking). If Nadella was not sexist, he would have two options:

1) Give the same advice he gives to men: meet with your boss, show all the good work you’ve done, and ask.  This advice probably wouldn’t be super-helpful, seeing as women make 78% as much as men, but it would have been ignorant instead of sexist.

2) Acknowledge that there are a lot institutional problems with gender and pay. Talk about how women are often called manipulative or bitchy when they are strong-willed in the workplace, but similar men are considered driven and ambitious. Talk about how that needs to change, and maybe outline some ways that someone powerful like, I don’t know, the CEO of Microsoft, could change things. This also wouldn’t be a super-helpful answer, but it would be honest and definitely not sexist.

By telling women “It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along”, Nadella is being sexist.

You might argue that he doesn’t know about the huge wage gap between men and women. Maybe that’s the case (disappointing if so). But again:  if he thinks women get the same opportunities as men, why would he give them a different answer than he would give men?

As a straight white male, anyone I’ve ever asked for advice on getting a raise has told me to ask. You can find plenty of this advice on the web. You’re generally supposed to gather examples of your great work, do some basic research, and then ask. “It never hurts to ask”, “you’ll never get what you don’t ask for”, etc – this is the stuff I’ve heard many times.

Why didn’t Nadella give this advice? Because he treats women differently. And that’s sexist. Period, full stop.

Let’s hope this is a wake-up call for him. I know it’s a wake-up call to me and many consumers that to not buy any Microsoft products. In the meantime, I’d recommend women avoid applying  to work at Microsoft, unless you want to cross your fingers for your “good karma” to somehow net you a raise.

*I will admit that “My water just broke, what should I do?” should have a different response when coming from a man.

Your morning cup of empathy

tip jar

The kid who made my chai this morning was a disaster.

It was his first time on the register in the morning, unclear if he had ever made a chai. He couldn’t find the bring-your-own-cup discount on the register, tried to get the cook to make the chai, couldn’t find the nutmeg, put it in a paper cup instead of my mug, etc.

I remember when I worked at a coffee shop, between freshman and softmore year of college. It was a tiny little place in Nevada City that tended more towards the grab’n’go crowd rather than the lounge’n’sippers. I was terrified of screwing up (and I often did). The thing is, the customers see a sign that lists items they can buy, and they expect to be able to buy those exact items, made as specified by the sign. That’s very reasonable. But when you’re new and have maybe never made that item, don’t know that there’s usually a sprinkling of parsley, can’t get the foaming just right – it seems impossible. People are often impatient and condescending; THEY know how this thing is made, why don’t YOU? Again – it’s not unreasonable, but they don’t have the full context of a kitchen with 300 ingredients and various things tucked in corners you’ve never seen.

Why is this story important? Because empathy is key to community management, customer service, and (in my opinion) life.

I believe empathy is imbued at a very early age by the people around you. When I interview, it’s clear some people have this as a core part of their personality and some people find it foreign.

But just because you’re naturally inclined towards empathy doesn’t mean you’ll always have it. Like a natural inclination towards singing or athleticism, practice is required to keep your skills of empathy handy and top-notch.

I frequently hear folks in customer-facing roles – hell, myself included – say that they often don’t have empathy left for the world when they get out of work. They feel pessimistic and mean. It’s understandable; you’ve used a lot of energy being extremely empathetic.

But that doesn’t mean you should only be empathetic at work. If you want to do your best work for your customers, you need to keep this skill sharp. I could have easily been frustrated with my barista this morning, tapping my foot and criticizing and holding back my tip. Instead, I assured him that it was ok, agreed that the register seemed complicated, and gave him a nice tip.

Practice empathy as much as you can, and it’ll come easier when you’re in that tough situation with a customer yelling at you, or a significant other snapping at you.

Photo via Dennis Miyashiro.

On listening

I just finished reading Oliver Reichenstein’s fantastic piece, “Putting Thought Into Things”. It’s extremely, well, thought-provoking.

“Thinking is stressful. While stereotypes click together sweetly, thinking comes in bitter flavors. We recur to clichés rather than reflection, because they make us wise without listening, bright without reasoning, and smart without taking the risk of being imprecise, boring, annoying, wrong.”

Ouch. I have definitely done this, casually leveraging my experience and cliched tips in order to provide value without actually thinking through how valuable it is. Terrible habit.

“Listening is a masochist endeavor. To do it right you have to put everything down. Not just your phone, even pen and paper.”

I realize he’s being intentionally dramatic (sometimes you need a pen to note details), but I get the point. It’s too easily to, mentally or physically, prepare for your response or your solution or your protestation. Truly listening, internalizing what’s being said, empathizing – that’s a lot harder.

“The fog of boredom and emptiness when listening to people you don’t sympathize with can be a sign that they are boring, empty, or not making sense. It can also be a sign that you do not understand.”

Another one that hits too close to home. I can distinctly remember being bored with a conversation because I didn’t understand the point….then how quickly that boredom disappeared once I did.

“The ease of following protocol comes with the disappointment of running in circles. The bittersweet pain of progress comes hand in hand with the heartache of making mistakes.”

When was the last time you felt deeply satisfied from throwing something together, rather than thinking it through?

Thanks to Andrew Spittle for sharing this post originally!

My challenge to the Twitter IPO winners (and myself)

A lot of people made a lot of money today. I have no problem with people making money, and I’m sure they put a lot of work into it.

flattened hatBut they’ve also been very lucky. I imagine very few of the folks who won big at Twitter have ever been hopelessly in debt simply due to basic living expenses. Fewer have ever had a chronic, life-threatening disease. Even less have been homeless. But there are millions upon millions of people who suffer through these things every day. We’re only a few moments of bad luck from being these people.

We’re very lucky here in Silicon Valley (myself included). We work hard, but we can’t discount the effect of luck. And even those who didn’t make a bunch today are still paid quite well.

So let’s take a second to pull our heads out of the Valley. Let’s stop obsessing over what WE are doing and start looking at the problems in the world, in this country, and in this city. It’s something I know I don’t do enough.

My challenge to all of you (and to myself): let’s figure out what fun things to spend our money on, what to save, and then what to donate to good causes*. If the last element is not part of your equation, you’re doing life wrong.

Photo courtesy of neurmadic asthetic.

*I believe in sustainable, effective causes as much as good ones. I’m not asking you to put money in some guy’s hat, I’m asking you to find something you believe in. There’s plenty of great stuff out there!

An Ode to Winter

Sunset in Yosemite
Yesterday I lamented the death of Summer
today I celebrate the birth of Winter

Summer is easy
Summer is full of sitting, and talking, or – in truth – laying, and not talking
Summer is full of simple wardrobes and simple syrup
Summer is full of expansive days and fleeting, imaginary nights

Winter is hard
But hard is not bad
Daylight escapes us
And distances grow longer
But successes are more rewarding
And adventures in sharper focus
Our floors grow cold
And we forget our backyards
But we hold tighter and appreciate companionship

We mourn the loss of Summer innocence and Summer ease
But we celebrate the bonds of Winter’s toils
And, of course, we’ll do it all again next year