John presented a summary of each candidate, going into details regarding their level of interest and any personal issues that might affect their availability. We were able to eliminate a few and prioritize the others.
We were disappointed, but not surprised, to see that there was only one woman on the list. We had been trying to balance our executive team with a woman for a long time. It had proven difficult to cull experienced women from the male-dominated healthcare and technology industries.
Our last attempt to hire a woman in a top role had ended poorly. At the beginning of the year, as Alexander and JP had been gearing up for the next funding round, they had seen a huge hole in our management team. We did not have a VP of Marketing. We did not have someone whose job it was to build our brand. Todd and I had been casually sharing this role for a couple of years. During the previous year we had been interviewing people to head up our marketing efforts, but had not run across anyone we thought could do a better job than we already did.
Alexander and JP had told us that it was time to get serious. If we wanted world-class funding, we needed a world-class marketing VP. And if we really wanted to project the image of a progressive Internet company, we needed to have a woman on the team. Jeff and I both agreed that a woman would be ideal to balance our team. Since we didn’t consider healthcare or technology experience crucial to a marketing position, we hoped we’d have a large pool of woman candidates.
We hired a high-end recruiter and sent her to work looking for a VP of Marketing, then the most sought-after position in the Valley. A flock of start-ups had been gearing up ahead of us, filling in their management teams for their next, larger funding rounds or IPOs. There was a severe shortage of supply.
After a number of bland interviews, we found what we thought was the perfect candidate. A woman of superb intelligence, creativity and communication skills. Jeff and I liked everything about her. However, after thinking long and hard, she chose another position, running an Internet site for women. We were very disappointed.
We also interviewed a man that Jeff and I liked very much. Lou had been an early employee at eBay and had just left to avoid the upcoming madness preceding their IPO. He was articulate and smart. He definitely understood what we were doing. And, on top of that, we were unusually comfortable around him.
Alexander and JP, however, felt that he lacked the aggressiveness they wanted to bring to the marketing position. They couldn’t accept the idea that anyone would leave a company just before an IPO. Plus, he wasn’t a woman. As a compromise, Jeff and I insisted that we hire Lou as a consultant while we sought a candidate that everyone could reach consensus on. This worked for Lou, since he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do next anyway.
Our secret hope was that he would do such a good job that he would become the Marketing VP by default. It didn’t work out that way. (And it’s just as well because Lou had a lot of eBay stock and would soon spend most of his time managing his own private family foundation.)
When we had almost given up on finding an acceptable female candidate, Mara appeared. She was not quite as polished as the earlier woman, but she made up for it in enthusiasm and assertiveness. Her aggressive style was a little too much for me and I was concerned that she had worked at a lot of different places over the previous two years, but I didn’t veto her, because I believed that she was competent and displayed the leadership skills we needed to build a marketing organization. We were about to discuss pricing with investors in our next funding round. We needed to fill the position now. So we hired her.
Mara, a tall, fast-talking woman who seemed perpetually one step ahead of herself and ready to fall forward at any moment, could never be accused of inaction. She plowed through the rows of cubicles in our offices with gusto, created meetings about meetings, brought every flaw she could find to our attention, wondering aloud why these people or those people shouldn’t be part of the marketing organization. Marketing was everything to her.
In her view, a moment’s pause to contemplate why something was the way it was would be a moment lost. It was much easier for her to tell everyone the way it should be. My office door became perpetually closed, as I calmed one after another of her furious victims. The only people who weren’t complaining were a couple of rather bland people she had immediately hired.
When word got back to Mara that I had spoken with some of the employees in her department, she stormed into my office and screeched at me: “When my employees have something to say, they need to have the courage to say it to me. I don’t need you coming in to muddy things up!”
I pointed out that they had come to me and that I had started this company. I also observed that she seldom consulted with me or anyone else about anything. She said, “Well, you didn’t hire me. The Board of this company did and I am working for them. If you have any issue with me, you need to talk to them!”
Now, I couldn’t help but be amused. I even smiled at her naïveté until I realized that I was being rude. I had given up a great deal of control of the company, but I was still on the Board and I was still a pretty important guy around there, relatively speaking. She didn’t have a clue that she had just gotten herself fired.
But the company got to it before me. Adversaries on all fronts united against her. They simply refused to tolerate her any longer. While Jeff and I were busy documenting her many infractions and quietly informing key investors that she would be leaving, making sure everyone knew why, Mara was finding all doors in the company closed to her. In a matter of days, she had become unwelcome everywhere. The Neoforma culture had rejected her.
While I was never happy when emotional conflict disrupted the office, I must admit that I was rather proud of Neoforma that day. Without the slightest direction by Jeff or me, the company had coalesced to make a unified decision. A good decision.
Now here we were a month later, and we were reviewing the recruiter’s CEO list. We were eager to interview the female candidate first, even though she had the least applicable experience of the bunch. This time we would favor her gender, but not give it quite so much weight.
Jo Ann headed a very large division of a major financial company. When the time came to begin interviews, we were lucky. She was able to fit a visit with us into a previously scheduled trip to California. Jeff and I met her for dinner at a trendy restaurant in Palo Alto. Jo Ann fit the image of a stereotypical Southern businesswoman. Confident, yet self-effacing; tough, yet personable; serious, yet sassy. Jeff’s Texas drawl and good ol’ boy charm surfaced immediately. They got along well.
Interviews with this level of executive were mostly about the executive interviewing us. We had been expecting that. We were the ones in need. They were the ones in demand. But we did manage to ask Jo Ann a number of questions that told us what we needed to know.
We liked her. She was very smart, very capable and very passionate. However, she knew neither the healthcare nor technology industries, and she didn’t quite understand what we were doing, even after having researched the company and speaking with us. She wasn’t right for us. Based on their own interviews with her, the investors concurred.
Jeff and I met most of the candidates separately from the other Board members. We wanted to ensure that candidates didn’t hold anything back from us because the investors were around. We wanted to make it very clear that the investors would not have undue influence on the future direction of the company. The investors wanted to ensure that candidates weren’t holding anything back from them because the founders were present. They wanted to make it very clear that the founder’s opinions on how to run the company in the future were irrelevant. So separate interviews worked for everybody.
Our next interviews were with the accounting guy, the GPO guy and a logistics guy. Jeff and I were impressed by each of them, but none of them left us with the feeling that our company would be in great hands. None of them lived up to their biographies. None of them felt like a cultural fit.
Jeff visited and interviewed the healthcare software guy. Richard’s company had just been purchased by a major healthcare distributor, so this previously unattainable person might be available soon. His shrewdness and aggressiveness were legendary in the industry. When Jeff met with him, it was very clear that Richard got it. He understood the healthcare industry, he understood the technology side and he understood the investor perspective. But, Jeff said that Richard was not a very good cultural match. He was much too slick for Neoforma.
Richard made it clear that he knew he was hot property, informing us that he was in discussions with many well-known companies. He also told Jeff that he had recently turned down the top job at a major consumer dotcom before their recent IPO. Had he accepted the job, his share of that company would have been worth nearly a billion dollars, on paper. He made it clear that he would expect to be compensated with a very large share of Neoforma. We decided to keep him on our list, but that we’d review all other candidates before pursuing him further.
Before we could contact Richard again, he became entangled in accusations of fraud relating to the sale of his previous company. He would eventually be indicted on accounting fraud. I shiver at the thought of what might have happened had we hired him.
As our list of candidates dwindled, our initial elation began to fade. When a couple of additional candidates dropped out of the running for various reasons, we began to panic. A few of the remaining candidates were okay and still available, but they just weren’t right. And we were running out of new options.
To be continued...