“Should I stay or should I go?” So wailed the Clash in a hit song from the 1980s. So asked millions of Europeans, as they considered whether to join previous Great Migrations to the New World. So wonder businesspeople around the world today, as they evaluate what may be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a dramatic career leap — from respectable positions at well-established companies to risky but exciting jobs at Internet startups.
Becky Stein, leader of the Silicon Valley Internet practice at New York City-based Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., one of the country’s top executive-search firms, has helped scores of businesspeople wrestle with this question. A big part of arriving at an answer, she says, is being honest with yourself about a different question: Do you have what it takes to succeed in the Web environment? “Almost everyone who walks into my office dreams of becoming an Internet CEO,” says Stein, 40, the self-proclaimed “old lady” of the firm. “But not everyone has what it takes to make the move to the online world. Not everyone has Web DNA.”
Web DNA? Six months ago, in an effort to understand what kinds of executives are best suited to making the Great Migration, Russell Reynolds Associates teamed up with Lynne Rosansky, a social scientist, to develop the Web Factor, an assessment tool that probes for the personal characteristics — the Web DNA — that drive effective leaders in the Internet economy. What are some of those characteristics? Internet executives “radiate vision.” They seize the day — an attribute that Stein and her colleagues call “carpeDiem.com.” They are “organizational improvisers” who know how to “get the right stuff done.”
Stein herself seems to have enough Web DNA to supply all of Silicon Valley. Powered by Diet Pepsi — a small refrigerator by her desk is crammed with several six-packs — Stein, a triathlete in her spare time, speaks at a frenetic pace. She admits that she was an early skeptic of the value of the Web Factor assessment. But “now I’m a convert,” she says. “The Web Factor gives us a common language with which to talk to clients and to recruiters. It also lets us cut to the chase with candidates.”
Stein and her team have lured dozens of executives away from established companies, persuading them to join the Great Migration to such companies as more.com, MyFamily.com, Nordstrom.com, PeoplePC, and ThirdAge Media. But Stein doesn’t hit a home run every time. In fact, one of her recruits lasted only 90 minutes in his new job. After his first strategy meeting, which was devoted to rethinking parts of the three-year plan that had attracted him to the company, he simply left. Stein cracks open another Diet Pepsi. “This was before we had the Web Factor,” she says. “Looking back, I realize that although he had the right skill set, he would have totally failed the Web Factor diagnostic. That doesn’t mean that he’s not a good executive. It just means that he’s not right for the Internet.”
Fast Company sat down with Stein in her San Francisco office to untangle the strands of Web DNA. She talked about what it takes to become part of the Great Migration to the new economy.
What’s the first question that people should ask themselves when thinking about moving to the Internet economy?
You should ask yourself the same question that I ask the people whom I recruit: Why do you want to make the move? Half of the people who are moving to the Internet economy are doing it for the wrong reasons. We’re not interested in people who want to make a quick buck. We’re looking for people who are in it for the long haul, who see the Internet as a better way of doing business.
I’ve got to be careful about this motivation issue when I meet candidates. People tend to turn their heads toward the noise. And these days, the noise is on the Internet. There’s also a fear of being left behind: “People who are smarter than I am are making the move, so shouldn’t I?” Or, “People who aren’t as smart as I am are making the move, and some of them are getting rich. What about me?”
It’s the spring of 2000. If I meet somebody who hasn’t already made the jump to the Internet, a part of me wonders why that is. Anyone who wanted to make the move could have done so by now. Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for not having moved yet — say, if you still have something to prove at your job. But for a lot of established-company executives, the fact that they are still in their old jobs tells you something about their attitude toward risk.
What are some of the risks that hold people back?
There’s the perceived risk of having a failed company on your résumé. In the offline world, there’s still a stigma attached to failure. When you see people join a company that fails after six months, you start to wonder about their judgment: What questions didn’t they ask that would have prevented them from accepting the job? When it comes to a company’s business model, people are asking much tougher questions than they used to. They’re critiquing it, analyzing it, and assessing it with more sophistication.
