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September 2016

Frederickson Pribula Li

When Not To Accept The Job

How To Identify A Challenging Boss Before Accepting Any Position


In one week five senior executives all shared the same shocking news: they left their jobs without new positions lined up (none were placed by me, incidentally!). Each highly accomplished executive held senior leadership positions in high profile companies imbued with prodigious valuations. Yet the executives bolted from their unicorns with the speed of an Olympic sprint.

Typically, when executives quit high-growth firms within the first year, either the company is not doing as well as the public believes, or, more often than not, the executive wasn’t aligned with the rest of the management team.

Given fierce demand, high-caliber talent can leave unfulfilling jobs without having to find a new one first or risk sitting out a season.

Before accepting a recently vacated or seemingly high-risk position, double your usual due diligence. Try speaking not only with your potential colleagues, but also with both your immediate predecessor and, if applicable, that person’s predecessor and that person’s contacts. Executives who recently left firms often cannot, or are dis-incentivized from, telling the whole story, which can make it difficult to discern why they left. Below are probing questions to help you identify the risks and determine whether the same risks apply to you.

1. The CEO over-sold the role.
CEOs are often effective sales people. That doesn’t make them effective managers. It doesn’t mean they have respect for roles or the individuals who hold them. They may treat everyone like glorified EAs. All too often, CEOs ask CMOs to handle the logistics of the company holiday party, or the CHRO to manage compensation and benefits logistics. That’s fine if the CMOs and CHROs expected as much, but not if they were expecting roles to match their titles.

Question for a predecessor: How did your role compare to the role you thought you were accepting?

2. The CEO wants a strategist – as long as the strategies are his.
CEOs who hire executives for their expertise need to be willing to trust that expertise. Few strategists want to implement plans they haven’t had the opportunity to help shape. So often I hear of CEOs telling engineering VPs they know more about shipping products than their engineers or more about PR than their communications heads. While thoughtful questioning is productive, dismissive condescension is not.

Interview questions: How and by whom do strategic decisions get made? Who participates in the process? Please describe how one major decision was made. Describe who had which ideas, who was involved in the decision-making process, and how resolution was reached.

3. The CEO micromanages seasoned execs or execs’ reports.
Professionals want to be treated like capable people, whether they’re senior executives or newbies just out of school. We hear so many stories of mangers leering over employees’ shoulders, forcing employees to spend more time defending and reporting on their actions than actually doing their jobs. Micromanagement is utterly miserable and demotivating for employees at any level.

Interview questions: Describe the CEO’s management style. How, when and where does the CEO interact with employees at all levels? Describe a conflict with the CEO and how it was resolved.

4. Seasoned execs get ignored.
The opposite of micromanagement is total avoidance. I knew one HR SVP who spent literally five minutes with the CEO during her first six months on the job. He considered her role to be so unimportant that he denied her many meeting requests – until the meeting involved firing her.

Interview questions: Describe your meeting cadence with the CEO. How often do meetings get cancelled? What’s the follow-through on items needing the CEO’s approval? Furthermore, which executives interact with the board and how often? (It is often a warning sign when the CEO is the only executive meeting with the board.)

5. Organizational changes are made without managerial input.
One CEO decided that engineering recruiting wasn’t happening quickly enough, so he moved all of the recruiters into his office and informed the recruiting team that from there on out they reported to him. The whole team quit, as did the managers who only found out about the organizational change after it had been announced.

Interview question: How are organizational decisions made? Who is a part of the process? How are these decisions disseminated?

6. It’s a family business.
Venture-backed businesses are not supposed to be family businesses. No executive can compete with the CEO’s “brilliant” uncle, second wife, or childhood best friend. When underqualified friends and family are on the company payroll, run, don’t walk. You may find that the CTO lacks an engineering degree or that the well-paid executive coach lacks coaching experience. Even when friends and family are qualified, boundaries inevitably get blurred. It’s tough to be the outsider struggling to break into an inner circle sealed by blood.

Interview question: Ask each executive how they found the company and how long and in what capacity they’ve known the CEO. Ask about vendors, especially coaches.

7. The CEO wants a buddy, not a partner.
Beyond a kick-ass HR leader, engineer, marketer, product manager, what else is the CEO looking for? A drinking companion? A confidante? A yes man or woman? A bad cop? A visionary? A trophy wife? A detailed implementer? Adult supervision? Obviously, some of these roles are more valid than others.

Interview questions: Ask the CEO to summarize in one word what qualities are being sought. Then do some soul searching to determine if that’s a role you want to play. Also ask the team when and where they interact with the CEO outside of work. If the only way into the CEO’s inner circle is to be a soccer buddy, know that before accepting the job.

