CTO.berlin Articles

We Hired The Wrong C-Level Executive

As our team approached the significant milestone of expanding beyond 100 employees, we encountered a pivotal challenge that tested the very fabric of our leadership and organizational cohesion. This period, marked by the need to introduce a new Chief Operating Officer (COO) to our C-suite, unfolded into a saga that profoundly impacted our path forward and offered invaluable lessons on the essence of leadership and teamwork.

The Executive Search Unravels

The search for a COO was initiated under the premise that a seasoned executive from the industry we aimed to disrupt could significantly enhance our strategic direction and market penetration. However, this search took an unexpected turn when a candidate, referred to as X for anonymity, was appointed to a different yet influential C-level role without my full consent—a decision that would eventually strain my relationship with my co-founder and bring to light the critical importance of unified decision-making at the executive level.

The Emergence of Dissonance

X, upon assuming their role, initiated a strategic maneuver by appointing a close ally as Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), laying the groundwork for a campaign of division. This alliance between X and the CMO was not merely a consolidation of power but a deliberate effort to isolate and undermine other C-suite members, particularly targeting the technical department led by the CTO and the product vision overseen by the CPO.

X employed tactics to sow discord among the leadership team, notably by orchestrating exclusive meetings from which both the CTO and CPO were excluded. These gatherings, under the guise of routine strategy discussions, were weaponized into forums for levying unfounded accusations against the absent executives. The intention was clear: to erode trust and cohesion within the C-suite by casting doubt on the capabilities and intentions of the CTO and CPO, effectively turning the very structure meant to unify our strategic efforts into a battleground of suspicion and rivalry.

This strategy not only jeopardized the collaborative fabric of our leadership team but also threatened to derail our collective mission and vision. The emergence of this dissonance within the highest ranks of our organization was a stark reminder of the fragility of trust and the destructive potential of unchecked ambition within the executive suite.

The Painful Yet Cathartic Resolution

The resolution of this turmoil was both painful and cathartic, mirroring the harsh but necessary process of excising a malignancy to preserve the health of the organism. The departure of X, alongside their confidant the CM, and the entire marketing department, was a decisive action that, while fraught with difficulty, was essential for our startup's survival and future growth. This process, akin to removing cancerous growth along with the surrounding affected tissues, underscored the sometimes brutal realities of leadership and the sacrifices required to maintain organizational integrity and direction.
The aftermath of these departures, though initially marked by turbulence, was met with an overwhelmingly positive response from the team. Their resilience and ability to swiftly adapt and fill the void left by the ousted department underscored a profound collective commitment to our mission. This episode served as a poignant reminder of the "Iceberg of Ignorance" phenomenon, where the most crucial insights and awareness of dysfunction often reside at the grassroots level, far from the executive echelon's purview.

Rebuilding Trust and Cohesion

The firing of X and the subsequent reevaluation of our leadership dynamics also marked the beginning of a healing process between my co-founder and me. The breach of trust, resulting from the unilateral hiring decision, left a lasting dent in our relationship. It was only through confronting the consequences of this decision and collectively working to "undo" its impact that we could gradually restore the mutual respect and collaboration that had been the cornerstone of our partnership.

Don’t Copy Our Mistakes

Trust Your Instincts

  • Intuition as a Guide: If your gut reaction raises doubts about a candidate, heed that instinct. The initial discomfort or unease you feel may be indicative of deeper issues that could manifest adversely within your organization's culture or operational dynamics.

Foster Partnership and Trust

  • Collaborative Decision-Making: The relationship between founders is the bedrock of a startup's stability and vision. Trusting your business partner's perspective and refraining from unilateral decisions in hiring are paramount. A unified front in leadership hiring decisions ensures alignment and prevents the erosion of foundational trust.

Recognize and Address Departmental Dynamics

  • Inter-Departmental Accountability: Be wary if one department consistently attributes its shortcomings to another. This could signal a lack of responsibility or a failure to set clear expectations and resources for success. A startup thrives on collaboration and accountability; identifying and addressing the root causes of such blame games is crucial.

Banish Political Maneuvering

  • Zero Tolerance for Politics: The agility and innovation that define startups leave no room for political games. Such behavior not only distracts from the mission but also poisons the workplace culture. Establish a clear policy against political maneuvering, and be prepared to take decisive action against those who engage in it, prioritizing the health and direction of the organization.

Create a Culture of Openness and Feedback

  • Encourage Transparent Communication: Cultivate an environment where feedback flows freely across all levels of the organization. This openness not only helps in the early detection of potential issues but also fosters a culture of trust, innovation, and mutual respect.

Invest in Leadership Development

  • Developing Effective Leaders: Recognize that leadership skills can and should be developed. Provide opportunities for your C-level executives and team leaders to grow and refine their leadership capabilities through training, mentorship, and feedback. This investment not only enhances your team's performance but also aligns leadership styles with the company's values and goals.

Regularly Reevaluate Team Dynamics

  • Continuous Assessment: Establish regular check-ins to assess team dynamics, departmental interactions, and overall company morale. These assessments can help identify early signs of dysfunction or misalignment, enabling proactive measures to realign and rejuvenate the team.