So this post isn’t meant to be a sub-tweet, or a sub-post — it’s just a general learning over the years.  So please, no one take this personally.  It’s not about you.

But I’m still going to make one simple suggestion when you go to hire your first set of VPs, your second, or even your third: Beware The Mediocre Recycled

What does that mean?  Well, there is a certain type of VP candidate that worked somewhere good once, twice, sometimes even three times.  And they seem to know the talk and walk the walk.  So they just … keep getting hired.  As a VP of Marketing, again and again.  A CMO role, again and again.  A VP of Sales role.  But they actually aren’t that good.  They didn’t really do it.  They just worked there.  And sometimes, even oftentimes, left the place worse than when they got there.

A few tells:

  • No CEO-level reference.  Any great VP-level candidate should have at least 1 CEO willing to sing their praises.  Maybe not everywhere.  Maybe a role or two didn’t work out.  But someone to say they were great.
  • Too many short job hops as a VP / Director.  We can debate if this is OK or not early in your career, but someone who never seems to make it a year as a VP … well … they probably won’t at your shop either.
  • No one great wants to come with them.  This is especially rough in a VP of Sales candidate, but it goes for any leader.  And great leader should have 1-2 great folks that want to follow them.

But the thing is, the Mediocre Recycled often talks the talk.  Your employees, board members, and more, often will give them a pass and even a thumbs up.  They won’t go the extra yard to dig deeper.  The Mediocre Recycled are often quite likable.

But I see them all the time.  I see very mediocre executives that came into startups I’ve invested in and really get nothing accomplished in 6-9 months or more … then trade that experience for another VP role.  Again and again.

Ok, so what do you do?  A few thoughts.  We used to do these things.  It’s time to do them again:

  • First, have the best VP in that role you know interview the VP candidate you want to hire.  Have the best CRO you know interview your potential VP of Sales.  The best CMO, your VP of Marketing candidate.  Etc.  People stopped doing this for some reason a ways back, but you really should do it.  Do the extra work here.  Now, sometimes they may give even top candidates mixed feedback; they are often critical in some areas while supportive in others.  But at least you’ll have that feedback.  At least it will challenge you to see if you have a Mediocre Recycled zombie on your hands, or not.
  • Second, really push them hard on what they accomplished in their last few roles.  Get numbers and metrics, and push on them.  This isn’t a perfect test, but if you get loose or deflective answers, it’s often a sign.
  • Please, do real reference checks — and find at least one CEO or boss that says they are truly great.  One is enough to take some risk.  Zero is an issue.  Reference checks are not a waste of time.  You’re looking for someone like you, another CEO, another founder, that says they were magical.  That’s not a waste of your time, or a “check the box” activity.
  • Please, ask them who they’d bring with them — and talk to at least one of those folks.  Don’t just assume because they say they know a few good folks that will come, that it’s true.  If they can’t come up with any names, that’s a flag for a VP role.  Go talk to one or two.
  • Ask to talk to 1 or 2 of their customers.  This is a great way to learn what a VP of Sales, Marketing, Product or Customer Success really did well.  Yes, it is OK to ask for this.

We all get blinded by logos, and we all get a bit tired after looking for a key VP role for months.  But don’t make the mistake so many of us do, often again and again.  And hire the Mediocre Recycled. The ones that somewhat desperate CEOs keep hiring again, and again, and again.

And grab this guide. It will help:

The Ultimate Guide to Hiring a Great VP of Sales

(mediocre image from here)

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