Rookie of the Year Syndrome

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Last week, Yahoo! named former Autodesk leader Carol Bartz as its new CEO.  Now, I wouldn’t know Ms. Bartz if I ran into her on the street, so I have no valid opinion about how successful she’ll be and how fast.  I’ll comment instead on the whispering campaign that began almost immediately after her appointment, and its implications for our business as a whole.

Within minutes of the press release, the headlines and soundbites started trickling in.  “Yahoo’s New Chief is an Unknown to Media, Advertising Circles.”  One observer noted that Bartz was “….a software company veteran, not used to the fast pace of the Web 2.0 world.”  A trickle became a stream.  She doesn’t know our space.  Autodesk was a stodgy player, not as dynamic as our business.  And on and on.

Welcome to the insular, self-referential and ultimately self-destructive strain of thinking in the internet media and advertising business.  Those of us who’ve been at this a while often believe we’ve been divinely gifted with unique knowledge and insight not available to mere mortals.  Those not part of our echo chamber “don’t get it” or “can’t possibly keep up.”  Well, as Dwight Schrute famously said on “The Office” in a PG outburst:  “That’s Bullcrap.”

Truth is, this is a business.  And business is about leadership and management.  It’s about establishing a future vision for an enterprise and then hiring and empowering people to realize that vision and navigate the competitive landscape.  It’s unfortunate, but many of the “experienced hands” in the internet business may have forgotten this.  We become victims of our own success, slaves to our own cleverness.   And we become conservative and complacent in our thinking.

How ironic that someone from an “old-line” software company – or a packaged goods exec, or someone from manufacturing – might be able to inject fresh thinking and solid principles into our new-paradigm business.

Lest you think this is only about choosing a CEO, this pattern of thought impacts us on a more immediate, everyday level:  hiring.  The standard job posting for the average sales or buying position always calls for “4-7 years of direct experience” in our field.   As a result, I often see ‘experience’ valued over effectiveness; I know people who are now on their 6th or 7th position in 10 years, who keep getting hired and hired again.  Meanwhile, someone takes a flyer on fresh talent – a 25 year old, a successful seller from an unrelated industry, a smart effective exec with no sales or buying experience.   The result is often “Rookie of the Year Syndrome.”  The new hire, unencumbered by all that experience, doesn’t yet know what she can’t do.  So she muscles her way into the C-Suite, wrangles some big deals and lights up the scoreboard.  She sees the possibilities and the value, and isn’t paralyzed by well-worn ‘limitations’ of existing process.

Yahoo! looked beyond the ‘safe’ resume of an internet veteran in the hopes that someone from outside the fishbowl could teach us something.  May we all do the same at least once in the coming year.

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