“You need to be conscious that every meeting is a massive tax on people's time. You need to ask the question, ‘Should this meeting exist? Do we have the right people in attendance? Do we have a plan for how we're going to be communicating with people that are not in attendance? Do we have an agenda?’”
In this episode
In episode #47, Ross Mayfield shares how you can run meeting pre-mortems to ensure your time is spent efficiently.
Ross is the Product Lead for Integrations at Zoom, and an expert in remote work with over 20 years of experience working with distributed teams.
Ross shares how he experiments within his organization, like deciding on a vacation policy or even ‘how to be a manager’ through discussions and involvement of the company.
We also dove into his hyper-efficient meeting tactics, why everyone should have a 15 minute reflection blocked out in their calendars.
Tune in to hear how you can blend asynchronous and synchronous work and to learn about the deciding factors of when to even book a meeting.
Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the podcast with your colleagues.
Ross’ first time leading
Choose where you innovate, carefully
Don’t build a company just to exit
Acquiring and merging cultures
15 minutes meetings
Tigers, Paper Tigers and Elephants
Reflecting with an End of Day note
A healthy balance of asynchronous and synchronous communication
Mental health and wellbeing for distributed teams
- Follow Ross on Twitter
- Ross on The Product Pre-Mortem
- Shreyas, Product Manager at Stripe on Pre-mortems, Tigers, Paper Tigers and Elephants
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 01:25
Ross, welcome to the show.
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 02:35
Hey, good to see you again.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 02:37
Yeah, this is gonna be really fun, there are a bunch of things that I want to talk to you about today. But I thought a really fun one to start with, was that you were the 57th member of LinkedIn. How did you do that?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 02:55
Well, um, a long time ago, around like 2002, I was an early adopter of you know, blogging, and in getting involved in social media, it was a time right after the collapse of the big bubble, right. And really a great time for the kind of people experimenting with building tools, essentially, that they would like to use. And then from blogging, it ended up kind of connecting me to a different part of the tech community than the part I’ve been working in before. And just as being kind of an early adopter and then starting a company called social Tex that was essentially doing the enterprise prize version of things that later became web 2.0. I just ended up becoming an early adopter and you know, connected with people who are building out new social networks. So you know, I’m Ross on Twitter and an early adopter there.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 03:46
oh, wow, you have Ross on Twitter. That’s amazing.
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 03:49
And that’s because when Evan Williams sent out early invites, when it was in beta, I got one. And same thing with Reed Hoffman with LinkedIn, it’s been an amazing experience to be part of kind of the evolution of social software, from the very beginning. And a lot of it is just, you know, happening to be in the right place at the right time with the right kind of network of people. We’re all trying to change the world for some good reasons and good intent. We all know, kind of the, you know, the downsides. And I think we’ve all gone through a learning cycle about that, you know, threatening democracy, etc. But it’s just been, it’s been one of the most of the filling parts of my career is to be kind of part of that community. That tribe.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 04:30
Yeah, no, that that’s amazing. I did want to ask you, who you have been at a lot of companies, so Ping Pads, SlideShare, LinkedIn, and obviously today’s Zoom. So I have to ask you from all the different people and different leaders that you’ve come across, has there been a manager or boss or someone that you remember favorably?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 04:55
I’ve been lucky to work for and with some really great people. You know, there I started my career actually in the nonprofit sector, and so the guy Linus Koyellas who had started that, what he showed me was the power for nonprofit organizations to essentially run it on interns. So he had like four full time staff and 12 interns. And it was amazing to see when he would give people jobs or tasks are abilities to do things that are well beyond their qualifications. and ran it, you know, kindly, that you could end up producing quite a lot. And a lot of that was about having people believe in a mission. I was an Advisor to the President of Estonia for a long time, this guy Letter Mary, who was just like the folklore status. And he taught me things that you wouldn’t have expected the chance to teach the president of a foreign country how to surf the Internet, and built his website and stuff like that. But it was also where he said, you know, Ross, speak slower. The slower you talk, the more people actually hear. And it gives you a little bit more time between the thoughts you have and the words that come out of your mouth. But I’d say just in terms of pure management, I think it’s been really interesting to watch the way that people like Reed Hoffman have had a vision, he had a curiosity for how to build companies, and do so at scale. And so I kind of looked at people like him as role models all along the way, with a nice blend of kind of an attention to management and discipline. But then, also, you know, experimentation and entrepreneurship.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 06:40
Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. So when was it that you first started leading a team? And you know, if you were to go back? What were some early mistakes that you think you made that you try not to do today?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 06:54
So there’s one. So my first time leading a team was when I had like a web design company in Estonia, right? And that was just like four people together, just trying to figure out what can you do with some new tech. And so that wasn’t really quite at the scale of management, right? I would say, you know, there is one lesson that stands out quite a lot with social text. And I think this is kind of common. We were experimenting and pioneering all over the place, right? So we made like the first enterprise wiki and things like that, right? We fell into the temptation to experiment and innovate around everything. So even like how to manage. And so we were going after ideals of having a startup that had really flat structure, right? I was very metallic, the gala terian. And this one experiment that we ran, it was like we wanted essentially to call a vote for what kind of vacation policy, we should have the company. And in doing so what we did was enable people to have this vigorous debate, which was done through our collaboration software, right? about all of the potential alternatives, right? The net result of this thing ended up being the right one, but almost all of the productivity the company ground to a halt for a month, and everybody was focused on this thing that directly impacted them, and making sure they were voicing themselves in the right way to be able to do it. But in the end, it was a mistake, because while the outcome was great, we ended up creating this policy, it’s essentially the same as Netflix, what Netflix calls be an adult, right, where people can arrange for their own vacation time and kind of a benefit for the companies, you know, do vacation payouts for people when they exit early or something like that. Having a decision making process that wasn’t defined upfront, right? So it’s great to open up to have discussion to have more involvement in reaching towards a conclusion. But people need to know like, how long are we going to take, you know, focused on this? How is the decision going to be made in the end? Right? And as long as you lay out the rules of the game like that, then you can and so I use this and maybe one other example real quick, right? We also were tempted by the latest innovation in the business model, right? Thus, there was a rise of hybrid open source companies. And that was not the business model that we started. But as with our startup, right, and I think it’s important for you to experiment with your business model very early and set it as early as you can, although being open slightly to pivots, but don’t actually pivot. But the temptation again, was we were going off and we were trying to innovate on something that was not as core. It’s also very hard when you’re making a business model shift, like releasing an open source version, to predict what the outcome of that could be and the potential return, right. So it ended up being a thing where we lost a lot of the focus and the one competitive advantage of startup that a startup has, versus large companies like even zoom for example, is the ability to choose a narrower focus and iterate faster with Right. And so the takeaway lesson around that is, pick carefully in the places that you’re going to innovate and experiment. Don’t do it on everything.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 10:09
Did you guys end up implementing that as a policy?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 10:13
Yeah, we did. And it worked. Right. But we could have gotten there a different way.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 10:19
It’s interesting. So you’ve spent, I guess, a lot of your career also, coming across or being involved with and leading even mergers and acquisitions, famously SlideShare being acquired by LinkedIn, what have you learned about acquisition, specifically as it relates to people and culture, and like, what are some some traps to avoid when two companies do end up,you know, merging.
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 10:47
One thing is, don’t build a company trying to just have an exit in the short term, you end up focusing on the wrong incentives, you need to be trying to build your company towards long term value, and, and growth. And if you do that, the opportunities come your way. You want to make sure as you’re positioning your company and you’re evaluating things as you go round by round, you know, you want to be able to sense where you are in the market for those kinds of opportunities.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 11:16
One of the things that, you know, I would imagine is, you know, how do you continue to, like, merge the two cultures. And also, you know, make it to that the side chair team, for example, actually feels like they’re part of the whole.
