The Cult to Alphas in a Land of Betas
“Just go out and do it!” is an advice we often hear at tech conferences. It comes with the implication that successful venture requires a certain kind of leadership – courageous, visionary, instinctive; coming from ballsy founders who are quick to follow their gut and kickstart change.
Thinking on your feet and courage are, no doubt, required in the lifespan of a startup. Sometimes daily. However, this romanticised view of the founder can pin down characters like being analytical, measured or consultative as inferior.
In the field of FinTech, where business models can be complex, regulation really matters, and profitability comes slow, being realistic about the mix of skills it takes to scale a startup is important. By propelling the myth of the alpha founder, we, as an industry, are influencing the expectations of incoming entrepreneurs, the behaviors of current leaders, and perhaps even injecting bias in funding decisions.
Big Four leadership research I find helpful splits business personalities in pioneers (the go-getters of the world), drivers (the getting-things-done folk), integrators (those who take decisions by consensus) and guardians (the risk-averse, detailed-oriented ones).
As expected, a survey of 661 C-suite executives in established businesses finds that most leaders are either pioneers or drivers. Interestingly however, leadership teams usually have a combination of either a pioneer and a driver, or two drivers – but much less often two pioneers. We can recognise this pattern in combinations between “pioneer” founders, and “driver” executives who usually join the business for its scaling stage.
But an interest in organisational structure and process is only part of the picture.
There are great startup war stories about the importance of confiding in your leadership team when times get tough (The Hard Thing About Hard Things), closely consulting your user base to improve your product (as AirBnB were told to do upon getting into Y Combinator) or even being able to publically apologise to your customer base (like Instagram did amind being acquired by Facebook). As features such as being “arrogant” and “aggressive” are being perceived as an asset, propelling the Alpha Founder stereotype also has negative implications on investment biases when it comes to diversity.
Ultimately, this harms our industry and pressures us in exhibiting behaviours which are not necessarily in the best interest of our teams, businesses or consumers.