On the Virtues of Controlling Your Ego

Oh, the pleasures of having your ego tickled! Who is immune to that? I bet even the pope upon election cannot suppress an inner smile from having all those impressive titles bestowed upon himself. However, the trouble with startup founders is that it is so easy to ingratiate yourself with a grandiose feel-good title which often leads to unforeseen difficulties in the future.

I have been recently working with a tech startup founded by a brilliant engineer with a strong research background and interests, who adopted himself a couple of co-founders:  another engineer and a sales guy. For several years they were pursuing a bootstrapped advanced engineering design services business with its usual ups and downs, but were recently ready to turn it into a product-focused venture. As I started to work with the company a number of issues popped up related to the deceptively innocent sins from the early days of company setup.

The use of self-awarded job titles in an early-stage company could be a problem if the real qualifications do not correspond to the scale of the job title. It all starts quite innocently. The newly formed company needs formal management, so the main founder becomes the President & CEO,  a technical expert becomes VP of Engineering and the sales guy naturally becomes the VP of Sales & Marketing. This might be fine if the startup is moving at the speed of Hyperloop and the calibre of folks involved is adequate to the task – but this is rare with early-stage companies.

In this particular case, the individuals involved were all very talented but simply did not have the management or business experience to occupy these positions as the company started to grow. The problems manifested themselves at several levels:

·        Fundraising – the quality of the management team is key in any investment decision, and in this case was not passing scrutiny, but just becoming a major hurdle in raising the sought $2M round

·        Customer relationships – as the company typically had large organizations as its customers, the imbalance  of titles in the intense customer interactions was creating awkward situations when our “VPs” were often dealing either with junior corporate managers or with true senior executives; not good in either case!

·        Internal operations – with the business growth came the increase in staff hiring, HR issues, etc. and it became clear that being a brilliant engineer does not necessarily translate into a “titled” manager

·        Shareholders – having individuals as subordinates, while at the same time being major shareholders, creates tricky problems which could easily de-stabilize the company; reasonable measures and safeguards need to be put in place to protect against catastrophe

It took me, as an appointed company Chairman, quite a while and a lot of tip-toeing and gentle maneuvering to rectify this situation. We ended up re-classifying job titles as CTO, Director of Sales, and, a face-saving, Chief Designer. This created room to bring in more experienced talent to help steer the company. It goes without saying that nobody likes to feel “degraded” and it was not easy on all the fragile egos involved. It all worked out for the better but could have been avoided if only we learned to control our egos!

Take-aways from this post:

·        Members of the Founders team should go easy on the job titles and avoid loftiness incommensurate with experience

·        As a controlling Founder, be careful with the use of fancy titles, in lieu of adequate compensation, as a bait to attract talent  – it could be difficult to undo it

·        Expect and plan to bring along experienced new hires while having org chart room and job titles available

·        Don’t confuse shareholders role with the employment function; build safe guarding measures to protect from interference

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