Moving In, Moving Up, Moving Out

Years ago, I worked with an otherwise-great exec who had one nasty flaw. He fell in love easily.

I mean, really easily. Like Theo Epstein easily – the love he feels every time he sees a free-agent shortstop.

In his particular case, the exec’s belief was that there was usually a better exec to be found outside the company — rather than inside the company — to help with most any challenge. And change always needed to be made fast. And the new guy would catch up to the team & figure it out.

Speed’s a temptation for every CEO & BoD working in “hyper-growth time”. Set course, push, evaluate & make changes at Mach-1 speed.

Most times, that instinct for speed is key to survival & success in markets that change weekly. But as it applies to people decisions, speed can be especially twin-edged.

Move fast — & move people in or up.

Other times, it creates more issues.  Move fast — & move people out.

Putting the right folks in the right jobs is the single most important responsibility that founders, CEOs & BoDs have. And one mistake evaluating the wrong manager can cause missed opportunity.

Speed can kill.  It can also set a team back months — or years.

Bad manager. Doesn’t suffer fools. Doesn’t move fast enough. Losing the team. Can’t hire well. Can’t scale. Not a good fit.

Sit in a start-up’s BoD meeting discussing an exec with disappointing performance and all of that can come up. And unfortunately, it can sometimes come up as fast as 6 months after a “rock star” is brought into the company.

Or worse yet, after an individual contributor star was elevated from within into a management role.

Pretty soon, the discussion turns to whether the star needs to leave. A real shame if that person was brought in from the outside without enough thought. And an incredible shame if that person played a key role the company’s success before s/he was given more responsibility.

Many of us have experienced attempts to keep a failed exec in a “special role” after wings have been clipped. Not fair & not effective for the person, for the team, for the company.

And bringing on another new manager while a former incumbent is on board can usually be a recipe for long-term chronic pain, if not short-term acute drama.

So, back to baseball fundamentals :). How does a mess like this begin? What can prevent it?

  • There are few truly-complete ballplayers.  How does it start? Hire an exec or manager for a job different than what made her/him a star in the first place. “Projecting athleticism” is tough business.  When it works, it’s beautiful.  When it doesn’t  it’s a disaster.  Doing real diligence on an individual is critical — whether they are a new hire — or already on the team.  Deeply understand what makes him/her “tick” & how they manage & lead others. Think though areas of weakness/needed development and aim to compensate for these with team balance. It takes time but it’s all well-spent.
  • Don’t take too big a lead.  How else can it begin? A poor bet that a great individual contributor can lead a team.  Skills of a great architect, for example, may not port to leading a small team of architects. Two completely different skill sets. Although it seems counter-intuitive, great founders & CEOs consider what they’d do in the future should a move NOT work — before the hire or promotion is made.
  • Be careful of the home run swing.  Another way it starts? A misguided bet that “big name” success can immediately translate to a start-up culture. Cultural fit is the keystone of most small dev teams, for example.  Though nothing’s impossible, hiring a manager into a start-up without directly-relevant start-up success (or directly-relevant failure, for that matter) is a low percentage undertaking.
  • Everybody needs a coach.  And still another way it begins? Place “stars” into their first management role, without them ever having worked FOR a great manager. Everyone benefits from having a mentor – at least from closely-observing a pattern of success.  A great founder or CEO knows enough about each key team member to know who their mentors are — or have been.

Like all things involved in leading a hyper-growth start-up — hard thought as well as hard work around people decision-making — is huge.

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