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Followers vs Fighters – Entrepreneurs’ hiring dilemma

“When you got right down to the nut-cutting, you either clicked your heels and said ‘yes sir’ or there was trouble. Ted Rogers was very much an autocrat. He would tolerate a discussion, but he would not tolerate his edict not being followed when the discussion ended”…..  on Ted Rogers in High Wire Act

Assembling high performing executive teams is a challenge for most organizations. For entrepreneurs it is especially difficult as they must compete with larger, more entrenched, safer and better capitalized interests for that talent. Even before that, they must figure out exactly what ‘high performing’ means to them.

Entrepreneurs know, or at least believe they know, where they want to take their businesses and how they want to take them there. They also know that along the way they need to put together a team that can effectively execute, organize, administer tasks and manage others.  While this is straight-forward what is less so is determining where a host of other executive attributes fit into the mix. For example, the ability to make decisions, think strategically, independently, and delegate are foundational management competencies in most large corporations. Many entrepreneurs reason that they too should recruit managers with these seemingly positive executive attributes. Unfortunately, while these qualities may be ‘positive’ they simply do not fit into a firm where the leader’s own list of attributes include controlling, untrusting, directive, and highly attentive to the minutiae of the business. Thus, hiring executives who are independent thinkers (“I don’t like being micromanaged”) and delegation-oriented (“You want me to stay on top of every single account? I have managers for that”) can be a recipe for conflict rather than success in many entrepreneur-led firms. Similarly, a highly strategic executive will quickly learn that the realm of strategy is very near and dear to the entrepreneur and there may be precious few opportunities to flex those intellectual muscles. As a case in point, when Jeff Bezos agreed to hire a seasoned Chief Operating Officer (his board of directors called it ‘adult supervision’) he recruited an executive from Black and Decker. On the executive’s arrival however, “Bezos kept his hands firmly on Amazon’s steering wheel ….. voicing detailed opinions about everything from acquisitions to minute changes in the appearance of the company’s homepage. The new COO thought he had signed up to run the company, and eventually began to agitate for more authority”.  Unfortunately, as the executive agitated, Jeff Bezos became agitated and the writing was on the wall.

Many of these potential conflicts are not obvious to the well-intentioned entrepreneur and thus the risk of hiring for attributes that become problematic is quite real. If such mistakes are not fatal, entrepreneurs will in time reconcile the conflicts in one of several ways:

  • Some entrepreneurs come to see their firm’s growth as inextricably tied to their personal growth. They take steps to develop their leadership skills so as to better be able to integrate professional managers and systems into their firms. They retain coaches and/or mentors, boards of advisors, join presidents clubs, take leadership development training, read books etc. etc. etc. Over time they mature and grow though the journey is usually halting and prone to occasional lapses under stress. Consider for example Jeff Bezos’s efforts to “modulate his management style and keep his notoriously eviscerating assessments of employees in check.  In one meeting Bezos reprimands one of his executives telling them they are stupid and to come back when they know what they are doing. Then, he walked a few steps, froze in mid-stride as if something had suddenly occurred to him, wheeled around, and added, ‘but great work everyone’’’.
  • For those entrepreneurs less concerned with ‘personal growth’, they slowly become more adept at hiring managers who will ‘fit’ with them. They eventually ask themselves whether they really want an ensemble cast of stars or a supporting cast to THE star. The latter executive team may well be very competent but individually each accepts his or her place in the shadow of the star.  The term ‘yes men’ is sometimes used to describe such management teams, which are common in entrepreneur-led firms.

A different type of ensemble was built at Amazon.  Jeff Bezos began his career as a ‘quant jock’ on Wall Street, a marketplace where firms are “unapologetically elitist” in hiring the smartest, most driven, aggressive and money motivated. Jeff Bezos apparently enjoys sparring with the ‘hyperintelligent’, individuals who keep him intellectually fit and primed for battle. He is not only attracted to those of like-mind but also of like-temperament. This is why he hired individuals such as Jeff Wilke, an MIT engineer/MBA whose “cerebral and occasionally impatient management style mirrored that of Bezos’’. It bears noting that this so-called “impatient management style” is referenced later in the book The Everything Store as “a volcanic temper”.  Another key manager is described as a “whip smart, tireless worker, demanding ….and a screamer”. And yet another key executive team member is described as a “battering ram…who wants to drink blood”.  Amazon’s gladiator culture rewards the most ferocious and brightest combatants while being feared by others. However, notwithstanding the skills and effectiveness of any individual Amazon gladiator, as in the Roman Empire, they are all still the Emperor’s subjects.  And at Amazon, there was only one emperor and he is also happened to be the best gladiator of them all.

About The Author

Robert Hebert, Ph.D., is the Managing Partner of Toronto-based StoneWood Group Inc, a leading executive search firm. He has spent the past 25 years assisting firms in the technology sector address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Dr. Hebert holds a Masters Degree in Industrial Relations as well as a Doctorate in Adult Education, both from the University of Toronto.