Myths of the Headless Company

In the past year or so, two of our competitors have abruptly transitioned their CEOs and both have perpetuated a lot of mythology about what happens and/or will happen in such transitions.  As someone who’s run two startups as CEO for more than a combined ten years, been the “new guy” CEO twice after such transitions, sat on two startup boards as an independent director, and advised numerous startups, I thought I’d do a little myth-busting around some of the common things these companies say to employees and customers when these transitions happen.

“Everythings’s fine, there is no problem.”

If everything were fine, you would not have changed your CEO.  QED.

Houston, there is a problem.

“Uh, the actual problem is we’re doing too well, … so we need to change our the CEO for the next level of growth.”

This reminds me of the job interview response where you say your biggest weakness is perfectionism.

Look, while successful companies do periodically outgrow their executives, you can tell the difference between an organized scale-driven CEO swap out and something going wrong.  How?

Organized transitions are organized.  The CEO and the board agree that the company is scaling beyond the CEO’s abilities.  A search is started.  The new CEO is found.  The old CEO gracefully hands the reins over to the new CEO.  This can and does happen all the time in Silicon Valley because the problem is real and everyone — both the VCs and the outgoing CEO — are all big shareholders and want what’s best for the company, which is a smooth transition.

When a CEO is exited …

  • Abruptly, without notice, over a weekend, …
  • Without a replacement already identified
  • Without even a search firm hired
  • At an awkward time (e.g., a few days before the end of a quarter or a few weeks before the annual user conference)

You can be pretty sure that something went wrong.  What exactly went wrong you can never know.  But you can be sure of thing:  the conversation ended with either “I’m outta here” or “he’s (or she’s) outta here” depending on whether the person was “pushed’ or “jumped.”

“But we did need someone for the next level of growth.”

That’s quite possibly true and the board will undoubtedly use the transition as an attempt to find someone who’s done the next level of growth before.  But, don’t be confused, if the transition is abrupt and disorganized that’s not why the prior CEO was exited.  Something else is going on, and it typically falls into one of three areas:

  • Dispute with the board, including but not limited to disagreements about the executive team or company strategy.
  • Below-plan operating results.  Most CEOs are measured according to expectations set in fundraising and established in the operating plan.  At unicorns, I call this the curse of the megaround, because such rounds are often done on the back on unachievable expectations.
  • Improprieties — while hopefully rare — such as legal, accounting, or employment violations, can also result in abrupt transitions.

“Nothing’s going to change.”

This is a favorite myth perpetuated on customers.  Having been “the new guy” at both MarkLogic and Host Analytics, I can assure you that things did change and the precise reason I was hired was to change things.  I’ve seen dozens of CEO job specs and I’ve never a single one that said “we want to hire a new CEO but you are not supposed to change anything.”  Doesn’t happen.

But companies tell customers this — and maybe they convince themselves it’s true because they want to believe it — but it’s a myth.  You hire a new CEO precisely and exactly to change certain things.

When I joined MarkLogic I focused the company almost exclusively on media and government verticals.  When I joined Host, I focused us up-market (relative to Adaptive) and on core EPM (as opposed to BI).

Since most companies get in trouble due to lack of focus, one of the basic job descriptions of the new-person CEO is to identify the core areas on which to focus — and the ones to cut.  Particularly, as is the case at Anaplan where the board is on record saying that the burn rate is too high — that means cut things.  Will he or she cut the area or geography that most concerns customer X?  Nobody knows.

Nobody.  And that’s important.  The only person who knows will be the new CEO and he/she will only know after 30-90 days of assessment.  So if anyone tells you “they know” that nothing’s going to change, they are either lying or clueless.  Either way, they are flat wrong.  No one knows, by definition.

“But the founder says nothing’s going to change.”

Now that would be an interesting statement if the founder were CEO.  But, in these cases, the founder isn’t CEO and there is a reason for that — typically a lack of sufficient business experience.

So when the founder tells you “nothing is going to change” it’s simply the guy who lacks enough business experience to actually run the business telling you his/her opinion.

The reality is new CEOs are hired for a reason, they are hired to change things, that change typically involves a change in focus, and CEO changes are always risky.  Sometimes they work out great.  Sometimes the new person craters the company.  You can never know.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s