The Dangerous Cult of Personality

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An entrepreneur reached out to me last week for guidance on a fundraising pitch deck. Prior to presenting to additional groups of potential investors, he wanted a casual opinion from someone who’d seen a lot of pitch presentations.

How could he make it more compelling? How could he better explain what he does and its opportunity in the market?

He has a profitable business in operation for a few years. Based on a quick conversation and high-level presentation, he has a solid vision for his venture’s future. Although investors have reason for wariness about his industry, based on slow user adoption to date, he has compelling data to show that the space has reached an inflection point: Consumer sentiment has evolved, creating the critical mass of interest needed. And his company stands as buyers’ only option.

All he needs: Cash.

Sounds great, right? What stuck in my craw?

Charisma. Or the lack of it.

Selling consumes a considerable portion of a CEO’s career. Some must sell their products and services to end users and potential investors. Many must raise money—whether in exchange for goods and services or for equity—which requires high-energy sales skills. Further, chief executives need to sell their ideas to employees, potential employees, business partners, and shareholders.

And in sales, the cult of personality trumps all.

The charisma requirement provides further proof that the good struggles to rise above the mediocre when the latter has high-powered boosters behind it, whether through personality, marketing, branding, or all of the above. Low-key, quiet types who just want to do good work—not promote, persuade, and energize—have a serious disadvantage.

People want wowing. Wooing.

People buy from people they like and who impress them. They don’t buy the idea or even the person—not his intrinsic skills or value—but how he comes across through interaction.

People back the rider, not the horse.

Too easily can presentation skills trick us into looking in one direction when we should look at something else. How many politicians would serve the public incredibly well—if only they could truly campaign? How many people will back a company in the red with poor prospects in an industry saturated with competitors and a dazzling CEO over my more low-key contact, who has a far better horse?

When one skill set doesn’t necessary complement or even feed into another, weighting the ability to sell more heavily than job skills leads to unfortunate choices.

Could the entrepreneur hire a branding and marketing firm? Yep—with the funds, which he needs to raise. Could he hire a coach? Sure, but coaches can only get you so far. Could he hire an executive—for equity—who has the needed personality? Certainly. After all, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak partnered to create Apple for the same reason. Yet hiring someone for a forward-facing role and giving him ownership requires a big and treacherous step for a business owner.

Some people would argue that leaders need big personalities for success, which means that betting on the best salesperson makes the most sense. Others have indicated that strong, silent types have led the most successful ventures. 

What say you?

How do you feel about the cult of personality?