Corporate Personalities: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I’m often asked to list my favorite books for business leaders. While my list is made up of mostly business books, there are a few titles that come from different disciplines. One such book is Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process by Dr. Nancy McWilliams. In this excellent book for psychiatrists, Dr. McWilliams presents a practitioner’s guide to distinguishing personality types and disorders during early encounters with new patients. Put another way, it’s a handbook for making a preliminary assessment of someone who just walked into your office asking for help but whom you don’t yet know very well. As one reviewer put it: the book “is a vast and coherent canvas that sketches out the broad details of personality development and its pathological formations in a volume that has a broad appeal to clinicians and clinical scholars from a variety of theoretical perspectives.”

What I loved most about the book is that, for the non-psychiatrist, it’s really a guide to knowing what kind of person you are dealing with little to no history. It does not take a lot of imagination to conclude that such a guide should be required-reading for anyone in business. Indeed, I was recommending the book yet again to someone the other day, and she said with a laugh that someone should write a similar volume for companies and their personality types (good and bad). After thinking back over the 60+ companies I’ve experienced as advisor, consultant, manager and employee, I decided to give her suggestion a try.

Below then, with apologies to Dr. McWilliams, is a short guide to corporate personalities. For this first edition, I’ve picked ten corporate personalities, some positive and others not, I’ve experienced, grouped by their attractiveness as employers.

Category One: “Seek Out”

The Optimist

  • Key Traits: the corporate Optimist is convinced that business success depends on creativity and “working through” difficult times. Often long-term thinkers, the corporate optimist fosters open thinking and seeking solutions from wherever they may come. They are often great places to work, and even better places to advise. Critically, they are usually restless companies, willing to discard even long-held models if a better one comes along.
  • Prognosis: the biggest risk to an Optimist is failing to see, or respond to, serious problems that smart people won’t simply “figure out.” Barring that issue, these kinds of companies tend to thrive, as they continuously reinvent themselves to stay current with markets and social changes.
  • Company Quote: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
  • Often Found In: Fashion, Venture Capital, Media, Software, Professional Services

The Analyst

  • Key Traits: the corporate Analyst is convinced that business success depends on the right data and analytical rigor. This type of firm loves statisticians, physicists, and scientists. While they can come across as cold and harsh to outsiders, for the right employee they are excellent environments where facts and experimentation drive decision making more than intuition and optimism. Realists to a fault, they focus on outcomes and tend to promote strong thinkers with deep operational skills.
  • Prognosis: firms with a strong corporate Analytical personality can have long runs of great success. Because they are continuously evolving and improving based on experimentation, they can survive massive market changes and stay at the head of their sectors for decades. Indeed, the biggest risk for this kind of corporate personality is if under stress, or the wrong CEO, it morphs into a Paranoid personality (see below).
  • Company Quote: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
  • Often Found In: Heavy Industrials, Energy, Aerospace & Defense

The Innovator

  • Key Traits: the Corporate Innovator is obsessed with staying ahead and places tremendous emphasis on being a benchmark for others. They seek out and reward public recognition from business press and external entities. For this personality, what’s important is not being caught out by a competitor with a better product or operational model, so they invest heavily in staying connected with the outside world. They build and support well-known brands, and, indeed, the overall brand image as an innovator is typically more important than any one product line or business. For an innovative and extroverted manager, these can be fun places to work; however, they are typically places that are always looking to enhance their talent with outside hires, which can create a hyper-competitive work environment.
  • Prognosis: corporate Innovators, so long as they really maintain that status, are often very successful, if stressful, companies. They are also often “academies” for future CEOs and leaders for other companies. True innovators, they can often dominate a sector for decades.
  • Company Quote: “The only way you survive is you continuously transform into something else.”
  • Often Found In: High Tech, Education, Chemicals, Consumer Goods

The Globalist

  • Key Traits: the corporate Globalist defines itself by its a personality that is a mixture of cultures and ideas from all over the world. Taking pride in its mixture of nationalities and cultures, this kind of company thrives on the diversity of its leadership and its reach into markets that many other companies ignore. Working at a corporate Globalist can be exciting for the breadth of experiences offered, but it can also be overwhelming to someone looking for stable long-term assignments, since the Globalist values managers who move frequently and who lived and worked in multiple countries. For a multilingual manager with an adventurous spirit, this environment can be thrilling; however, it can also lead to burn-out and a sense that the company is hard to “take in” without a long tenure and exposure to multiple parts of the firm.
  • Prognosis: the corporate Globalist often leads their industry, sometimes quietly, for decades. Their brands can be found in remote areas, and they build long-lasting relationships that span lifetimes. However, the Globalist’s weak spot can also be these same long-lasting partnerships, since they can sometimes hinder innovation and evolution of business models.
  • Company Quote: “Globalization has changed us into a company that searches the world, not just to sell or to source, but to find intellectual capital.”
  • Often Found In: Spirits, Hospitality, Logistics, Construction, Mining

Category Two: “Think It Over”

The Paranoid

  • Key Traits: the corporate Paranoid is convinced that every other is out to get it and therefore secrecy is of utmost importance. NDAs are everywhere in this company, which is also why your laptop, cell phone and any cameras are taken from you in the lobby. Famously secretive even when not necessary, these companies enter a room to listen and rarely to speak. Interestingly, this trait often presents in combination with corporate narcissism, which can be a really tough combination to manage.
  • Prognosis: as the old joke goes, even paranoids have enemies, so this kind of company can be, again like the narcissist, very successful for an extended period. Generally speaking, this kind of company is a threat more to smaller partners and suppliers than to peers, though one should not enter into a relationship with a corporate paranoid without a good law firm on speed dial.
  • Company Quote: “The difference between being a victim and a survivor is often a low level of situational awareness.”
  • Often Found In: High Tech, Consumer Electronics, IT Services, Private Equity

