Successful Start-up Executive Offers Keys to Success

“Without question, Topgrading absolutely has made my career and all the companies I’ve run more successful.”
– TJ Johnson, Executive Chairman, HTG Molecular Diagnostics

This is a mini case study of how TJ Johnson created a very successful career. TJ was General Manager of a division of Hillenbrand when I interviewed him as part of a succession planning process at Hill-Rom. I concluded he was a “high pot,” sure to succeed running a big company one day. At Hill-Rom he was promoted to VP Global Marketing and succeeded. I coached TJ and I devoted 6 pages of the second edition of Topgrading to a case study, explaining how TJ accepted my hard-hitting feedback, set forth a detailed plan on how to dramatically improve his leadership style, and he did it! He said, “Brad, in summary, it has been a life changer for me and a process that I value a great deal. It’s not over. I’m still working to improve my leadership skills. I have always had a relentless attitude of improvement. I now believe I channel that passion in a more effective way because of my Topgrading coaching. I was skeptical at the beginning but I’m a devoted believer in and a practitioner of Topgrading today.”

TJ also said what my experience interviewing and coaching 6,500 executives has taught me: “Brad, I believe that one of the biggest barriers to executive success is blind spots – not recognizing weaker points – weaker points that would slow down career progress.”

Takeaway: Fixing Weaker Points is Necessary for Maximum Career Growth. The common leadership development view is that people don’t overcome weaker points, so “development” should just try to coach people to use their strengths more. What bunk! I’ve participated in hundreds of succession planning meetings and always see: people get promoted for their strengths, sure, but they DO NOT get promoted because of their weaker points. With MOST of the senior executives I’ve coached, no one, no manager or external coach, had the guts to tell them the truth. Our coaching process identifies those blind spots and gets accurate measurements of them and a practical plan to fix them.

Next, TJ went to Ventana Medical Systems. He took on an executive role during a timeframe with a respectable $250 million market capitalization and 5 years later sold it for – hold onto your hat – $3.4 billion (that’s right, billion). Are you getting the feeling TJ is an A Player when it comes to building wealth in a company?

Next, some venture capitalists persuaded him to try a start-up – what is now HTG Molecular Diagnostics, a sophisticated molecular “profiling” company that identifies genes, “biomarkers,” that are useful for basic research but also might save your life one day. The company went public in 2015 and is just entering the commercial growth stage. TJ hired a team of A Players from his former company (Ventana) and added new executives from across the industry. Fully believing that talent makes the difference and talent wins, TJ and team are continually Topgrading the organization as it rapidly grows.

With this start-up taking off in sales and a solid team in place, TJ promoted himself to Executive Chairman to finally get some balance in life. But is this a title with no responsibility? No! TJ is retaining full authority for talent – for hiring methods, for succession planning, and for performance management. The man being promoted to CEO is happy to have such an experienced talent master retaining that helm and he, too, takes full responsibility for talent in the company. In fact, the company has no CHRO, no SVP Talent, no VP Human Resources, because, “As top executive I have the ultimate authority for talent in the company. Talent is everything! If people don’t perform, there’s no way I can blame HR for not recruiting and hiring good enough talent. When companies do great things, it’s always high performers, not ‘adequate performers’ who created and then implemented their ideas”.

Takeaway: CEOs must own talent and should never delegate talent to Human Resources. HR does the heavy lifting and gets credit when almost all high performers are hired. But the CEO/Chairman sets the bar and must enforce that bar, which should be to always hire high performers. HR cannot require peers to raise the bar – the CEO can, and in doing so gives HR the power to be successful.

Takeaway: Use Topgrading Methods. My 7 executives personally assess and coach everyone in the company. Without question, Topgrading absolutely has made my career and all the companies I’ve run more successful.” TJ has embraced the Topgrading hiring methodology in all of his jobs since he learned it at Hill-Rom. He said, “I’ve taught all my managers the Topgrading methods. It’s packed my teams with A Players. In my current job, although we are growing fast, we have only 100 employees. We’ve used Topgrading to hire all of them.”

TJ could write a book on leadership, highlighting what he’s learned and what he has done with that knowledge. At the risk of over simplifying, TJ summarized his advice to leaders:

  • “Find a way to identify not just your strengths, but your weaker points, your potential Achilles’ heels, your fatal flaws.
  • Then create and implement a plan to fix them. Build in an honest way to measure your improvement.
  • Hire 85%+ high performers, not just good performers. Topgrading worked for me.”
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