The NPS of You
A way to think about building your reputation over time
Careers are the sum of capitalising on opportunities.
The most interesting opportunities often are offered to people who’re recommended for them.
By thinking about how to improve your recommendability, you may get offered opportunities that could transform your career.
In 2018 I was a mid-level PM at Meta working on a product called Workplace. I had only 6 direct reports, 3 of whom were temporary rotational PMs. I lead a good chunk of the product org, but wasn’t on the leadership team.
Thanks for reading Tradeoffs and Payoffs! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
One day, I got a call from Guy Rosen, then the Head of Integrity at Meta. Paraphrasing:
Hey Simon, I wondered if you’d be interested in joining the Integrity team in London. We’ve got a team of 10 PMs and we’re looking for someone to lead the team. We’re investing heaving in London as a site - so this is likely to grow even further. Wanna chat?
What? I’ve never worked on Integrity (aka Trust & Safety) before. I don’t know anything about the subject. I’ve never managed a team of 10 PMs. And somehow he thought of me as the person he needed to lead his critical team at this critical moment? He must be mad, desperate, or both?
I’m not qualified to answer which of those states he was in (both?). But what I did come to understand later is that I’d been recommended.
Despite my obvious shortcomings in both management experience and domain expertise, that recommendation had carried enough weight for me to get a call.
The power of recommendation something that’s been studied in business for decades.
Word of mouth is an incredibly efficient way to grow a business: your customers are doing the selling for you. That is why many organisations measure (and try to improve) customer satisfaction.
In the late 90’s, Enterprise Rent A Car employed some consultants from Bain, lead by Fred Reichheld. The metric they developed together attempted to capture in a single number everything about the power of recommendation (and the power of non-recommendation). That metric was NPS - Net Promoter Score.
NPS is a measure of customer satisfaction, driven by the answer to a simple question: Would you recommend X to a friend of colleague? Respondents asked to give an answer on a scale from 0 to 10.
People who give a 9 or a 10 are “promoters”.
People who give a 7 or 8 are “passives”.
People who give between 0 and 6 are “detractors”.
To calculate your NPS score (which ranges from -100 to +100) you look at the difference between the % of promoters and % of detractors:
NPS = % of promoters - % of detractors
While NPS itself has some detractors (see sidebar below), it’s still a widely used mechanism to measure and track customers’ perceptions about their experience with a business.
The inherent risk in recommendation
One thing about NPS that should stick out immediately is that ratings of 7 or 8 which you might naturally think of as “very positive” are neutral in NPS: they don’t count towards a positive score.
Why? Think back to the canonical NPS question:
Would you recommend X to a friend of colleague?
The reason why NPS counts 7’s and 8’s as neutral is because recommending something puts your social capital at risk.
You might think a restaurant was pretty good (7’s or 8’s), but if you recommended it to a friend and they didn’t have a great time, you’d feel bad, and they’d perhaps not trust you again.
As a result, as socially-aware beings, we tend to only recommend things we’re REALLY confident about (9’s and 10’s).
The whole thesis behind NPS is that to earn someone’s recommendation of your product or service, you have to CRUSH IT in their estimation. Not just do OK, but really nail something special.
NPS and You
When I think back to the key moments in my career growth, recommendation of me has either played the primary role, or a key secondary role. But it’s nearly always played a role.
The story at the top of this post is an example of recommendation as a primary factor: someone asking an open question (“Is there anyone you’d recommend I speak to about this role?”) and the recommender having a strong enough opinion to put forward a name.
The secondary scenario is likely more common (though no less important): “I’m thinking about hiring X for this position, do you think that’s a good idea?”).
In both cases, the recommender is risking their reputation by putting forward a name, or by validating one. They’re only going to do that if they have an opinion that’s strongly positive.
If you want to grow in your career, you need to be offered opportunities - and often, the best opportunities will find you through recommendation — other people staking their reputation that you are the right person for this role.
And what’s a well-known way of thinking about, measuring, and improving recommendability? Net Promoter Score.
Using NPS-thinking to build your reputation
Reputation biggest weakness (that it’s hard to build) is also it’s greatest strength. There’s few short cuts. Building your reputation and thus your recommendability is the product of hard work, consistently, over a long period of time (as my old boss Guy Rosen used to say).
But I’ve found that using the principles behind NPS can help frame up the kinds of behaviours and outcomes you need to be exhibiting over time.
Recall that to get a high NPS score, you need many more “promoters” than “detractors” — and “promoters” are those who give you 9 or 10s, not 7s or 8s.
And the way you build your score is by performing well across the core of our jobs as people at work in our teams, and our companies:
Think about that last 1:1 you had with a direct report. How would they rate that 30m meeting with you? 7 or 8? 9 or 10? Lower than 7?
What about the last team meeting you chaired? Was there an agenda? Was people’s time well-used? Did we make progress on something important? If you could ask them, how would they rate your performance as chair of the meeting? 7 or 8? 9 or 10? Lower than 7?
