There Are No Executive Training Wheels

Once you are an executive, the future is now…

Ben Horowitz of Loudcloud and Andreeson-Horowitz fame posted a while back on “The Sad Truth About Developing Executives.”

Here’s a LINK.

I encourage you to read it; and if not, at least give it a click.

The Insight:

Horowitz lays out the essential reasons that a CEO can’t afford to hire executives that must be developed.

He opens the article with a heartfelt and somewhat (for me) convicting notion…  Namely:

My greatest disappointment as CEO was the day I realized that helping my executives develop their skill sets was a bad idea. Up to that point in my career, I prided myself on my ability to develop people and get the most out of them.


Ouch.  Right?

He then goes on to explain why.  And, it’s compelling.

He gives 6 reasons.  First he outlines how time spent developing under-performing executives is a misappropriation of the CEO’s valuable time and skills.

Then he outlines the consequences ranging from bad results, poor cultural impact, and, in the end, a clear undermining of the person being “developed.”

The Application:

I like stretch roles.

But, assigning a person to a stretch role (that is, one they are not currently fully practiced to take) requires that they have the credibility within the organization to fill it and you have the confidence to let them fill it without undermining them.

Because of these two factors–credibility and confidence–at some level in an organization, the notion of “stretch” as “potential” has to be shelved.

The stakes get too high.

You and I wouldn’t want our neurosurgeon to walk into the operating room, pat us on the shoulder, and say “I’ve never done this before, but I’m really smart and savvy and my medical director thinks I’m going to be great…Let’s see how it goes.”

The horror.

He has no credibility, and neither you nor I have confidence in him…regardless of what his medical director thinks.

The executive level of most organizations comes with the same horror when incompetent or under-apprenticed executives are placed and then expected to “develop.”

The difference is that an incompetent neurosurgeon affects a single life; and an incompetent executive can affect thousands.

There are no executive training wheels.

As Horowitz explains quite nicely:  Once you are an executive, you are compensated based on your existing ability, not based on your potential.

Executives either gain or lose the confidence of those around them… There is no “wait and see.”

The organization, customers, and board members are watching.

They see when a CEO steps in to answer for an incompetent or under-apprenticed exec.  They see when a given executive is the project of a CEO.  They also feel the pain of incompetence when an executive leader just doesn’t have “it” when it comes to the business.  “It” might be the ability to work with customers or it might be the ability and knowledge of how not to significantly mar sensitive personnel issues.

So What? 

When you boil it down, allocation of talent is perhaps the most important activity in an organization.  It is strategy just as allocation of capital is strategy.  That is, unless the executive team allows it to become a hobby (or worse, a clubby exercise).

In thinking through executive roles, CEOs have to look toward demonstrated competence as the top criterion for a position.  Everything else pales, and I do mean pales, in comparison.  Executive presence, savvy, speaking ability, golf handicap, sense of style, etc. all need to be relegated (or, for most of these, disregarded).

The time for development was last year.   Humane talent management, just like capital investment, requires vision.  If you are staffing an apprentice into a master’s role, you probably lack vision.

One Disclaimer and One Beef:

I’ll offer one slight disclaimer here:  Some of you will read this and think I’m writing that everybody has to have been there in order to get there, and thus the talent for executive or “high stakes” jobs in an organization must be sourced from outside the company.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Smart executive teams create apprenticeship roles with definite time periods and demonstrable tasking to build the credibility and confidence required of an individual who will take on an executive role.

And, then, the beef:  I agree with Horowitz that CEOs shouldn’t expect to coach their own people; but I believe in a strong focus on continuous improvement. Every executive has areas of emphasis that can be shored up with some coaching or counseling; and a good CEO enables that kind of coaching.  I doubt Horowitz meant that a CEO shouldn’t coach occasionally or enable continuous improvement; but I’d want to be sure.

Look for credibility in your executives, and lose the training wheels.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *