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Pick the CEO, Not the Company

The closer to the top, the more it matters
Most organizational experts will tell you that when joining an organization, the company’s culture is the key to determining whether you will thrive or suffer in a given work environment. While this is true for a mid-level manager or individual contributor, the closer you get to the top, the less the overall culture matters and the more the CEO’s leadership and management style impact your work satisfaction. Certainly a CEO sents the tone and influences culture; however, your happiness is not determined by the culture when you report to the CEO.

I learned this when early in my career I was a director at a privately held company that was acquired by a much large public company. In a matter of a few weeks our approachable, personable CEO was replaced by a top down, autocratic manager who announced at our first management meeting, “there’s a new sheriff in town, and if you don’t like my way of doing things, feel free to leave before I make the decision for you.”

Later on, with a few battle scars and bumps along the way, I had to choose between two compelling chief marketing offers. One company had more customers, more revenues, greater financial strength, a larger marketing budget and better brand recognition. But the CEO I would report to had already cycled through a number of executives and had engendered a culture where management feared him and avoided actions that could get them on his bad side. The other company was a less appealing opportunity on paper; however, the CEO was personable, practical, driven – but fair – and fostered collaborative decision making. Guess which one I choose? Naturally the latter one, and even though both high flying companies eventually ran out of runway along the dotcom highway and we’re purchased at diminished valuations years later, I’m still friends with the CEO I picked over the company I didn’t.

So it may be obviously that when you interview a potential new employer and will either be reporting to the CEO, or just one level removed, you ask others to “describe his or her management style,” this question rarely yield good insight. When they want you to join, why tell you that the CEO runs down the corridor spewing profanities or regularly excoriates subordinates in front of others? A better line of questioning is to probe for specific examples for how decisions are made, whether the CEO crucifies those who fail or allows for failure as a learning opportunity. This way, you may not always pick a company that is certain to succeed year after year, but you will more likely work with people you like and would enjoy working with again in the future.

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