Right Actor, Wrong “Stage”: Don’t Get Setup for Failure

“Death of a Salesman”

“Tim starts next Monday!” said the CEO at our startup. He had called my mobile over the weekend to share the good news. I was thrilled. Tim was a new Sales executive we had hired to scale up our Sales team and our revenues with it. I had interviewed him and found him to be a very competent professional with deep Sales experience, and on top of all that, he was a genuinely nice and likable guy. But most importantly, he had “been there and done that.” He had come from a major, publicly-traded software company to our small startup having played a key role in getting them from $50M in revenues to well over $500M in only a couple of years. Tim knew how to scale Sales, and that’s exactly what we wanted him to do for us.

18 months later, Tim was gone. I was professionally disappointed and personally sad to see him go. Our sales volumes had grown and Tim had personally closed some very large deals that proved our solution delivered high value to very big companies. But our revenues had not grown as fast as the Board plan called for, and the conclusion was that Tim just wasn’t scaling things fast enough.

Stage-relevant Skill Sets

Looking back on it now, I’ve come to realize that the problem wasn’t Tim, and it wasn’t the company, or the product. The best explanation I’ve ever heard for the realproblem was what Tom Kippola from The Chasm Group defines as “Stage-Relevant Skill Sets.” Tom illustrates this concept very eloquently in this video from Catalyze 2011.

It’s pretty typical in Silicon Valley for investors and executives (including me in the prior example) to want to “hire ahead of the curve” in terms of skill sets in key roles. When we hired Tim, we significantly modified our go-to-market model whileattempting to execute the rapid-sales-growth plan that the Board had signed off on. We changed pricing and packaging, repositioned our services, redefined our market/ competition, and completely revised the way we engaged partners. Some of these mini-experiments were successful. A few were not. The two key issues are so clear to me now: 1) Tim had a proven track record in scaling Sales once a repeatable model was defined and proven and 2) Tim did NOT have experience  withiterating and experimenting with go-to-market models in search of repeatability. The company initially took it on faith that the model could scale, and added Tim so that it would scale. In summary: We hired Tim too early, because his skill set was relevant to the company’s next stage, not its current stage.

Successful Transitions

Consider the opposite challenge, which is also common in Silicon Valley, where you have people in key roles – Marketing, Product Management, Services, Sales, Engineering who have great skills for the early stages of company growth, but have to transition as the company succeeds and moves on to the next stage. Can the product manager who was great at building 1:1 relationships with a handful of lighthouse customers and an Engineering team of 5 continue success when she has requirements coming from hundreds of customers that need to be integrated, prioritized, and managed into a 60-person Engineering team organized into 5 discrete groups? Maybe. Maybe not.

Water-skiing is a very good metaphor to describe the challenge of this transition. If you’ve ever water-skied, you know that the basics are pretty simple. Floating in the water with your skis vertical while you’re waiting for the boat to take off is easy. And once you’re up and out of the water and moving fast, staying on your skis in smooth water is easy (and a lot of fun, by the way). But transitioning from floating in the water to getting up on your skis is extremely challenging. The boat takes off at high speed, the handle starts pulling you forward fast and hard, and you have to maintain your grip on the handle and balance while your skis slowly emerge as you come out of the water, and during this time, water is pushing your skis apart and flooding your chest and face making it athletically challenging let alone physically hazardous.

Startup-to-Enterprise transitions (and vice versa) can be the same way for high-potential individuals and leaders, and it’s not just an issue for executives. It’s an issue at every level of the organization. Even large organizations go through changes that challenge the stage-relevance of every employee’s skills. Part of what we do at ExecCatalyst is to help people and teams make those transitions successfully. So in the waterskiing example, it’s helping professionals understand 1) how things will be different – measurement, processes, skill-sets, etc. when you’re up and out of the water and 2) how to manage the challenges of each transition – so that you’re not left floating and choking, stuck in the water as the boat pulls away.

In addition to “Company Stage,” other critical transitions include:

  • Business Stage (Startup, Turnaround, Sustaining Success, and Realignment)
  • Job function (from technical role to business role)
  • Level in the organization (when you get promoted)
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • New manager and reorgs
  • Geography and culture

If you think you or your team could use some help managing through these kinds of change, pleasecontact us. We welcome your comments below and any examples of stage-relevant matches and mis-matches. And as always, if you like this content, please share it with your colleagues using the social media toolbar below.


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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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