Recently, a company I work with decided to hire a new executive to head up a number of projects that needed common direction. It was a long, thorny search, and the woman to whom they offered the job had to relocate. During the wait, the company put off hiring more junior staff so that the new executive could build her own team. They put other decisions on hold, too, awaiting her input. Her "to do upon arrival" list grew, along with the company's expectations.
At the last minute -- in this case, for a good reason -- the new hire had to back out of the job. This disruption was bad enough. But because so much had been deferred until her arrival, overall progress at the company was set back at least 6 months.
This is a very common mistake I call "Magic Person Syndrome." I have been afflicted with it myself more than once. It strikes small startups and large companies with equal deadliness.
Magic Person Syndrome (let’s call it MPS) leads a company to believe that the absence of the right executive is at the root of some core business problem. And if they can just hire a new executive, the problem magically will be solved. Have you heard (or said) anything like this?
"A new head of sales will really make our product take off."
"When we finally get a new CTO we can put our architecture problems behind us."
"The world will know about us when our VP marketing starts"
Phrases like those are a sure sign that your company has a bad case of MPS. Guess what? 99.9% of the time there is no magic person. What’s more, MPS is obscuring the deeper issue that needs to be addressed head-on.
Let's take the hypothetical sales lead. Yes, a great leader can motivate and drive a sales team, but sales problems can stem from product issues (most commonly), incentive structures, marketing support, or a misunderstanding of customers' needs.
Maybe the incumbent sales leader isn’t empowered to fix the core problem. In any case, the current sales people certainly can pinpoint what’s wrong much more quickly than you can hire a new leader. Even if a new leader is necessary, there is no excuse for waiting to fix sales situation.
So, you can go fix the product (or marketing messages or system architecture or whatever is wrong), or you can let your business continue to suffer while you hunt for an elusive magic executive.
Let's play through the scenario optimistically. Say that you can find the perfect VP Magic Person in two months and she takes another month to give notice and start. Maybe she’ll take another month to get up to speed. And then… she still has to fix the company’s problem. The act of hiring someone does not actually change things. At best it puts someone in a position to effect change.
In a more realistic scenario, it might take six months to hire the right person. In the nightmare scenario (which has happened to me more than once) it can take six months to hire someone and then another six months to realize that person is not magic and that you need to find yet another magic person.
Of course companies should always try to hire great leaders and it's often a good decision to make changes at the top when things aren’t working. But you should never leave a problem unaddressed because only a new person can solve it. You know your business better than your yet-to-be-hired VP of Magic will. The team knows what’s happening on the ground.
A common pitfall is to delay decisions (particularly organizational ones) under the misguided notion that the new executive must have "maximum flexibility" to apply his magic. This is almost never the right call. Tackle the underlying issue immediately, and the company will be far better off. If the new hire has to remake something in his own image to make things work, so be it.
Indeed, if you can create a good situation for an incoming executive, instead of throwing him into a crisis -- he's much more likely to succeed. And perhaps even deliver some unanticipated magic.
David Waxman co-founded the web community Firefly Network (acquired by Microsoft in 1998), the hardware and ISP service People PC (acquired by Earthlink in 2002), and the internet-based advertising agency Spot Runner. He also now works as a consultant, helping early-stage startups get established and advising established companies on how to think like entrepreneurs. He lives in Los Angeles.