More than a decade of grousing about product management

Executive Churn

revolving swing steel doors exit from a building
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Revolving door of executive leadership and the chaos it brings to organizations.

The Dude has worked under a lot of leaders throughout his 23+ years in Product management. Executives come and go, often riding in with great fanfare, and then moving on at some time in the future.

When I began sketching this post out, I was going to write an exposition on the perennial Executive hobby of building an ever-larger coterie of employees. While that post will be written, the Dude is instead going to write about a revolving door of executive leadership, and the chaos that it imposes on the organization.

The Setup

Leadership changes happen. But by hook or by crook, a leader leaves, or is removed, and a new leader is named.

A major harbinger is where the new leader comes from. If they are promoted from within your organization, they likely have a solid grasp of the business, how it works, and all the stakeholder relationships that are essential to operating.

If they are hired from the outside, well, there is a gap to be navigated. Sure, all companies build products or services, that they sell to people who need/want those products, for enough money that they can supply them, support them, and continue to develop them.

The “outsider” has two major learning curves to climb. How do you make money? And how the sausage is made. Both of these are important.

The challenge often is that a leader (AKA Executive) was removed because of some issue. Either developments are off track, or revenue is falling, or other structural issues are hammering the business. Often the incoming executive was hired to “fix” the problem, or to “right the ship”. Whatever that means in context.

Disruption for Disruptions sake

The Dude knows that disruption is inevitable. Change happens, and it can be hairy, ugly, and painful. But that doesn’t make it a sure thing.

The new leader comes in, guns blazing, aiming to shake the tree, trying to make huge, quantum state changes.

You start hearing buzzwords tossed around. Agile. Syndication. Shifting priorities. New revenue streams. Move to XaaS. Transitioning from sedentary B2B to dynamic B2C. Freemium. Subscriptions. LCV, ARR, and other terms are bantered.

Some are new, many have been tried in the past with varying levels of ‘success’, and all of them carry some form of baggage.

But, one thing is certain, these yuuuuge changes come with risk, and particularly moving from B2B to B2C means potentially forfeiting a lot of revenue. Something that we can sell all day to big companies for $1,000 but an individual, opening their wallet will spend no more than $20 for it, means that you need to sell 50x the units to make the same revenue.

Actually, it is worse than that. There is some marginal cost, so fifty times the units, requires 50 times the overhead, so, in reality you need to sell perhaps 75 times the volume to make it work out.

Thus, a huge transformative change is being foisted on the business, that while it may be what the market demands, it is clear that the organization is not built for the new way. At all.

Fixing what is broken

In this revolving door of senior executives, the organizational whiplash comes at a cost. While something (or some things) seriously broken (ethical lapses, tyrannical leadership, declining revenues) is the trigger to effect change at the top of the organization, there is usually a specific deficiency in the organization that the C-Suite wants to fix. Hence the change.

What happens if what is broken is in the DNA of the organization? What happens if the whole business model has been upended? What happens if VC driven disruptors who have no immediate plans to be profitable push into your space, forcing you to respond (and thus forego a LOT of revenue?

These are serious problems, and many – if not most – mature businesses have similar threats to deal with.

But those are often only symptoms of the problem. What if the revolving door of executives (and their cronies) has calcified the silo mentality of the various factions within the organization, and each change causes them to deepen their moats, and thicken the castle walls to fend off the siege?

Alas, a lot of this behavior is derided as counterproductive, but it is a natural organizational defense mechanism. Each group dictator works to build a self-contained fiefdom and ecosystem, defining what they do and don’t do, to hell with the other teams, we’re family here.

Yeah, that is bad. Really bad. Funny thing is though, the Dude has NEVER see this get broken down with a simple VP/GM change. In fact, attempts to fix this with top-down changes rarely works, leads to institutional distrust, and, sadly, the best people choosing to depart, leaving the petite dictators and their minions.

Then 9 – 15 months later, the C-suite will see that Division X is not “better” and begin the process over again.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Final Thoughts

Is it possible to address the challenges in an organization? Sure. It happens all the time. But it takes a serious effort, a lot of senior executive attention, and patience.

The problems didn’t start overnight. They didn’t magically appear. They weren’t fixed the last N times you applied a band aid to it.

A serious assessment of the current state, an influential leader who has demonstrated an ability to build coalitions in difficult situations, and functional leads who respect and trust one another can pull it out of the crapper.

But rarely can you change one of these dependent variables and expect a stabilizing of the organization.

For the rest of the organization, this is scary, nay terrifying, and it takes more than just platitudes to calm ruffled feathers. There needs to be openness, transparency, and clear communications. Because, even in the Covid era, the water cooler talk will be scarily close to what is happening behind the closed leadership doors.

If you find yourself in a situation like this, as a low-level manager, or an individual contributor, you can leverage it to the benefit of your career. Either to be part of the positive change, and the elevation of your stature, or to pivot out and find a better place to be. But be warned, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.

Written by

A crusty veteran from the product management trenches. Plenty of salty language, references to cannabis, and a connoisseur of White Russian cocktails

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Written by pmdude