I earned my spending money in high school and partially paid for college by working as a lifeguard and water safety instructor. Working at a lovely suburban country club you don’t make a lot of saves. One day, working from the deep-end chair, I noticed two little kids hanging on a lane line. That was against the rules. I blew my whistle and shouted, “off!”
Still young enough to be obedient (i.e., under 11), the two kids let go of the line. The trouble was they couldn’t swim. Each grabbed the other and they sank to the bottom. “Oh my God,” I thought as I dove off the chair to make the save, “I just provoked a double drowning.”
While that was happily the last actual (and yes, averted) double drowning I have witnessed, I’ve seen a lot of metaphorical ones since. They involve adults, not kids. And it’s always the VP of Sales in a deadly embrace with the VP of Marketing. Sure, it may not be an exactly simultaneous death — sometimes they might leave a few months apart — but make no mistake, in the end they’re both gone and they drowned each other.
How To Recognize the Deadly Embrace
I believe the hardest job in software is the VP of Sales in an early-stage startup. Why? Because almost everything is unknown.
- Is the product salable?
- How much will people pay for it?
- What’s a good lead?
- Who should we call on?
- What’s the ideal customer profile?
- What should we say / message?
- Who else is being evaluated?
- What are their strengths/weaknesses?
- What profile of rep should I hire?
- How much can they be expected to sell?
- What tools do they need?
- Which use-cases should we sell to?
- What “plays” should we run?
You might argue every startup less then $50M in ARR is still figuring out some of this. Yes, you get product-market fit in the single-digit millions (or not at all). But to get a truly repeatable, debugged sales model takes a lot longer.
This painful period presents a great opportunity for sales and marketing to blow each other up. It all begins with sales signing up for (or being coerced into) an unrealistic number. Then, there aren’t enough leads. Or, if there are, the leads are weak. Or the leads don’t become pipeline. Or pipeline doesn’t close.
At each step one side can easily blame the other.
|Sales Says||Marketing Says|
|There aren’t enough leads||There are, but they’re all stuck with your “generation Z” SDRs|
|The SDRs are great, I hired them||The SQL acceptance rate says they are passing garbage to sales.|
|The SQLs aren’t bad, there just aren’t enough of them||Your reps are greasing the SDRs by accepting bad SQLs|
|We’re not getting 80% of pipeline from marketing||We’re delivering our target of 70% and then some|
|But the pipeline is low quality, look at the poor close rate||The close rate is poor because of your knuckleheaded sellers|
|Those knuckleheads all crushed it at my last company||Your derail rate’s insane|
|Lots of deals in this space end up no-decision||Maybe they derail because we don’t follow-up fast enough|
|Our message isn’t crisp or consistent||Our messaging is fine, the analysts love it|
|We’re the greatest thing nobody’s ever heard of||We’ve got a superior product that your team can’t sell|
|We’re being out-marketed!||We’re being out-sold!|
Once this ping-pong match starts, it’s hard to stop. People feel blamed. People get defensive. Anecdotal bloody shirts are waived in front of the organization — e.g., “marketing counted five grad students who visited the booth as MQLs!” or “we lost an opportunity at BigCo because our seller was late for the big meeting!”
With each claim and counter-claim sales and marketing tighten the deadly embrace. Often the struggling CRO is fired for missing too many quarters, guns still blazing as he/she dies. (Or even beyond the grave if they continue to trash the CMO post departure.) Sometimes the besieged CMO quits in anticipation of termination. Heck, I even had one quit after I explicitly told them “I know you’re under attack, but it’s unfair and I’ve got your back.”
Either way, in whatever order, they go down together. Each one mortally wounds the spirit, the confidence, or the pleasure-in-work of the other.
How to Break Out of It
Like real double drownings, it’s hard for one of the participants to do an escape maneuver. The good news is that it’s not hard to know there’s a problem because the mess is clearly visible to the entire organization. Everyone sees the double downing. Heck, employees’ spouses probably even know about it. However, only the CEO can stop it and — trust me — everyone’s waiting for them to do so.
The CEO has four basic options:
- Take some pressure off. If the primary reason you’re missing plan is because the plan is too aggressive, go to the board and reduce the targets. (Yes, even if it means reducing some expense budget as well.) As Mike Moritz said to me when I started at MarkLogic: “make a plan that you can beat.” Tell them both that you’re taking off the pressure, them them why (because they’re not collaborating), and tell them that you’ve done your part and now it’s time for them to do theirs: collaborate non-defensively to solve problems.
- Force them to work together. This the old “this shit needs to stop and I’m going to fire one of the two of you, maybe both, if you can’t work together” meeting. A derivation is to put both in a room and tell them not to leave until either they agree to work together or come out with a piece of paper with one name on it (i.e., the one who’s leaving). The key here for them to understand that you are sufficiently committed to ending the bullshit that you are willing to fire one or both of them to end it. In my experience this option tends not to work, I think because each secretly believes they will be the winner if you are forced to choose.
- Fire one of the participants. This has the effect of rewarding the survivor as the victor. If done too late (before death but after the mortal wound — i.e., after the victor is far along in finding another job), it can still result in the loss of both. To the extent one person clearly picked the fight, my tendency is to want to reward the victim, not the aggressor — but that discounts the possibility the aggressor is either correct and/or more highly skilled. If they are both equally skilled and equally at fault, a rational alternative is to flip a coin and tell them: “I value you both, you are unable to work together, I think you’re equally to blame, so I’m going to flip a coin and fire one of you: heads or tails.” An alternative is to fire one and demote the other — that way it’s very clear to all involved that there was no winner. If fights have winners, you’re incenting fighting.
- Fire both. I love this option. While it’s not always practical, boy does it send a strong message about collaboration to the rest of the organization: “if you fight, are asked to stop, and you don’t — you’re gone.” Put differently: “I’m not firing them for fighting, I’m firing them for insubordination because I told them not to fight.” Odds are you might lose both anyway so one could argue this is simply a proactive way of dealing with the inevitable.
One of the hardest things for executives is to maintain the balance between healthy cross-functional tension and accountability and unhealthy in-fighting and politics. It’s the CEO’s job to set the tone for collaboration in the company. While Larry Ellison and his disciples may love “two execs enter, one exec leaves” cage fights as a form of corporate Darwinism, most CEOs prefer a tone of professional collaboration. When that breaks down, weak CEOs get frustrated and complain about their executive team. Strong ones take definitive action to define what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior in the organization and put clear actions behind their words.