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 11:33
In that example, like so Rashmi and John and Ahmet, the founders, were playing a much more active role in the cultural integration aspect of it, the what I would say, that did a great job for, you know, for what it was. And it was also relatively easy because there was good cultural fit between who LinkedIn was, and who SlideShare was at the time, right? Yeah, I was very pleased that we ended up being bought by a company that had that fit, made it a lot easier, it made me want to stick around, right. And that is something that you the last thing you want to do is line yourself up for an exit and then be locked into working at a company that you hate, right. And so this is where, you know, great cultures that are inclusive to new additions to the culture. But also you can have something to learn from each other is something that is I think it’s fantastic. But what it is, in the end, that startup group at the beginning, has its own aspect of its own culture, and there’s some small gem out of that, that’s allowed them to innovate, move fast, stuff like that. And you want to try to keep that as much as you can. The cultural integration matters. It’s also up to the leader of the organization that is being acquired to encourage that group to not just act like, Hey, we’re just this lone pirate ship, right? That’s within this new arc of this larger Armada. But for them to, you know, embrace and adopt the values. So for example, like LinkedIn has a set of great company values to follow like one of them is called members. First, at zoom, we have one, which is about customer, customer happiness, right? Members first, as a credo, what it lets you do is to say, okay, you’d be in a meeting with a bunch of product managers, there’d be some new ad tech concept that someone might have for a product. And someone would be able to say, Hey, wait a minute, would this be breaking members? First, we’re retreating the individual members of the network, first and foremost and fairly, compared to the larger companies that might be taking advantage of some new marketing tech capability, right. And it’s those little mechanics that help reinforce their set culture. And they’re, you know, good companies, great companies that built them up over time. And they’re embraced by the companies that they are about that they buy.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 14:00
Ross, one of the things that you know, I can’t help talking with you about is a lot of your practices around meetings, you know, obviously, being at zoom, you’re at the center of it all. And there’s a few things that they want to talk about, I get the sense that you are a very hyper focused and regimented person. And the reason I say that is I remember our first call together, you’re obviously using your scheduling tool, and I booked a 15 minute meeting. And I was thinking, wow, 15 minutes, okay, this is gonna be very straight to the point. And you were actually very good because I think, you know, there’s a group of people, and you are very, very good at keeping us to that 15 minute allotment. I’d love to fake it. Like, how do you schedule your day? And is it all 15 minute allotments or, like, how does it all work? Well, so
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 14:51
We were starting to create the Zoom maps program, one of the challenges that I had was I wanted to think about how we could enable Somewhat scaled way, do this very unscalable activity of trying to engage with lots of companies that are, you know, ranging from small startups of one and two founders to really large fortune 500s etc. as we’re trying to bring them into a program to have them build apps that run into meetings, right, what I did was to come up with a pretty simple 15 minute format. So I use a calendaring software, Woven. It’s like a calendly, to be able to let people pick slots, I offer this up to any of the companies that are in the programs, new ones that have been introduced into us, where I can already see from doing a tiny bit of research as to who they are, the referral path, looking at the app, and I’m working collaboration software for 20 years. So I’ve got an okay judgment about it. The format was, I’m kind of running through the same story, right? Every time. We started with a very quick like, What’s the idea that you have? And then let me get into running through figma to kind of explain the way that this works, what the program is that kind of thing? And then highlight some key suggestions about what might make sense for design considerations. Right. So one of the things about the Zoom map program is it is very much, the model as a platform is designed to provide distribution as an incentive, right. And this is coming from me most prebid most recently building startups running on platforms like Slack, right, wanting to make sure that that was designed from the outset. And so you know, one of the things that we end up trying to help encourage is to think through some of the platform hooks that we’ve got, for how you would design for distribution of the app, as it’s being used in meetings and outside, right. Another is how do we make sure that the app itself is running to support meeting workflow, so what occurs both before, during and after meeting, and it was just an approach for kind of making it scalable, while being as connected as we can, and that includes like the core team of engineers, and others,
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 17:11
