Good start-up, bad corporation: the cost of trading passion for process

Article Highlights

  • We idolize entrepreneurs, we’re wary of businessmen, and we vilify CEOs

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  • Start-ups are ruled by passion, established companies by process

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  • Is there a role for the intensely passionate outside the start-up setting? Generally, no

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We admire start-ups but resent big-corporations (unless they’re Apple).  We idolize entrepreneurs, we’re wary of businessmen, and we vilify CEOs. 

Do we love business – or hate it?

This depends a lot on what you mean by “business.”  There are at least two competing narratives.  First is the story of business as what you might call translational innovation, the vehicle that converts insight and energy into a transformative product or service.   This is “good” business. 

And then there’s business as a grinding, souless machine that marches inexorably forward, maximizing efficiency in pursuit of incrementally better returns.  This is “bad” business.  It also where a great many of us are employed, and incidentally, responsible for most of the products we buy, the services we use, and the lifestyle we enjoy.

"Do we love business – or hate it?" -- David Shaywitz

Moreover, both views represent gross exaggerations; delusions of grandeur aside, many start-ups are surprisingly incremental and derivative, while the scale of large corporations enables inspired managers to effect the sort of change most entrepreneurs only dream of.

Nevertheless, all businesses are not created equal – and the nature and texture of a young entrepreneurial enterprise doesn’t feel anything like that of a more established business.

The key difference?  Start-ups are ruled by passion, established companies by process – a distinction that has profound implications for both the nature of the experience and for what it takes to be successful.

Short of actually working in a start-up, I can think of no better way to capture the tone and energy of the entrepreneurial mindset than to listen to any podcast of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (I have no affiliation or relationship with STVP).  It’s a weekly affirmation for the Facebook set.

What I enjoy most about these talks is the immediate feeling of resonance with so many of the presenters – they discuss their efforts with energy, heart, and passion; they highlight uncertainty and ambiguity, describe in a palpable fashion their struggles and setbacks, and by the end, it’s hard not to share in the thrill of their accomplishments.  Why?  Because it’s just so intensely personal. 

In contrast, the defining characteristic of most established companies is the extent to which they seek to replace the personal with the predictable.  Managers are literally trained to interact in an emotionally-detached way with other people; you learn about “teaming behaviors” (I couldn’t make that one up), engage in “trust building exercises.” 

The reason?  Because the successful functioning of most businesses depends upon their achieving a certain scale, and requires an ever increasing number of interpersonal interactions, and reproducible processes.  To the extent you can dial out individual variability and reduce friction, the better the whole enterprise will run.  Not surprisingly, many of the people who thrive in these corporations excel at maintaining focus on the process, are comfortable with more formal, less emotionally-invested relationships, and tend to have the sort of attentive, industrious personality described by David Brooks (see my previous discussion here), and often attributed to Mitt Romney.  In a very real way, the success of many executives and their companies reflects their ability to create a reliable yet fundamentally impersonal culture.

It’s an interesting exercise to contrast STVP podcasts with consummately corporate McKinsey podcasts, for example – these are very rational, sober, occasionally interesting reports delivered with exceptional articulation and lacking any emotion.  (One suspects that even a McKinsey podcast advocating the strategic application of passion would be delivered in a similar fashion.) 

This tone (not surprisingly) is also typical not only of most of the CEOs I’ve met or heard speak, but also of the many CEO podcasts I’ve heard via HBR, McKinsey, or the Commonwealth Club.  I’ve heard the same tone from a number of senior pharma executives as well; even when trying to assert their belief in people and passion, they manage to do so in a fashion that seems remarkably detached from both.

Of all the executives from large corporations I’ve heard, Howard Schultz – listen to this Commonwealth Club presentation – was the most unexpected exception; perhaps this is because he is in essence the founding entrepreneur of Starbucks, not simply the CEO of a large coffee chain.

Is there a role for the intensely passionate outside the start-up setting?  Unfortunately, the answer generally seems to be no – with several important exceptions: (a) you are the founding CEO (e.g. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh – listen to his engaging Commonwealth Club interview here); (b) you can maintain your passion while faking the impersonal formality well enough to remain under the radar (I’ve heard this can be a challenge); or (c) you are sufficiently walled off from corporate antibodies and have exceptional support from very senior management (skunkworks-style).

Otherwise, I’m afraid established businesses are no place for overtly impassioned men and women.

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