I’ve been fortunate to have recruited hundreds of CEOs now, gotten to know literally thousands of them, and my Partners have recruited a ton of them too. We study these people. We research them. We get to know them socially and professionally. We’ve been in their homes and they’ve been in ours. These people are often misunderstood, but if the Board dynamics, strength of solution and market dynamics are all pointing to a good outcome, then what ultimately dictates their fate is who they are in their core and how they approach the role of being the Chief Executive Officer. It really isn’t about the resume. There are just to many stories now, of “nobodies” or “castoffs” who crushed it and those stories are far outpacing the “big hires”. The ones that, by the way, aren’t actually happening (like Twitter, Citrix, Microsoft, millions of startups, etc.)…
After seeing so many successful CEOs and then a few flame-outs here and there, you step back and ask: “what are the common denominators? If we can’t prove that big resumes = big outcomes, then how can you predict a successful hire?” Let’s start with a basic concept. The approach. The early days. There are some clear do’s and do not’s to avoid “organ rejection” as one joins a company, and those early moves are extremely critical as you’re setting the foundation for success, or failure. Here are a few suggestions for how to avoid blowing it early:
1. Don’t be “that guy” (or woman). You know who I’m talking about. The person who walks in with a strut, carries a vibe of entitlement and looks teflon coated and unapproachable, even a little scary to people. Show some humility and soak in that, ideally permanently. Why not pretend you’re the new step-parent of a tight, potentially dysfunctional family and how would you approach that situation? Would you strut into someone’s living room?
Be super professional, but try and approach things with a sense of humor and humanity. Be self deprecating. Yes, be confident but don’t cross that confidence line into the dark side. Don’t show ANY arrogance even if that’s who you really are underneath it all. Kill that part of you as fast as you can. See a shrink or life coach or the Dali Lama, but for the love of God, silence that part of you and get ready to suppress it for a long period of time, repeating time and time again, that you’ve got a sobering responsibility now and the only way to approach the office is with gratitude and humility, mixed with a little fearlessness. Go back to that time when the bully picked on you and own that skinny, nerdy kid you once were, the kid with pimples, or the person who didn’t get asked to the prom. People will like you more for having been that kid than the rock star you think you are now. You don’t need to posture. You’ve been anointed CEO for a reason. Look the part. Act like you’ve been there. Rise above your own psychological shortcomings, or you don’t deserve the job. Be statesman-like and balanced, but accessible and be a HUMAN BEING (one who’s careful not to reveal how terrified you really are, of failure, of success, of the loneliness of this job, etc.). Listen carefully. Get the lay of the land. The team will respect you more for this approach and you will need their support, even if you think they all need to go, to get the rank and file comfortable and keep them focused.
2. Don’t blow it with the engineering team. Engage Founders and/or the technical team early and often. Without them, there is no company and no edge and no future. Lose their morale and I don’t care how awesome your sales team is, you’re dead. Spend as much time as you can with them. You really, really need to know what they built and how they thought about it.
3. Don’t avoid hard core travel early. Talk to customers, as many as possible. Get on the road and show the team you’re willing to put your back into the work. See at least ten in the first three months, ideally more. Meet partners. Understand what’s working and not working in the field quickly.
4. Don’t “ready fire aim” with people who are already there because you feel you have to have “your own team”. Where’s the confidence in your leadership? The best CEOs can turn B’s into A’s wherever they go. Give people a chance, even if your Board tells you the team are losers and should be blown out. Evaluate them on their own merit after understanding their situation and atmosphere, challenges, etc. Objectivity is key, and I’ve heard a lot of amazing stories about CEOs giving a beaten down team a chance. Do this right and you build a cult. Tarkan Maner did this at boring, awful old Wyse and crushed it. Those people would walk through fire for him. Don’t take anything for granted or at face value.
5. Don’t blow Board meetings or do a half assed job there. Ever. Give the Board regular updates. They’re nervous about the hire, though they might not show it. Every hire has risk, particularly CEO hires. Get them comfortable. AND BE PREPARED FOR YOUR FIRST BOARD MEETING. First impressions are key. Be on top of stuff, get your fingers dirty. Time to get to work…
Good luck to all. Will probably come back to this one and add a few because there are too many do’s and don’ts to count!