Shoot the Runt
Ben Horowitz recently published a post called “The Sad Truth about Developing Executives.” In it he details the realization that, when he transitioned into the CEO role, his penchant for developing people who worked for him was no longer an asset but a liability. How can this be?
Very early in my career as a software engineer I was continually pushed into management roles. Since I loved slamming code, I resisted each time but eventually gave in because the organization needed a leader. Without formal management training, I learned valuable lessons on my own. The folks reporting to me became my responsibility, and my leadership quickly morphed into serving them rather than vice versa. My modus operandi became creating an environment in which the best and highest skills of each individual could be applied to the task at hand, training them where I could, and then filling in the rest myself in the best way possible.
The model of developing staff members isn’t bad in general, but it can be disastrous for a CEO. Horowitz lists a number of reasons why CEOs shouldn’t pursue it. Here are a few:
- Lack of skill – no CEO understands every job well enough to teach it to direct reports.
- Impact on results – the demands of the market preclude both the CEO and management team members from spending significant time training rather than applying all their effort to achieving targeted outcomes.
- Not paid to do it – “Executives are compensated for their existing ability, and therefore should not be evaluated on their potential.”
- It doesn’t work – the rest of the team will see that you are working with an underperforming player and you will not take him or her seriously because of their lack of acumen.
A serially successful CEO friend has a succinct phrase for how to deal with this a bad hire: “Shoot the runt.” He learned early on that adapting an organization because of one individual harms the organization. The critical responsibility of any CEO is getting the right person into each position, and that may include rapidly correcting a hiring mistake.
After taking over as VP of support services in a turnaround company later in my career, I learned another valuable lesson. One individual in a helpdesk group, we’ll call him John, had been at the company twice as long as his colleagues yet seemed to know half as much. His team received a constant disorganized stream of support calls, so I asked John to act as the dispatcher, taking each initial call, answering simple questions quickly, then assigning more difficult questions to the others in a way that maintained a balance of the number of calls and minimized wait times. I stressed that he had to be available during regular business hours except for his lunch break.
My second week I met with customers all over the country, including both coasts. Each day when I called in to check on John, I heard an excuse for why he got in late or he had to leave early. When I returned, I agonized over the situation for about ten days. Finally one Friday in my first month there, I called John in to let him go. I anticipated that the extremely overworked group would not be happy about losing a hand, but when I told them later that day what I’d done, I almost got a standing ovation.
The next Monday, I was handed a note written by an employee from another part of the company. As I read it in front of my boss, the president, I saw that the author was calling me an ogre for having fired John before I’d even been there a month. When I slowly looked up to see the look on my boss’s face, he smiled as he reached out his hand to shake mine and said, “Welcome to senior management!”