You may pride yourself on the unstuffy, creative, youthful vibe at your start-up, but as you grow there will likely come a time when you are told that you need to hire someone senior who feels less comfortable playing foosball in a hoodie than closing deals in a suit.

There's no shame in that. Even Google famously needed "adult supervision." But there is danger in hiring older, more experienced executives from outside the company.

The need to hire experienced leadership is a sign of your start-up's success, writes top VC Ben Horowitz on his blog recently, but if you handle this crucial step in the growth of your business badly, you could end up damaging your company culture or saddling yourself with middling leadership.

Or, to use Horowitz's more colorful metaphor: "Hiring senior people into a start-up is kind of like an athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs. If all goes well, you will achieve incredible new heights. If all goes wrong, you will start degenerating from the inside out."

So what's the right way to go about hiring what Horowitz dubs "old people?" He has plenty of wisdom to offer.

Do You Really Need an "Old Person?"

The first step to successfully hiring a seasoned executive is making sure you actually need one and wouldn't be better off promoting from within. When is the right time to bring in an adult? When outside experience trumps insider knowledge, advises Horowitz.

"For example, for engineering managers, the comprehensive knowledge of the code base and engineering team is usually more important and difficult to acquire than knowledge of how to run scalable engineering organizations," he writes. "In hiring someone to sell your product to large enterprises, the opposite is true."

"This is why when the head of engineering gets promoted from within, she often succeeds. When the head of sales gets promoted from within, she almost always fails," Horowitz concludes. 

Demand Assimilation

You may hire executives for their experience and knowledge, but don't let them import their culture as well, warns Horowitz, who advises start-ups to, "demand cultural compliance. It's fine that people come from other company cultures. It's true that some of those cultures will have properties that are superior to your own. But this is your company, your culture and your way of doing business. Do not be intimidated by experience on this issue, stick to your guns and stick to your culture. If you want to expand your culture to incorporate some of the new thinking, that's fine, but do so explicitly--do not drift."

Horowitz has lots of other tips to offer on the topic, making the full post a must-read for those whose companies are approaching this stage in their growth. For example, among other advice he suggests books to read on the topic, ways to ensure you get a truly stellar executive.

But he ends with this stark warning: "If you are not careful, you may well end up selling the soul of your company." 

Published on: Dec 13, 2012
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