Following up on my post about “The best worst day ever“, a few people were curious what the meeting was about that changed the course of the day.
I can now say that the meeting was with my current boss (as of a few months ago), my previous boss, and their boss. It turns out that I was nominated and had won a recognition called the Yahoo! Superstar award for 2006.
My first reaction was surprise, then suspicion. “What did I do?” I asked. The answer seemed a lot like just what I considered to be doing what I was assigned to do. That, and building of a little website I had whipped up that helps people across the company track projects. In reality I created it to remove tedium from my job.
The “congrats” package was a (p?)leather notebook folio with a superstar logo on the front. Never mind the fact that I don’t use paper much anymore in meetings (just my laptop), but I can’t imagine broadcasting the award by toting around that binder. It screamed: “Do you know you’re in a meeting with a Superstar??” Inside was a note from Terry Semel about winning, a small note from the founders, Jerry and David, a Yahoo! pen and details on the award dinner on October 2.
Winning this award is actually a BIG DEAL. They give it to about 12 individual employees each year, and about 4 teams. Obviously the individual awards are harder to get in a company of 11,000 people.
Besides the lovely stationery set, the award dinner, and an undisclosed but “significant” cash prize, there’s a video. A frightening, tremendously embarrassing, internally-produced video which usually involves a cutout of the winner’s head pasted onto other people’s bodies. This cutout head is posed to do things that are intended to embody the accomplishments of the winner. Even more terrifying is that they go around and interview the people you work with and get them to talk about you for the video. This video is premiered at the next quarterly all-hands meeting where 1,000+ Yahoos gather in the cafeteria a few hours after the quarter’s earnings are announced the public. The meeting is also webcast to all Yahoo! offices worldwide. Hopefully it will be a good quarter and everyone will be too interested in watching the stock price rise in after-hours trading to pay attention my video.
I brought the stationery set home and left it on the kitchen table. When Anne came home I didn’t mention it. Eventually she got curious and opened it, read it and realized what it was. She was impressed. I asked her if she was as surprised as I was. She was not. “I tell you that you do great things AT WORK all the time” she said. Clearly I wasn’t even nominated for a household superstar award this year. 🙂
It was nice to have someone close to share it with, since I still felt too awkward about it to tell anyone. The meeting was about a month ago and since they had to ship the packets to people around the world and notify them, it would be two weeks before the winners were made public internally. During that time some of the managers knew, but my team and the others I work with did not.
I slept poorly the night after I found out, my mind racing with the implications, honor and pressure that the award would bring. Whenever a problem arose in the next few days I felt like a fraud. If I was a REAL superstar, I wouldn’t have this problem or I should be able to solve it instantly. As the reality of the award settled, I came to resolve with myself that maybe I did some “super” things based on some particular situations and people wanted to recognize me for that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my faults and shortcomings. It certainly did make me feel more insecure about them though.
When two weeks passed and the winners were posted on the internal website, it was interesting to see who found out and when. I got a few IMs right away, some emails and a few congrats in the halls. Random people I haven’t worked with in years came out of the woodwork to send their wishes. It was weird for sure and frankly a little bit annoying to be reminded that I was chosen (and expected) to be special, even when I didn’t feel that way. It was fortunate that I was at our Santa Monica offices that day, laying low and out of the paths of many of the people I work with most often.
Later I came to find out some of back-story. The whole award process began few months earlier when the company solicited all its employees for nominations. After several weeks, the nominations are tallied and a short list is created. Managers of the nominated write up a longer justifications and that gets circulated. After that there are several rounds where the list is shortened at higher and higher levels of the company, all the way up to the CEO. To think that the highest executives of the company sat in a room and debated the merit of what I did over the last year is nerve racking. I’m sure most of them had never even heard of me before.
They also do random reference checks within the company, to make sure there aren’t pockets of people who hate you or have information that you did something that could be embarrassing to the company, like creeping out some interns. Apparently I passed that litmus test.
I found out that, during the nomination process, my team began campaigning for me, soliciting nominations from everyone they could. This is incredibly flattering, especially when many of these people were those who I ordered to work on several consecutive weekends last spring when we were pushing to get Yahoo! Tech out the door. I was especially happy for them that I won; it would have been crushing to hear that they went to all that effort for nothing.
I’m more thankful that I was completely oblivious to all this as it was happening. I really did not want to know that behind closed doors, executives were lobbying for (and against) me as I progressed up the levels.
I mentioned the award to my parents a few nights later. It took them a little while to understand that it was a big deal. When I told them about the dinner, my Dad immediately sent me a dress shirt from his store to wear. Apparently Anne agreed that I had nothing that looked acceptable for such an event.
This week was the award dinner and ceremony, held at Spago in Palo Alto. I’m guessing this would be the only time that I’ll ever go to Spago, so it was nice that it was free. As soon as I stepped on the purple carpet, the internal PR chick (really, that’s what she calls herself) accosted me with a camera and microphone. Having seen these interviews played in the videos in years past I knew it was coming. I had even thought of a few witty things to say.
I said none of them. What came out was a torrent of clichés and deflections. I said stuff like “I was just focusing on getting the job done” and “it was a real team effort”. I had suddenly become the winning pitcher in every post-game interview I’ve ever seen, never saying anything interesting or revealing.
After the official blackmail photo/formal winner photo shoot, the next hour was spent socializing with other winners and executives. I’m sure the net worth of that room exceeded 5 billion dollars, mostly in Yahoo! Stock. It was probably the only time in my life that a CEO like Terry Semel would seek ME out in a crowded room and introduce himself. We chatted briefly about the projects I had worked on and then he moved on to talk with other winners.
A bunch of people asked if I had kids. It seemed assuring to them that I didn’t. Apparently I would have to be ridiculously under-rested or guilty of child neglect to have put the work in to win this award while trying to raise kids.
I was unsure if the embarrassing video would be played here or not. Apparently they don’t make them until afterwards, fully armed with incriminating video footage.
The executives took turns introducing each of the winners in their departments and talking glowingly of their accomplishments. I was almost the last. My great grand-boss got up and talked about me for a few minutes and then brought me up.
They say at the beginning that winners are not required to give an acceptance speech, but everyone had before me, so I did, trying a few of the witty things I didn’t say on the purple carpet. Based on the crowd’s reaction, they weren’t nearly as witty as I thought, but I don’t think I embarrassed myself either. Some of the other speeches were quite eloquent and funny. I was happy to have at least spouted out some coherent English and didn’t fall over while juggling the glass trophy, envelope and microphone they handed me.
After the event finished, we looked around and wondered what to do next. My great great grand-boss (who I have never met) appeared to congratulate me. I talked a bit with Jerry, David and other winners. Then we waited 15 minutes in the valet line only to find that our car was parked on the street 50 feet away.
As we drove home, what struck me most is how the company became much more personal that night. I saw executives settings far less official than I am used to. I saw a lot of ordinary people who did some amazing things while they happened to be at work.
You could trace a lot of Yahoo’s most significant accomplishments over the last year to those people sitting in the room. They affected the lives of thousands of employees and millions of users.
For a moment I allowed myself to relish in that and think about what a cool job I have. I think I will always feel that way about my time at Yahoo! – except perhaps that 5 minutes after my embarrassing video is shown next week.