We can move past the outdated cult of the genius founder

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Following the recent news about Uber and its leadership issues, I can’t help but think of the structural issues at play here. Personally I think of Uber as a near-perfect manifestation of what’s wrong with the tech industry, but the underlying issues go way beyond this company.

The outdated cult of the genius founder

In the saga around Uber founder being ousted by investors as CEO, there’s been lots of talk about changing the company’s culture, about making changes, about reigning in bad behavior. First of all, if this happens after being slapped on the wrist it doesn’t come from a place of credibility: Uber’s behavior in all of their scandals has been pretty clearly just window-dressing. When there was enough public pressure, course-correct just enough. Never has there been any credible sign of truly wanting to change. These are just my 2 cents, and I’m obviously not an Uber fan.

This whole culture, as has been documented very well in lots of places, is an expression of the founder’s personality and mode of operation. A culture doesn’t just exist, and change when you tell it to: Culture is the accumulation of decisions, reinforced by success.

In Silicon Valley, the myth of the genius founder is strong. And how couldn’t it be. It’s such a strong narrative! But like all narratives, it’s a fiction.

This wouldn’t be dangerous if there weren’t such a broad range of VCs who went for this myth of the genius founder, and for the alpha male bravado that comes with it. (And make no mistake, this cannot be discussed without talking about gender.)

Whenever I think about Uber and its culture the thing that strikes me most is how outdated Uber seems. Despite the technology, the angle of disruption and innovation and what have you, it feels like a company more like 1980s movie Wall Street rather than a 21st century enterprise.

This reminded me a lot of former ISS commander Chris Hadfield’s explanations of how the requirements for becoming an astronaut have changed since the 1950s, which turned into this little Twitter rant (some typos removed):

In his (excellent!) book Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield explains how requirements for astronauts have changed over time.
In the early days of space exploration, it was all about technical skills and bravery: You would have to be ok being strapped onto a rocket. In modern space exploration, it’s all about good leadership and being a team player, having broad skillsets, and handle stress well.
When I see Uber news, the company feels so outdated it makes me realize: Maybe the startup & tech scene moves in the same direction. Rather than the brilliant, visionary—but potentially ruthless—genius preferred in the past, we’re moving into a new world:
Imagine a tech & startup world of great, level-headed team players and leaders with broad interdisciplinary skills and diverse teams.

Turns out, this might be huge also under inclusion and diversity aspects.

The Atlantic’s brilliant and painful article Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful To Women? refers to a study published 2015 in Science and how the cult of the “genius founder” is highly problematic, especially—but not only—regarding diversity (highlights mine):

The researchers found that telling participants that their company valued merit-based decisions only increased the likelihood of their giving higher bonuses to the men.
Such bias may be particularly rife in Silicon Valley because of another of its foundational beliefs: that success in tech depends almost entirely on innate genius. Nobody thinks that of lawyers or accountants or even brain surgeons; while some people clearly have more aptitude than others, it’s accepted that law school is where you learn law and that preparing for and passing the CPA exam is how you become a certified accountant. Surgeons are trained, not born. In contrast, a 2015 study published in Science confirmed that computer science and certain other fields, including physics, math, and philosophy, fetishize “brilliance,” cultivating the idea that potential is inborn. The report concluded that these fields tend to be problematic for women, owing to a stubborn assumption that genius is a male trait.
“The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female PhDs,” the study found, pointing out that the same pattern held for African Americans. Because both groups still tend to be “stereotyped as lacking innate intellectual talent,” the study concluded, “the extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor of women’s and African Americans’ representation.”

Just imagine that: What if VCs and consumers alike gave their support not to alpha male-led “genius founder” personalities, and carte blanche to break things first and ask forgiveness later? What if instead they guided them to build more sustainable businesses and cultures?

To be fair, some VCs and other investors do. Most notably, or at least most “purely”, Bryce RobertsIndie VC, which is fantastic.

What about non-tech skills?

There’s another angle to this that’s relevant if only somewhat related: A broader intake of talent.

Traditionally, there’s a bit of a two class society in tech: Technical skills and non-technical skills, the former being at the core, the other playing support roles.

There are of course founders from other backgrounds, and increasingly some non-tech disciplines like design are starting to have a seat at the table. But it’s nowhere near diverse enough.

So let’s talk about how we value skills.

Recently Berlin announced that to fight a shortage of teachers, primary school teachers are soon going to make €5.100 a month. For a city with traditionally very low wages (for a big European city), that’s a solid salary. For comparison, it’s roughly in the ballpark, but actually above, what developers earn in Berlin. Gasp! That’s right, teachers could earn more than software developers. First I thought whaaaat, how can that be, but then it actually made some sense to me given the societal contribution of teachers. But I digress!

As someone working in tech but not in the tech skills section of tech, I believe there’s lots to be gained by getting to a better mix of disciplines and skills in tech.

My training was in the methods of social sciences and humanities: I hold two masters degrees; one in communications science with a minor in political science, and one in media practice. While people in tech have looked at me funny more than once in my career, I’ve always found this broad background, methodology training, and big picture perspective extremely helpful in my line of work. For example, this is what allows me to do research and distill the insights into writing (and of course strategy advisory).

When I think about a model for a successful, sustainable, desirable 21st century company, I imagine a team of humble experts with broad skillsets and diverse backgrounds, both in terms of origin and professional training.

That, and only that, allows a company to develop the flexibility, resilience, and broad perspective—to ability to ask the right questions!—to thrive in an environment shaped by uncertainty, ambiguity, and rapid change.

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