Answering before you’ve heard the question

Imagine you’re sitting in 4th grade math class. Today we’re doing 2-digit by two digit multiplication. You immediately know the answer and are first to raise your hand: 896! Wrong, today the answer is 2255. So frustrating, because yesterday the answer was 896. Well, you can’t get it right every time.

As absurd as that sounds, it happens in business all the time. I see lots of senior executives who were very successful in their last job and are ready to do the same things that made them successful all over again. Just one problem: the situation may be different, and those things may be completely wrong for their current situation.

Dave Kellogg describes this well in this blog post and much of my thinking on this issues was heavily influenced by conversations with Dave. While I agree with much of what Dave said, when I think about it through the lens of hiring an executive team, I believe there is often a skill set issue that drives this behavior. Given how much time and energy I’m putting in to building the executive team at 10gen, my goal with this post is to examine the issue through that lens.

Surprising numbers of executives seem to just have their “standard play” that they’re very good at running. Some examples:

  • The band leader: they’re going to get the old band back together. They know some great guys who love working for them and will join for the chance to work for them again.
  • The full-speed-ahead: they’re going to hire fast. They’ll build a “great” team by whatever greatness metric they are used to applying: hungry, smart, experienced, pedigreed.
  • The cost cutter: they’re going to take out the fat. Everyone needs to have a well-defined role, and nobody’s salary should be too far above everyone else’s.
  •  The organizer: they’ll put in process. Within 3 months, things will be much better defined and much more mature.
  • The rainmaker: they’ll show up and win lots of big deals. Revenue will cure lots of problems.

When one of these types shows up in the right situation, they can be very effective. Thus executives are often hired to run the specific play they know. If you’re in a hot market and you need lots of sales people, a full-speed-ahead sales manager can be a great fit. Struggling for market traction and worried that you’re spending money too fast in engineering? Hire a cost cutter to run your engineering team, spend will be down.

While this approach to executive hiring can work, there are pitfalls. Lots of sales people are good in a growth market if they’re the right type of sales person. Do you need hungry junior people or smart senior people? Most full-speed-ahead sales managers “like” a certain type of rep. Why? Probably because a few reps of that type did well for him or her in a previous job. Will they do well for you? Maybe.

My view is that you need to analyze where you are. In general:

  • If you’re still finding product/market fit, you need smart folks with a lot of domain experience to help figure out what the market wants; operational skills are secondary
  •  If you’ve found product/market fit and are looking for the right model to scale, you still need domain experience along with strong analytical skills and mid-range operational skills, as well as strong recruiting skills (which should be a mix of selectivity and velocity)
  • Once you’ve figured out how to scale, you need very aggressive hiring and less domain knowledge
  • As you plateau and you’re looking to optimize profitability, you need more operational skills and less hiring aggressiveness

Once you understand the general skills you need, you then need to make sure the executive’s biases and preferences match what you’ll need. This is tricky because often you won’t know what you need. For example, at 10gen we have strong market traction and our early sales reps are ramping very well. But we only have three sales reps right now, and I don’t know what type of sales reps will be most successful for us over time. Because of this situation, part of what I looked for in hiring our head of sales (Ben Sabrin, formerly of JBoss) was an openness to experiment with different types of hires. We’ll hire some senior reps and some junior reps, we’ll hire some from more technical backgrounds and some from more traditional sales backgrounds, and over time we’ll see which models work in what types of roles. As we learn, we can tailor our hiring model to match.

In my experience, this approach is often skipped in favor of a large-scale full-speed-ahead in a basically random hiring direction, chosen implicitly by the VP of Sales you hired. Unfortunately often nobody realizes it was a randomly-aimed experiment and too often the results of that process are taken as indicative of overall market readiness or product fit.

This issue is very important to me right now as I am building an executive team at 10gen. There are some hiring biases that I think will work well in our culture and given our market:

  • We need smart people who our existing smart people will want to work with
  • We need people who are excited by technology to work with our highly technical customers
  • We need people who are open and value openness as we build an open source community
  • We need people who are passionate about customer success, because that will drive our business

But most of all for our situation, I think we need leaders who will listen to the question before giving an answer. Why? We’re doing something different, selling an alternative database through an open-source business model. The most notable open-source database company (MySQL) was a pure commoditization play, so our business will be different. There will be lessons to learn from other open source companies, but the world has changed quite a bit since Red Hat was our size, so again we’ll need to interpret those lessons and adapt.

It makes for more challenging hiring, but its what we need to make the most of our opportunity.

1 comment so far

  1. […] on on a post by 10gen’s Max Schireson which in turn built on a post by me, I thought I’d have some […]


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