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Hoop dreams and executive success

VC general partner Amy Vernetti talks about building a better management team and how basketball skills can be seen as a good barometer for executive promise.

     

      
       
    Hoop dreams and executive success
    By Rachel Konrad
    Staff Writer, CNET News.com
    July 11, 2001, 12:30 p.m. PT

    Amy Vernetti has two passions: finding good executives and "kicking butt" on the basketball court. The two, she says, are closely related.

    In mid-June, the executive recruiter became a general partner in Palo Alto, Calif.-based venture capital firm Technology Crossover Ventures. Before that, she was a "human capitalist" at venture capital investment bank Garage.com, where she created and nurtured a program that paired obscure start-ups with like-minded but high-profile executives.

    Vernetti loves her job, which requires her to build top-notch management teams for start-ups that would normally struggle to find high-profile executives. She calls herself an "evangelist for investing in solid management teams," and she has plenty of advice for aspiring executives.

    She equally loves basketball. Vernetti attended St. Mary's College of California on an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship, took a break to have her first baby seven years ago and returned to sweep a corporate tournament at Heidrick & Struggles. She still plays pick-up at Redwood City, Calif.-based Pacific Athletic Club at least twice a week. In fact, that's how she met her current boss, TCV founding partner Jay Hoag, and her previous boss, Garage.com CEO Guy Kawasaki.

    The blunt-talking Washington, D.C., native stopped dribbling and attending business meetings long enough to talk with CNET News.com about how to spot a good executive, why Silicon Valley companies have so few women, and how basketball relates to both.

    How has the downturn changed the war for talent in the technology sector? With so many layoffs, is it an employer's market?
    There are a gazillion resumes floating around right now, but is the war for talent over? Hardly. It's only harder to separate the good candidates from the bad. There are a gazillion resumes floating around right now, but is the war for
talent over? Hardly. It's only harder to separate the good candidates from
the bad.

    How do you separate the good from the bad?
    I put people into three buckets. First is the rat deserting the sinking ship. These people were either laid off or about to get laid off--and their employer had reason to let them go. They're low-hanging fruit.

    The second bucket is the people who simply didn't do their due diligence in checking out the company before they took the job. The company failed because the business plan was bad--not necessarily a horrible reflection on the employee, but they didn't do their homework. I also call these people the "what were they thinking?" people.

    Third is the people who just got caught in a bad situation. The company had a solid business plan, the management was solid, but because of the current funding situation, it just didn't make it to the second round. Obviously the best people are from the third group.

    How do you find people in the third group?
    You look for pedigrees--the people who went to the best schools, who worked for IBM or did consulting for McKinsey. They should also have an established track record...Today, you see all these people with five companies on their resume that I've never heard of, and they've spent 18 months at each company. That's not long enough to really develop skills.

    The pedigree approach strikes me as provincial. What about the person who has excellent people skills and solid references--but didn't get an MBA from MIT?
    There's no question CEOs have had great success with someone without a pedigree. You always hear about the CEO who took his nephew under his wing, mentored him for a decade and then that nephew did great work. But the key is that this person had a great mentoring experience. Those kind of people are just as valuable (as someone with a pedigree).

    You also need diversity of careers and experience--just like you look for ethnic and gender diversity. You want the 16-year-old wunderkind who is a technical genius as well as the 52-year-old IBM veteran. You want Stanford MBAs and Cal Davis (University of California, Davis) grads. Today, you see all these people with five companies on their resume that
I've never heard of, and they've spent 18 months at each company. That's
not long enough to really develop skills.

    Let's say I'm an aspiring manager who gets laid off from a technology company. I didn't go to Harvard Business School and I never consulted for Accenture, and I switched jobs 3 times in the past three years. How do I present these unseemly facts during a job interview and still show that I have potential?
    Present it as honestly as possible--they'll find out the truth no matter what you tell them, so you might as well be honest. If you're in the first or second bucket, you might as well admit it. Everything is forgivable, as long as you don't do it a second time.

    A lot of companies, especially more established technology companies, are offering employees voluntary buyouts to trim staff. In some cases, employees can get six months or more in salary if they quit--ample time to find a new job. If you take the money and run, how does that affect your career?
    As a recruiter, when you hear buyout, your red flag goes up. It's definitely not something positive. It's definitely not a good idea from a career management perspective, regardless of how much money you get...It's not the same as getting laid off or fired, but at the end of the day, from a recruitment perspective, you're still not working.

    But again, everything can be forgiven. It depends on the individual situation...Was this a 20-year IBM employee with a very strong track record, who still has a decade of being very productive? Maybe that person just hit a wall and couldn't work at IBM anymore, didn't see anything interesting at IBM so took the money.

        
      
    Hoop dreams and executive success

    Your big extracurricular passion is competitive basketball. How does this help your career?
    If nothing else, it's attention getting...It doesn't hurt if you're beating guys on the basketball court and then seeing them in the office. It's the same as golf--except that basketball is a real sport. (Grins.)

    It also helps learn how to deal with men. I've been dealing with men on the basketball court my whole life. If I've been kicking butt on the court, then I can kick butt in the office.

    Would you say that you owe your professional success to basketball?
    I wouldn't say that, but I will say that it's no coincidence that Guy (Kawasaki) and Jay (Hoag) recruited me through basketball. It says a lot about what kind of person you are--on the court and at work. I pass the ball a lot, and I'm good at defense. I hustle. I'm not a ball hog.

    What do you look for in a basketball team member?
    Same things: someone who passes the ball, plays good defense, hustles. Not a big ball hog. Someone who shows both leadership and teamwork.

    How do bad management traits translate onto the court?
    Never go to work for someone who yells at teammates on the court. If you are getting that upset about a casual game, then you're going to be a bad manager. Also, avoid anyone who shoots all the time and swears a lot. Never go to work for someone who yells at teammates on the court. If you
are getting that upset about a casual game, then you're going to be a bad
manager.

    There are relatively few women in management positions in the technology industry, and there are relatively few women on basketball courts in the Silicon Valley. Coincidence?
    Well, you'd be surprised. What makes a great executive are things like leadership and teamwork. Women can get these traits, learn them, from playing competitive sports. That's how a lot of men learn them.

    There's also an element of confidence you get from playing sports, from winning, from scoring, from being competitive, from playing hard. Being successful in business is partly self-promotion. You have to feel comfortable in the limelight--that's part of it. You can learn to feel that way when you're part of a team and bring special skills.

    Should more women play basketball instead of going to business school?
    (Laughs.) Well, I think they have to be better self-promoters. They need more ego, not less. Frankly, they have to want it. You don't reach the CEO level if you have any doubts about whether you want it. You have to want the long hours, too, and the stress, and the responsibility. It's not always fun. Sometimes I think there aren't more women at the top of companies because their intelligence keeps them out.

    Now that you're a venture capitalist overseeing management teams but not doing any direct recruiting yourself, what will you miss most about being a recruiter?

    Every day you're either talking to or interviewing high-profile candidates and CEOs--really bright people. You get really close to them, really tight. I did the last CEO search for (Netscape founder) Jim Clark. Jim called me every day for 90 days...You get to know things about them, about their wives, husbands, children. They call you at all hours of the night. You know about their kids, how they're in school, so they won't want to relocate to Dallas.

    What will you miss least?
    The attitude that recruiters suck. People think if you hire someone, give them an office and a bunch of people, you'll get fabulous results. If it doesn't work out, it's the recruiter's fault and this was the wrong person. But you have to manage them. Even CEOs need good direction, a good team. The board has to communicate, and everyone in management has to take responsibility for the company's direction and results.