What about the time someone came to you for advice about a thorny problem they were working through. Did you give them your time? Did you give them a framework to help them make progress? Did you help them simplify the problem down into 1 or 2 questions that would unstick the rest? How would they rate the advice they received? 7 or 8? 9 or 10? Lower than 7?
The list could go on forever, but you get the point. The world of work is about interacting with people to get things done. Those people, like it or not, are going to form an opinion of you. That opinion is going to impact your recommendability - and eventually, your career.
Remember the “Net” in NPS
The above might feel daunting: how do you get 9’s and 10’s all the time? Good news: you don’t have do.
Reputation is often forged by the accumulation of many smaller actions, not one big one. That means it’s not all over if one thing goes badly: you should be thinking about the net.
If you’re scoring only 7s and 8s, that’s OK, but that’s not gonna move your hypothetical NPS score upwards. And if you have a bad day, and get some 5’s and 6’s - they will seriously drag you down.
But if you’re getting 9’s and 10’s on a few things, that’s gonna really start making a positive difference.
The most common way to have a high NPS score is to be reasonably good at most things (7’s and 8’s) and really good at a few key things (9’s and 10’s) while minimising the screwups (6 and under).
I have seen people succeed by being really good as some things (e.g. public speaking) and really bad at others (e.g. leading a team) — but they’re more corner cases in my experience.
What can you do tomorrow?
Now that you’ve got this “NPS frame” to look through, you can use classic “NPS theory” to start improving your score.
1/ Start by eliminating the detractors. This is the single biggest point of leverage. It’s generally easier to stop pissing people off, than it is to delight them. What are all the things you’re doing that’re causing people to give you a 6 or lower?
Are you late to meetings?
Have you not done the reading to prepare for a conversation?
Are signalling a lack of interest and care?
If you can identify the things that are causing you to score 6 or under, and turn them into 7’s - that’s HUGE. Moving people from the detractor column into the passive column means all the great work you’re gonna do next is pure upside, rather than paying for your mistakes.
2/ Next: identify some opportunities to outperform. Once you’ve stopped scoring 6 and unders, you can start to invest in areas where you can get your 9s and 10s. This will be different for everyone. But here’s some ideas:
For your next 1:1 with your manager, come prepared with topics you want to discuss. Maximise time focussed on business-impact topics, not just shooting the shit.
For your next 1:1 with a direct report. Put away your phone and laptop and practice active listening. Offer to help where you can, and ensure you follow through.
For your next product review, send the pre-read 48 hours in advance instead of 24 (oh, and make sure the deck/content is super-tightly framed).
But in general: remember the NPS formula: You don’t need to be getting 7’s and 8’s on everything, but you need to be getting significantly more 9’s and 10’s than you are 6 and unders.
How do you know you’re making progress?
In short, you don’t, and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Focus on doing the right things, and the right things will happen to you.
That said, there’s a few signals that suggest you might be making progress.
When people whom you don’t know well start to seek out your advice on a topic (especially when they say “Person X said you might be able to help”).
When you’re invited to join a cross-functional working group or cross-org project lead by someone outside your org/function.
When people reach out about open roles on their team (especially because “multiple people suggested I should talk to you”).
In these situations, people likely had multiple people they could have turned to, but for some reason they chose you. Often it’s because you were recommended.
To be clear, I am NOT suggesting you start running a personal NPS survey of the people you work with. That would be annoying, expensive, and weird.
What I’m sharing is that NPS, flawed though it is, contains some core concepts that might be useful in helping you think about how to uplevel your performance in the eyes of the people around you, build a reputation for excellence, and grow in your career through the opportunities you’ll get by being seen as one of the best.
Sidebar: A word on NPS
I know that in some user research circles, NPS is seen as somewhat discredited. The flaws, as explained to me, include:
It doesn’t give you credit as you gradually improve your product/service. Getting people from a 1 to a 5 is a big deal, but your NPS score won’t budge.
It measures satisfaction of your existing customers, not how good you are at acquiring people. While NPS may be a useful measure for products/services that grow through word of mouth, it’s less relevant for businesses that grow through, say, performance marketing.
It doesn’t help you understand how well you’re doing vs your competitors. You can be crushing it on NPS, but prospective customers are choosing another product or service based on some other property e.g. price or convenience.
These are valid points, although as I’m not a professional researcher, I’m not super-qualified to opine on NPS vs other forms of customer satisfaction measurement.
Even so, it seems to me that NPS captures some interesting core characteristics of use as human beings: that our “average” ratings skews high, and controls for an intrinsic property: that recommendation carries risk.
As such, I think it’s still reasonable to use the frame of NPS as a prism through which to look at ourselves, who we are, how we behave, what people think of us, and how that might affect the opportunities afforded to us in our careers.
Thanks for reading Tradeoffs and Payoffs! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.