The Ego-Tripping CEO
When I read the founding story of Moovit, I found myself intrigued. Moovit is a free public transit app and urban mobility data analytics company that was founded in 2012 by Roy Bick and Yaron Evron. Yaron was an expert on the public transportation industry while Roy was a technical prodigy. They came together with the aim of improving the experience of commuting within cities. When the two founders self-assessed, they realized that even though they had the industry expertise and technical talent, they were missing the experience of someone who knew how to build a business. So Yaron Evron contacted Nir Erez — a serial entrepreneur — and not only did they bring him in as co-founder, he was appointed CEO of Moovit.
What intrigued me was the humility of the initial co-founders to not only admit they needed help, but also relinquish the reign of their own startup to someone else when they recognized they did not have the experience of actually building a business.
In Demystifying the College Dropout CEO Myth, I posed the question, why is it that our kids drop out of college, build a startup and think they’re going to be the next Mark Zuckerburg without recognizing how much work it really takes to build a real business? And given the same situation as the Moovit co-founders, would our young CEO’s admit they don’t know what they’re doing and give up running their own business to someone else?
The sad thing you see within the startup ecosystem is how many decisions are taken by one’s own ego. Ego can be thought of as the inflated sense of self. Affirmations such as, “I am the best,” and “I don’t need anybody’s help,” hint at having a huge ego.
When you look at the natural progression of life, something interesting happens as a person matures. Let’s call this person Eddie. At some point of Eddie’s life, he starts to realize that a lot of the beliefs and perceptions he has collected across the years are not exactly his so he starts to shed them one by one as they go through an existential crisis. What ensues then is a sense of internal emptiness, which he tries to fill with materialistic things, big titles and positions.
If Eddie were a CEO in charge of a startup, he’s more likely to build and run his startup around his ego, which becomes a recipe for disaster. He exhibits arrogance where he doesn’t separate his identity from his opinions. Anybody who disagrees with his opinions automatically disagrees with him, and because he finds his self-esteem challenged, disagreements turn contentious.
Also, since he is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s opinion, he puts a natural ceiling on his growth as well as his team’s and by extension, his startup’s. New ideas that do not originate from him get shot down immediately regardless of how good they are.
His ego also makes him competitive in an unhealthy way so he would spend more time trying to destroy someone else rather than building himself and his startup. And because a big ego tends to co-exist with low levels of self-esteem, he tries hard to appear bigger than he really is by making others feel smaller, so he’s both patronizing and derisive.
Last but not least, he lives from the outside in, sometimes acting without integrity and compromising his own highest values to keep his polished image intact. This drives him to always take credit when things go well, attending all the award ceremonies and talking about his story and his leadership skills. It also makes him shirk responsibility when the startup is not generating as much revenues as the board wants to see, trying hard to blame others — the market, his employees — for messing up.
Unfortunately, that is no way to run a startup or even live life. What ends up happening is it becomes hard to hire great talent for the startup because who would want to work with such a tyrant? It also becomes hard to get the best out of the people who are already working there, which usually leads to mediocre performance.
And the startup ecosystem is so brutal already without the added challenge of operating within a continent with limited capital resources. So CEO’s must focus on living life from the inside out, quashing their ego in the process. This means internally defining your value and living in alignment with them day in day out. This also means you realize that you carry an inner richness within you that demands to express itself by creating something that goes beyond the ego. Sometimes this requires sacrificing short-term success in pursuit of excellence.
Co-written with Amina Islam