Some CEOs I’ve met over the years had the charisma of a toaster. Others dripped with charisma so cheesy you would spot holes in their pitch a mile away.
Every now and then you find a chief executive or start-up entrepreneur with genuine charisma. The best ones turn it on or off as needed: persuasive when they need something; brutal when they don’t. They’re like a chainsaw who cuts you in half and convinces you it is a flesh wound.
The Economist’s online report on charisma coaching this month made me think about the topic from an entrepreneurship perspective. Can you start and grow a fast-growth venture if you lack charisma?
Think about it: the start-up entrepreneur typically has scarce resources. They convince people to help them, join their firm, invest in the venture, buy products and so on. That’s not easy when few people know who are you are and the venture has no record.
I’ve seen many start-up entrepreneurs who are naturally charismatic persuade people to take a chance on their venture, and get you to do things for them – for free.
Their charisma helps them sell, get early cash flow and rapidly scale the venture. And they use charisma to motivate staff when resources, such as money, are scarce and working in conditions of high uncertainty is a constant challenge.
Other start-up entrepreneurs lack charisma and are not natural sales people. They feel uncomfortable cold-calling customers and believe they can hire sales people to do the selling. That rarely works: the entrepreneur is usually chief salesperson and the venture’s best advertisement at the start.
So what happens if you lack charisma? Do you give up on that great idea and believe you can’t build a fast-growth venture, even though you have terrific management skill? Maybe you call in the charisma coaches for a crash course in being interesting and likeable.
Unfortunately, the business press often stereotypes successful entrepreneurs as charismatic, visionary business heroes who overcame the odds in their rags-to-riches tales. Yet the truly great innovators and entrepreneurs, such as the late Steve Jobs, were not naturally charismatic, at least at the start. Look how Apple turned out.
The reality is, the start-up entrepreneur needs to play several roles: the technician who deeply understands their product and market, or has capacity to do so; the entrepreneur who sells the vision; and the manager who builds structure and systems to scale the venture, and nails the detail.
This is why successful, long-standing entrepreneurs are rare. The charismatic ones might use their charm to get the venture up at the start, and come unstuck because they lack management skills.
Those who are great with detail might manage the growing business, but struggle to sell it at the start. The technician who understands the product might be hopeless at commercialising it.
I like the lean entrepreneurship espoused by US experts/authors such as Eric Ries. He believes entrepreneurship is a specialist form of management geared around conditions of extreme uncertainty, and that ‘the boring stuff matters most’ in building a fast-growth venture. One need not be a charismatic visionary to succeed in start-up entrepreneurship, according to Ries.
Many innovative start-up entrepreneurs would not consider themselves as managers who are great on detail, as least in the classic and sometimes dull management sense that one sees in larger companies. The good news is that Ries’ approach suggests entrepreneurial management can be taught and learned.
Maybe charisma, too, can be taught and learned, but a better strategy is deeply understanding oneself before starting a fast-growth venture.
If you are not naturally engaging and charismatic, and are concerned about your ability to sell and persuade others, do something about it. Learn to be a gun presenter and great networker at events. Take private courses in selling – universities are usually hopeless at teaching people about direct selling.
Think about your potential to be the firm’s technician, entrepreneur and manager, and how you might move between the three as circumstances dictate. Very few of us naturally have all three traits.
Most of all, don’t give up. Plenty of introverted entrepreneurs have gone on to build and sustain fast-growth ventures, for much longer than the charismatic ones who made more noise at the start.
I’d take humility over charisma every day in business, but having both is a great asset.