That’s what a friend of mine texted me recently after a pretty awesome lunch discussion. He has lots of experience working with Startup CEOs and we were discussing a trend around this issue.
I mentioned that I have seen a growing number of Founding CEOs confuse and conflate personal criticism with constructive feedback. His viewpoint was that those that make this mistake do so because they often position themselves as their company’s brand.
Now, there are a number of Startup CEOs who purposely position themselves as the face of the company’s brand and infuse the company brand with their personality. It’s sort of en vogue now and social media makes it relatively easy to do so. Gary Vaynerchuk, Richard Branson, Tony Hsieh, Warren Buffett, and Steve Jobs all come to mind. I’m not really referring to these luminaries. They seem to be strategic about their very public presence and often have effective leaders who are really leading the company on a day-to-day basis.
I’m referring to those of you who are both leading your company and making the company brand your personality. You know who you are. You are the only one who does interviews for the company. Your press kit photo shines with every company press release. Stories that are written are connected to your genius, your strategies, your decisions, and your ponderings about the future of this and the demise of that. The company is molded in your personality and others don’t really have an opportunity to influence the company culture. It’s basically YOUR show and your employees are actors in your movie.
Those of you who are reading this might be thinking, “But, Todd, I am the Founding CEO, of course I need to put myself out there. It’s hard to break through the business noise and get funding and customers. And you told me I’m responsible for the culture.”
Yes, all true. However, my hope is that you are mindful of what you are doing. I have seen three pitfalls that Founding CEOs often fall into when conflating their company’s brand with their personality.
1 – Story Arcs: News and media organizations are in the business of telling stories. The most provocative stories that sell air time, books, magazines, newspapers, and garner online clicks are those with a compelling conflict and a satisfying resolution.
It can be a long build up to the conflict and the final resolution. But, rest assured, writers, producers, and news directors are in need of the conflict angle. They patiently wait until they sniff out an emerging conflict angle with you or your company.
When you are the company, in their mind and in the collective mindset of the business world, any conflict associated with you will be attractive. Parker Conrad of Zenefits and Dan Price of Gravity Payments are just recent examples.
Just remember this, the individuals who are in the business of telling stories are not really your friends. There is an inherent motivational difference between their business model and yours. Purposely or unintentionally making the company brand your personality could put you (and your company) at greater risk.
The media loves to pile onto a troubled company story and you give them a face and easy target to do so if you and the company brand are inseparable. There is truth to the old saying that “they” like to build you up in order to take you down. This is the first pitfall.
2 – Your Employees: There is a measurement on a personality assessment tool I use. It is labeled, “Advantage.” It shows you if you have more ”we” needs versus more “me” needs. Are you more motivated by benefits for the team or by more personalized benefits? There is no judgment of this. I have worked with highly successful CEOs on both ends of this spectrum. It’s important to have both perspectives in an organization.
The challenge comes in when you may have team members who are more focused on the team (the “we”) and you have a Founding CEO who is more focused on personalized benefits (the “me”). If those team members constantly see that you as the CEO are the brand and vice versa, you run the risk of de-motivating some of these team members. They may perceive your actions as selfish and may consciously or subconsciously reduce their engagement level.
Or, just as likely, you may have team members who also have “higher ‘Advantage’ needs.” You may have a co-founder who silently resents your personality’s close association with the brand and wants to influence the company brand with their personality as well.
Either way, when you and the company brand are the same, it may send unintended messages to your team members.
3. Separation Anxiety: My friend’s point is probably the biggest pitfall. If the company brand sits at the nexus of your personality and the company mission, then it can become challenging to separate personal leadership feedback and critique with company feedback and critique. The result is very often some familiar emotions: resentment, denial, anger, and avoidance. The bottom line is: you may take constructive company criticism personally, even when it is warranted and effective feedback.
It’s not a pretty sight when this happens. My least favorite example of this is when you, as Startup CEO, have a meltdown in front of your team because someone dared to question your pet strategy. It takes time to recover from one of these types of episodes. It’s better to prevent them from happening than to spend energy recovering from them.
The point is to be purposeful and intentional about you and your company’s brand promise. If you decide to make your company brand that of your own personality, be sure to find a mentor unaffiliated with your company that can give you some unbiased feedback.
What do you think?