Entrepreneurs are better off growing leaders inside their teams or hiring from other startups.
“Hire experienced managers from a big corporation because they’ll turn your startup into a real company,” my investor once told me.
Yet, after working in top-tier corporate consulting and interviewing hundreds of candidates while building my tech startup over the past ten years, I learned that corporates and entrepreneurs are like oil and water: they don’t mix well.
Tailored-suit executives with an Ivy League degree look fantastic on paper. But once they slip into your startup, they may reveal themselves as sharks in sheep’s skin, sinking their razor teeth into your delicate culture, butchering your small company into pieces.
So before you roll out your red carpet for an experienced manager from a big corporation, look at the warning signs below.
As a founder of a promising young startup, you might be better off growing your managers from inside your team instead.
In our first interview, Alina reminded me of Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged: ambitious and driven, a fighter with a never-give-up spirit. With years of experience as a corporate executive, she could’ve had any other job served to her on a silver platter, yet she decided to join our startup instead.
But Alina resigned after several months, leaving a trail of hate emails from almost every member of our team. They called her bossy and arrogant — a self-serving corporate big-head.
“Why does your team hate me?” she asked. “Don’t you have to be bold, pushy, and think about yourself to succeed?”
The writer Will Storr illustrates why small teams often resist working with executives from large corporations. Tracing back thousands of years of human evolution, a single selfish hunter meant starvation and death for other members of his small tribe. Therefore, smaller teams today have a strong evolutionary instinct to punish selfish individuals.
Sure, not every corporate employee is automatically a greedy prick. However, larger institutions provide a fertile ground for selfish behavior, allowing its people to get away with it.
You can’t fool evolution. So when you consider hiring an ex-corporate leader, check if your team is ready to accommodate a self-centered individual.
Managers who spend days behind the glass walls of their corporate office and binge-watching Netflix’s startup series in the evening — won’t know the reality of 99% of startups.
They’ll email you their job application, picturing all the glamorous strategic planning to change the world while enjoying alcohol-laden parties and free food, sipping in-house barista macchiato next to foosball tables sprinkled around a spacious and creatively decorated startup loft.
But startups aren’t always fun. Startup work is stressful, long, and often far from glamorous. It can be tedious and mundane.
Once their Hollywood illusion crumbles, former corporate employees will become frustrated and eventually blame you for being a poor leader.
Corporate managers often barge into a startup wearing white gloves.
Alina claimed her manager role but refused to perform her tasks herself. She expected an army of minions who executed the orders she delegated from her command center. She liked to describe her work as “strategic planning.”
This attitude implies hiring a myriad of employees and freelancers — something a small company cannot or doesn’t want to afford. It works in a big organization, but smaller startups follow different work morale.
Smaller firms are less efficient at handling large volumes of tasks, but their strength lies in their flexibility. Fluid roles and a broad set of skills focused per individual allow them to accomplish critical tasks quicker. For example, a product developer who sketches a design in the morning, buys parts in the afternoon, and creates a prototype in the evening — is more effective in testing a new product than a slow and bulky institutional R&D department.
Corporations require specialists, but startups need generalists. You want all-rounders who can juggle several projects and responsibilities and do not shy away from rolling up their sleeves and doing the work themselves.
In her fancy presentation splashed by a beamer, Alina carefully clicked through her PowerPoint slides sprinkled with data and charts; in the end, making sure everyone listened to her conclusion:
“The strategic company growth will be enabled by the acceptance of our customers to a competent product deployment.”
She was trying to say that the company will grow stronger if it offers better products. But any entrepreneur with decent common sense knows it without getting bored to tears by a 30-page presentation.
Corporate consultants coined this trick “stardust.” You pack something trivial in a spiffy jumble-mumble and throw it in your client’s face as if it were the second revelation of Christ.
In the corporate world, dropping fancy words like “strategy,” “acceptance,” and “deployment” may sound competent and professional. But smart-sounding lingo does not imply a smart speaker. Instead, it obfuscates simple things and highlights the speaker’s overblown ego and anxiety.
Simplicity in communication is a virtue — a sign of high intelligence and humility. Successful startups don’t waste time listening to banalities in their meetings and get right to the point.
Luckily, you can easily test your candidate’s hogwash in an interview. Do they explain things in clear, practical, simple language, or do they hide behind fancy corporate gibberish and abstract terminology?
In many big corporations, your reputation is a factor of three things.
Never admit your weaknesses, find someone else to blame for your mistakes, and take as much credit as possible.
Yes, this sounds harsh and unfair, but if played smart, it helps you climb up the hierarchy inside a politically complex corporate structure.
Alina took credit for things she’d never accomplished herself. She took credit for minor deeds first, then moved on to putting her name on top of more significant projects. One day, she told a trade show reporter that she designed our entire booth by herself while the team of designers stood behind her — their jaws tight and eyes squinted in scorn.
Pushing your way up by taking credit for other people’s work fails miserably in a small organization. The reason is simple: The truth reaches the CEO of a small startup fast, unlike larger corporations, where managers never meet employees below their direct reports.
Alina’s self-crediting back-fired on her. Instead of boosting her reputation, she lost the entire game.
Some successful big corporations are exceptions. They follow the principles of transparency, openness, and honesty — their leaders landing on a bestseller list, including Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio and his book Principles.
If you are running a small startup, consider yourself lucky that you still have a chance to encourage a transparent, honest, and open culture in your team. Protect this culture at all costs.