Building an effective founding team: How neuroscience can optimise your chances of success
T: Welcome to another episode of The Science of Us. Today, we're talking about what makes a great team. Something that a lot of people, no matter what part of the world that you're in or no matter what part of industry that you're in, is you often wonder because it does relate to everything from business to sporting and more. So you've gone and done a lot of research and studies into this area. You've worked with a lot of different teams across a lot of different brands across a lot of different environments.
What is the composition of a higher performing team versus those that aren't as high performing?
K: So when we think about what makes up a high-performing team, we can actually get some interesting clues from evolution science where we can learn that certain traits in humankind have evolved to contribute to the optimal functioning of the greater good and greater whole. So it's actually very much the same composition that we find in humankind as an aggregate level that helps contribute to our high-performing team because it's no good if we're all too much of the same or too homogeneous, which is the very, very reason differences in personality and strategy and behavioral styles have evolved.
So when we think about how to compose a high-performing team, we look back at what makes humankind as a whole thrive and survive and some of the different activations and systems that make up the mix and think about how we can compose a team that way.
T: So what are some of those different attributes that you're talking about there? Because it is very interesting to look from an evolutionary point of view. Probably a lot of people think that all of that is behind us in terms of the days of hunter-gatherers, et cetera, but what you're saying here is that that's not true at all.
K: That's not true at all. We sometimes things we've so evolve beyond that, but our brains are still very much the same. And the operating principles are very much the same. And the conditions under which we thrive and form are very much the same.
So roughly, when you look at different sources, you can look at 10 different sources and get 10 different lists of attributes.
But when we go back to what we know from evolution contributes to humankind as a whole and succeeding and prevailing, then we can find that there are roughly 5 major dimensions that need to be present in an optimally functioning team, just as there need to be present in humanity, which is why they evolved in the first place. So the first one we can sum up as having vision, purpose, and a sense of pushing the boundaries and exploring what's possible.
So I think to provide a sense of that is the first feature of a high-performing team, especially important in a new founding team to carve out a new purpose and reason for being. So that system we refer to as the seeking system in evolution that has evolved to make us push the boundaries and explore new ways of doing things. Secondly, what we need, of course, is then not just having that sense of purpose and vision, but actually having the determination and the psychological motivation and drive to bring this into reality.
So this is what we call the ranking system that very much provides that psychological energy and drive. And that is best counterbalanced by what we call a guard system or a guard activation in a team, which means that not only is there vision and drive, but there's also the important counter force of doing the risk mitigation, scanning for potential downsides, and scanning for different scenarios and preparing for them doing the due diligence and risk mitigation.
So this dimension evolved in humanity to help, especially with aversion of threat and aversion of survival risks. And it's interesting that particularly as we're talking today about founding teams, in founding teams, there's often very little of that characteristically because they need to be able to carve out a mission, they need to innovate, to do something meaningful in the world, and their focus is typically not from the get-go in risk mitigation.
As companies mature, teams mature, companies scale with time, typically there is a decrease in the amount of people that contribute to the guard dimension in the team. And that is good and functional, but interestingly, at the early stages, we don't have so much of that. But we'll get into that later. Finally, there are two more dimensions. One is a sense of trust, collaboration, psychological safety, and so on.
However exactly we describe this, but all of them emanating from a care drive in the brain, which makes us look out for others, have the empathy to read their emotions and collaborate trust and respect each other. And last but not least, what we've got is the play system, which is also essential when we're trying to problem-solve and find new solutions. We need to engage in creative play and exploration, and that's what that system is for. And that is also a crucial contribution to the mix of a highly-performing team.
T: So listening to you when you ran through the key primal emotion systems that you've talked about there, now, if we go back a step still and we talk about everything from our evolution when we were living in caves and everybody had a role to do, whether it was hunter-gatherer, bringing the whole tribe together, now, diversity, was that always important then? I know we'll talk a little bit about diversity coming up, but particularly here, was it always really important to have different people doing different things that it was never actually about having everybody who was very similar and too similar and doing the same things?
