Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Getting From A to B

I had coffee with a biotech CEO the other day, and as is often the case, the conversation turned to building top tier executive management teams. We spoke about a need in the company’s Board of Directors, and how some of the other BoD members were seeking a very high profile candidate. They wanted an “A team” director. Through their own personal networks, they had identified three very high profile people, all of whom I knew. We both danced around it for a while, but it ultimately came out – none of them would have been good for the company’s board.

What I knew, and what the CEO suspected, was that all three had been very fortunate in their careers. Not that they lacked any talent, but in large measure, they happened to be in the right place at the right time. They had had some early successes in their respective careers, but had all been drinking their own Kool-Aid for too long. One in particular, perhaps the most high-profile of the group, was on the board of a company that I knew and had personal knowledge of his participation there – or should I say lack of participation. He was known to come to board meetings never having read the board book, completely unprepared, believing that the mere aura of his presence in the room justified his compensation.

I said to the CEO: “That’s why I always cringe a little inside when people tell me they want an A team candidate.” It depends on what you mean by the A team. If you’re looking for “marquee value,” then yes, perhaps the heavyweight who doesn’t do anything is appropriate. However, I’d argue that what you really want is someone from the B team. Now before you all jump on that, let me explain.

If any of you have college-aged kids, you know how impossible it is to get even the brightest, most qualified students into the “top” schools. The competition is unfathomable, and is orders of magnitude more so than when I was applying. My advice to college bound kids? There is a small club of the very top schools – the Ivys and the “Ivy rejects.” There’s also a tier at the very bottom with shaky credentials. But in the middle, there is an enormous range of perfectly good schools that will provide you with tremendous opportunity, where you will get a world class education, and with faculty and facilities that can compete with any Ivy. Many of the students at the schools in that middle range could easily have been at a “top” school, but there simply isn’t room for everyone. Any arguments so far?

So when we’re looking for top talent, I’m far more impressed with what someone has done, than I am with their pedigree. A resume with top schools and “Academy” companies is nice, but when I’m building a team, I’d rather stock the pond with eager, energetic, roll-up-the-sleeves types, not the folks who are riding on past successes and have great resumes, but are secretly relying on the hard work of subordinates to get things done. That’s what I mean by the B team. They’re the executives who, by sheer chance, were the ones who were not selected for the position at the top company at some point in their careers. Maybe they were the number two or three candidate, and the HR person didn’t like their shoes. Maybe the chemistry between the CEO and the successful candidate was just better. It doesn’t mean the B teamer isn’t capable or couldn’t meld well in a different culture.

Of course, none of this is to say that there aren’t great, accomplished, hard working, skilled executives (with nice shoes) who are at the top tier companies. It’s just a caveat – don’t get taken in by the brand names, when there are “generics” that are “bioequivalent.”

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