There’s also a considerable compensation risk — and much more complicated negotiations over how and how much employees get paid. Obviously, people are becoming less interested in trading cash for equity. Not only do they want a big salary to go along with their options; they’re also starting to demand guarantees. I don’t even blink when I tell a venture capitalist that a CEO candidate wants a $2 million guarantee. People are asking for accelerated vesting on their options and for 100% vesting upon change of control.
The third risk on people’s minds has to do with personal sacrifices — the risks involved in uprooting their families, either geographically or in terms of lifestyle. The Internet is still so full of surprises that some executives don’t move their family right away when they join a new company. They want to make sure that their gamble pans out first. Others think that since they’ll be working 15 hours a day anyway, their family might as well stay put. I’ve worked with several new senior executives at major Internet companies who moved to the Valley but didn’t move their family with them. I know one guy, a top person at a really important company, who, when he realized how little time he’d be spending with his wife and kids, moved them back to Boston so that they could be near friends and relatives.
Aside from understanding and accepting the risks involved, what type of person is best suited to making the move?
This is where Web DNA comes into play. One of the attributes that’s required in order to thrive in this environment is what we call carpeDiem.com. We’re looking for people who seize not just the day, but the second. And what that comes down to, once again, is having a level of comfort with risk.
For example, we ask people to explain a decision they made that put either their career or their business at risk. One executive claimed that the riskiest decision he’d made was changing the color of the company’s new packaging. Now, this packaging had used the same color scheme for a long time, so it wasn’t a trivial decision. But was it hugely significant? It was to him.
Another executive told us about his decision to use 80% of the money that his company had in the bank to run a Super Bowl commercial. He knew flat out that if his idea failed, the company would likely go out of business. Now, you could argue about whether this was a smart move. But what we wanted to understand was the thought process behind the decision. That’s the secret to exploring risky decisions: Were you right for the wrong reasons or wrong for the right reasons?
What else do you look for?
We look for organizational improvisers. Executives who come into this environment have to make due with the resources that they have — and to do whatever it takes to get the job done, regardless of their job description. Your job title may be “senior vice president of marketing,” but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never have to spend time in a warehouse.
If a framed org chart is your idea of great wall art, then you’re in trouble. I talked to one guy who was the chief marketing officer at one of the country’s largest retailers, and it was clear to me that the company org chart was really important to him. He loved mapping it out. He loved the boxes, especially since his name was in the top box. I knew that this guy would never be comfortable at a Net company.
Daniel Kohler, an executive vice president at PeoplePC, is a good example of someone who had an amazing skill set — and was also dead-on in every behavioral category. Originally, we recruited Dan from TyInc., the company that makes Beanie Babies, where he was senior VP of operations and administration. Before that, he had built the catalog-operations department at OfficeMax. So we brought him to PeoplePC as executive VP of operations, logistics, and systems. He was one of the company’s first employees. He understood that resources were scarce and that for several months he’d have to get down in the trenches, roll up his sleeves, and really help build the operation. This didn’t frighten him — it thrilled him. One thing that motivated Dan was his desire to be a part of building something from the ground up.
Compare that situation with my favorite example of someone who wasn’t right for the Web environment — my 90-minute wonder. This candidate seemed like a slam-dunk fit. He was a phenomenal logistics-and-distribution guy from a big catalog retailer. His résumé would make you salivate, and he was a very nice man. But in a staff meeting on his very first day at the young Internet startup, when the senior team decided that it had to tweak the company’s business plan — emphasis on the word “tweak” — this guy freaked. He had signed on believing in the three-year plan that the startup had created, and he couldn’t handle even the smallest deviation. He left in hysterics and returned to a brick-and-mortar retail company.
What’s the difference between Dan Kohler and my 90-minute wonder? What this guy saw as obstacles, Dan saw as opportunities to make his mark. Dan didn’t focus on what the org chart looked like, how many direct reports he’d have, or what his budget would be. He was completely focused on what the company and its customers needed — and on what he could do to meet those needs.
