Looking for a savior?

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(MoneyWatch) The business has flat-lined. It's bringing in enough revenue to keep going but not growing. The products are fine, maybe even excellent. But they aren't sufficiently well recognized, customers are too few and too slow. Cashflow is tricky but not fatal. Nothing is inherently wrong - everything works - but you're stalled. What do you do?

In most of the companies I've seen, the first response is always the same: We need to hire a super salesperson. Someone well connected, energetic, who understands and appreciates what we do and can do it well. Imagining this savior, the leadership invariably gets excited. If only the savior can be found, everything will be alright.

Headhunters are summoned, contact books combed. It always turns out that it is quite hard to find this spellbinding individual. Some candidates look good but aren't ready to move. Some want to come but the team isn't so sure. Timing proves problematic and although this candidate is supposed to save the business, nobody wants to give him too much stock or a salary that present revenue can't justify.

A year later, nothing has changed.

I've watched this scenario so many times now that I've come to understand that it isn't what it appears to be. The problem isn't hiring, the candidates or the pay - the problem is the team.

Why has growth stalled? Why isn't the company better known? Why has it proved so hard to generate momentum. There are usually several symptoms and causes:

1. The leadership team isn't very functional. It's full of soloists who do their own thing well but don't coordinate effectively. Each pulls roughly but not completely in the same direction and energy is dissipated. They're rarely good at helping each other and so no one is growing. There is no higher purpose than an accumulation of personal ambition.

2. Almost invariably, one big ego deprives the rest of the team of the desire to coordinate. The team can't be a team because everyone (consciously or unconsciously) defers to the founder, CEO or just the loudest guy at the table.

3. Full of individuals, there is rarely any economy of scale in the business. New initiatives are more exciting than repeating old successes. So although the company may be quite creative, it is spread too thin.

4. Very little organic talent development takes place because everyone is too busy with their own work to mentor or develop junior people - who anyway are too young, inexperienced and under-paid to contribute greatly. So gifted young people don't stay.

No individual salesperson can change this. And the appropriate candidates recognize it - which is why they won't come. What these companies are seeking is a magician who can change results without changing anything.

Is there any way out of this trap? I'm not sure. The companies where I've seen it at its worst have all been sold. Sometimes becoming part of a bigger structure and having to reconfigure themselves has changed the leadership enough to produce better results. But sometimes the whole business falls apart when asked to serve goals beyond individual desires.

What I do know is that one big hire never saves a company. The savior never exists and so cannot be found. Those seeking salvation through executive search firms are unlikely to be rewarded.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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