It seems like every entrepreneur I meet these days is quick to proclaim themselves a visionary, expecting that will give more credibility to their startup idea, and improve their odds with investors. In reality, I’m one of the majority of investors who believe that startup success is more about the execution than the idea. Thus, unless the visionary highlights a cofounder who can take the vision and execute, I assume the worst.
It’s true that gifted visionaries bring many good things to an organization, including big picture ideas, seeing around corners, and a hunter mentality. Yet they also come with a set of shortcomings. These were outlined well, with some good recommendations for overcoming them, in a new book, “Rocket Fuel,” by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters, both with a wealth of experience in this domain.
My bottom-line recommendation and theirs is that every visionary entrepreneur needs to be matched with a cofounder or key team member who has the required execution attributes. Let’s take a hard look at the key potential weaknesses of a visionary, and the value of an execution-oriented partner, which the authors call an integrator:
Staying focused and following through. Visionaries tend to get bored easily. To spice things up, they start creating new ideas and direction, which gets everyone excited. This may cause a wonderful 90-day spike in performance, but in the end often sabotages their original vision. Many projects get started but few are completed, and momentum is lost.
To compensate, every visionary entrepreneur needs to find a partner who gets great satisfaction from results, and loves the discipline of making things happen on a day-to-day basis. This person is the glue that can hold the people, processes, systems, priorities, and strategy of a developing startup together.
Too many ideas and an unrealistic optimism. Most true visionary entrepreneurs have unusual energy, creativity, enthusiasm, and a propensity for taking risks. This can be disruptive, as they love to break the mold. They often show little empathy for the negative impact this can have on capacity, resources, people, and profitability.
Again, the solution is a partner who is the voice of reason, who filters all of the visionary’s ideas, and helps eliminate hurdles, stumbling blocks, and barriers for the whole leadership team. Titles for this role in a startup are not fixed, but usually show up as president, COO, or chief architect.
Cause organizational whiplash. Due to founder visibility, the team is so tuned in to the visionary and current direction that every turn to the right to pursue a new idea turns the whole team to the right. The organization can’t keep up the pace of change, and soon loses motivation, productivity, and all sense of where they are headed.
Every organization needs a steady counter-force that is focused on directional clarity, and great at making sure people are communicating within the organization. Good integrators are fanatical about problem resolution and making decisions. When the team is at odds or confused, they need this steady force to keep them on track with the business plan.
Don’t manage details and hold people accountable. Visionaries typically don’t like running the day-to-day of the business on a long-term basis, and aren’t good at following through. Even communicating the vision itself can be quite a challenge, since it’s so crystal clear in their head that they can’t imagine having to repeat or clarify for others.
Balance here comes again from the operational expert, who is very good at leading, managing, and holding people accountable. They enjoy being accountable for profit and loss, and for the execution of the business plan. When a major initiative is undertaken, they will anticipate the ripple of implications across the organization.
Tends to hire helpers and not develop talent. Idea people are so bright that they don’t see the need to leverage the capabilities of others, or hire people smarter than they are in any given domain. They are usually too self-centered to see the need for developing skills and leadership in the other members of the team, or building a succession plan.
Here also the solution usually is a partner with prior experience, who has learned how and when to hire real help, and implement metrics and processes to measure results. They enjoy the coaching and development role, and are able to match work assignments to people’s strengths, promoting both people and company growth.
Of course, many will argue that the visionary entrepreneurs can simply fix their shortcomings, and thus save resources by satisfying both roles. But in my experience, very few entrepreneurs have the bandwidth to make this work, and the adapted entrepreneur ends up doing both jobs poorly.
I’m a proponent of capitalizing on your strengths, rather than focusing on fixing your weaknesses. If your strength is being a visionary, use that vision to attract a complementary partner, and make it a win-win opportunity for both of you.