From four employees back in 2001 to 125 at present, Sean Cohen, COO of AWeber, shares how they give focus on their employee culture. Having been with the company for over seventeen years, Sean has a wealth of insight to share. He reveals that instituting a culture and being really steadfast about it early is paramount to getting them to where they are. He outlines that the process starts from hiring, onboarding, training and bringing culture into the mix. AWeber is one of the world’s leading email marketing services used by over 100,000+ small businesses, bloggers, and entrepreneurs. Their web-based tools help businesses grow by staying in touch with customers and prospects through email.
AWeber COO, Sean Cohen
Sean Cohen is the Chief Operating Officer at AWeber, one of the world’s leading email marketing and automation software companies. He oversees the activities of all teams, collaborates with the CEO on strategic vision and planning, and advocates for AWeber’s core values throughout all company initiatives. Sean joined AWeber back in 2001. I’m excited to hear this seventeen-year journey of the first dot-com bubble. He joined as a Customer Solutions Manager where his pragmatic solutions quickly distinguished him as a company leader. He continues to grow AWeber through his passion for building a fanatical company culture. He’s developing people by challenging them to work outside of their comfort zone to achieve their greatest potential and creating a remarkable experience for AWeber’s hundred thousand plus customers worldwide.
Sean, I’m super excited to hear from you and learn from you. I at one point was an AWeber client. Tell me about your journey of seventeen years. I don’t have to ask why you got started with the company because you came in early. Tell us a little bit about the journey and give us some of the key lessons you’ve learned over the years. This is going to be different from most of the people I’ve had on the show because you’ve been there so long. I’m excited to learn a lot of the lessons that you’ve learned over the years too.
The best place to start is at the beginning. I joined AWeber back in 2001, right in the middle of the dot-com bubble bursting and people trying to figure out their way in the world. When I joined AWeber, there were four of us, each one having a core responsibility. We had a founder who bootstrapped the organization. He had the initial plans and thoughts and started bringing in team members slowly but surely. Three years in, we’re four people. We have an engineer. We have Tom Kulzer, our CEO and Founder. We had somebody doing business development and then I was brought in to do customer service. Somebody needed to talk to the customers that we were introducing to the world of email marketing and I was that guy.
As you can imagine, we’re a startup company. We’re flying by the seat of our pants. We had a ton of passion for what we were doing. We were starting to grow and see success because ultimately what we were trying to do is create a remarkable experience for customers. What we started doing was creating this culture that we didn’t realize. At that time, we never certainly set the word culture before but that’s what it was about. We can talk about how that’s been instituted here at AWeber because it’s important to our fabric. My role has always been customer facing. Even back then, I try to stay as close to the customer as absolutely possible. In my role as COO, I am still as close as possible to the customer. I still take phone calls every once in a while to continue good conversations.
How many employees have you got? Just so we know the rough scope of the operation. Starting at four and over seventeen years, I’m guessing with 100,000 customers, you’ve got some scale.
We have 125 team members. We’ve definitely tried to scale very organically and not oversell us. One-hundred and twenty-five are all located here in Chalfont, nothing remote.
Where are you based on?
We’re right outside of Philadelphia in Chalfont, Pennsylvania.
You have an interesting point with your headcount as well. You’ve managed to keep it under control where a lot of companies have gone through raises to build out. They get to the point where it’s almost ridiculous how many employees they’ve got. How have you kept it to that scale? I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single negative comment about AWeber. With a lot of the email marketing software out there, the automation stuff out there, I hear all kinds of issues. With AWeber, I’ve never heard a negative comment about. What are you doing there?
It comes down to the culture. We’re hiring team members with entrepreneurial spirit. Team members who are very vested in what we do as an organization, not only from the product perspective but from our ability to help and serve customers. It would be easy to triple the size that we are, but I think there’s a lot of value in keeping things small and keeping our team as close to the problems as possible. Not only are they seeing the problems arise, they’re challenged with also coming up with the solutions and executing on those. They feel that sense of accomplishment across the board. We see that not only in engineering but in customer solutions, product design and across the board.
My gut is that you have kept your customer team fairly small and you’ve fixed the root problems along the way. How many people are in your customer solutions team?
