Who manages the managers: Actors vs authors

It’s time to take a step back from leadership and appoint someone senior to run the day-to-day of your startup. Who do you choose? Many think a career C-suiter is the way to go. A big name executive with a CV to match. They have the networks. They have the experience. But do they have the skills to scale you up?

It’s time to start relinquishing control. 

Reaching a point with your startup where growth is so healthy you need senior staff to run it is the stuff of dreams for first-time founders. But when the moment arrives, the excitement can quickly fade.

Every founder wants an ex-big tech exec at the helm – an ex PayPal CTO or Meta strategist who holds the business bible and can replicate success across each posting. 

Surely there’s no one better to hand it over to than the ex-CEO of a Fortune 500 company?

That all depends on whether you need an actor or an author.

Ex PayPal SMB/SME Director Matt Lerner refers to this as playbook writers versus playbook runners. Passbase cofounder Mathias Klenk calls them “hoodies versus suits”. 

An actor will act out a C-suite role. It will be a role they’ve played many times. If you can give them a script, they’ll follow along. If not, they’ll follow the one they’ve tried, tested, and executed in previous high-level postings.

An author will be the one writing the script. They’re creative, big picture thinkers who are prepared to go off-piste. They will be innovative, strategic, and attuned to your individual needs. They’ll be highly industry aware, people-oriented, culture-driven, and possibly a little eccentric. 

Like the concept of startups themselves, their mantra will be to do things differently.

This is the executive type so many founders need, without knowing they need it. Because a startup doesn’t just need to be run – the operation needs to be written from scratch. 

Hiring over your head 

When you hire someone with more experience and knowledge than you, make sure that their experience and knowledge is not something you can Google. 

Someone who is good at leadership and management may have studied for their MBA In leadership and management 30 years ago. Someone who has worked in your field for 30 years may not be in touch with developments of the past 12 months.

Someone who can act out the same old tried and tested business methods may not be what you need to disrupt an industry. 

Ex-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was what you might call an actor. 

The ex VP of Search Products at Google took a corporate, “data driven” approach to running the struggling company. She had “a hard time relating to others”, which was bad news for her effectiveness with people and culture, and her ability to think like a consumer. She was “pedantic” and obsessive over “miniscule design decisions”, which made enemies among other higher-ups.

Of course, actors are not always so problematic. But they do tend to be corporate, data-driven, and reluctant to change or hear criticism. 

For an example of an “author”, see LEGO CEO Vig Knudstorp, and his complete reinvention of product lines and company culture that took LEGO to $1 billion in sales in 2010

Knudstorp was a great believer in flattening management structure, increasing the LEGO leadership team from 6 to 22 when he took the reins. A classic playbook author, his mantra was “take charge and let go”.

Someone who can author the playbook for your operations will have a much less biased, less entrenched view. They will provide a new and unique way of doing things rather than reiterations of or recycled responses to past experiences.

So where do you find these people?

Their CVs might not include a mention of FAANG or the Big 4. They’re likely not advertising themselves on job boards, or showing as “open to work” on LinkedIn.

They will be founders or CEOs (or ex founders or CEOs) of companies you admire. They’ll be lurking in the upper echelons of your professional networks. They’ll be the people you know and look up to, who you might never have dreamed of approaching, but who might be swayed if you can demonstrate purpose and alignment with their value. 

A tough crowd

Top talent won’t turn up at your door with shined shoes and a new suit ready to be hired. They’ll be tough to find and competitive to secure. 

In many cases it will feel like they’re interviewing you. And they are. 

They’ll want something that works with their lifestyle. They’ll want benefits (likely equity). They’ll be scrutinising you to assess your commitment, ability, and confidence. 

Also prepare for the fact it won’t be one and done. They will take up hours, weeks, or even months of your time letting you chase them across multiple interviews and get-to-knows. They will research you. They’ll have tough questions.

This is normal, and it’s expected you’ll allow a more “two-way street” format. Just don’t let your candidate dominate the interview, no matter how high profile they are. 

A playbook actor can be helpful when you have hundreds or thousands of staff and you need to pull in some of that good old fashioned  business management experience. They’re a safe pair of hands, and they’re great for reassuring board members. Playbook actors make great consultants, analysts, and budget trimmers in the later stages of the game.

But in the early stages of starting up, where roles are so undefined and rapid growth is so important, you’re better off with someone prepared to tear up the rulebook and write a new one just for you.

Jobs said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Making your first senior level higher is ultimately about perspective, self esteem, and self reflection. 

You must be humble enough to believe a new hire can do things just as well as or better than you. You must be wise enough to listen to their criticism. But you must be confident enough to stand your ground when you need to.

And whatever you do, get a lawyer to draft and approve your employment contracts.

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