A CEO is considering her exit strategy between five and ten years out. She
wants to do what is best both for her, the company and her employees, assuring
that both personal and company needs are met and the company is ready for
transition. What are your five- and ten-year plans?
from the CEOs:
personal side and the company’s future are closely linked. The solutions and
strategy must fit both the CEO’s priorities as well as those of the company. By
looking at the CEO’s role, the current and future needs of the company, and any
changes that need to be made, the CEO is preparing for an eventual exit.
CEO must decide what lifestyle she wants – both as she prepares for eventual
exit and as she prepares the company to continue under new leadership.
must decide what she wants to do with her time in an ideal world. What will
make her happy as she prepares for the future?
must be considered both for herself and her business partners. Have conversations
to align both business and personal expectations.
a strategic planning retreat on the future of the company as well as the
transition of leadership.
a talk with significant others to align personal expectations.
changes in leadership are necessary to implement the plan? What are the key
roles and who will fill them? What is the succession plan for each key role?
Are current personnel in place to fill these roles, or is additional hiring and
an ESOP or a virtual stock program to enhance employee incentives and sense of ownership
in the company’s future.
what exit means on a personal level.
from founder to leader gets the CEO more involved in the company.
on priorities and engage in ongoing discussions with key personnel to jointly
plan the future.
Situation: A rapidly growing US software company has an office in Europe. Prospects for key positions have been flown from Europe to the US for interviews. Two or three good prospects have withdrawn their applications before the company could make an offer, citing cultural incompatibility as their reason. How do you hire foreign personnel?
Advice from the CEOs:
Cultural incompatibility can be an evasive non-response. It is important to dig deeper, perhaps with the assistance of a European-based consultant, to determine what the candidates perceived as the incompatibility. Do this with the candidates that have already rejected the company. Identifying the deeper reason will help to pre-screen future candidates before flying them to the US for interviews.
It is important to have a local leader. This appears to be the individual that the company is attempting to hire. The local leader will then do the hiring for the local office. Employees work for their managers and with their peers and will decide on whether to accept a position based on their feelings of compatibility with these individuals.
Given that the company is attempting to hire the leader of the European office, review and approval of the candidate by the CEO is important. Here are options to explore:
Spend some time studying the culture of the country in which the office is located (European countries vary according to local culture) and adapt the interview style so that it is more compatible with this culture.
Hire a European that the CEO trusts to do the recruiting, screening, interviewing and selection a final set of candidates. Ask this individual for their input on the best way of facilitating a meeting with the CEO. For example, instead of flying candidates to the US, once several candidates have been identified travel to Europe and instead of conducting formal interviews, have dinner with each of the candidates. This reduces the tension and makes the interview more congenial. Consider taking the head of HR with along and both of you having dinner with the candidates and their spouses. Again, this will reduce the tension in the meetings, and you will have two viewpoints on the candidates.
If, after trying the suggested alternatives, it continues to be difficult identifying a good European candidate, an alternative is hiring an American – someone with solid experience managing offices and operations in Europe – to oversee the European operation.
Situation: The CEO of a professional service company is reaching retirement age. The plan for years has been for a key field manager to take on this role; however, neither the CEO, the founder nor most employees feel that this individual is up to the job. What can be done to either better prepare the key manager for the new role, or to demonstrate that this is unfeasible? How do you transition to new leadership?
Advice from the CEOs:
For the long-term benefit of the company, it is important to create a situation that will either prepare the field manager to succeed or provide the Company with a back-up plan for ongoing leadership.
If the CEO and founder are concerned about this individual’s ability to succeed, then coordinate a plan with the founder and then meet with the key manager.
Let the key manager know that the owners plan to sell the company in 3 years.
This can be an internal sale – the CEO and founder sell their shares to the key manager – or the owners will look for an outside buyer to buy out all current owners.
See how the key manager responds.
If the key manager expresses an interest in buying the CEO’s and founder’s shares, then require this individual to make the same level of financial commitment that the CEO and founder have made.
Another CEO experienced a comparable situation with an individual who was both underperforming and a significant shareholder.
This CEO created a very public vision of what he expected this individual to achieve – in positive terms. The CEO also put an outside hire in a similar role to create a performance comparison. The result was a significant increase in performance by the inside individual and a successful transition to additional responsibility.
