Many companies only promote from within for leadership positions. My own experience confirms the wisdom of this approach. Recently, we found ourselves taking a different route for our Grand Rapids office as we wrestled with the question of how to make it, our largest office, operate smoothly and sustainably.
We have internal leadership talent, but they lack experience in the complex job of Managing Partner. Rushing those people risked spoiling future leaders. Plus, we needed the immediate relief for our office management team that only an experienced person could provide.
The question we faced was: Despite the risk, how do we successfully bring an outsider into a company like ours at a leadership level? Our answer involved an unconventional approach to hiring and onboarding.
Size of the puzzle
Atomic has two offices — the first in Grand Rapids, and a second in Ann Arbor. Each is organized the same way, and offer the same value prop to clients. Each is autonomous, led by a pair of Managing Partners. Both share the services of a thin company layer (finance, accounting, marketing, facilities, benefits admin, etc). Most, but not all, of the six or so people in the company layer work out of Grand Rapids. Currently, we employ a total of 51 people across the company.
Thirty two people in Grand Rapids, soon to become 37, are makers and support staff. Twenty eight of those 32 people report directly to the two Managing Partners in Grand Rapids. Simple math shows we’ve got a structure problem: 14 direct reports is too many. Our Managing Partners are responsible for selling our capacity, keeping makers busy, clients happy, connecting with the community—it’s a very broad role. No surprise then, that the responsibilities which go along with being a people manager have gotten short shrift, historically.
While we’ve got a promising group of Atoms who are gaining valuable experience for future company leadership roles, it was my judgment that no one was ready for such a role yet. I believed that pushing people who weren’t ready was unlikely to be good for them, and unlikely to provide much relief for our two Managing Partners.
Our “Atomic at scale” challenges in Grand Rapids felt like one of those 15-puzzles — every move we contemplated caused pain somewhere else. We didn’t have the necessary slack in the system to experiment and bring up someone without the right experience. Long-term investments would cause serious short-term pain. We were stuck.
The conclusion I came to was that we needed to add someone with relevant experience. We needed new capacity to move. But bringing someone from the outside into a leadership role at a company so strongly defined by its culture, values, and social bonds is a risky, big deal. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it’s more likely to fail than succeed. Companies like ours typically promote from within.
Happily, we had an unusual opportunity to hire Jeff Williams, someone I’ve known for a long time, with highly relevant experience in the duties of Managing Partner, who shares our values and was very familiar with our company.
Our hiring process for Jeff was the most thorough we’ve ever used. We applied assessments we use internally, giving us a comparative lens for Jeff’s skills, inclinations, and communication style. We did reference checks with people who worked directly for and with him. We used lunches and dinners for casual, two-way exchange. We paired with him on real work that he’d be doing.
For the final day-long interview sessions, I made sure we had broad and balanced participation and encouraged people to try and answer three questions. Here’s how I framed the assessment I was looking for:
- Do you think Jeff could represent us well to the outside world?
- Do you think Jeff shares our values?
- Is Jeff a person you think you would come to trust, respect, and appreciate after he’s worked at Atomic for some time?
Not surprisingly, we had a range of opinions, and some concerns, from the more than 18 Atoms who participated in the hiring process. In the end, our company leadership team made the decision to extend an offer, and Jeff accepted.
Having gone through a very thorough, broad-based process of assessment and interviewing, our decision to hire Jeff led to another question: How do we bring him in and set everyone up for long-term success?
On the one hand, our Managing Partners could really use some immediate help with their day-to-day responsibilities. On the other, we cared most that Jeff’s tenure work in the long-term, and we recognized the challenges inherent to bringing an experienced outsider into a leadership role.
I framed the problem by asking, what does Jeff not know that long-term Atoms take for granted? What sort of knowledge and experience could we give him that would bring him up-to-speed on all things Atomic? In effect, we sought an onboarding process that converted him from a qualified, experienced, external candidate, to someone as close as possible to a qualified, experienced, internal candidate.
Our onboarding approach is a 50/50 blend of training on sales, and a broad curriculum on all aspects of our business. In the latter, we are involving as many people as possible, allowing Jeff and other Atoms the opportunity to start building relationships through working together. We’re using our pair lunch program to further broaden his exposure to Grand Rapids Atoms.
Our two Managing Partners are leading Jeff’s onboarding. Shawn Crowley is working with Jeff on our sales process and practices, with a strong emphasis on pairing on real sales work. Having a pair on sales has helped Shawn both from a tactical work-share arrangement, as well as the all-important psychological benefit a pair provides. Mike Marsiglia took the broad categories of education that we identified for Jeff and structured an experience akin to how we run product development projects. Jeff’s using the same tools and approach for his broad Atomic education: epics, stories, estimates, Pivotal Tracker, velocity, iterations, and customer reports. I think the indirect learning here is great, and the approach is genius.
We estimate that Jeff’s onboarding will require 3-6 months. That’s a huge investment, but one I feel very good about. Bringing an outside hire into the company at this level came with a cost — we needed to give Jeff the opportunity to catch up on the things he needed to know to succeed in his job. Our “think long-term” value guided showed the way.
Jeff’s experience and highly relevant skills allowed us to take a few numbers out of our structural 15-puzzle. We’ll use our increased ability to maneuver for further experiments in adapting our structure to provide a better employee experience for Grand Rapids Atoms, and create a more sustainable job for Managing Partners.
We’ve always focused on being great and getting better, not on a size or revenue target. Wrestling with the growth that is a consequence of this approach is a recurrent challenge for us. Two months in, I’m feeling optimistic that our onboarding investment, and Jeff’s talents, help us solve that problem for this phase of the company’s life.
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