In Silicon Valley we have stereotypes. We have the aggressive, intuitive Steve Jobs style leader. We have the competent, disciplined Sheryl Sandberg style leader. We have the spastic, unfocused startup founder. We imagine that Steve Jobs was born being Steve Jobs, because we’ve only seen him as the CEO of Apple.
We massively underestimate how much the environment we put someone in shapes their personality.
I’ve seen this first-hand. When you are running a company rapidly growing from 5 to 25 people, and you deeply care about its success you will be spastic. There’s so much to build, so few processes in place. I’ve never seen a founder not become the stereotype of a startup founder, harassing engineers, rapidly changing priorities.
When your company is suddenly valued at over a billion dollars, and you have all the opportunities and problems that come with that, it’s hard not to become confident and forceful. I’ve watched several introspective, nerdy founders get nine and ten figure valuations and over the next year or two gain confidence and become aggressive, decisive CEOs. I’ve never seen it not change someone.
Looking back over the last ten years, watching some people achieve massive success and others fail, I’m more and more convinced that success in the long run it has a lot to do with the person and less to do with luck. But I’m also convinced that environments dramatically shape and change personalities. When we look at early stage founders and try to predict success, its easy to assume we want to find replicas of the CEOs we already know have achieved success. I think that’s a mistake. Instead, I would look for people that are adaptable and pragmatic. By the time the IPO comes around, they will look like they’ve been doing it their whole lives.