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A Holistic Approach To C-Suite Selection

by Guest Writter
Deborrah Himsel

To create a superbly-functioning C-team, CEOs need to keep their eyes on the whole rather than the individual parts.  This is easy to do in theory but a challenge in practice, especially in a fast-moving, rapid-growth market.

Many times, the process of blending individuals into a high-functioning team is thwarted because of position need.  A COO departs suddenly and the company has little bench strength in operations and a frantic search begins for a replacement; or a CFO is fired because the company is struggling financially, and the pressure is intense to find a new CFO who possesses a number of crucial (and sometimes, highly specialized) skills to avert a crisis.

During these stressful and sometimes chaotic times, little thought is given to how the new people mesh with the old ones or how the collective capabilities of the group match the larger organizational business needs.  This is when the right person may be hired for a top position but he or she turns out to be the wrong one for the C-suite.

At Avon between 1999 and 2012, CEO Andrea Jung did a great job of creating her leadership team during the first half of her tenure, and then a not-so-great job during the second half.  As a Human Resources Vice President, I was there for some but not all of Andrea’s time as CEO.  That Andrea excelled at and then struggled at the same task suggests the difficulty of executing this task effectively over a sustained period of time.

In her early years, Andrea had a mandate from the board to turn the company around and a vision for how she would do it.  With strong support from the board, Andrea was able to assemble a leadership team who had the cumulative skills and knowledge necessary to execute her vision.  Though she was under pressure to turn the company around, it wasn’t a turn-it-around-immediately pressure.  She had time, resources and support to make a cool-headed assessment of what she had and what she was missing.  For instance, Andrea was a brilliant marketer and a charismatic leader, but she wasn’t an operations person.  Fortunately, Andrea found a COO who was as good with the functional details as she was at marketing.  It was an ideal partnership, and her other C-suite selections all possessed complimentary skills and harmonizing attitudes that would help Avon become more contemporary, more brand-centric and more centralized.

During this time, Avon turned itself around not once but twice, and Andrea was hailed as one of the best CEOs of the decade.  Then a series of problems arose, from their struggling U.S. business to scandals involving foreign markets to a departure of key people.  With revenues falling and negative media stories and financial analyst reports increasing, Andrea was under intense pressure to bring in new top people who could help lead Avon into the future.  Combined with the departure of some of her staff—including her COO—Andrea had a number of key employees to replace.

Most of her new hires were experienced business leaders with excellent skills, but they didn’t mesh well with her existing team.  Part of the problem was the tension that developed between “us and them”—the veteran Avon employees and the new arrivals.  The Avon group suspected that the new group disdained Avon’s direct sales model and the external hires felt like they were treated as outsiders and were never given credit for understanding the business. Under pressure to act and losing support from various communities, Andrea seemed to find it difficult to step back and view her team as a whole.  As a result, conflict within the team was constant, and the leadership became factionalized and not able to executive decisively and in a unified manner.

How do organizations avoid this situation?  By asking themselves the following questions as they “furnish” the C-suite:

  • Have you evaluated executive team candidates for more than their skills and experience; have you considered whether they’re a good fit with other team members and the organizational culture?
  • If the new candidates are hired, will they exacerbate tensions that exist on the team or help moderate them?
  • Is the board involved in the selection, providing the oversight and objectivity necessary to determine if the new mix of members will increase the odds of achieving organizational goals?

Answering these questions increases the odds of the C-team functioning as Avon’s did in the early years of Andrea Jung’s leadership, and decreases the odds that it will slide into factionalized bickering as it did later on.

Deborrah Himsel is the author of Beauty Queen:  Inside the Reign of Avon’s Andrea Jung.  From 1999 to 2005, she worked alongside Andrea Jung at Avon as vice president of Global Organization Effectiveness.  Himsel is a leadership consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, Exxon/Mobil, Bain, Citigroup, and Walmart, and she teaches at Thunderbird School of Global Management and The Helsinki School of Economics at Aalto University.  

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