Advice du Jour: Do Whatever Gets You Tenure

I was recently talking to a CEO friend of mine who is having trouble with his board. He thinks there is a very good chance that he will soon be fired.

What’s the problem?, I asked.

“Fucking board full of VCs,” he said. “They undervalue me. I’m knocking myself out getting this company on analysts’ radar, getting our systems in place, hiring good people, and even closed this recent round. And what do I get? Grief at every board meeting, and at weekly calls inbetween.”

What are they giving you grief about?

“Number crap,” he said. “They are hung up on a couple of key accounts, ones that we thought we would have closed by now, but haven’t. It’ll either happen or it won’t, but beating on me every week isn’t going to change anything. These fuckers should get a real job sometime and see what it’s like on the other side.”

I don’t want to sound glib, I said, but why don’t you just close the deals?

“What?”, we’re trying. “But it’s complicated and time-consuming, and I can’t spend every minute hanging with my sales guys as they work the process. There are too many fires to spend my time only on those ones.”

I told him the story of another super-smart friend of mine. Harvard Ph.D. One of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. Quicker than quick. He took a job as an academic at a top-tier U.S. school, had a great research program, and proceeded to not get get tenure, despite being the smartest guy in the place, which everyone knew.

Why? Because to get tenure he had to publish papers, and he had a couple of key papers in the edit cycle, and he knew they would eventually get published. He spent  the bulk of his time doing other stuff, like consulting, teaching, helping other faculty, and doing doctoral supervision. Trouble is, those key papers weren’t accepted in time for his tenure review, so he was terminated — even though the papers were accepted 3-4 months later.

The moral of the story: Do what gets you tenure. If he had been knocking himself out getting other papers in other publications, even if they hadn’t published, he would have been cut more slack than he was for what he did (however laudable it was).

Same thing for my CEO friend. Boards are wrong about many things, but if you balk at the thing they unanimously want, then you are going to have to soon find other employment. Do what gets you tenure. If they want to see you selling, be seen selling. A lot.

And if you think that’s being cynical or pandering, then you have no business in real world of business.


  1. Maybe, but tenure is not a business concept.
    I prefer to think the smart guy at Harvard didn’t really want tenure down deep if it meant such silliness. Integrity trumps tenure. Galbraith has a funny story about a Brit instructor in Economics who used to get the lazy head of the department (“Burbie”, they called him — argh!) at Harvard to comment on articles that he made up on the spot in social situations. “Unsound”, he would get the guy to pronounce to the group, who would all be laughing up their sleeves at him. I don’t think the Brit got tenure, too.
    I once knew an untenured prof at Yale who did what he had to do to get tenure — except, after ten years, kow-tow to some feminists over a poetic image. He said what he thought, not what they wanted him to say. So did not get tenure after all his hard work. They got him. I admired him for not giving in to them.
    Come to think of it, “getting tenure” is conformity, and conformity is not a good concept for business.

  2. Paul, your advice here might actually the best advice he could hear for these circumstances, but it is profoundly naive and speaks to the chasm that exists between some CEOs and their boards.
    Based entirely on the facts you state, let me suggest some alternative advice: Quit. The Board is micromanaging.
    Assuming he’s as smart as you say, the board is focused on the wrong thing which indicates to me that there there isn’t much effective communication. About these deals, or the other issues at the firm.
    If some clear channels of communication were open, anyone as smart as you say this CEO is, would be able to discuss these deals as well as the other priorities that seem more important and reach some agreement. Maybe the CEO is inexperienced and could use some coaching and kept on a short leash, but to categorically state that the CEO should bow under the pressure from the Board on something as tactical as this does a disservice to each of their legitimate roles.

  3. I interpret Paul as relating “tenure” to building enough credibility/goodwill/confidence/security thru early wins as to convince the powers that be – and there are always powers that be – you are worthy of a little more leash, such that you can roam a little more freely.
    These guys who ‘refuse to play the game’ on some make believe principle are either delusional or irresponsible or both – either way, they deserve what they get, and can console themselves on having stood up to the man as they collect unemployment or bug their friends to distribute resumes.
    At the risk of sounding too grouchy, your friend sounds like (at best) he is missing the forest for the trees or (at worst) whomever gave him the job made a big mistake. The number one priority of the CEO is sales, whether facilitating on the back-end, offering overlay support or making them directly himself. Topline is the number one indicator of health. It says that your solution offers value such that a paying customer is willing to part with precious cash to solve his problem. If that isn’t happening, something is terribly wrong, and new systems and analyst attention are a complete waste of time. Scoring another round of venture only delays the inevitable. This guy needs his head screwed on straight or replaced outright.

  4. I think he’s saying that the CEO doesn’t entirely have control over the sales process. The customers move at their own pace, and there’s only so much an AE or a CEO can do about that. It’s not like writing an article.

