Shares of Microsoft are trading at a 13-year high on rumors that the software giant’s board has narrowed the list of possible candidates to succeed CEO Steve Ballmer down to eight. Or maybe investors are just excited over the prospect of having anyone other than Ballmer in the job. Who knows?
In any case, the lead candidate – hands-down the right guy for the job, in my opinion – is Ford chief executive Alan Mulally. Many see Mulally as a dark horse because of his lack of IT industry experience. Never mind that he has two engineering degrees and spent thirty-something years running engineering for Boeing.
And lets not forget it was former RJR Nabisco and American Express executive Lou Gerstner who pulled off one of the most spectacular turnarounds in corporate history, transforming IBM from a computer to an IT services company. The guy didn’t exactly have high-tech chops. Not to mention that Sam Palmisano, a former salesman with a history degree, was equally effective as Gerstner’s successor.
The point is, when it comes to hiring and promoting people into senior management roles – especially in the technology industry – conventional wisdom is frequently wrong. By focusing too much on experience and education, executives and boards are probably missing out on some of the most talented candidates for the job.
Sure, IBM got it right, but let me tell you, for every forward thinking company that understands there are more facets to an individual – and to a leadership function – than a piece of paper or how many years they spent doing one thing, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, that are stuck in the dark ages.
I’ve seen way more than my fair share of executive job specifications over the decades. I can probably rattle off a CEO job spec off the top of my head and nail most of the keywords in 90% of them. And I can tell you with great certainty, when hiring and promoting executives, much of the criteria companies rely on is vastly overrated. For example:
Experience is overrated. Do I really need to explain how young Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison and dozens of others were when they founded and grew their companies into industry leading enterprises? Sure, there were maturity issues with most of them, but then, everything comes at a price.
Education is overrated. It’s actually hard to believe that companies still rely on MBAs and other degrees to filter candidates for senior-level jobs. If I hadn’t had the wherewithal to talk my way past that omission in my resume and into my first executive-level Silicon Valley marketing job, my career never would have taken off the way it did. Besides, Steve Jobs and nearly everyone named above were dropouts.
Direct related experience, knowledge, and contacts are overrated. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: “We decided to go with someone [fill in the blank: with more direct, related experience … who’s been in our industry longer … who knows where all the bones are buried … who understands our technology … who has a big customer rolodex …]. Maybe for a VP of engineering I can understand, but for a CEO and most other executives, it’s pure nonsense.
Don’t even get me started on how overrated founders and the notion of “promote from within” are. Granted, there are advantages to both, but there’s absolutely no reason to let that get in the way of finding the right person for the job and making a smart hiring decision.
No wonder Steve Jobs and so many other brilliant leaders I’ve known over the years got their start at Atari. The game pioneer’s founder and former CEO Nolan Bushnell famously bucked the status quo when it came to recruiting and promotion processes, among other things.
So what criteria should they focus on? The other sections of the job spec. You know, the ones that are usually generic boilerplates. And while I’m reluctant to encourage more laziness by rattling off a list of criteria, here are some you might consider exploring during the interview process:
Decision-making. What’s their process and their track record?
Management effectiveness. How do they work with the rest of the leadership team?
Critical thinking. How do they think, reason, troubleshoot, prioritize? What’s their analysis of your company’s current situation?
Work ethic. Will they do whatever it takes to develop great products, delight customers, create shareholder value, and empower and motivate employees?
Passion. What do they live for? Do they love what they do? Is it in their DNA?
Behavior. How do they act with peers, subordinates, bosses, customers, investors?
Accomplishments. What’s their track record of accomplishments, especially those that fit with what you’re primarily looking for.
Cultural fit. Ever see a strict, process-oriented, big-company executive try to run a startup? It’s fun to watch – in a train wreck sort of way.
The truth is, when it comes to hiring and retaining the best talent, most executives and boards take the easy way out. In other words, they’re lazy and not very innovative. If they gave as much thought as they do to their products, customers, investment portfolios, and choice of automobile, they’d probably do just fine.
It’s a critical function. They should treat it that way. After all, it’s their job.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.