A Fun Taxonomy of Technology Executives

Building on on a post by 10gen’s Max Schireson which in turn built on a post by me, I thought I’d have some fun by playing with and enhancing Max’s taxonomy of technology senior executives.

Max’s theory is that a surprisingly number of executives have “just one play” in their business playbooks which fall into a number of categories.  Building on Max’s grouping, and based on my 20+ years in business, here is mine:

  • The Band Leader.  They get the old band back together from a prior company.  Band leaders are often surprisingly hands-off managers who swear by their teams and travel with them from gig to gig.  They often alienate existing employees, viewing themselves as “professionals” compared to the regime they are replacing.  These types are effective to the extent that the band’s capabilities are aligned with the company’s needs.
  • Joe Process.  Joe’s never met a problem that can’t be solved with process.  Consultants, methodologies, training, flowcharts, and stoplight-based performance dashboards appear from the woodwork.  Joe is effective to the extent that lack of process is a company’s problem.  In Joe’s world, by the way, that includes everything:  even a strategy problem is a process problem (“we just need a good strategy process”).  What Joe fails to grasp is that knowing how to do things is different from knowing what to do.
  • The Strategist.  Strategists focus on developing a deep understanding of the company’s current situation and then evaluating future scenarios based on it.  Good strategists are quantitative as well as qualitative in their analysis — paying attention not only to business and marketing strategies but also the resources required to execute them.  Bad strategists forget what I call “the strategy compiler” — i.e., for a given company in a given situation with a given set of resources and capabilities, is a chosen strategy executable?  A great strategy that’s only executable by some other  company is definitionally not a great strategy for yours.
  • The Cost Cutter.  Cost cutters love to take cost out of a business and spot potential inefficiencies everywhere.  They love scale economies, and eliminate anything that resembles rework with a passion, sometimes whether that rework represents valid customization or pure redundancy.   Beware when a cost cutter asks “what exactly do you do here?”
  • The Salesperson.  Born charmers, salespeople generally make a great first impression, appear sincere, and are unfailingly positive. They are power-centric, often political, and are sometimes more focused on ensuring they have the power to get things done than they are on ensuring that they are doing the right things.  Good salespeople are charismatic leaders who inspire their organizations.  Bad ones develop credibility problems if they cannot deliver against their own high expectations and if they deliver a series of expedient “in the moment” messages that are inconsistent over time.
  • The Headless Chicken.  In response to a reader comment, I’ve added this type.  Every so often, executives are “pattern matched” by boards/CEOs  into positions that are well beyond their capabilities.  When this happens, a headless chicken results — a person who is truly lost.  This becomes evident quickly to those immediately around the chicken and happily, is usually only a matter of time before those in charge see it as well.

Note that as skills, each of these is required in an effective executive.  Good CEOs, for example, need to understand strategy, eliminate waste, personally sell, build teams which leverage their networks, and define process.  It’s only when an executive becomes one dimensional — and all about one muscle — that it becomes a problem.

12 responses to “A Fun Taxonomy of Technology Executives

  1. I like it.

    The only type I see missing is the full-speed-ahead hiring machine. They’re going to put boots on the ground in every city (if in sales) or hire up an army of programmers. When markets are insanely hot, hiring without thinking may be your best strategy, so they’ll sometimes have spectacular successes. When it doesn’t work their failure will be quick and clear.

  2. Great article, but maybe you need to add the headless chicken to the list :-)


  3. It’s also presumably about self-awareness. Nobody has all the muscles. The best CEOs are presumbly the ones that know what the do worst, and compensate by hiring people that know how to do it… Reminds me of somebody I used to work for — a fantastic mentor and role model, but didn’t enjoy some of the bread-and-butter aspects of management, so he effectively outsourced that part of the job to a consultant, and it worked out well for everybody involved…

    • Indeed Timo. It is all about teamwork. The senior executive as bodybuilder with all huge muscles isn’t realistic or practical or probably even desireable. It’s about building a team around that has all the muscles … and using it.


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  5. I think another addition might be the “undead founder”–been around since the beginning, completely the wrong choice to lead the company are its current market position/trajectory, but seemingly permanent. Sometimes they even leave or are put in other, more founder-friendly, positions, only to return to the Pres/CEO role during the next regime change. Everyone knows it’s wrong, but “real” executives never stick around.

    I’d also love to see your thoughts on the collision of many of these groups in one company: the undead founder, surrounded by latest of many band leaders (and their associated band), etc.

    • The undead founders are rough. So, by the way, are dead ones — at Disney for years after Walt died it was said that people tried to make decisions by saying “What Would Walt Do?” which kinda paralyzed the organization. Only after breaking that, were they said to executing better. Also, as mentioned, I think the any one leader will tend to have each of these (as skills) to some degree.

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