Stop hiring people. Instead, make like the President and appoint them to four-year terms.
Condi replaces Colin. Ashcroft bows to Gonzales. Each time a President wins a second term, a game of musical chairs ensues. An election creates a natural pivot point, a new opportunity to match the right people to tomorrow's challenges. As Cabinet members step aside to make room for their replacements, it's hard not be impressed by the orchestrated elegance of it all -- especially compared to the awkwardness and pain of managing exits in the private sector. Indeed, the Cabinet reshuffle is one example -- and they are rare -- of the public sector doing things better than the business world. Managers move on, contributions are celebrated, and no one really loses face.
It's almost never like that in the private sector. Why? The set of circumstances under which most employees are hired is misleadingly gauzy, if not downright romantic. You interview candidates until settling on the one who seems perfect, and, in a moment of kumbaya, he or she is hired. While you might negotiate an employment agreement for a senior executive, there is always something unseemly about thinking about the end at the beginning. And even when there is a contract, opting not to renew almost always leads to bad feelings.
Such issues are especially salient in smaller, entrepreneurial environments, where the culture is often defined by a warm, "family" atmosphere. After all, apart from the characters in a Tennessee Williams play, who quits or gets fired from a family? And unlike public companies, where CEOs and top execs come and go at the whim of shareholders and directors, the commitment and longevity of an entrepreneur at the top of a private business often implies that the entire organization is also there for keeps.
I think it would be great if there were a business equivalent to Election Day, some regularly scheduled event that could function as an agreed-upon time for reshuffling the management deck. That's unlikely to happen anytime soon. But that doesn't mean you can't adopt the model of the President's Cabinet to manage your executives.
The first step would be to abandon the traditional notion of hiring and instead think about "appointing" senior staffers to four-year terms. It's more than a matter of semantics. In a real, meaningful way, adopting the employment model of the presidential Cabinet would dispense with the illusion at the beginning that you're hiring someone forever. That would change the way people in your organization behave. Ambitious executives would understand from the outset that they have a fixed period of time in which to make an impact. The appointment concept also reduces the chances of carrying a forest of deadwood simply because of personal relationships that have developed and are hard to sever. And there would be no awkward questions about why the last person left: The term ended. You'll also have someone who's reasonable and unembittered to sherpa his or her replacement through the transition process.
I can hear the objections now, especially the argument that such a system would make it hard to get people to commit. Nonsense. Four years is a long time -- long enough, according to the U.S. Constitution, to test a President. Why shouldn't the same logic apply to a vice president of marketing? Most jobs probably shouldn't last more than four years anyway. And if in some instance it should, you can always reappoint the executive in question. There are no term limits here.
Will this ever happen? I'm willing to consider it at my company. Because I know that the current situation -- in which the new employee shakes hands and promises the equivalent of a marriage vow -- is just goofy. I also know this: While departures will never be flawless, the less murkiness there is about the end, the better the beginning and middle will turn out to be.
Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.