That’s a little bigger than I would have imagined then but I guess with 100,000 clients. I was thinking of WhatsApp as being almost comparable. They had 55 employees when they sold for $19 billion. It was because they kept their product and services simple. Their FAQs were strong and customers didn’t need to call them. Go back and talk a little bit about your culture and your employee focus. It sounds like that’s been the core focus of AWeber then. It’s focused on employee culture.
It starts at the very beginning. It’s the hiring, onboarding and training. We’ve brought culture into the mix for all of that. We started at our interview process and we looked at technical skills. There are lots of ways to evaluate that but how do we evaluate culture fit? How do we determine whether somebody is going to come in and be the brilliant jerk, which we try to avoid by all measures? We ask a lot of culture-related questions. Our culture can be boiled down into the pursuit to create remarkable experiences for our team and our customers. One of the interview questions we ask to all team members no matter what role they’re coming into is, “How would you create a remarkable experience for another team member or customer?” If somebody can’t think about that and give an objective answer to that, they’re probably not our person. We want to be able to bring that into it. We’ve hired for culture fit. What happens in most companies is you have a desk and a computer and we say, “Now you understand our culture. Good luck.”
What we’ve tried to do is create an experience. All new team members who come in for the first two weeks are asked to do nothing they were hired to do. We go through an entire onboarding process with them. That starts with getting to know each one of the departments and understanding how the departments work together. No matter if they’re coming for customer solutions, they’re going to learn all about how engineering and customer service works. We asked them to create their own small business, whether it be fake or whether it’s something that they were passionate about and start using our service for that business. We want them to have humbling experiences as it relates to using the service for their own business. Putting yourself in the shoes of a customer is the only way that you’re going to be able to understand their strengths, weaknesses, pain points and develop a good practice around creating a remarkable experience.
I was the second in command for 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and I remember the first time that I ever used the 1-800-GOT-JUNK? services. I was surprised in some ways that the trucks that I thought were going to be showing up perfect were a little bit less than perfect. The uniforms that I was so excited about were dirty and grimy. The guys were great. I did see it from the eyes of the consumer. I didn’t think about codifying it and having every employee go through that experience, but it’s certainly worthwhile.
It sticks with you. Somebody coming in can identify some of those small things or some of those things immediately. If they’re not empowered to do things about them and fix those problems along the way, then they will be there for the next person to deal with.
How do you empower them to make those decisions or to put solutions in place then? Give us a specific example of how you might empower your team.
We make them part of it, from strategic planning to tactical planning. We try to make sure that our teams are a part of that. It’s not a waterfall here at AWeber where it comes from the top down and you do what we say. We want to build strategic plans based on information we’re getting directly from the people who we’re talking to, our customers, and who are writing code. We do a lot as it relates to planning and transparency. Everything from weekly one-on-ones to weekly strap planning to town hall meetings every month where it can be an open forum. We’re going to be fully transparent about all the numbers and all the things that are going on a month over month basis. Then it’s time for Q&A, what’s working and what’s not working? What do you want to bubble up and what are some of the problems we can solve as an organization? It’s something that you have to commit to.
It is extraordinarily simple but so many companies get away from it. You have focused on the core things that work and you stay committed to it as well. You don’t give up on it or look for the new shiny object. Tell me about the growth. I was sitting with the CEO of Infusionsoft, Clate Mask. We were talking about rapidly growing companies and how hard it is for most of the mid-level team or the senior team to stay with the company through two successes or doubles of revenue or for triple of revenue. How have you been able to grow your team so that they can continue to scale with the company? Talk around that issue for us?
There are a couple of different solves there, none of which we’ve gotten perfect by any means. After several years, we continued to be a work in progress. It starts with hiring people that have been there done that. When I hire someone, I don’t look at where we are now as an organization. I try to say, “I want to be here in five years and have you already seen some of the challenges that we’re going to face potentially, how have you solved those problems?” I don’t need to have an interview and ask about all the past problems that we had or maybe that we have now that were already on a path to solving. It starts there. Our leadership team, by and large, is probably been here on average of five or six years, maybe a little bit longer in some cases. They definitely have time in and they’ve seen growth. Very fortunately, we’ve been able to double our company several times. Part of the leadership team has been here for parts of that. It’s about continuing good lines of communication and creating an environment where it’s okay to fail.