  5. agree—it’s along the lines of “do what it takes”, “give people what they want” and “listen to what they are saying” sometimes tough and sometimes disagree but think if “they want more selling” then thats a clear meassage of what you should be doing

  6. Paul’s parting shot sums up the whole thing:
    “And if you think that’s being cynical or pandering, then you have no business in real world of business.”
    Who DOESN’T know people that were fired in spite of their greatness, due to “politics?” And we all know just as many people who have been promoted or brought on, in spite of their lack of qualification, due to “politics.” CEOs answer to Boards, period. If I have a group of 5 or 7 bosses all insisting that I do something and I never do it because I know better and they are misguided, I know I will be fired by my misguided bosses. At some point, the Board can be turned over (eventually) if they’re a problem – speaking of which, why doesn’t Nortel’s board consist of nothing but FASB Board members by now, with all of their accounting missteps over the past 6 years of so and all of the tens (or hundreds) of billions in market cap that it’s cost them? Sorry – old losses die hard. Maybe boards can’t actually turnover afterall?

  7. I see two issues here: the first is– get out and close deals. The only way to validate market, product, and team is to convert customers. Stated simply, without VC money, a business goes bankrupt quickly if it can not generate revenue. Second, get operating experience on the board– consolidate VC seats and make room for a seasoned director with operating experience. Works wonders as a rosetta stone for those clashes of priorities in the boardroom.

  8. It is pandering, in a way. But those who don’t want to pander should work for themselves… and then, you get to serve many bosses, rather than one.

  9. But isn’t some of this hindsight and second-guessing? If the CEO had spent all his time trying to close deals, and something horrible happened because he neglected other areas, then this would turn into a story about how one should not get fixated on one item at the expense of others. Heck, the moral might then be that you need to be strong enough to resist people who want to you to be fixed on their pet area.

  10. Rafael Montoya says:

    Your CEO friend is in the wrong job!
    He better use his time to network his future job(s) in a place (or places) that works better for him.
    Also, if his board members are reading this, for their company they should hire a different type of CEO.
    Finally, a CEO works for the Board and for all the other stakeholders.

  11. franklin stubbs says:

    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
    – George Bernard Shaw

  12. franklin stubbs says:

    “It is pandering, in a way. But those who don’t want to pander should work for themselves… and then, you get to serve many bosses, rather than one.”
    Insightful observation — but shouldn’t the greater flexibility in choosing one’s bosses count for something?
    Self-employment gives the opportunity to cultivate the relationships and work environments one truly desires to have. There is a potential return on investment far greater than money in that respect.

  13. Apply “Do whatever gets you tenure” to the present US administration and see what you get. Rotten advice on every level.

  14. Pissed-Off-PhD-In-Britain says:

    Unlike tenured academics, CEOs can be fired. The average tenure of a CEO is 5-7 years and dropping sharply. How many academics would be able to cope with that sort of pressure?
    I say this cognisant of the crap that gets tenured. A 50 year old (give or take) German academic in my department – a business school in Oxbridge – just got tenure. He took it upon himself one day in the common room to tell me – a mature, final year PhD – that there was no space for people like me who think they know the world because they have worked in business. Excuse me for having some real business experience (post MBA) under my belt while I try to find some other things!
    As for influence, I do not even begin to comment on it, More people have read my blog, cited it, commented on it, contacted me and given me consulting projects in 1 year, than have collectively read his published nonsense in his 20 year academic career.
    One lens is not suitable for the whole world and I think the tenure analogy is wholly wrong for a guy trying to hold on to a ‘real’ job.
    PS: I mention the PhD knowing you have one, Paul. And you will know not everybody sets out to get tenure unless there is something I do not know about you…

  15. In baseball, “tenure” would be what they call the routine plays while fielding.
    The first thing that a manager demands from a shortstop in defense for example, is to have a low error percentage. In other words, field the balls that most shortstops would grab. Additionally, if the shortstop catches the ones that were meant to be base hits, it’s a bonus. However, a shortstop can’t excuse a poor defending percentage through his occasional spectacular and flashy plays.

  16. In the absence of a pithy metaphor, I believe the bottom line is and has always been the same: know your utility function. This applies to managing your career, engaging in a negotiation, or any type of interaction. And if you know this, you can lead a life, both personal and professional, free of angst and teeth-gnashing. It doesn’t mean you always get what you think you want, it just means that you are able to analyze the “price” of every decision you make and make rational choices.
    Paul, it sounds to me like your friend shouldn’t be in his current seat, because his vision of what should be doesn’t comport with that of his Board. Further, it sppears too costly to him personally, spiritually, strategically, whatever, to alter his behaviors. In this circumstance he should move on of his own volition, and not wait to get the heave-ho from the Board. I am sure he is a great guy with high integrity, but if the utility of his doing what the Board wants and keeping his job is less than doing what he thinks is right and losing his job, then he should begin networking now and arranging for an orderly transition from his current role.
    Self-knowledge and self-awareness will set you free.

  17. Hi Paul:
    Yep, very good analogy. Brings back a few memories.