Being the Dumbest Person in the Room

After an unsuccessful VP of Sales hire who quit after only four months, and a firm kick in the butt by the board, I was starting to sweat.  I was a young, first time, unproven CEO who had just shown that he lacked some of the skills necessary to be successful in this role.

CEOs who can’t get out of their own way to hire people better than themselves will struggle to scale.

After a short search, we made an offer to a second VP of Sales that was far more qualified and capable than the position required….and candidly, probably more capable than I was as the CEO of the company.  She had come from another tech company where she grew revenue from sub $20M to over $50M in just a couple of years and had aspirations for running her own startup someday.   She was a solid decade older than me (I was a first time CEO at 27 years old at the time).  She carried herself very well and investors loved her experience and confidence. 

I could have been (and was) intimidated – the board loved her, the co-founders loved her, the customers loved her.  There was nothing not to like.  She could easily have taken my job, and she eventually went on to be a venture backed CEO.  If ever there was a reason to feel like my job as CEO was threatened, this was it.   I had just come off an exec staff member quitting, grumbling co-founders and missing our quarterly numbers at the last board meeting.  I was justifiably nervous.  We made an offer and she accepted.  

At the next month’s  board meeting, several investors kept telling me that this was the best move that I had made so far.  One very sarcastic, but well meaning director, told me that maybe there was hope for me as a CEO after all.  I was confused.  I hadn’t done anything other than hire this person?   That’s when the same  board member pulled me aside and gave  me a little quip that has stayed with me for years….”A players hire A+ players, but B players hire C players”.  I don’t think that he considered me an A player, but I was used to getting accolades for what I had done and delivered, not for who I hired and how they performed.  This was one of those moments as a CEO when someone finally turns the light on and you “get it”.

CEOs who can’t get out of their own way to hire people better than themselves will struggle to scale.  Anyone who has ever worked with me as CEO has heard me say that I want to be the dumbest person in the room.  Truthfully, I don’t want to be dumb, but I want everyone else in that room to be the smartest person in their discipline that I can possibly find.  CEOs who want to be the smartest person in the room often get their wish and pay the price for it.