Walk me through that. How do you create that environment where it’s okay to fail? Are there mantras that you use or how do you support that? Not that we’re looking for failure, but how do we support where the employees don’t feel bad because they’ve made a mistake?
First of all, you try not to use the word failure. It’s challenges, there are always challenges. When you’re faced with a challenge, it’s about how you’re going to overcome that. That’s what I talk a lot about at my department head meetings and my one-on-ones. I want to hear about all the good things you’ve done, but I want to hear about things that have not gone right. I poke and prod for that stuff because it gets overlooked, maybe because they’re already past it or they’re trying to solve it and they’re working their way through it. I try to make it a part of the conversation on a continuous basis. Tell me where your challenges are. What was your biggest challenge? How are we on a path to overcome it? I say, “I don’t know,” is an okay answer because that’s a place to start from.
You’re explaining why you are the best place to work in Pennsylvania six years in a row and why your culture is strong. It’s not about the Wii room, the foosball table and the free lunch, it’s about hiring the right people and hiring ahead of the curve and bringing in people who have done stuff before. Then giving them the time and the one-on-one meetings and the ability to communicate. Would that be your read on this as well? Is that where your culture comes from?
Yeah, without question. We have all the great perks, but perks are not culture. In no way, shape or form is the foosball table or the slides that we have in the lobby in any way shape or form our culture. We’re purposeful about that and we talk about that. Riding slides from the second floor to the first floor brings a lot of joy and happiness, but it has to be more than that. That’s what creates a strong team. It’s understanding the culture. To my peers in the industry and when we talk about culture, I have one defining question and it’s like, “Define your culture and then go ask three other people in the organization to define the culture and see how closely it lines up.” Unfortunately in a lot of cases, it doesn’t. To talk about the fridge full of sodas and the free lunches first and then they start talking about other things that are the meat of the culture. I’m on a pursuit to change that, not only at AWeber.
I always think about when I was growing up as a kid, I had a couple of friends who had the slides and the fridges full of all the cool stuff and all the cool toys and their family culture was terrible. I had other friends whose family culture was amazing and cool. They didn’t have half of that stuff. They didn’t have any of the perks, but they had core values and good alignment and good communication and everybody liked each other. They hung out together and did stuff. I’m like, “That was good.”
They liked being with each other. The first can be a distraction for other problems that aren’t being solved.
We don’t need a bunch of grumpy, negative people riding a slide. You said it was like the brilliant jerk that nobody likes. That’s what Jack Welch of GE used to talk a lot about. The very strong results but the bad culture fit people. You get those cancers out of the company. How have you codified firing people and getting the wrong people out of AWeber? We make mistakes at times but how do you get the wrong people out?
Take action quickly. There was no time in my history that I’ve looked back and said, “I should have waited a lot longer before I let go of that person.” I know that’s something that everyone says, but just try to get better at closing that gap because we’re not perfect. At the end of the day, somebody is going to make it through an interview. They’re a great interviewer and they come in and they start working for a few months or a few weeks even and we start to recognize the telltale signs. At the end of the day, team members don’t want to work with or for people like that. Creating a culture where they bubble it up is important to me so that they feel confident to say, “Red flag. We should probably go a little deeper here,” even if it’s a peer or even if it’s their manager. We’ve had scenarios where people are bubbling it up pre-90 days and we start to have the conversation and we say, “You’re absolutely right.” Knowing that somebody like that will not do well in our environment, I set them free. Find what’s going to make you happy because it certainly won’t be here.
I rarely recommend business books, but recently I started reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. I’m scribbling notes and flagging pages. I don’t know if you’ve read it but it’s awesome. One of the things they talk about though is the hiring mistakes that we make. He forces to debrief on the team to say, “Why did we hire that person in the first place? How did they get through our interviewing and recruiting and topgrading process? How did they get through our reference checks? How did we fail them in the training process?” He considers every firing necessary like you and I do, but also then he debriefs on management’s mistakes. What learning have you had from some of the mistakes that you’ve had in the past?