If the key manager is to be put on a track that leads to the CEO role there will be two challenges: assuring that this individual can acquire the skills to succeed and assuring that the individual can demonstrate successful leadership within the Company. To meet these challenges, take the following steps:
Make a public announcement of the plan to transfer the mantle of leadership to the key manager;
Raise the bar of expectations for the key manager to demonstrate his or her leadership capacity;
Define a full program of training to provide the key manager with the skills to lead the Company;
Ideally, allow the key manager to prove his or her mettle through a highly visible responsibility – like growing a key market segment – so that he or she gains the respect of the others.
Require the same level of financial commitment that the CEO and founder currently bear, so that everyone knows that the key manager has “skin in the game.”
Put the key manager on the same compensation program as the CEO and founder, as this will become his or her compensation program on becoming CEO.
Situation: The CEO of a privately held company wants to share company success with employees. An option that she is exploring is phantom stock. The objective is to engage employees in company success. Does a phantom stock plan make sense?
Advice from the CEOs:
Why would you use phantom stock options instead of real stock?
Phantom stock options are popular in the tech sector. Phantom stock confers the right to receive cash at a future point in time, typically a share of the proceeds received upon the sale of a company.
The principal difference between phantom stock and real stock, is that real stock must be issued in exchange for cash, property or past services. There is also a tax consequence to the receipt of real shares. When shares are issued in exchange for past services the employee must recognize taxable income, just like wage compensation. Employees may be disappointed to learn that they may face taxable income based on the fair market value of their shares received without compensating cash to pay the tax.
Let’s assume that the objective is to increase employee engagement as they observe the value of the shares increasing with company success over time.
Under phantom stock programs the value of the company is pegged on a periodic basis, based on a pre-set formula developed by the company.
In some cases, employees can “sell” their phantom stock back to the company for the differential between the price when they were awarded the stock and the current pegged price.
The structure of the program is determined by management based on company objectives.
Employees frequently don’t have the cash to purchase real stock or options at a fair price given the value of the company. Using a phantom stock plan, a company can offer the rewards of stock ownerships without a purchase requirement or tax implications at the time of award. Employees can be apprised of the value of their phantom stock based on a periodic internal accounting exercise.
Situation: A professional services company is constructed as a network of members. The company’s contract specifies that if a member of their network goes to work for a client – even a client that the member brought to them – the client owes the company a fee of 50% of either the member’s salary or the annual consulting revenue paid to the member. This is onerous. What is the best way to respond? What is a fair revenue split?
Advice from the CEOs:
This does seem like an onerous provision. It is unclear whether the bite is as fierce as the growl.
Consult a lawyer. If you quit the network and go to work for the client, what is the level of risk that the company will successfully sue, and what you can do to mitigate this risk?
If the offer from the client is appealing, quit or avoid using this company’s services. Given their cut to your revenue you will see a net gain in your own pay for services rendered.
If several members agree that this stipulation is onerous, team up and start your own network with better terms. This can provide you and the others with an annuity revenue stream.
Integrity in professional circles is everything. Whatever course you decide on, be up front.
Situation: A company has contracted with a broker to sell the company. At the minimum acceptable sale price to the founder, the commission would be 2.5%. Is this reasonable? How should the founder think about earn-outs, residual payments, and role post-sale? What is a reasonable broker commission?
Advice from the CEOs:
The proposed commission structure looks reasonable. To validate this, ask merger and acquisition experts what they think reasonable commission rates on a sale of this size looks like in the current market.
Beware of earn-outs – don’t take them if offered, at least not without a fight. The challenge with earn-outs is that it may tempt the buyer to report the books in a way that minimizes your share. This will depend upon the terms, but experience advises against this alternative.
Similarly, you don’t want a residual payment conditioned upon your remaining with the company for a period following the sale. The buyer will ask because they see you as important. Counter with an employment agreement at twice your current salary.
Your job following the sale is assuring a smooth transition, not company growth. Growth is the new owner’s responsibility. They wouldn’t be talking to you if they didn’t see a growth opportunity.
Understand that their vision for the company is not yours. Accept this gracefully. Once the company is sold it is no longer your company.
Situation: A company started small with everyone wearing many hats including the person in charge of HR. They wish to create a more formal HR structure with professional advice, but don’t yet want to hire a full-time HR professional. How do you create HR using outside resources?
Advice from the CEOs:
One company outsources their full HR function. Services include:
Putting records in order and maintaining them.
Developing different hiring packages for different levels of employees.
Keeping the company and employees updated on compliance regulations.
Coordinating on-boarding and training.
There are several national HR and personnel outsourcing companies that can help. Examples include Paychex and ADT. There are also a large number of local providers. Network with your business peers or check out your local Chamber of Commerce to learn who these providers are.
