Lucinda Duncalfe | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Lucinda Duncalfe

Background:  

Monetate helps global brands personalize their customer experience online, allowing marketers to test and run individualized digital campaigns. During last year's "Cyber season," anchored by Cyber Monday sales, Monetate estimates that it influenced more than one-third of U.S. e-commerce transactions. 

The Mistake:

I made the same mistake twice, which makes it particularly galling to me.

I was president and CEO at a company called Destiny Software. I was young, in my early 30s, and I was really concerned about myself and the other members of the early executive team not being experienced. So for a first head of sales, we thought we needed a "been-there-done-that" guy. We got somebody with 20-years-plus experience—and he was completely the wrong guy. 

It cost at least six months of ramp time, and it was hard to diagnose because we had long sales cycles. You wouldn't expect results that early, so I let him stay for too long. If you have the wrong person, they tend to hire the wrong people, so then you have a whole team of the wrong people. We had to remake that whole function.

About a year and a half later, I hired another been-there-done-that guy to run our human resources department. He came highly recommended; we really liked him. We had a very thorough interview process, even from the beginning. Within a week, I knew he was the wrong guy.

We were growing very quickly, and our offices at that point were spread all over this huge, sprawling complex. The two of us were going together from one office to the other, from the first floor to the second. He had a little bit of a belly, and I was running upstairs to go to the other office when he said, "You know, everybody can't keep up with you."

I felt really badly, so I stopped and said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I'll go slower."

He said, "I don't mean how fast you're walking, I mean how fast you're moving the business."

I just thought, "Uh oh, wrong guy."

We were in hyper-growth; we were an Inc. 500 company for a number of years there. You have to move fast, and you're going to hit some cones because you're driving fast, and it makes some people uncomfortable. But the goal—especially for a head of people—isn't for the business to go slower, it's to help people be effective as the business goes fast. If he wasn't comfortable moving that fast, there was no way he was going to help everybody else be more comfortable.

There's something about that edge of originality. 

The Lesson:

I made the same mistake twice because I ascribed too much to the specifics of the individual the first time. When it happened the second time, I realized, "Oh, that was the problem with the first person. He wasn't a bad guy—he was a great guy, actually—it was just one aspect that was the problem."

It took the two to make me realize there was a core commonality: a lack of freshness. There's something about that edge of originality. 

Ever since then, I've hired a very specific profile, which is people who have the experience base, the attributes and the skills that they need to do a position, but haven't actually done it yet.

If you take the example of the first head of sales, the guy who I hired to replace him had been head of a region for a larger company, so he had the experience but he'd never had that actual, final responsibility. People like that have a hunger and a passion and an openness to looking at things in a new way. 

When you're getting the first opportunity to step up to a new level and you have that natural drive, you're going to be all in. 

Follow Lucinda Duncalfe on Twitter at @LucindaD.

Pictured: Lucinda Duncalfe. | Photo courtesy of Monetate.