From a hiring perspective, there are a couple of different things. Not bringing culture into the interview process was a huge lesson for us. As we were growing and scaling quickly, sometimes it’s easy to overlook certain idiosyncrasies or personality traits because the person who’s coming in has an amazing technical talent and that can move your business forward. In those cases, we were probably looking short-term. We’re looking at the problems that are on the table now and knowing that this person can come in and try to solve those problems for us or probably could do a great job of that. What happens in six months or a year? One of the lessons we learned was when you’re hiring someone, you have to look out. Maybe not looking out ten years anymore or even five years, but even two or three years.
What type of value is this person going to provide and how are they going to help move our business forward beyond their role and their technical competencies, because it’s so much more than that? Another lesson that we’ve learned is that a bad hire not only affects the team member, it can even affect business results and affects the people around them. That took us a little while to figure that out. We’ve definitely done a much better job of that and institutionalized our interview process and some of the retros and things like that that you’re talking about. We’re doing it and we could do it on the other side as well if somebody does leave. An exit interview’s great, but where did we go wrong and what could we do right or do better?
Are all of your employees at your office or do you have some remote employees?
We don’t, everyone’s located here.
Are you resisting the urge to hire or you do not need to or is it a strategic focus to make sure that you keep bringing people internally?
Historically, it’s been very strategic. Team members who work together get to interact together. We’ve always been able to find those people or relocate them willingly. It hasn’t been a huge challenge for us. There were certainly the writings on the wall. I recognize wholeheartedly that remote work is potentially the future. I like to come into work everyday. I like to be able to walk up and have an interaction with somebody that’s face-to-face. There’s so much value in that that I’m clinging to it a little bit.
I don’t think we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater either. It works for an awful lot of companies still and if it does, run with it. If I was starting a company, I don’t know what culture I would go with. I would probably lean towards what you’re doing as well because I like that same feeling. Tell me about Gen Y a little bit. Gen Y isn’t loyal to their work as you and I were. I was five to seven years at each of the companies that I built. I’ve been doing what I’m doing now for eleven. Gen Y seems to be like six weeks to six months at a time. How do you retain them and how do you keep them engaged when they have a different mindset? When their parents have said, skip jobs every six months, move laterally, move up, grab another $10,000 and move over. How are you working within that?
It’s something we faced with everyday. It starts with why they’re moving. In most cases, at least from what I’ve seen, it’s because they want more responsibility, a bigger title and more pay. It’s not just about the change, it’s about they’ve been taught that in order to grow, they need to move on. What we’ve tried to do here at AWeber is create a lot of educational opportunities and a lot of room for growth, both horizontally and vertically. There are a depth and breadth of knowledge that you can take in your own role and continue to move up in pay scale and in responsibilities, which has helped us to stem that to a certain degree. We certainly don’t see the six months to a year as often as we used to. It’s about creating those opportunities.
We do everything from lunch and learns, career mapping and career planning. We have this thing called the AWeber University where our team members can learn outside of their current domains and be able to immerse their selves in other roles and things like that. It helps because at the end of the day, people are skipping because they’re not learning and they’re not engaged. We’ve tried to combat that by creating an environment that embraces that and also recognizes that, “We’re still not 500 people. I don’t have a level up for every single person in the organization now, but I have a lot more room to grow from a domain knowledge perspective and from a technical perspective. I’m willing to invest in you.” It’s about having that conversation and then acting on it.
You touched on a little bit of the training with AWeber University and you talked about it earlier with the hiring and onboarding and then the training. What kind of training specifically are you giving people? Can you walk us through how your training programs work and then how do you measure training? We measure our recruiting funnels and our sales funnels. How do you measure the training components in your business and the skill level people are at or do you?
We do some of that. There are a couple of formalized training programs that we have here like I spoke about AWeber University. We have this thing called Tuesday Tutorial, which is if you have something that you want to teach about and there are people who want to learn about it, then we put that together. It’s very ad hoc and very fluid way for us to disseminate information and get team members thinking about different things beyond their day-to-day. We have formal career mapping and career training. If somebody is interested in let’s say becoming an engineer and they’re not an engineer, we’re going to help them on that path.