K: Yeah. So the very reason that differences in personality and disposition evolved in humanity is to make sure that there is diversity, because if there was no diversity, we would have disbalances that would lead to actual risks in survival and well-being. So to just give you an example, if we were still way back when we were hunter-gatherers and the only people in the group were people going off exploring new territories, trying to find new foods, trying to do all of that discovery work, and no one was back there staying with the family, making sure the fire doesn't extinguish, making sure that the offspring doesn't get eaten and so on, then that wouldn't have worked as a greater whole.
There would have been no surviving offspring. Or conversely, you wouldn't have any opportunity to explore territories and food sources and so on. So there is a crucial co-dependence of those different and they're just naming two different dispositions now that work together very well as a team. And in absence of one or the other, there would have been significant threats to the survival of the group.
T: If I now use that as a segue into looking at business and specifically when new teams start up particularly in that start-up environment where someone has a business idea and and then wants to start to grow that, does it always start with one person? Is it always that one seek-driven individual? And if we liken it to the one that was out there trying to explore new territories for their tribe, is it always that one person that will generally start the journey of a new team coming together and then surround themselves with the rest of that sort of balance?
Or can it often be two people who are like-minded, but they actually might be different in terms of the primal emotion systems that they have?
K: I think what we very often find empirically is that more than any other type it's high seek-driven types that start companies. And of all the founders we've profiled, typically they are like a very, very strong over indexation of high-seek types.
We also know, of course, from the research that successful founding teams, I think, on average have 2.1 people with successful founding company.
So it's not to say that the sole founder is the success formula. It's just saying that more often than not, those founders that provide the vision and the hand of inspiration to innovate in some sort of meaningful way more often than not are high-seek types, but then they can partner up with someone who really complements them very well.
And when I say complements, diversity is important, but we need to look at actually what is. So from all we are seeing is diversity is really, really good when it comes to personality and expertise. So you really want to find someone that complements your natural disposition.
And so for example, if you're very risk-taking and very innovative, you want to complement that with a really detail-oriented executor, someone who will really look at the potential downsides and risks.
But where you don't want diversity is when it comes to values, because we see that over and over in teams were looking at. It's fantastic to have diversity in those different styles, personalities, and expertise. But it is no good to have too great diversity when it comes to values. That is often a source of a lot of conflict misalignment and ultimately, the failure of a team.
K: And this is perhaps where things have diverged from the early days of hunter, gatherer, where it was much more binary in the sense of survival. It wasn't so much I'm interested in survival but it also matters to me that you like the sunshine and the grass and this and that. Likewise, when you have this divergence now when you're at a company and you may be a seek-driven individual, but you also have to buy into some of the company values which might be about always problem-solving or working together as a team, you have to have some of those components as well. That's different to what used to be in the earliest days of our evolution as humans.
And our societies have evolved way beyond that when it comes to the kind of complexity of moral systems and societal values, and so on. So values have come to play a lot bigger role, and they are both highly cognitive as opposed to the emotional systems. They are really the kind of styles that we bring into the world and that we default to when we're not thinking.
Our values are much more what we refer to when we want to connect with someone on a cognitive level or with an organization.
The values really matter. And rallying a team around a common set of values has been proven over and over to be a highly potent ingredient of an aligned and high-performing team. And so I would say yes, absolutely to your point. Values have become a lot more important than back then in hunter, gatherer days where life was a lot more simple and the groups amongst them naturally a lot more aligned around their key goals.
T: So practically speaking, we go and look at--there's one visionary now who wants to start a new company. They've got a really, really kick ass idea, and they want to bring that idea to life.
How do they go about finding those people that surround them? And many sources have talked about this golden triangle of visionary, hustler, hacker. That you get this nirvana state of three people who come together to really bring something to life and create a successful company.
But if we go back to that one person, how do they start looking out for other individuals? And is it just the idea that's enough to inspire people to work with them?
K: So I think the very starting point for any founder would be to intimately and very well know their own makeup, because that's the starting point from which you can start matching people to complement your dispositions and your skill sets. So I think step number one would be to really very well get to know your own disposition and makeup.
And then you can go out and say, OK, I've got a gap here. I've got a need to complement what I'm doing here. So let's just take the previous example to say it actually is someone very high-seek that is naturally risk-taking, naturally visionary, connect with the big picture. They want to pair themselves with someone with a lot into the detail who can do the grinding out of the minutiae, who can also implement processes and routines to make sure stuff gets executed.