You very specifically designed this, like, everything is down to almost like what happens minute by minute, there’s obviously an agenda set workflow, everybody knows, you know, set expectations in advance, as you’re you’re just able to run these hyper efficient meetings. And my question is, like, do the rest of your meetings operate that way as well?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 17:39
You have to run an approach for experimentation. Like, let’s say you’re doing a VC pitch, right? You’ve got to run that test, pitch over and over and over until you are fine. And with the feedback, getting the story to be better. And you know, at a certain point, if you have a constrained format, like that 15 minute meeting, it’s just gotten better. It’s the same thing with a stand up, right? If you have the right discipline in running your stand up meetings, try to make sure we know, driving the right outcome efficiently for the use of time, right. Um, I would say, you know, some of the better meetings that we’ve had recently have been ones that other product managers like, that work with me like Arume and Corey, that they’ve run his workshops, right. And that’s where there’s, they’re putting in some really like, one of the things that we just ran a room a room drove was a pre pre mortem workshop on the launch of zoom maps, and hopefully we’ll do some public share out about this. So this is based, I wrote a blog post about how to do a pre mortem on launch. Like as a kind of hypothetical, almost, Shreyas, Product Manager at Stripe, everyone should follow him for PM advice, and publish a coded doc with a template. And it just happened to be the perfect timing. And so we adapted that and ran it within not just the core team, but across all of our different stakeholder groups. And it was just a great way of surfacing learnings on what are some of the risks that we may need to mitigate and we need to prioritize.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 19:12
That’s a clever concept to see that stuff in advance. We’ll link to the document in the show notes, the template you referenced, but I’m curious, is it the sort of thing that everybody brainstorms in advance, filling something out? And then you discuss each other’s inputs? Or did you come in and it was open brainstorming?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 19:30
So the model actually was a room presented a framework that was there are three different kinds of we want you to jot down some ideas, you’re gonna have 10 minutes to go do this within this domain area. We would like for you to come up with a list of things that could go wrong, and they’re either Tigers, Paper Tigers or Elephants, right? A tiger is a risk that you think is critical that needs to be addressed. A paper tiger is one that is and needs to be addressed, but you believe that it’s being covered or someone else’s being responsible for it, or we should be okay. And an elephant is the elephant in the room risks that nobody else is talking about. There’s no awareness, and it’s a massive long tail of risk that you should be paying attention to. And we go back out, have people will make their list, categorize them by tiger, paper tiger,elephant, then we would come back and we’d go through voting, and having everybody add, you know, their plus ones, and the ones they think of from that full list are really important about, then there’ll be some synthesis of discussion to make sure that you would end up surfacing beyond just kind of voting, what are the themes? What are the ones that are really standing out, get some kind of a little bit of consensus about that. And then we’ve run this meeting or room with a couple different kinds of stakeholder groups, right? To provide different angles, different perspectives, bring all that together, summarize and have that inform the prioritization and discipline that we already have.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 21:01
Yeah, I love that that’s a, that’s a really good way to run it. And that’s actually a clever meeting type. [AD BREAK BEGINS] Hey, there. Just a quick note, before we move on to the next part, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably already doing one on one meetings. But here’s the thing, we all know that one on one meetings are the most powerful, but at the same time, the most misunderstood concept in practice and management. That’s why we’ve spent over a year compiling the best information, the best expert advice into this beautifully designed 90 Plus page ebook. Now, don’t worry, it’s not a single spaced font, you know, lots of text. There’s a lot of pictures. It’s nice, easily consumable information, we spent so much time building it. And the great news is that it’s completely free. So head on over to fellow dot app slash blog to download the definitive guide on one on ones. It’s there for you. We hope you enjoy it. And let us know what you think. And with that said, let’s go back to the interview.[AD BREAK ENDS] If I have it correct, you have this concept called an end of the day note, is that something that you still use today? And what is it to begin with?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 22:17
