Home > Hiring, Software Engineering > Why a safe candidate may in fact carry the most risk

Why a safe candidate may in fact carry the most risk

We are silent witnesses in an executive meeting of a very real software company.

“Need a new CTO”.   Got it.

“He / she must be capable of driving innovation and disruptive change”.   Makes perfect sense.

“He / she should fit neatly in our culture”.   Got it but with reservations.  More on that later.

“We want someone who has been there  / done that”.  Agreed – to a point.  More on that also later.

“Let’s hire an executive search firm.  We need someone fairly quickly”.    That’s where “the safe candidate” trap presents itself.

Why don’t we define Innovation first?  What is Innovation?

The definition I like (and it certainly stood the test of time) is the one which helps illuminate why many executive searches for a CTO do not produce the right CTO.   I speak from experience as a CTO-for-hire.  Many of my clients are technology companies who hired the wrong CTO or realized the current CTO cannot deliver an effective fusion of “people, process, and technology” to support the next wave of business growth.

Innovation is the ability to see the future and define a practical path towards it, where practical path means building a world class organization (people), doing things right the first time (process), and using technology in a truly transformative manner (technology).

Highly innovative CTOs live and breath the above definition.   Highly innovative CTOs also realize there is no innovation without disruption.   Disruption is healthy but presents many challenges.  One very common challenge is how existing business unit leaders – and P&L owners – may see innovation (and diversion of resources)  as a risk in achieving revenue and profitability objectives.   Planning for disruption and building a culture around it is the only way to nurture and foster innovation.   

There is an rarely spoken term used to describe candidates during the executive search process:  a safe candidate. Safe candidates are typically from the same industry / possibly a competitor with the same revenue, held the same role for at least 5-6 years, similar revenue / profit, led an organization of a similar size, and sponsored and led very similar initiatives.

Safe candidates are seemingly perfect.  Yet they are not.

Imagine running one of the world’s largest airlines.  It’s an incredibly complex business with an immense investment in technology and systems to run the business effectively and in a competitive manner.  You are the CEO and you need a new CIO (or CTO).   Do you look for a CIO (or CTO) from another airline?

In 2000, Delta Airlines hired Charles Feld, a former CIO at Frito Lay, to lead Delta Airlines technology organization.  Charles Feld was instrumental in accelerating introduction of many technology enabled, innovative solutions at Delta Airlines.   Does it make sense to hire someone from the leading manufacturer of salty snacks to lead a technology organization of a large airline?   It makes perfect sense because innovation gene is highly portable.

It’s tempting to hire someone who is a safe candidate.  If the job description calls for someone who can clearly demonstrate innovation gene,  identifying and selecting the right candidate – not just a safe candidate – becomes much harder.   The outcome however will be very much worth it.

This company will not have to hire me to fix things later.

There is of course much more to hiring the right CTO.   The right, highly innovative CTO may unexpectedly come from a completely different company with a completely different background.   It literally pays to keep this in mind.

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