Sep 252014

PTJD

Post Traumatic Job Disorder.

As we have been scaling up Return Path, we have been increasingly hiring senior people in from the outside. We believe in promoting from within and do it all the time, but sometimes you need an experienced leader who has operated at or ahead of the scale you’re at.  Someone with deep functional expertise and a “been there, done that” playbook. When you get a hire like this right, it’s amazing how much that kind of person gets done, how quickly.

One of the pitfalls of those hires, though, is cultural fit. Many of the larger organizations in the world don’t have the kind of supportive, employee-centric cultures that we have here, or that startups tend to have in general. They tend to be much more hierarchical, political, command-and-control. There is a real risk that hiring a senior person who has been trained in environments like that will blow up on you — that, as I’ve written before, the body will reject the organ transplant.

I’ve taken to calling the problem PTJD, or Post-Traumatic Job Disorder. Some of the stories I’ve heard from senior people about their experiences with their bosses or even CEOs at prior companies include such things as:  being screamed at regularly, having had a gun pulled on you, having had a knife pulled on you, having been ignored and only spoken to once or twice a year, being the victim of sexual harassment. Nice.

Just like PTSD, many people can recover from PTJD by being placed in a different environment with some up-front reprogramming and ongoing coaching. But also like PTSD, there are times where people can’t recover from PTJD. The bad habits are too engrained. They are (virtually) shell shocked.

Assuming you do the same reprogramming and coaching work on any PTJD employee, the difference between an employee who recovers and one who does not recover is really hard to smoke out in an interview process. Almost all candidates like this (a) are very polished and now how to interview well, and (b) genuinely think they want to work in a more relaxed, contemporary environment.

Here are five things I’ve learned over the years that can help identify a PTJD candidate who is unlikely to recover, before you make the hire:

  1. Look for candidates who have bigger company experience, but who also have startup and growth/scaling experience.  As I’ve written before, stage experience is important because the person is more likely to really understand what he or she is getting into — and what their playbook of action is.
  2. Try to understand, if a candidate has been in a workplace that breeds PTJD, whether that person was just in the machine, or if the person actually ran the machine. In other words, a senior manager might be a better fit to recover from PTJD than a senior executive.
  3. Note that not all big companies are dysfunctional or lead to PTJD, so try to understand the reputation of the person’s employer. For example, in New York, it’s a pretty safe bet that someone coming from American Express has not only been well trained, but well cared for.
  4. Do reference checks differently. Do them yourself. Do them as if you were doing a 360 on the person (manager, peer, subordinate, even a junior person from another department). Do reference checks on the references (seriously – ask the references about each other) so you understand the biases each of them brings to the conversation with you.
  5. Focus on the first 90 days. Be relentless about how you onboard a potential PTJD victim. Give them more care, structure, praise, guidance, and criticism than you might otherwise give. Use an outside coach to augment your work, and assign a good executive buddy internally. And listen carefully to the feedback from the organization about the person, doing a deep 360 after a few months to see if the person is recovering, can recover, or can’t recover. If the latter, time to cut your losses early.

Thanks to some of my new executive colleagues here for inspiring this post, and I hope none of my friends who have served in the military take offense at this post. I am drawing an analogy, but I’m not truly suggesting that PTJD compares in any way, shape, or form to the horrors of war.