CEO Badger Picks a CSO

The senior management of Hi-Tech Widgets Inc. was exhausted. A hurried six-month search to replace the lame-duck incumbent CSO, whose succession plans had fallen prey to poaching just as she was planning to leave for a University job, had finally come down to three candidates. The CEO, Badger, dourly reviewed his post-it note of key points over his early-morning coffee.

  • Medium-going-enterprise
  • Steady but not meteoric growth
  • Systems/processes starting to get past teething troubles
  • Startup “innovation-everywhere” culture starting to dissipate
  • Investors looking for more structure to R&D investment, at about 5% of revenues

He sighed. What the note didn’t capture was backdrop of resentments and squabbles.

He checked them off mentally: the first cohort of Wild-West startup employees — now mostly functional managers — had pushed back strongly against any suggestion of organization and labeled innovation processes. “The Old-Style Industrial lab is dead; everybody is an innovator anyway! Back when we started…” was the refrain. The expensive consultant had suggested a strong open-innovation/open-source approach, which was easier said than done, given the weirdly-specialized nature of Widgets. The second cohort of somewhat bureaucratic, but efficient process-oriented managers — he’d driven that hiring direction — had made it clear, in its own passive aggressive way, that it wanted a more disciplined innovation function, primarily to mute the ad-hoc influence of the startup cohort.

Badger would just have to make a call before the situation clarified itself any more. He sighed again; his predecessor, the ready-fire-aim founder (who had moved on to social entrepreneurship and yachting) would have liked this decision better. Badger himself was a disciplined Fortune 500 sales executive, brought in specifically to drive growth. Innovation had not been on his radar, but the decision was his.

“I’ll take the first call!” he called out to his administrative assistant, Ferret. The site interviews had been completed the previous month, so he’d scheduled a final set of back-to-back 5-minute calls to get refresher elevator pitches from all the finalists.

The first candidate, Bulldog — a rising star who’d run the product program of the killer-app of a company in an adjacent vertical — was silent over the phone for a few seconds before he replied.

“Well, it is fairly clear that your line managers have near-term development under control; I’d say my priority is going to be research agenda-setting. You already know what I consider the ideal mix of investments I’d want in the R&D portfolio, and what I think the first few focal problems should be. My basic approach would be to refine the charter for that initial mix, and then hire against that, to build up a directionally-correct program.”

The second candidate, Zebra, a voluble and well-connected young assistant dean who was looking to leave academic management, needed no time to think. She said:

“Oh I’ve practically got that one memorized by now. What you need is definitely process. As you know, I have very definite views on the right mix of partnerships, in-house research and relationship-building with that list of target universities I gave you. We’ll start with that prosumer-innovation portal, company-wide quarterly brainstorm, and the `Innovation Fridays’ sorts of mechanisms, and get started on some Ph.D. hires to lead whatever program emerges from the bootstrap processes.”

The last candidate, Cat, was a quiet accountant with a wry sense of humor. His LinkedIn profile picture, Badger recalled, had him in a suit, with a tie that said “bean counter.” He’d made the finalist list primarily on the strength of his extraordinary hit-rate managing the IP of a pharmaceutical company. His answer was the shortest.

“I am afraid I am still going to have to resist the temptation to give a more explicit answer. Not because I don’t have views, but because I don’t think they matter at this stage. I am going to be entirely focused on getting the right people on board and the wrong people off. As I told you, I believe some of your key people are badly miscast, and I am only interested in the job if you and the board are willing to back me in my `casting’ efforts. Then we’ll see.”

For fifteen minutes after the last call, Badger sat silently and stared at the wall. Finally, with an uncertain glance at the copy of Good to Great lying on his desk, he got up and stepped out of his office.

“Let’s start putting together an offer for Dr. Cat,” he said to Ferret.

Challenge to Ribbonfarm Readers:

Do you agree with Badger’s decision? Is the Good to Great principle of “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off, and then decide where to drive it” the right one to apply in this scenario?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Sorry, what’s a CSO? I know a lot of business jargon, so I’ve got a couple of possible guesses… it seemed better to ask first.

  2. “Chief Scientific Officer”