Whether it’s internal shadowing and training. We do formal training programs, let’s say somebody wants to learn how to write Python. We’re going to put together a Python class so they can learn the coding disciplines and so forth and so on. We start to encourage other things. We have tuition reimbursement and we want them to be more holistic. We recognize there’s only so much we can do here at AWeber to train somebody. Sometimes we need outside help. Putting them through all those stages and then saying, “Do this, this and this,” and then it’s 50/50. What is it that they need to learn from their perspective? There’s only so much I can say you need to learn these things. I need the team member to also be a part of that growth because they need to have some skin in the game.
Talk about your growth. Every day that you wake up in the last several years, this is the biggest company you’ve ever run and it’s got bigger again. How are you working on your specific leadership skills and business skills? Where are you growing? What are you doing to grow? What areas have you focused on?
It’s a scary thought to wake up with knowing this is the biggest company that I’ve ever run.
It is for all of us. Everyone in their job, that’s what’s happening.
What I try to do are a couple of different things. I try to surround myself with people who have done bigger things than myself. I’m a part of a couple of different advisory groups, not like your COO Alliance, which is fantastic. I try to learn from other people and I try to bring my mistakes to a group of peers so that we could have an issue processing in a retro.
What kind of groups are you in?
I’m in Vistage.
In their key group?
No, I’m in the CE group with other CEOs. In every interview that you do, the number one thing people say is, “My role as COO is different than everyone else.” That’s is a common thread between all of us. At AWeber, everyone reports to me and no one reports to our CEO. He’s a very technical product thought leader and strategist, where I tend to be more on the people side of it. Every department head member reports to me. My responsibility is to run the gamut from engineering to customer service and everything in between. We share a lot of those responsibilities as it relates to not only growing the business and coming up with strategic direction. I’m instituting the operational side of it across the board which I enjoy, but I don’t know everything and I don’t know it all. I rely a lot on my team leads, my department head members and my leadership team and getting some of that outside perspective is paramount. I could never do this on my own.
Vistage is a great organization. I even spoke at the Vistage Executive Summit in Philadelphia. It was a big old train station or something. It was a beautiful, amazing and spectacular facility. Vistage, for anybody who doesn’t know is a peer-to-peer learning group. It’s been around for about 65 or 70 years. It has around 30,000 members or more globally. It’s a peer-to-peer where the CEOs meet on a monthly basis and they have a chair and you share information and resources and help each other grow. That’s a powerful group. That’s one area for sure. What specific areas have you worked on over the years? Have you tried to gain strength in specific areas over others?
I try to continue to gain strength in all areas without question. My general leadership skills and my ability to solve people issues, growing through and with people. I’m also running a technology company. I try to continue to hone my skills on the product side of things or on the engineering side of it. Years ago, I considered myself a computer guy, but I was humbled very quickly and I continue to be. We’re growing and evolving at a pace that is amazing with lightning speed as technology continues to evolve. I definitely continue to hone my skills on the product side and helping to create product roadmaps and definitions and trying to determine what it is that we want to be able to provide the customers what they need now, but they’re really going to need tomorrow and beyond. I spent a lot of time reading books and consuming information and working with different leaders here to hone those skills.
You’ve talked about listening to the customers a couple of times. How do you specifically listen to the customers? You talked about listening in on calls. Can you give us some specific examples of what you do to stay close to the customer?
It can start with surveys. We do NPS every quarter to all of our customers and trying to gauge their general happiness level. With that, we get a lot of feedback as you can imagine. It’s very much a one question survey, but when you have a free form underneath that to give us more data, you can get lost in that world quickly. I spend a lot of time there and I spent a lot of time answering emails for customers and strategizing with our customer service leaders. Every once in a while, I jump on the phones. I take random phone calls from customers and get a heartbeat of what’s going on. There are ways that you can do it very high tech and some ways you can do it low tech. I try not to forget about either one of them.
In some of our notes that we did when we were looking into having you on the show, we uncovered your affiliate program. How big is your affiliate program been in terms of your growth and has that changed over the last few years?
It has changed and it has been growing. We have an affiliate program that’s built organically so that we’re not necessarily on the networks or anything like that so an affiliate has to come in and sign up purposefully to become an affiliate. We see a lot of growth through that channel because in a lot of cases, they are advocates for our service. Some of our best affiliates are customers already who know, like and trust our service and they want to be able to recommend it out to their customers. We see a lot of growth in that channel. There are a lot of changes that are being made. A lot of roll-ups into things like Commission Junction and things like that. We’re continuing to try to evolve that.
