I recently completed a two-year stint in the Bay Area working with startups. While I was there, I noticed a widespread phenomenon that I started calling the “Freaky Man Children.” These Freaky Man Children (FMCs) were usually CEOs or other executives who, frankly, never bothered to grow up. They haven’t needed to, since Silicon Valley has embraced them, humored them and handed them millions of dollars to make their dreams come true.
Working for an FMC can be absolutely miserable. You’ll have to deal with his temper tantrums and a constantly changing strategy while you calm down internal tempers and make sure your head of product doesn’t have a breakdown. You’ll spend more of your time doing damage control in his wake than doing the job that you thought you signed up to do.
Luckily, not every Bay Area CEO is an FMC (or even a man). However, you probably don’t want one to lead your company or your team, and they’re not all as easy to spot as the ones on Silicon Valley. Here’s a handy list of warning signs that your CEO might be a Freaky Man Child:
1. He pouts.
Whether he pouts when the executive team doesn’t let him get his way or he pouts when someone simply disagrees with him, the first warning sign is simply that you’re seeing a grownup pout. Non-FMCs don’t pout at the first sign of disagreement. They learn how to handle disappointment and know how to negotiate around it.
2. He jumps on the latest trends.
You may be dealing with an FMC if you often hear something like this. “Jenn! I have a brilliant idea! I just read about a new way of prospecting. Let’s stop doing this Inbound Marketing thing and really start growth hacking!”
FMCs tend to read blogs from thought leaders like Jason Calacanis and insist on immediately implementing the cool flavor of the week. Sadly, while sometimes the trends might be good ideas, they rarely fit with your strategy. It doesn’t actually matter, since your FMC probably isn’t going to let you fully implement this week’s flavor before he’s on to the next one.
3. He doesn’t listen to internal advice.
The hallmark of FMCs that drives me most insane is their tendency to completely ignore advice when it’s coming from their team. Living out the “familiarity breeds contempt” aphorism isn’t exactly fun. If your CEO is an FMC, he’ll live and breathe advice from folks who know nothing about the company and completely deride advice from the folks he hired to help him run the company. Obviously, outside advice can be valuable, but non-FMCs use both external and internal advice, where FMCs completely ignore the latter.
4. He cares more about ping-pong and beer than your product.
As far as I can tell, everyone in Silicon Valley is obsessed with someday creating a culture deck like HubSpot’s. Dharmesh Shah did spend 200 hours writing the culture code deck, but I can tell you from personal experience that he would never have spent that time on the deck if he didn’t know that the product was in a good place. I worked at HubSpot when it was small enough to know the founders personally, and I can tell you that Dharmesh is the antithesis of the FMC.
You may be dealing with an FMC if, despite his obsession with the HubSpot Culture Code, he doesn’t seem to understand that ping-pong and beer aren’t the most important parts of the company. If you have a launch deadline looming and he decides to stage an all-development ping-pong tournament, he may be a bit unclear about what it takes to run his company (well, run it somewhere other than into the ground). Your FMC probably also doesn’t realize that beer doesn’t figure prominently in Dharmesh’s deck, either.
5. You feel like his parent.
I’m not personally a parent, but not even babysitting my younger siblings made me feel more like one than when I was dealing with an FMC. Some FMCs struggle to make meetings on time, and riding herd on one to avoid offending a prospect can be more of a struggle than getting through a grocery-shopping trip with a two-year-old. FMCs struggle with impulse control, since they’ve never been forced to grow up and control their impulses. If you feel like you have to be your CEO’s parent more than his employee, you probably have an FMC on your hands.
6. He refuses to take responsibility or admit that he’s wrong.
I once had a boss -- a bona fide FMC -- who was absolutely incapable of admitting that he was wrong. He would blame his executive team for advising him incorrectly or he would insist that he never held an opinion exactly opposed to his current thoughts on a matter. He would also blame our customers for mistakes that we had made. He refused to take responsibility either personally or as a company. Most adults learn to take responsibility or admit an error, but many FMCs somehow missed that lesson.
7. Your board hired an experienced person to “oversee” him.
Sometimes, having someone in a supervisory role alongside the inexperienced CEO turns out brilliantly. Sheryl Sandberg’s partnership with Mark Zuckerberg is probably the prime example of this working well in Silicon Valley. Bringing in someone with age and experience, however, can be an FMC warning sign. If your company has done this (or if you’re the one with the grey hair), you need to be aware that your CEO probably has FMC tendencies.
You don’t necessarily have to avoid Freaky Man Children to have a fun and rewarding career in Silicon Valley. I mostly enjoyed my time there, despite the abundance of them. You should, however, be aware of the warning signs and make the choice that’s right for you. I personally chose to run screaming, but that’s a story for another day.