September 26, 2008

Like an Organ Transplant

Like an Organ Transplant

I’ve often said that hiring a new senior person into an organization is a bit like doing an organ transplant. You can do all the scientific work up front to see if there’s a match, but you never know until the organ is in the new body, and often some months have gone by, whether the body will take or reject the organ.

New senior people in particular have a vital role in organizations. Often they are brought in to fix something that’s broken, or to start up a new position that growth has created. Sometimes they are replacing a problematic person (or a beloved one). Usually the hope is that they will also bring a fresh perspective and good outside view to bear on people whose heads are too much “in the business.” In all cases, their role as leaders makes them higher visibility and higher profile than most, and therefore more impactful if they succeed. It also makes them more problematic if they don’t.

What happens that causes the body to reject the organ? It could be a few things, but in my experience it’s usually one of three. Sometimes the execution isn’t there — in other words, the person knows what needs to be done but isn’t effective in getting it done, for any number of reasons. Usually you feel like you were sold a bill of goods. Other times, specifically in cases where the person is coming into a new job that didn’t exist before, it turns out the job was poorly specified and doesn’t need to exist, or that the person coming in is the wrong person for it. Usually the person feels like he or she was sold a bill of goods.

But I think in most cases, the cultural fit just isn’t there. And that’s not really anyone’s fault, although it *should be* something you can interview for to a large extent. These are the most painful ones to deal with. Decent to stellar execution (good enough to not end employment over it), but poor cultural fits.

How quickly does this take? I’ve seen it take a quarter. I’ve also seen it take a year. But in both cases, the warning signs were there much sooner.

A footnote on this is that as Return Path has grown, I’ve come to a new thought about this — it doesn’t just apply to senior people. It applies to almost any new hire. It may be an outcome of having a really strong and consistent culture, or it may just be the natural extension of this axiom.

2 responses to “Like an Organ Transplant”

  1. jdfalk says:

    Some years ago, I worked for a fast-paced young startup with a close-knit culture. When the new CEO came in, he brought in a whole new staff from his last job — including a sales team which had their own culture, entirely different from ours.

    In a lot of ways, it was the standard clash of nerds & misfits vs. the jocks — we even called the salesguys "the football team." Problem was, the jocks had the ear of senior management, and the nerds who'd built that company and understood the products and knew what to do next were left entirely without a voice.

    Ten years later, many in that new management team have had legal troubles (one even went to jail), while most of us nerds are still close friends — but we're scattered through the industry.

    Back to your points: a bad cultural fit at lower levels can be dealt with by that person's manager, and above. The higher-up that person is, the fewer people there are who can deal with any problems. I'm glad you're my CEO.

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