They’re still in business after all these years. I was a client of Commission Junction in 1999. We were running our private currency years ago. CJ and LinkShare were clients of theirs.
They’re still one of the biggest ones out there for sure.
I like that you’re doing it more organically and more internally though.
We have our own affiliate manager here. It’s about us being able to stay as close as possible to the customer and listen to their concerns and being able to evolve because of that and listen to the things that are making them successful and do more of that. By keeping it in house, at least for now, it allows us to do that and bubble up that information in an organic way and then reach back out to them. They’re our affiliate. We have their contact information. We don’t have to do it through an intermediary and we like to be in control.
Do you use any recruiting firms at all or have you leveraged your own marketing efforts and your own marketing presence to recruit for employees?
We do most of it in-house. We have three full-time recruiters who are recruiting for us on a continuous basis. We do use some outside help for some roles that are more difficult to hire for, especially at the leadership level and some of our senior technical positions. We’ll engage third-party recruiters. We try to implore a lot of technology. We use Greenhouse and we use Indeed and we use a lot of the aggregation services, but nothing beats feet on the floor, going to advance and shaking hands. We try to get out at least in our local area as much as possible, because we want to put a face with the name and be able to have good conversations. Our recruiting team no matter what roles they’re hiring for are typically out a couple of nights a week recruiting. We also do things like meetups here in our office so that we can teach but also get to know potential new candidates. We try to do a lot of creative things as well.
Talk about how the maturity level of the company has changed the way that you operate. You said that you look for people that are entrepreneurial and you want them to think and be on entrepreneurial spirit. As a company goes from 4 employees to 8 to 16 to 32 to 60 to 120, it’s almost like we go from being a child to a toddler to a teenager to an adolescent to an adult. How has AWeber changed over the years through each of your growth hurdles? How have you had to change?
You can fly by the seat of your pants for a few years and try to figure things out. There’s probably a little bit of fake it until you make it type of scenario when you’re first starting as most startup companies will recognize. I’m sure we’ve done all of that. For us, instituting a culture and being steadfast about it early has been paramount to getting us to where we are now for sure. It’s also things like being humble and create processes that will work and iterate on them and recognize that we don’t have all the answers. We try to hire smart people and give them room to be able to do great things versus when you’re a startup company it’s like, “I know everything, come in and do the work that I want you to do.” Maturing over the years also means being humble and recognizing that we have to create processes and systems so that we can have work that’s replicable and recognize that at the end of the day, we’ve faced some of these challenges and we’ve overcome those challenges. I don’t want to do it again. I want to be able to document that procedure. Have it something that can be systematized so that we can continue to solve bigger problems and challenges instead of the same ones over and over again.
I love the fact that you document it and systemize it. You are a technology company, you’re a SaaS company. What technology tools are you using to scale and to grow and to run your business?
We’ve done a lot to build our own tools for better or for worse. Recognizing that we don’t have to be the experts in everything, that there are better tools out there for us to use across the board. Things like I talked about using Greenhouse as our applicant tracking system and being able to use tools like Zendesk for customer solutions where for the first fifteen years we used homegrown solutions. There are better tools out there. We have 24/7 live customer support. We have to rely on tools that are not only robust but can scale with us. We use things like LiveChat and we use things like Zendesk. Our phone system is all voice over IP, but we’re still on a homegrown asterisk system for that.
How about project management? What are you doing for project management and task management?
We use a lot of homegrown tools for that. We use Basecamp and things like that for interfacing with some of our consultants and vendors, but in-house we’re using mostly Confluence and Jira, which are Atlassian tools. We use them not only in engineering, but we’ve instituted them in marketing and design as well because they subscribe to the Agile process as well. We use Scrum and Agile not only in engineering, but we do it through marketing as well. They are running on the same sprints so that everything is consistent across the board.
I’m astounded that the whole Agile and Scrum process hasn’t migrated into the rest of the operations of companies. For me it seems natural. Why wouldn’t you do it that way?