Okay, so this was something actually that the, okay, so I’ve been working in distributed teams or remote teams, for 20 plus years, right? When I started doing this back, when we were doing social text, we were making collaboration software made the product better, it was a perfect natural fit, we had people working out of their homes, in their underwear, you know, 20 years ago, you know, across the United States, Canada, a couple people in Europe, stuff like that, right? In that company, there was a wonderful thing about remote work that made it work, which was much more of a written culture, it helped that we were building a wiki, right? The distributed team for SlideShare, we had a large group that was in India and a large group that was in the United States. And so a large part of it was how are you doing kind of that handoff in a 24 hour development cycle? Right? This is an instrument that was introduced by Rashmi, the CEO, as a way of helping that handoff, right. But it also does something like Eric, our CEO at Zoom encourages every employee to take 15 minutes or 10 minutes every day, probably at the start of the day, to just reflect on what’s going on, reflect on what your real priorities are. reflect on what where you want to put your focus to have the best outcomes, right? The act of writing an end of day note in the SlideShare case was letting people do that; it was a way in effect. It’s a little bit like some of the stand up meeting methodologies without the meeting, it provided a lot more of a written trail of shared reflection for other people to build on. And it reduced a little bit of the risk and kind of global 24 hour cycle handoff.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 24:00
I’m curious about this, this reflection concept that is encouraged at Zoom. Is there any I guess regimented way of going about it? Or is it more like spending 10 minutes reflecting like, Are there questions you answer there?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 24:16
Block the timeout in your calendar, and just be purposeful from there, right? Purposeful and present. I don’t think there’s, I mean, other people would say there is a great regimented way I don’t think it is and it’s just setting the time aside, right. And this is for you to maybe sit down write write down some things that are important to you.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 24:36
And you bring up a good point, which is that you know, for those that were doing remote from a long time ago, there’s just like a lot more emphasis on, on written communication versus everything being you know, verbal, obviously, like different time zones, and you just have to make it all work. I’m not sure what Zoom’s plans are and if it’s going to be remote. First and so on so forth. But like, how do you implement that within your team or focus more on written communication where you are today?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 25:08
So let me just speak more generally right, then the Zoom specifics, but I think in the end, you need a very healthy balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication. And that’s hard to achieve years ago, it was very hard to have synchronous communication like we have right now you’re using zoom as a recording studio, right? We have a high performance video, you know it, this is the magic, that Zoom is delivered. It saved the world and let us run the education system in the healthcare system during the pandemic and things like that. Right. But for work, you need to be conscious that every meeting potentially is a massive tax on people’s time. Right? So making sure you asked the question of does this should this meeting exist? Right? Do we have the right people in attendance? Right? Do we have a plan for how we’re going to be communicating with people that are not in attendance? Do we have an agenda format, a facilitation technique depending on whatever you know, the right thing is for the meeting, right? The pre mortem workshop is very different from a daily stand up, right, making sure that during that meeting, it’s running in a way where people are present and are engaged. It’s not something where I’m kind of there, and I’m checking my email on the side. And the more that you put that focus on making those meetings efficient and effective, you’re setting a culture where you’re careful about whether you should have the meeting or not. That allows you in this age, where it’s so frictionless and easy for you to hop on a session to do two other things, right? One is the ability to have ad hoc, right? So the ability of ad hoc that probably starts in chat might escalate to voice might escalate to video, right? And be driven by presence, which you know, from using zoom, which if you’re not using zoom to when both chat voice and video, right, you’re kind of missing out the best like you CAS suite for real time collaboration, right. But the other part is asynchronous, right? And this is about how do you encourage a culture of writing things down? What are processes Do you need to put in place to make sure things are efficient, effective, making sure that you’re capturing knowledge in the form of some kind of knowledge base, and you’re building upon that knowledge, right, in a continuous learning process. The nice thing that I look forward to is when people start to use Zoom maps, what you’re going to find is this blend of asynchronous collaboration tools and synchronous collaboration tools to support the full meeting workflow of what occurs before, during and after. And I think that’s going to be a real boon for productivity.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 27:51
Are there things that you would question whether they should be synchronous or asynchronous? Like when you kind of try to bucket these things? What kind of things do you think should still be synchronous? And what are like the main advantages of synchronous versus asynchronous?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 28:07
