3 Tips for Hiring Leaders and 1 Essential Quality for Everyone

Riddle: What goes from A to Z and is still the same in between? E.G. What do Acquia, Zenefits and many others in between like Hubspot, Netflix and Salsify all share?

Earlier this year I shared a post about the most important thing I look for in Leadership: Mission-driven leaders. But what happens when you have to change leaders? How do you sustain your advantage while you find the right new leader and then adapt to take advantage of new leadership?

To bring this to life I shared the story of Acquia, a company that has grown from a raw startup in my office to an 800 person global business serving thousands of customers. Today we’re announcing that our founder Dries Buytaert is being elevated to Chairman and continuing as CTO, while simultaneously transitioning the CEO role to a new leader, Mike Sullivan.

You can read all the news here and on Dries’ blog but what can we all learn from this kind of leadership transition? I’ve been asked many questions along the way that we can all learn from, most of which boil down to: What qualities did we search for? How did we find suitable candidates and ultimately arrive at our choice? And how is this typical? Ultimately it’s all down to one harder thing. First though, here are 3 easy tips:

What qualities did we search for?

As is often the case, this was about complementing the founder Dries and his team. Dries exhibits one of the top characteristics I look for in founders = self-awareness. Furthermore, the team at Acquia is full of strong leaders that in many cases have been CEOs of businesses themselves. They all have one thing in common – they want to learn and grow to be their best. So that made it easy for us to focus on someone who had deep operating expertise at scale, had built multifunctional global teams and would lift everyone. The easy lesson here is

Look to complement a team, but never look for a replacement. Always make room for a new contributor.

Note that last part. At Acquia,  Tom Erickson has been a fantastic leader for the business and done a stellar job in this transition. Thank you again, Tom! .. and like all of us, Tom is unique. We could not replace him and nor would we want to try. We wanted to bring someone in who would bring their own unique strengths to complement the team in their own way for this next era of growth.

How did we find suitable candidates?

We partnered with a great search firm (Brad Stadler, TrueSearch) because no matter how strong our networks are, we needed to ensure two things: 1) An unbiased, diverse search for quality candidates and 2) a great process for both the candidate and our team. Do not skimp on this no matter your size or stage.

The impact of a senior hire in your business is incomparably greater than any potential cost of a search.

Time is your enemy, so even if you think you’ve got a great initial set of candidates, remember someone needs to run the process expediently with a single-minded focus and unless you’re a search expert willing to give up your day job to do this, hire the best search firm you can afford.

How did we find the right person?

As Dries noted, we screened over 140 candidates over several months. We set the bar high and as the search lengthened (as they so often do), it can become tempting or even pressing to make a fast hire to address mounting business pressures. However the lesson here is always the same.

Hire the right person, not just the person right in front of you.

Sometimes it can feel like filling the seat on your rowboat is just so important to not lose momentum, and for some more tactical roles it might be. But with senior hires, you’re not just filling the seat, you’re ensuring they can join or set the rhythm and pace to win. Never take a shortcut or shy away from the work to find the right person.

Dries and my board colleagues Tom Bogan and Rich D’Amore on the search committee were terrific partners as we divided and conquered what we could each bring to the party. At one point, I did six blind reference calls and meetings on a candidate to ensure we all had the full picture of the person before we even shortlisted them. The candidate said he wondered if he’d been professionally stalked – and fortunately we laughed as he asked what I’d learned. I’ve written about the 7 ways avoid the biggest hiring mistake. Dries never wavered from his commitment to find the right partner, not just make a hire right away.

Now the hard part.

Sadly, it would be easy if that were all there were to it. It’s all about fit. And fit is a multidimensional thing. Of course we search for the right experience, knowledge and skills, but actually that’s the easiest part and it’s really just a qualifier.

The hardest part is the soft stuff – the cultural quality of fit.

First and foremost, a candidate must fit with the culture of the company. I’ve written about this in “3 Steps to Making A+ Hires that Fit” and it’s never more true when making a change at the top of a company, because culture comes from the top. Just as one looks for IQ and EQ, the CQ, (Cultural Quality) of fit is all about cultural values, work ethic and style of working that must not only be additive but inspiring enough for a leader to bring their passion and aspiration to galvanize a team.

At the recent Underscore VC Core Summit, we hosted 450 top leaders in roundtable discussions and Culture featured everywhere. First Hubspot CEO Brian Halligan emphasized over and over again the importance of Hubspot’s culture and how he and Dharmesh Shah have had looked at other iconic cultures like Netflix, then defined their own, and continued to evolve and refine it to keep it real.

Brian described the company’s growth as often being “two steps forward, and one step back” but always emphasized the underlying importance of their culture in their scaling, describing it as “easier than ever to start a company and as hard as ever to scale it.”

Then by popular demand, Jason Purcell, CEO of rapidly growing Salsify was joined by his Core Partner Brett Hurt (2x public company founder and now CEO of Data.World) to run a full on session focused on Culture and Hiring.  

Jason Purcell (L) with the whiteboard notes of his conversation with Brett Hurt (R)

The discussion electrified the room, causing vigorous yet consistent discussion of topic such as the importance of integrating Culture into the hiring as well as onboarding process. This included one example of a hire being dismissed during onboarding due to not passing “the test”.

Finally we purposely highlighted Jay Fulcher, CEO at Zenefits as a comparison of a more challenging story, where Jay took on the turnaround of Zenefits after it had dropped a couple of billion dollars in valuation before Jay even joined.

Still Jay emphasized the importance of culture first, saying “it’s all about aligning the culture with the execution and that was job one for me when it came to taking on the turnaround at Zenefits”, a company that is now firmly on its way back to prosperity under his leadership.

Fortunately Acquia’s team haven’t faced the challenges that Zenefits endured before Jay arrived there. They have consistently upheld their culture in an actionable form, posting two record quarters of results so Mike is joining a thriving business. And he has already proven to live up to Acquia’s values such as “Committed to Awesome” for stakeholders and community in his track record. This came out strongly in our interviews, working sessions, and references over the weeks leading up to his recruitment.

So we are excited to welcome Mike as our new CEO and congratulate Dries and the team at Acquia for attracting him to the iconic company they are building. It is a pleasure to share the journey with them and our learnings with you.


As I said at the beginning, there are some straightforward things to remember when making any significant leadership hire: such as being patient to run a professional process and not just look for an immediate replacement fill. And ultimately it’s all down to one word — fit — but most importantly because of the importance of culture as highlighted by Acquia, Hubspot, and  Zenefits. The Cultural Quality (CQ) fit is critical. We had many candidates with the capabilities to do the job for Acquia, but being patient to allow Dries to find his partner was the key. Finding a CQ fit for any hire you make in your company is the key to building a consistent cultural foundation that can support your vision and mission on the ever changing journey to becoming an enduring success.

[Incidentally we ourselves are hiring at Underscore VC right now and you can find out more about how we’re emphasizing diversity and culture for these hires – we’d love to hear from you or a referral if you’re interested]

As always I enjoy sharing my continuous learnings from working with great teams and welcome your thoughts in the comments below.