13 March 2008

Founder Rebounds

It seems to happen often. Expensive, heavily recruited, extremely qualified (on paper), high profile "professional" CEO brought in to take a founder-led company to the next level. Usually these situations start off with great expectation. Sometimes even a quick jolt of good performance. And then .... much more quietly, the Board reinstalls the founder to take over for a now floundering organization.

What does this mean? A bad hire. An organization that can't exist without the founder's magic. Just another phase of a company's growth.

Many companies have experienced it recently - Nike, Dell, Yahoo, and hoards of others whose names do not register as quickly.

Here are my thoughts on what might actually be happening behind the scenes:

1) It is hard to replace an icon, no matter who you are. Being the second act behind a nationally recognized figure is an awesome task. The expectations may be more than most can live into.

2) It's hard to be your own person with an icon looking over your shoulder. With the specter of the person who performed the magic that got the company to where it is hanging out in the wings, its hard to enact change. No matter what words are used, or how much support the newly hired CEO gets from the founder or the board, its a false belief that real change can occur with your predecessor standing nearby.

3) Some hires are just the wrong choices. Hiring is an art, not a science. Sometimes well intentioned boards and founders hire a person who is not capable of doing what is necessary. If it looks like a duck, smells like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, sometimes it really is a duck!

4) Circumstances change. Sometimes the replacement hire is the right person and can adequately handle the job at the time they are hired. But subsequently the company grows, changes and the new challenges require different leadership. Leaders don't always grow at the same pace as their organization.

No matter what the reasons for the ultimate mismatch, is bringing back the founder the right answer? It's a question that remains unanswered. But perhaps its the best answer the Board can come up with at the moment.