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How I hired my boss, or appear to have

posted: November 28, 2020

tl;dr: It looked to others like a good trick, but I didn’t actually hire my boss...

There was a point in my career when a CEO that I had worked with at three prior companies became the CEO of the company where I was already working, and I ended up reporting to him. It appeared to many that I had somehow managed to hire my boss. That wasn’t actually the case, as I’ll try to explain here.

It starts with the hardly-novel observation that who you know can often matter more than what you know. Someday I’ll do a blog post on this topic, as I’ve experienced more than a few occasions in which a new top-level manager joins a company where I’m working and then brings in a parcel of underlings from his or her last company. People outside the high tech industry sometimes assume this doesn’t happen in high tech. They think that, because technology is impersonal and based upon scientific and mathematical truths, the tech industry must operate as a pure meritocracy. Some inside the industry even like to claim this is the case. In reality, hiring based upon relationships happens quite often in technology companies.

I reviewed the nine times that I’ve been hired in the tech industry. On three of those occasions, I had a prior relationship with the person who hired me, and it absolutely helped. Six other times, including the last three times I’ve been hired, I did not know anybody at the company that hired me. On five occasions I applied to an open, listed position, and in one case was contacted by a recruiter. So I’ve both had and not had the advantage of already knowing someone.

There are two individuals that I happen to have worked with at four different companies. For both, I preceded them at three of the four companies where we worked together, including the time at Westell Technologies where it appeared to some that I had managed to my boss.

I joined Westell in January of 2005: this was the one time where I joined a company after being recruited by a retained search firm. In order to get the offer, both my wife and I, on separate occasions, had to pass muster with Westell’s CEO at the time, Van Cullens, by having a one-on-one dinner at a white-tablecloth, traditional, Chicago-style steakhouse: Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Naperville. A brief tangent: I see that Sullivan’s, sadly, is open only for curbside pickup and delivery at present, due to the restrictions imposed by the state of Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ambiance and service are a huge part of the Sullivan’s experience, so I struggle mightily to imagine what a takeout meal from Sullivan’s is like.

Westell went through a series of CEOs during my ten years with the company. Van Cullens retired, and turned the reins over to Tom Mader. As I described in A decision to outsource manufacturing to China, Mader was instrumental in making that decision; he is mentioned in parts two and three. Soon thereafter Mader abruptly fell out of favor with the Westell Board of Directors, who replaced him with one of their own, Bernie Sergesketter, on an interim basis. Westell then needed to hire a CEO.

Even before this time period, I had already introduced my boss from two prior companies, Rick Gilbert, to a few key members of the Westell board of directors, including the controlling shareholder, Buzz Penny. Prior to Westell I had worked underneath Rick at Copper Mountain Networks. Prior to that, he was on the board of the startup company I co-founded, Oresis Communications, as mentioned in parts one and three of that startup story. And prior to that, Rick was hired into ADC Kentrox after I was already there. Each of those companies had some similarities in technology, product lines, market, and customer base with Westell Technologies. Those similarities made me a good fit for Westell, and they also made Rick Gilbert a good fit for Westell.

I reminded the key board members that Rick might be available, after the CEO opening was created. The board, not me, interviewed him. The board, not me, offered him the job. The board, not me, set his compensation package. Aside from what I’ve already described, and an occasional inquiry as to how things were proceeding, I was not involved any further. Westell followed a strict chain-of-command in hiring the CEO: I would end up reporting to the CEO, so I wasn’t at all involved in the decision making process.

It was no secret to anyone that Rick and I knew each other; you could learn so just be checking our bios on LinkedIn. Yet to some people, especially those people who knew both of us, it appeared as though I had pulled off the amazing trick of hiring my own boss. They credited me with political powers far beyond my actual capabilities in that realm. I was not at all the puppetmaster in the hiring process; I was just the person who made the initial introduction. Still, that’s sometimes all that executive recruiters do to earn their fees. I didn’t get any fee upon Rick’s hiring, not even a new hire referral bonus which many companies do for all positions. I did benefit in other ways, of course.

Related post: How I both worked for and helped acquire Kentrox, or appear to have