Synchronous is great for things where it’s really just a status update, I don’t think are the best use, right? And if it is, you definitely need to augment with, like, we do our stand ups where we’ve literally just people writing down their main points, you know, what are the problems they’ve got or plans and the progress they’ve made? And making sure that’s written first and foremost, when you’re coming into the meeting, and it’s not just that people are reading off the stuff that they wrote? If not, it’s like, people are telling you, Hey, I had a meeting with someone over here this week, or, you know, that doesn’t help anything. Meetings are great for escalation. They’re great for handling exceptions to process. They’re excellent for making sure that there’s awareness and you removing blockers, they’re good at if not making a decision, then enshrining a decision, that’s as a result of processes that lead up to the meeting. Right. And so you have alignment around that decision, you can and then also, there are meetings that are purposefully for the brainstorming variety, right for sake of being able to innovate and find a difference, you know, are we truly understanding the right problem in the right way? Are we, you know, really revealing the best solution, but and then I will say you can, if, let’s say you’ve got a lack of asynchronous process that’s working, you can always pull the ripcord and just call for that daily meeting on an item to bring it into focus, which does unfortunately, until you bake into having a real good process to where things have been fixed, and you just can freeze on that. It can be a temporary solution, right. But once you set up that daily meeting on that big issue, your real goal is to try to end it.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 29:54
And I’ve heard this used as a strategy where there is a really important issue. It needs to be addressed. And then just creating that, you know, check point, you know that that kind of like really brings focus to that particular thing. And then like you said, you don’t want it forever, obviously. But it does seem to be a really good strategy to reprioritize and make sure that it does have the focus that it needs. One of the things that I did want to end with was just this concept of a distributed team, how do you take care of people’s mental health and well being?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 30:31
This is a big one. And I would imagine, actually, that we’ve all gotten pretty good at it this last year in ways that we never did before, right, because one of the things that I realized when I was running distributed teams in very early days relative to you know, how now everyone has done it, was you do as let’s say, a startup founder, you have a certain level of responsibility for the well being of your employees. And when you don’t have people coming into the office every day, there isn’t that natural check, you know, for people to, you know, see whether someone needs a little bit of help, right, or the availability for someone to kind of get help, right. And this is, it’s a difficult thing to try to find the mechanic for doing so. And what I think has happened over the last year is we’ve developed a different kind of empathy, tolerance and understanding, we’ve allowed, you know, our living rooms to become part of the office. And I do have this hope that some of that kind of humane part of work, right, where we’ve blended in a little bit of our real lives, which is the real reason that we’re actually working is, you know, for lunches, or, you know, for our families and for our futures. And I also think there’s a helping thing, probably, where we’re not turning to work to provide, you know, a life for us as much, right? I hope we’re not, you know, there have been these tech campuses that have been trying to recreate the college atmosphere for all their college recruits. And those folks go in and they work these 15 hour days, and then there’s no balance, because it’s all in one thing. And I don’t know that we’re going to go back to that. Because the alternative once we can get out of our homes and enjoy life a little bit more, I think the other it’s a lot more efficient and effective and quite frankly, enjoyable.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 32:22
So that’s a very good point. And something definitely to remember. Ross as a final sort of question that we ask all of our guests, any tips, resources, books, or just parting words of advice that you would leave for all the managers and leaders out there looking to get better at their craft?
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 32:41
When I started into my career, I was a better leader than a manager, being a better manager. First of all, I think everybody as they progress in their career, should try to challenge themselves to try to take on things that they’re not entirely qualified for, and get out of their comfort zone. And recognize that like, a little bit of imposter syndrome is a good feeling. Because that’s a feeling that you’re about to grow. And so you should always be seeking that moment.
Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app) 33:08
That’s incredible advice and, and a good place to end it. Ross, thanks so much for doing this. Thanks.
Ross Mayfield (Zoom) 33:14
It’s really great talking to you.