What kinds of reports are you hearing back from people who have made the Great Migration?
One of the most common reactions is the shock of adjusting to the speed of Internet life. Jim Barnett, president and CEO of ThirdAge Media, told me that at his old job, he knew that if he worked 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, he could get caught up. But in the online world, even if you work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’ll still be behind.
That’s why we look for people who can get the right stuff done. This is about being able to prioritize ruthlessly, about knowing what the high-reward action items are. This attribute carries over into our 80/20 mind-set, which is an easy one to understand: It’s better to be 80% right today than 100% right tomorrow. We’re looking for people who aren’t afflicted with analysis paralysis. In the Internet world, you’re never going to have all of the information that you need. Even if you did, you wouldn’t have the time to process it.
Another common insight has to do with how naked you can feel in the Internet space. We recently brought L. Gregory Ballard to MyFamily.com as CEO. He told me that his biggest “aha” since starting his new job has been understanding the miniscule amount of time that you have to make your mark in the Internet world. In the old days, if you took a job with an established company, you could argue that no major decision should be made for the first three months. You had to “learn the business.” Internet time doesn’t give you three months. It gives you three days.
How’s Ballard adapting to this? Well, if you ask his wife, she’ll tell you that he’s given up the rest of his life. He’s working longer hours — and at a more frenetic pace. He’s getting used to those red-eye flights, and he’s learning who in the company can help him make changes.
What about people who have made the voyage and now realize that they made a mistake? Are you seeing a reverse migration?
The Internet really isn’t for everyone. The more honest people will go back to the jobs that they know and love. The people who are still kidding themselves, who are still looking for that pot of gold, will go from one startup to another, not being honest enough with themselves to realize that their talents aren’t best suited to the Internet.
I admire people who take the plunge and then go back. I think the world of Mohan Gyani, whom we recruited from AirTouch to be CFO at an Internet company. After four months, he realized that the Web just wasn’t for him. So he went back to the big world, where he’s now president and CEO of wireless services at AT&T Wireless.
It’s very hard not to get swept up in the craze of the moment. There is an inflated sense of self-worth in Silicon Valley. And while there are a lot of really smart, talented people in the world, most of us have been as lucky as we have been smart. We’re in one moment of time right now. No doubt it’s an amazing moment, but it’s just a moment nonetheless. Don’t give up a successful career without first thinking through the implications very carefully.
Anna Muoio (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Becky Stein by email (email@example.com).
Sidebar: What’s Your Web DNA?
Might you be a dotcom darling? Below are the six characteristics that Russell Reynolds Associates believes define successful Web executives. Before you answer the question “Should I stay or should I go?” be sure to ask yourself, “Am I right for the job?”
CarpeDiem.com: When was the last time that you had a breakthrough in business? When was the last time that you took a risk and failed? Describe a time when your business wasn’t meeting the expectations that you had set out to meet. What did you do to change that?
Radiate vision: Are you more evangelical than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John? What’s important to you and to your business? How do you define your success? Your team’s success? How do you communicate your company’s vision to your team?
80/20 mind-set: Have you freed yourself from analysis paralysis? How do you use resources? How do you figure out what your customers want? When was the last time that you drew from your experience and insights to fill in a blank when faced with incomplete information?
Organizational improvisers: Are you more interested in getting stuff done than in playing by the rules of the org chart? What does an ideal organization look like? How do you use the talents of your employees? How do you plan for future growth?
Learning obsessed: Are you like a sponge when it comes to learning? Do you love to place yourself in the middle of feedback loops? When was the last time that you learned something that led to an “aha” moment? When was the last time that you changed a tightly held point of view?
Get the right stuff done:
Do you know what it takes to ruthlessly prioritize? Can you zoom out to see the most important objectives, instead of allowing yourself to be distracted by tangential tasks with little payoff?