What about training?
Outsourced HR professionals can organize training for formal certifications and some aspects of job skills training.
Training in company culture should be done by company leadership. Outsourced HR can organize schedules for this. The key point is that company leadership is the face of the company and the foundation of company culture. This can’t be effectively outsourced.
In some cases, training can be done via video. Outsourced HR can help to plan and coordinate creation of the videos, and can then schedule video training for new employees.
Have your in-house person join an HR roundtable to embellish their own training.
Situation: An early stage company is wrestling with team dynamics and coordinating the achievement of critical milestones. The strategic picture seems to change on almost a daily basis. New employees who have big company experience want to see formal job descriptions and role definition. Older employees are jealous of the attention that newer, more highly qualified employees are receiving. Where should the CEO be focusing. How should she be handling these challenges? Should a start-up focus on team dynamics?
Advice from the CEOs:
At this point, the company is in start-up stage. The most critical issue isn’t team dynamics, it’s getting a product to market and demonstrating that you can sell it. If you don’t have a product, you don’t have a company.
Your top 4 areas of focus for the next 3-6 months should be:
Get the product out.
Close 3-4 good customers – preferably customers that you can reference.
Securing the funding – partnership or investor – that will get you to your next key milestones or to positive cash flow.
Build your organization and keep planning.
As an early stage company, distinct roles and job definitions make no sense. Your strategic picture is currently very dynamic. You need good people who can flexibly wear several hats and fill diverse roles.
If employees with big company backgrounds press you on job descriptions and role definitions, tell them that as a small company you must be quick on your feet, and that you need them to fill flexible roles. As you grow beyond 35 employees then roles will start to become more clarified. Ask for their patience.
If they continue to struggle with loose role definitions, then they aren’t the right people for an early stage company.
Employees who started with you early were great for the beginning. However, they may not be the best for you long-term. They may feel hurt as newer employees with deeper expertise and resumes start to replace them. In the interests of the company, the game is not longevity with the company; it’s about quality and putting the most competent people in the most critical roles.
If you are playing pick-up basketball, you play with whoever comes along.
If you decide to form a team and to compete, you need quality players. Some of your pick-up players won’t make the cut and need to go find another pick-up game.
Situation: A company has lost six people since the beginning of year – about 7% of employees. Currently the company doesn’t pay bonuses but increases salaries annually. The CEO has been considering creating a bonus pool, distributed based on performance points earned during the year, and including a component for employee longevity. How does your company award bonuses?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is fierce completion for good software engineers. You will lose people unless you focus on culture and pay bonuses of some sort.
Based on reasons that people left you need to start developing and enhancing your company culture.
Don’t kid yourself. You already have a company culture. Hire a consultant to help you identify it so that you are developing it along lines that you desire instead of by accident.
Make it clear that bonuses are not entitlements but are earned. There should be clear guidance as to bonus criteria.
Check out the following YouTube – “RSA Animate – The surprising truth about what motivates us” to see what motivates knowledge workers who are expected to develop creative solutions. The bottom line is that it is more than money!
An effective bonus program must have a bias toward performance – the metric is key. Be careful about the way you create metrics and incentives and be wary of unintended consequences.
Pay special attention to the quality and skills of your 1st and 2nd line managers.
Besides bonus, equity and culture – plan for 10% attrition. In your industry, this may be the norm.
Situation: The CEO of an early stage company has identified a person to help her as an assistant. This will be her first real employee. Prior hires have been contractors who have been paid on revenue generated. This individual’s salary will be an expense without clear association to revenue. What guidelines do you suggest as she makes this hire? How do you hire your first employee?
Advice from the CEOs:
Create a cash flow projection to make sure that you have the cash to afford an employee.
If you consistently expect 40+ hours of work from this individual, consider a salaried position which will give both of you more flexibility.
Paychex currently handles your payroll and benefits. Work with them to make sure that all labor law compliance issues are covered. Also, consider hiring a labor law consultant to help you avoid minefields.
Do a background check even if you have known this individual for a long time.
Consider working with a professional employment organization that can provide back-office HR support for you.
An employee handbook is unnecessary at this point. However, think through how you will want to handle issues that may come up including vacation, benefits and paid/unpaid leave like bereavement leave. Document these for inclusion in a future employee handbook.
Under the current health care law employers with less than fifty employees are not required to provide health benefits without paying a penalty. This may change as the law continues to evolve.