Bill Wiberg, General Partner
Great Minds Think Alike and Fools Seldom Differ
Great organizations thrive on diversity of thought and ideas. Stating the obvious? You’d be surprised. Human nature has a way of congregating like-minded individuals with similar backgrounds.
I was reminded of this recently when speaking at a university event that was explicitly targeted at encouraging students from the business and engineering schools to network with one another. I wanted to get a sense of the audience at the outset and asked how many people were from the engineering school. The show of hands indicated that about half the students were engineers, but interestingly, they were almost all on the one side of the auditorium while the business students were on the other. There’s a strong natural pull to remain around those with whom you share similar perspectives and philosophies. When building a company this is a pull that you must work to resist.
Assuring diversity of thought is a crucial, commonsense strategy that frequently is overlooked in businesses. This can be especially true among early-stage companies where the founders - often former colleagues with similar backgrounds – are creating the underlying foundation of the company and outlining its strategies for success.
Successful companies create a culture in which embracing a variety of perspectives and ideas is an integral part of the business, from strategic planning to daily decision-making. Having a staff as wide as it is deep in perspective with varying backgrounds and experience enables companies to embrace a multitude of voices and, in the end, make better decisions. This is true across all the market sectors in which we invest – IT, healthcare and cleantech.
Strong, confident CEOs engender spirited discourse that challenges every aspect of the company, from product development to market selection to strategic partnerships. Andy Ory, CEO of Acme Packet, is a great example of a CEO who thrives on strategically aligning a variety of perspectives and backgrounds at the leadership level. Andy bristles at the idea of leading a company with a management team of “like-minded souls.” He knows that sales and marketing executives view a challenge much differently than a CFO or a technologist. Yes, the founding team may have a passion for pure technology, but there are those that are better suited to evaluate the reality of that science or technology for the marketplace. Keep in mind, once you step outside the front door, the marketplace is sure to be more ruthless on you than your team, so better to have those reality checks internally first, and make sure your sales team’s voice is being heard.
The challenge lies in balancing many viewpoints while ensuring the team is working with a common set of assumptions and toward a common goal. Should the chief scientist be revered and lead all decisions? Should the sales & marketing head dictate company strategy? What role does your Board play in all of this? The best CEOs know how to knit it all together. As Andy Ory has said, “It’s crucial to always have a compass. Know who you are; what you’re about; and what line you, as a company, want to travel. Always.”