Real Leaders

The Sad Fable of The Successful Business that Failed


In the land of Milk and Honey, there was once a first-time CEO who founded a company that he intended to become a gamechanger. And it was. The CEO did all the right things, or so he thought.

He hired a team of people that were incredibly bright and hungry to make their mark. The company had a brilliant business plan, built on a solid and unique software platform, executed almost flawlessly in an emerging market that took off like wildfire. Within two years his company was the darling of the industry. His original team seemed to grow along with the company and after four years had 500 employees. The spirit in the place was wonderful. It had all of the accoutrements of a dazzling workplace—free lunches and ping pong tables. The feel of the place was creative and electric.

Then, as the company continued to grow, backed by the usual crowd of investors, the company went public. And like so many others of its kind, found itself with a huge market cap, tons of money, and room to grow. And so it did. Within three years it had well over 3,000 employees. Everything seemed wonderful, except for one thing. There was no company culture to speak of. In fact, the CEO and the team didn’t think about culture much. Who could? It was all they could do to keep up with the market growth. There were no clear values other than the usual, highly aggressive goals, aspirations, and expectations. There were few women at the top of the company. The few that did emerge at the top were just as “masculine” as the men. The leaders of the company were uber smart and they cultivated a culture made up of mental gunslingers. You know the kind: they rip you to shreds mentally when they find a flaw in your reasoning or program design. The ones who succeeded were wickedly smart, highly aggressive and quite heroic. Sadly, there was one thing missing: A collaborative spirit.

Now the company finds it has a huge problem. Having made a bunch of money, many of the early employees are leaving. And with it, much of the company’s heart left as well. Some of the leaders are being replaced by more experienced people who are not as respected by the young mental gunslingers. Profitability has become a mantra, much more so than revenue growth, and the fire is burning out.

This story is not made up. I just visited a company exactly like this. It will likely fall by the wayside and join the many other companies who have experienced rapid growth, fueled by smart people with big ideas, who sold a good game, but couldn’t sustain it. The company will get bought out eventually and become a ghost of its former self. The leaders have no clue. They are arrogant, wealthy beyond their dreams, and believe in their story. As a result, any conversation around changing its culture to make it collaborative and sustainable fell on deaf ears.

And as I reflect on their situation, I believe there is little chance they could, or would, change. More importantly, the opportunity for real and sustainable growth was lost a long time ago. The time to build a culture is before a company grows too fast. I have long believed that it’s much easier to create a culture than to change one. When the company consisted of 25 or 50 employees, that was the time to think about practices and policies that invited collaboration. That was the time to be extra careful about whom they hired in leadership roles – those that care more about heart and wisdom than about cleverness and passion. That was the time to be selective about their employees and for them to hire for integrity, rather than the ability to skewer one another with acumen and mental quickness. When you hire people who can easily work together and who honor and respect one another, and who can slow down enough to bring wisdom to the conversation, you have the potential for creating a sustainable culture, one that is built for growth rather than built to sell.

I know this message will fall on some deaf ears, but my hope is that there are a few wise leaders out there who will take this message to heart.


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