8. Management is toxic and keeps getting away with it.
Some CEOs revel in getting away with bad behavior, like an abusive spouse. Fortunately, thanks to Glassdoor, as well as websites inviting anonymous tips, it’s easier than ever to discover bad behavior. Remember, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Interview question: Research the CEO’s reputation two levels out not just at the current company but at all previous companies where the CEO held senior positions.

9. The CEO expects the executive to replicate past results without past resources.
One HR leader led his company to a high ranking on the prestigious “best places to work” list. A new company hired him to repeat his magic. Upon starting the new job, the HR leader learned that the CEO had no intention of devoting the resources required to make the goal achievable. Unable to complete the job he was hired for, the HR leader quit.

Interview question: Have a working session with the CEO and CFO where you discuss the resources required for the role. Get confirmation of that support before accepting the job.

10. When the going gets tough, the CEO goes missing.
Unpopular decisions are inevitable. Structural changes can be especially tough. These changes can only succeed when the CEO and CHRO present a unified front. When the CEO won’t back a senior executive on tough-but-necessary changes, that executive will likely leave.

Interview question: Ask company executives to describe times when they made tough or unpopular recommendations. How did the CEO respond to that recommendation? When did the CEO have or not have their backs?

11. The CEO doesn’t know what he’s doing but won’t acknowledge it.
No one is perfect, and first time CEOs have especially steep learning curves. All the more so when the CEOs are 20-somethings with little professional experience. They’re going to make mistakes. This is fine. What’s not fine at any age or experience level is a refusal to acknowledge gaps and an unwillingness to learn.

Interview question: How and to whom does the CEO respond to feedback? What does it take to change his or her mind?

12. The CEO is larger than life.
When companies don’t have a lot of product news to share, or when the products are either boring or hard to understand, PR may promote the CEO instead of the product. Sometimes the CEOs begin to believe the hype. For some, that’s when the problems begin. In other cases, the PR merely feeds an already engorged ego.

Interview question: In companies with a lot of PR about the CEO (as opposed to the company), find out who is driving the PR – the communications team or the CEO’s ego. Does the CEO have time to do his job — or is he spending it all on media interviews?

13. The CEO has no life and believes employees shouldn’t either.
If you’re not looking to work 80-hour weeks, don’t take the job where you have to travel internationally every other week or regularly call in for 3 am conference calls. Researching work-life balance is common sense. Being able to find out about it without looking like a lightweight is the challenge.

Interview question: Ask past and present employees to describe the work culture both on a day-to-day basis and during intense projects. Previous employees will obviously be the most honest. You can ask them for an honest accounting of hours worked.

14. The desire for a new or evolved role comes from without, not from within.
Get clarity as to why the CEO wants you for this role. Is it because the CEO embraces it or because the board is asking for it? Perhaps it’s because all the “cool companies” are doing it.

Interview question: Ask predecessors and all executives – not just the CEO – for their take on why this role exists. Be specific with the CEO about what it might take - resource-wise and organizationally - to make the role successful, and see if the CEO seems bought in.

15. Watch for other warning signs.
If the company is venture-funded, has each round been backed by previous investors, or have early investors dropped off? Why? How long can the company last without further investments, given the tightening of venture spending? How are the company’s competitors doing? What is the company’s strategy for responding to competitive and broader market pressures?

All of the above are fair questions to ask the CEO.

A job with the right high-growth firm can be a rocket ship for any career. Just make sure there’s a capable commander at the helm or you may find yourself jumping ship before seeing land.

Take care,

sig

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HR Consultant & Contractor's Corner

Our hottest global HR contracting and consulting assignments include:

  • Providing Venture Capital and Private Equity Talent Partners with HR executive search, HR advisory, and compensation consulting expertise for their portfolio companies
  • Executive leadership mentoring and on-call support for CEO’s, CFO’s and HR managers at start-up companies in tech hubs that include San Francisco, San Mateo, Mountain View (Silicon Valley), Seattle, Chicago, New York, Salt Lake City, Boise, Washington DC, London, Berlin and Singapore
  • HR assessment for multiple startups ready to shore up their infrastructure before taking their businesses through a high growth stage or IPO
  • Coaching executive teams through strategic planning for their leadership development function including succession planning and creating career development paths and retention plans for high potentials
  • Interim Head of HR assignments with pre-IPO companies in software analytics, digital advertising, big data, biotech, and cloud-based service companies
  • HR advising for several European and Asian headquartered companies interested in relocating their global headquarters or building regional headquarters in San Francisco/Silicon Valley
  • Comprehensive review of compensation programs for post-IPO tech companies, including benchmarking and redesigning of short and long-term incentive plans
  • Customized, high-touch outplacement projects for pre-IPO and mid-sized companies in the midst of restructuring or integrating acquisitions

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HR Events

Linkedin Talent Connect
October 5-7 – Las Vegas, NV

SHRM Diversity & Inclusion Conference
October 25-27 – Austin, TX

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Spotlight on...

