This is a story of how I allowed a new executive to join my team, run their function autonomously (hey, they had lots of experience!), and take their department to the brink of failure before I realized it.
I like to think I can spot incompetence from a mile away. You probably do too. I mean, it’s pretty clear when someone isn’t performing.
Or is it?
When this executive was hired he came with a couple of strong recommendations from a colleague’s network and many years of experience in similar companies.
He initially wasn’t my first choice (there’s the first red flag), but he went through a lengthy interview process with flying colors and had all the right answers. Importantly, he seemed to get us, get our culture, and what needed to be done. He spoke from experience.
He came into the role and got right to work. He didn’t need to be shown the ropes, because he had done this job before. He was far more experienced in this specific role than anyone else and he had lots of expertise to draw on. He knew what needed to be done and got to work. He also caught all the balls I threw him and ran them down the field. Or so I thought.
The thing is when someone comes into your high-growth organization with experience you expect them to hit the ground running and do their job. And if they come recommended within your network and things went well in the interview process you have a high degree of trust. Which is good. But you can’t blindly turn over the reigns, ignore your gut, and brush aside warning signs.
You can’t just think, “Well, they have the experience so they must know what they are doing.”
On the surface things, all seemed fine with how this person was performing, how he was leading his department and what he was accomplishing.
Follow the trail
But when I dug beneath the surface things were actually on fire. Many critical path things weren’t actually getting done (they just had the appearance of getting done). He was making many decisions I didn’t even know about and were never on my radar because he simply didn’t inform me of pertinent things going on in his department (despite our weekly 1-on-1’s and our frequent communication throughout the week). There were issues and decisions he told me about, and a whole other set he didn’t share with me. His actions were at odds with our culture. The liberties he took with his team, his budget and his time were super divergent from what I thought they were, and what they should be.
By the time I realized everything going on, he had hurt people, built a team of new hires who weren’t quite right for us, negatively impacted our culture, and spent way too much money.
And how did I finally realize it? We had a major misstep so I finally started “verifying”, and found myself down a rabbit hole of problems. You know when you find one problem, it leads to the next, and so on. I just followed the trail.
It was a painful trail to walk down. One where I had to seriously question my own leadership and judgment.
What would I do differently next time?
In thinking back, there were red flags. There were times I didn’t agree with where he was headed. There was an overall general sense of discomfort on my part. And I ignored it all because he was the experienced one (far more experienced than me in this capacity). UGH! Why did I do that?
So, upon reflection, here’s what I learned:
- Trust, but verify. Which is what I have always done with a new hire. But, what I would do differently next time is really verify. It’s important to go below the surface to make sure you are really aligned and really know what’s going on.
- Listen to my gut when it was whispering. Every time I ignore my gut I regret it later. Trust your gut even if your head is telling you something different.
- Be more vocal. When he made a decision that I had lingering questions or concerns about, I should have probed further. And when he wanted to go in one direction, but I believed we should go in another, I needed to exert my authority. Yes, I like to lead by consensus but it’s also my job to make the right decisions for the business no matter.
- Don’t just blindly assume someone who had good recommendations, a solid interview process and many years of relevant experience is going to be right for your business. That’s really the heart of the issue. I took his credentials at face value and shoved my instincts, experience, and knowledge aside.
Face your failures and learn from them
This was not an easy article to write. It brought back all the bad memories and reminded me of what a failure I considered myself to be, all the things I did wrong, and the right things I didn’t do. I mean, I really let my company down. But, in order to learn and grow we have to be able to be real about where we took a wrong turn.
Wow, did I learn a lot from this experience!