We all felt that this was the most important position of all. Because of Bob’s extensive experience in the healthcare supplies and pharmaceutical markets, the company’s trend toward enabling high-volume, mission-critical supplies purchasing would continue. This would require some very big decisions and heavy investment in hardware and software. Bad decisions could severely damage the company. We needed not only a celebrity, but also someone with extensive experience and credibility.
Our list of candidates for this role was even shorter than the marketing list had been. Venture capital investment was at an all-time high. The type of person we were looking for usually founded companies rather than worked for them.
Nobody we interviewed even came close to satisfying our need, until we met Ajit. Like Bob, Ajit had started out as a long shot. He was up for the prestigious lead position in a lucrative Internet portal being created by a merger between one of the largest Internet search engine companies and the Internet division of one of the largest entertainment companies. The CEO of the entertainment company was courting him personally.
But, for some reason, Ajit was willing to spend some time with us. Small in stature and awkward, with his difficult, East-Indian accent, Ajit did not make a strong first impression. Bob sent me an email that captured the experience well . . .
I spent three hours tonight with Ajit. The first hour . . . he was non-specific . . . a little arrogant . . . poor eye contact . . . etc. I didn’t like him . . . at all. Then something just clicked and he began to get very focused . . . specific in his experiences and how he’d apply them at Neoforma.
He’s obviously very intelligent . . . technically savvy . . . can cover high-level tech issues as well as drill down to specifics . . . knows how to make money . . . is ambitious . . . knows Silicon Valley and is well-connected . . . has a great brand name with his experience . . . can interface with exec level, works hard . . . wants to get into healthcare . . . all brothers and sister in healthcare. Clearly . . . he can cover more than just chief technology officer.
Their reviews were all similar: “Ajit would be difficult to work with . . . but he is one of those rare people that I could learn a lot from. I would be willing to report to him.”
This was the most positive assessment of a candidate for engineering management I had heard. So, we hired him. I figured that the worst that could happen was that our many very good engineers might finally unify, if only around some kind of cultural rejection of Ajit.
That’s pretty much what happened.
Ajit joined the engineering group with the sensitivity of a building inspector with a grudge. He made sure that everyone knew that he was not pleased with what he found. He concluded that some engineers were not up to par and that most of the team’s previous decisions had been short-sighted and ill-informed. He made it clear to the Board that he had not been hired to win a popularity contest; he had been hired to bring the company to the next level. Since he shared their lust for large financial returns, he was given substantial latitude.
In addition to increasing the line of angry employees at my office door, Ajit did accomplish quite a lot. He expanded the mind of every member of the engineering group. Most of them improved—sometimes through education, but more often out of spite for Ajit. He unified the engineers around the idea that they really could do more and better than they had—preferably without Ajit.
Ajit did what he was hired to do. Under his leadership, Neoforma developed a world-class engineering organization. He made very few friends and he made many mistakes, but it is hard to fault him. We knew that he had not joined Neoforma because he particularly cared about its mission. He was primarily at Neoforma for fast money and résumé enhancement. Tim had joined Neoforma for much the same reasons.
We had hired both of them for their assertiveness and celebrity. I didn’t have to like them to know that they were playing an important role in the company. I just had to do my best to minimize their short-term damage to the positive elements of the culture Jeff and I had so carefully nurtured. I spent a great deal of time espousing patience to those employees who turned to me in frustration and confusion.
It wasn’t until I was confronted by many loyal Neoforma employees that I fully acknowledged why I had accepted, and even promoted, two such abrasive personalities into the company. Despite an abundance of talent in each group, marketing and engineering had become so political and inwardly focused that I felt the need to treat the situation aggressively.
There wasn’t much time before the IPO. In a manner similar to the radiotherapy machines at Varian that delivered large doses of dangerous radiation to destroy tumors that were even more dangerous, I had hoped that a few toxic individuals could remove the dangerous pockets of inertia in those two departments.
I had faith in the company’s ability to heal. All I had to do was cope with my own moral anxiety about how willing I had been to create such discomfort for employees I respected and cared for. It seemed that ambivalence about my decisions was always an inevitable part of leadership.
Ajit and Tim displayed no such ambivalence. In spite of their rejection by the Neoforma culture, it appeared that they would be quite comfortable at Neoforma for as long as it remained in the spotlight.