With the recent surge in funding at tech hubs across the country and the globe, our Managing Partner Valerie Frederickson, Head of Executive Search Mathilde Pribula, and Head of Client Services Michele Li will be traveling to Atlanta, DC, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong in the next month. If you're in one of these hubs and would like to meet our Partners for career coaching or any executive search or consulting needs, reach out to Katherine Smalkin at katherine@fplpartners.com.

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About FPL Partners

Frederickson Pribula Li (FPL Partners) is the top global HR and strategic People Operations executive search and consulting firm in Silicon Valley. Founded in 1995 and headquartered in Menlo Park, our mission is to help our client’s succeed by elevating their people functions. Our HR executive search and consulting capabilities stretch worldwide with global hubs in San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, New York, Seattle, Paris and Hong Kong. Clients range from startups to the Fortune 100 across diverse industries.

Outplacement Practice

Re–evaluating your outplacement vendors? Require a higher utilization rate for your outplacement dollar? Need higher touch services and consistency across all markets? Since 1995, FPL Partners is the outplacement firm of choice for sophisticated corporate buyers. Join the numerous Fortune 500 employers and small firms who have selected us over their previous vendor and are now enjoying the best of both worlds: each employee well taken care of, and consistency in every city.

Price shopping or need to customize a program? Contact our Corporate Outplacement Team at 650-614-0220 or email them at outplacement@fplpartners.com for more information on our outplacement services.

HR Consulting Practice

With the dramatic increase of global technology outsourcing and the continued geographic dispersion of corporate teams, the need for international human resources strategy, design, and project implementation has increased. Our global team of HR consultants has the specialized skills and breadth of expertise to develop and lead your initiatives—saving you time, money, and resources. We can manage the international recruiting function, help you hire key local managers or an entire startup team in an overseas market, and establish HR systems for global expansion.

Why clients choose FPL Partners:
  • Results-driven, value-oriented. To keep your HR programs in line with your corporate direction, we provide HR strategy, cost-effective HR infrastructure, and pragmatic HR advice across all critical areas of human resource management.
  • Any size, any stage. We draw upon years of experience with startups, midsize firms and large global enterprises to guide our clients strategically through any stage of growth.
  • Work smarter, not harder. In survey after survey, CEO's say the number-one issue keeping them up at night is "people problems." We help you solve them so that you can get back to focusing on your business.
  • Contact our HR Consulting Team at 650.614.0220 or email them at consulting@fplpartners.com for more information on our HR consulting services
HR Executive Search Practice

Why clients choose FPL Partners as their human resources-specialized executive search firm:

  • Prompt results. The average time from start of search to presentation of the winning HR candidate is 21 days. 50% of HR searches are completed in less than 45 days.
  • Superior results. More than 95% of HR executives placed by FPL Partners are still with their companies five years following placement.
  • High client satisfaction. More than 90% of the firm's work is either repeat business or from referrals. A number of clients have been with FPL Partners for more than a decade.

You get:

  • Access to the best global human resources executive talent available through extensive networks built upon long–term relationships with U.S. and global executives
  • Customized HR executive search solutions that fit your goals, budget and timeline
  • Interim HR management during the search process, followed by an assimilation period to ensure a smooth transition
  • Interim HR management during the search process, followed by an assimilation period to ensure a smooth transition

Contact our human resources executive search team at 650.614.0220 or email us at executivesearch@fplpartners.com to learn how your organization can reap the benefits FPL Partners can deliver: Improved performance and greater success through your most valuable asset—your people.

Diversity Statement

FPL Partners welcomes and encourages all diversity candidates to contact us directly. We highly value the diversity of our FPL Partners team, placement of diverse executives into our client companies and our diverse clients, candidates, and supplier partnerships. We want to help swing the pendulum the other way.

About Our Newsletter

The FPL Partners newsletter, "FPL Partners In the Know," and FPL Partners Executive Search Update are the intellectual property of Frederickson Pribula Li. They are a free resource to business professionals. To subscribe to this newsletter, email newsletter@fplpartners.com.

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