It helps to align. You’re aligning all of your work. If you’re doing something on the product side, there’s going to be an alignment from what marketing’s doing in. If you can follow the same sprint process and estimate your work and determine what type of resources you need and create consistency across the board. We’ve been doing it for years with great success. Certainly not without hurdles, but getting them all aligned on the same tool. When we’re in Confluence, I can look up anything and we try to institute all that knowledge inside of Confluence and other tools like that. It makes it so much easier.
I saw it when I was playing pickup football when we were twelve years old. All get together for a huddle and someone would tell everybody what their play was and everybody would know what they’re supposed to do. They’d go off and do it and then you’ll come back and you’d have your next huddle. I was like, “That was easy. Why wouldn’t you run a business the same way? It seems to work. People get excited and they get it done,” instead of having these big one-year plans that no one ever does anything on.
It makes sense to have a standup meeting with all of your teams to make sure you’re aligned on a daily basis.
You mentioned something early on about titles and I wanted to ask you about that. What is your company’s belief or how do you deal with titles?
I have two schools of thought on that. There’s titling within our organization, which helps to delineate and define roles. Title is hard to convey all of what you do to an organization or for an organization. They also mean a lot more on the outside than they do internally. We have appropriate titles here at AWeber and there’s certainly room to grow and mature from junior to mid-level to senior and director and VP and beyond. When you’re interfacing with somebody on the outside, I don’t care what you call yourself. If you want to be king or queen of product that is the best title to convey whatever it is that you’re trying to convey to a vendor or whoever it is, go for it. At the end of the day, I care far less about titles and I’m sure there’s probably some documentation that says the further up the chain you go, the less you care about titles. I try to institute that at the end of the day to all of our team members. You can have any title you want. It’s what you do with it. It’s what you do at the organization that matters. If you’re doing something that’s far different than your title, then let’s level set and let’s figure out what makes more sense. Just because we don’t have the title now, it doesn’t mean we can’t have it if it’s meaningful and impactful for the business.
You’re handling it the same way I do. I worry about companies that throwaway titles. Everybody’s a VP and then all of a sudden you get salary inflation, where people’s expectations of what they’re worth. They’re a lot higher than what they’re doing day-to-day. The last question I want to know is how does your one-on-one work? You talked about having the weekly one-on-ones where you coach your employees. Maybe can you walk us through what a typical one-on-one looks like?
One-on-ones for me and all of my direct reports start with a shared document that we keep. There is a shared set of expectations for every single meeting and we can go back to that historically. It’s a running document from the beginning of time. It starts with their agenda always. What are some of the things that they are doing? What are some of the things that they need help with? Where are they blocked? I try to have them set the agenda because that’s an hour that they get uninterrupted to tell me or work with me or whatever the case may be. Then I bring in my agenda. We start talking about things like KPIs and goal setting and things like that. We have shared time, but if somebody needs 59 minutes of 60 minutes, I’m giving it to them every single time. The keystone to that is shared expectations for all of my one-on-ones. These are the expectations. These are the things that we’re working on. If we both say we’re going to do something, we don’t leave that meeting without saying when, what’s the date in which that will get done. That way, we can have an appropriate conversation.
I always push people to not even tell me when it will be completed by, but when are they physically doing the work so we know they’ve even got the time to do what they’re talking about. Sean, you are clearly one of the core reasons, if not the core reason why AWeber is absolutely crushing it. You clearly get it. It’s amazing what you’ve done coming from employee number four to where you are. Sean Cohen, the Chief Operating Officer for AWeber. I wanted to thank you for being on the show and giving us the rest of the story. Everyone interviews the CEO and I always wanted to hear the rest of the story. Thanks for sharing.
I appreciate having me on.
Take care. Thank you.
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About Sean Cohen
Sean Cohen is Chief Operating Officer at AWeber, the leading small business email marketing software company, where he oversees the activities of all teams and directors, collaborates with the CEO on strategic goals, and advocates AWeber’s core values throughout all company initiatives.
Sean joined AWeber in 2001 as a member of the customer solutions team, where his pragmatic solutions to issues quickly distinguished him as a company leader. During his time at AWeber, Sean’s role has expanded to include operations oversight, human resources, and execution of strategic initiatives.