There comes a stage in every growing start up where CEOs have to do more than just delegate tasks to their managers. Once the business reaches a certain scale these managers need to become leaders in their own right, making different decisions to the CEO as long as it is aligned with strategy.
Your managers are not mini-yous and they have different perspectives, experiences, relationships and personalities. If you are going to leverage these capabilities it has to mean that they will reach different conclusions to you. Building your managers into leaders requires that you allow them to reach these conclusion and put their plans into place with your full support EVEN IF YOU THINK THEY ARE WRONG!
The caveat here is that the company must be able to afford the mistake if one is made.
Failure to do this and every decision will be deferred to the CEO, leaving the CEO overloaded and suffering from decision fatigue. Your managers become little more than problem reporting robots rather than empowered, innovative problem solvers and will soon become disillusioned as you make poor decisions in areas of THEIR specialisation and supposed responsibility.
CEO / Manager Discussion
Manager: There is a problem/opportunity and here’s how I plan on addressing it
CEO: Why, why, why, why, why
Manager: provides rationale and backing information
CEO: Provides overall business context/resources that manager may not be aware. Suggests a different approach that the CEO think has merit.
Manager: Explains why their approach is superior.
* At this point the CEO doesn’t agree with the manager’s approach, however it falls within the company’s overall strategy and the company can cope with the impact if the manager turns out to be wrong
CEO: Okay, great – let me know how you get on
The important aspect of this conversation is that the CEO never tells the manager that they disagree. There is no undermining of authority, just support. If the planned course of action fails, the CEO should never disclose that they disagreed in the first place. It’s not important that the CEO was right, it is important that the manager knows that it is their responsibility and that they had the CEO’s support.
In this way the manager owns the success and failure of their decision. It will only be through their mistakes that they learn and grow. If you don’t do this then every mistake will be your mistake not theirs and that will only create a dysfunctional leadership team.
“Only Hire A Players” said the immensely successful woman on stage. I was at the Web Summit, a few years ago – back when it was still in Dublin. But this wasn’t the first time I’d heard the advice. It had become so standard in the tech industry that it was the mantra of everyone who’d exited for north of €100 Million.
This advice just serves to show how far these CEOs have travelled. The advice is so lacking in empathy with the typical startup that it can only be described as out of touch and useless.
This isn’t surprising. In general successful CEOs who have managed to exit their company have come a long way. The early years are a blur of endlessly retold, self serving narratives that makes the reality of those years elusive even for the most grounded of CEOs. That’s why the best advice from other CEOs comes from people who are at the next stage of growth to you – the memory of where you are is still fresh.
Back to the main theme – why is ‘Only Hire A Players’ such bad advice?
- A Players don’t want to work for most startups. We represent high risk, low immediate reward and long hours and to top it all of the history of successful Irish exits making employees rich is less than stellar.
- Startups are in a hurry. We can’t spend forever hiring – sometimes the right person to hire is the only one that’s in front of us. Unfortunately, it’s frequently better to do the job now moderately well than brilliantly in 6 months – because if we don’t do it now …. We’re dead!
- Finally, if your company requires A Players to be successful then you’ve built a shit company.
It is your job as CEO to build a company that brings the best out of B and heaven forbid C Players (whoever those unfortunate souls are) so the overall performance is at the top of your field. Of course, this is difficult and it’d be a lot easier if you just had A Players – but that’s dreaming.
We’ve all seen great talent destroyed by poisonous working conditions and similarly seen mediocre talent shine brighter than the brightest lights when incentives, opportunity, culture and support is aligned. We want everybody to have the right culture and ‘can do’ attitude but that is at least as much a factor of the culture that you create as of their core personality or skills.
There are no extraordinary people out there – there are only people that do extraordinary things. If you put in place the right environment you’ll be surprised how many people can do extraordinary things.
A huge win for startups can be deliberately targeting B Players that have obvious failings that make them unattractive to companies looking for A Players and bringing out the very best in them. The challenge then becomes “How many of my B and C Players can I make A Players?”.
What can Startups do?
- Hire the best you can in a reasonable time frame
- Provide a working environment and create a culture that brings out the best in people
- Zero tolerance for negativity and undermining
When you’ve done that then maybe one day you’ll be on stage saying you only hired A Players. Then you’ll have made all of your employees feel special – after all, that’s a much simpler narrative..