The Obsessive

  • Key Traits: the corporate Obsessive is convinced that business success depends on one thing above all, for example a special process or “way” of doing things. In this environment, anyone who does not follow the process or adapt to “the way things are done here” is a “bad fit” and needs to go. In this kind of company, the method for any decision is typically more important than the decision itself, and any challenger to that mantra is often reminded about how that method “built this company.”
  • Prognosis: like the Narcissist (see below), the Obsessive can live a long and happy life. Also like the Narcissist, when the world changes and “the way we do things” does not, the end can come quickly and brutally.
  • Company Quote: “Good requires motivation, great requires obsession.”
  • Often Found In: Heavy Industrials, Chemicals, News & Journalism

The Dissociator

  • Key Traits: a company with a Dissociative personality is remarkable for having more than one identity, none of which is fully in control at any given moment. The Dissociative is constantly shifting its image to itself and the outside world, often based on the latest management fad or CEO. One day the focus is “all about the customer” and the next day “it’s all about being operationally lean.” In the Dissociative environment, employees, and often customers, are constantly trying to keep up with the currently active personality model, often shifting their language, behavior or even dress code to try to fit in with what the company demands.
  • Prognosis: companies with a Dissociative personality usually meet unhappy endings. First employees, and then customers, grow exhausted with keeping up with the company’s identity swings and eventually leave.
  • Company Quote: “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
  • Often Found In: Consumer Goods, Retail, Fashion, Real Estate. Higher Education

Category Three: “Probably Best Avoided”

The Bully

  • Key Traits: the corporate Bully is convinced that business is a zero-sum game and that every transaction must have a winner and a loser. No negotiation is successful unless it’s “won” by them. Obsessed with getting the upper hand in any relationship, this corporate personality is often driven by a hyper-competitive sales culture that values “the close/win” above anything else. Compensation at this type of firm is often very generous to its “winners” and meager to its “backup players.” Often, ex-athletes are found in management and, indeed, sports metaphors are often the lingua franca of the firm.
  • Prognosis: the Bully will survive only so long as others (competitors, supplier, customers, etc.) are unable to switch or fight back. The moment a better option arrives, customers and employees tend to exit quickly.
  • Company Quote: “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”
  • Often Found In: Cable, Social Networks, Transportation, Financial Services

The Schizophrenic

  • Key Traits: working at a Schizophrenic company can be one of life’s most disturbing episodes, because this kind of company’s self-view is often very far from its reality. The Schizophrenic company is easy to spot once you are inside, often just by comparing what its managers say about the company with what its employees tell you privately. In many cases, companies evolve into this condition from a former state of high achievement, resulting in decreasing levels of performance and technical ability while at the same time a fictitious (and outdated) “winning” story is told over and over to new employees.
  • Prognosis: the Schizophrenic company can linger on painfully for some time, but not for an extended period unless it’s in a weak or failing industry. An exhausting place to work, this kind of corporate personality eventually leads to psychological and emotional burnout among employees and desertion among customers.
  • Company Quote: “So companies have to be very schizophrenic. On one hand, they have to maintain continuity of strategy. But they also have to be good at continuously improving.”
  • Often Found In: Retail, Media & Entertainment, Professional Services, Banking

The Narcissist

  • Key Traits: the corporate Narcissist is convinced no other company is a good as it is at pretty much anything. No answer or solution is relevant unless validated by them, an illusion magnified by the often adulating reinforcement it receives from business writers enamored with their business model. Paradoxically, the Narcissist is often a heavy consumer of consulting advice, often paying for external validation of what it thinks are great internal ideas and innovations. Almost impervious to advice or correction from external indicators, the Narcissist values its own analysis and conclusions above all else.
  • Prognosis: strangely, some companies with this personality may live long and profitable lives; however, when the end comes it tends to be swift and painful. Moreover, when they eventually confront the reality that their specialness may have been exaggerated or only temporary, the best managers exit quickly to greener pastures, leaving the firm crippled, sometimes with fatal results.
  • Company Quote: “In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.”
  • Often Found In: High Tech, Professional Services, Venture Capital, Private Equity, Fashion, Financial Services, Consulting

 

Interestingly, of course, some companies exhibit complex combinations of the general types outlined above. I have worked with clients that were Narcissist-Paranoids as well as Dissociative-Optimists, so combinations are not only possible they’re common. Indeed, with so many interesting corporate personalities, it’s a little surprising that corporate psychiatry does not actually exist.

In any case, this is my starter list. As I noted, I will continue to add to the guide in the future. Already I can imagine that other personalities might merit entries of their own. The corporate Supporter and Educator are worth seeking out, for example, while the corporate Masochist and Manic should also be avoided. Indeed, as a founder of my own new company, I look at the list above as an encouragement and warning. Corporate personalities start to develop early on in a company’s life and, once formed, can be very hard to change. This is to be expected, of course, since corporations are made of people, and there’s no reason to think our own strengths and weaknesses would not make their way from our personalities into companies to which we give life every day.

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Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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