Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The rock star is the founder, not the CEO

To be or not to be ... the boss. An existential question or a matter of efficiency?

In the U.S., the founder is a rock star even if he loses the leadership of the company. In France, if he is no longer the CEO, he is ousted, damned, frowned upon. He is thrown to the wolves. We toss out the baby with the bathwater. Founder not CEO anymore = Samson deprived of his hair. In the U.S. the CEO is the person who manages the business, the shift manager who coordinates the steering of the boat, not necessarily the owner, nor even the captain. He is much better paid for his job than in France (I mean in a start-up not in a large corp.), but he is not sacred. It's just a job, somebody has to do it and that's all. It should not be our job title but what we really do in our work that should define us. As noted in TechCrunch by Cedric Giorgi on the replacement of the CEO of, this French phenomenon provokes an unnecessary crisis between managers and shareholders (we also remember NetVibes, Glowria, etc.). But is it really the fault of the French founders as suggested perhaps too fast by Cedric Giorgi?

An interesting topic, another French exception? A bit similar to what has long limited the French cinema in its industrial progression? After the Nouvelle Vague, the director who had to be both the author and editor wouldn't give the final cut to the producer, because he was a "business guy" meaning a "bad guy."
The filmmakers, however, do not handle the launch of the film, which is critical for its "full media" success and value. To take one recent example, Avatar is a great film (so great!!!), but also an incredibly successful global launch. James Cameron is a director and a business mogul, however, not necessarily the CEO of all companies he works with. I hope he's not; otherwise what's the point of having all this money and talent. On the other side, in a successful hexagonal industry, Yves Saint-Laurent has left the management to Pierre Berger. Bernard Arnaud or François Pinault are not designers. What does this mean?

Firstly, perhaps it's a baseless accusation to say that the founders and creators of French start-ups refuse to hand over to a new CEO; it's too easy to blame them for showing signs of immaturity. For more French start-ups to become world leaders, they would then need to hire a coach or a psychoanalyst on the Board of Directors. It's too easy and too obvious, perhaps, to label the founder as a "scapegoat."

In psychoanalysis, we talk about false belief. This is a distorted vision of the world, because we were educated with this in mind. A cultural heritage which tends to fossilize society and prevent evolution. A self-perpetuating circle. For example: women are bad managers, so I recruit men in management positions, so actually, good managers are men (and bad for that matter, but that doesn't prove anything about women except that we must urgently call for affirmative action). The false belief about the CEO founder in France comes from a society where we want to believe and suggest that the leader does everything, he is everything and decides everything. If as a CEO you dare say simply that you believe in collective intelligence, that you are a leading influencer, manager, motivator and a developer of talent. If you admit that vision can come from anywhere and not only from you. If you admit that you are not the alpha and omega of your product and of your business, in France you will be looked at sideways. This is perhaps not the right leader? In the U.S. people will think they are dealing with a professional, and that's all.

This very archaic vision of how business works and the role of leadership is a reflection of our institutions of the 5th Republic in France seen from afar: We would like the leader to be everything, to decide everything and know everything about everything. If the President of the Republic abandons the Napoleon style story-telling, and if he admits his lack of technical expertise on any subject, he begins to look like an incompetent. The French like divine power. Yet it is ultimately reassuring that the leader focuses on what he should do well: to govern, to manage. And he surrounds himself with people (more) competent (than himself) without micromanaging what they do.

We must integrate the cultural reality of our society and businesses of the 21st century as soon as possible. Accept networking and collective intelligence. The founder may have the intelligence of the product, but not be the right person to lead the business and make management decisions. It seems obvious, yet we often see businesses lacking the emotional intelligence to understand, accept and live with what they have. This is true at the executive level and it's true at the management level. And it's not necessarily the shareholders who don't see it, it's more in the business environment where the "wiring" is inhabited by these false beliefs that I mentioned above.

So it must be said: the rock star is clearly the founder. And whether he remains CEO or not, he's just the same a rock star. As a non CEO founder, he's faithful to what he is and to what he loves to do. If society was willing to accept this, rock stars would be more fulfilled and prosperous, and would create more jobs and wealth. By extension (it's often said that there is a lack of positive role models for managers or bosses), many experts who have no desire to become a Director or Manager, would no longer feel that they have failed in their career, simply because they love their job.

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