When I first started thinking about this topic, I felt that I was exaggerating how common it is.
However, with time, I realised that this is somewhat of a natural phenomenon when it comes to fostering executives.
There are two typical scenarios where I notice executives that seem to be in limbo. They are not taking the initiative when it comes to improving their organisations or coming up with plans. They are not actively making improvements or plans. They seem stuck in some sort of autopilot.
This is because somewhere in their minds, they treat their leadership as temporary. One type is when startup cofounders believe their days in the role are numbered. Often they start with a CTO and expect to hire or promote a VP Engineering at some point.
Other times they’re genuinely uncertain about whether they are the right person for the role. The other scenario is when executives are not sure they want to remain in their position. Either way, the thinking that they might be in their roles for a few more months tends to make them limit their own agency and ownership over their roles.
Changing That Mindset
I can understand where the propensity to sit idle comes from in these situations. Some people are afraid of making decisions that will then limit the future executive—what if they don’t like this person as a director, or rather not have remote employees? Others might merely think that since their time is limited, there is no use in kicking off any changes.
Whatever is the case, this is all folly. Given that we all know you shouldn’t promote five new managers two days after signing your new VP, pretty much all the rest shouldn’t wait. First, because the temporary might stick around for more than you’d expect. I’ve seen clients that were actively looking to get a VP in place take 3-6 months to sign the right person and then typically wait another 1-2 months for them to actually start. Waiting so long without active leadership in your team means that you’re wasting a lot of opportunities to improve things.
Furthermore, such a long period without vision and purpose tends to corrupt the team’s culture. Once everyone got used to things being done slowly and in a certain way, it became part of your company’s culture. Such habits are not easy to change later on.
When you are actively looking for a new VP, putting the team in limbo for a couple of quarters can be highly detrimental to the act of getting that VP. First, that might create momentum towards the wrong direction that a good candidate will spot. The best candidates are unlikely to want to be placed in such a situation in the first place. They’ll just move along to find a team that’s already doing better. Second, even if they do decide to take on that challenge, you are not setting them up to succeed. An organisation that lay dormant for months is an organisation with a low Speed of Change. That means that your new VP will have a hard time kicking off changes and will waste even more time. Improving your speed of change and increasing the chances of changes initiatives being successful takes an arduous effort, as I describe in The Tech Executive Operating System.
Lastly, suppose you are merely considering whether you should leave your position as an employee or appoint a VP under you as a founder. In that case, this hibernation can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. You let the team deteriorate, even unconsciously, and that makes you lean even more towards leaving. This negative feedback loop is something that you need to be aware of. Just like runners that keep on running past the finish line, you have a special responsibility as an executive. At no point should you treat your team as a given and hope that things will simply continue running smoothly. Virtually always, if you are not actively striving to become better, you are slowly getting worse.