That's a very, very good idea to complement yourself with that type of person. Because it doesn't mean that you can't do that, you're probably also even highly trying to do that. But it means you run out of energy if you try and do that day in and day out. And so one key thing is to really focus on stuff that takes the least amount of energy, which is exactly the stuff that falls into your natural makeup. And compliment yourself with people who can do the other stuff with ease because of their natural disposition.
So that might be my tip number one because I think there is no generic formula that works for all, because the starting point is the profile of the founder and what the ideal match is giving what they're trying to achieve. And of course, then, it also comes to how innovative is it? What's actually required to bring it to life?
T: The successful founders, when you look at them compared to those that haven't been successful, is it a trap that the unsuccessful ones can fall into to try and find the person that is the same as them and not actually seek out those gaps that they have? Is vulnerability almost a part of that or that higher level awareness? Does it need to be there naturally before someone even starts on that? Because you said they need to have an understanding of who they are. But I guess they need to have a wider awareness as well and a vulnerability to accept the fact that they're not good at everything.
K: Yeah. No, I don't think you need to have that from the get go, that's something you can develop as a skill and you can get to know yourself and then strategically get to know others and pull together that composition. I think that shouldn't be a barrier.
And also there isn't an ideal founder profile like you say, because no one can do everything by themselves, and it is not necessary. That's not how humankind evolved and thrive either. So there is room for every profile to become successful if they pair themselves correctly.
T: And for many founders, if you think about that typical person that comes to mind in terms of that founder, they're always very high energy, they're very much just that really intense focus on what they're trying to achieve, and a willingness to drive in the face of absolute uncertainty and everything else that comes with it. There probably are some people out there listening to this thinking, well, I'm not that person as well, and that's why I wanted to pick up on that comment you just made before because they'd be saying, well, I think I've got some great ideas and I want to be a visionary, but I'm not the kind of person that's going to stand up there on stage proclaiming to the world that I've just invented the next whatever it might be.
So is it still possible that you may have--I know we talked a lot about people with high-seek drives. Is it possible that they could be--you could find someone with a high care or even a high guard that could be the founder. Do they still then have to have the seek in them or can they be made up in a slightly different way?
K: I think this is a super interesting question. I really genuinely do not think that people need to be high-seek to be a successful founder. It just happens that statistically speaking, there's the biggest incidence of high-seek people amongst founders. So let me be very clear on that, they're very successful and very compelling high-care, high-guard, high everything, high-life founders in the world that have managed to complement their own dispositions well with others.
Beyond that, of course, we're not just our primal emotion make up, I think the psychologist, Brian Littrell, has a really, really interesting book and idea around personal projects. So he uses the example of himself saying he is a professor and he loves professing, but he's also an extreme introvert as there is. So because he's got a personal project that really matters to him, and that can be the case for a high care founder, for example, to have a personal project that really, really matters to them. Although they wouldn't normally act in that way you just described, highly energetic, highly visionary, super communicative, they do it because the project matters to them so much that they have a good enough reason to go beyond their comfort zone to do it.
So not everyone who looks like a high-seek person actually is a high-seek person. It might just be that they're following, pursuing a really important personal project that makes it worthwhile for them to act that way because it gives them the highest chance of success. And I think this is very, very true, and I love that idea of his and the book.
But what I would also say is that we can do that, but it is indefinitely more exhausting for us to act against our very nature. So while we might do that at the beginning as a founder because it's worth it, we might then as we grow and expand the founding team and beyond, think about, OK, where are the areas where I can really give my best and it naturally falls within what doesn't define me but what energizes me? And who can take on the bits that don't necessarily nurture me or give me a lot of energy?
And so I think that would be the strategy to get some longevity into the project. While it might work great as a start-up, I think to get the longevity and be in it for the long haul, it's ideal to make everyone focus on what naturally fits their style. And yeah, so that would be over time the recipe that we see is most successful.
T: And I think that's very interesting because as you were talking, I was just looking up here specific examples of start-up founders, very successful start-up founders who have been probably on that less aggressive kind of side. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg is one that definitely comes to mind in terms of his behavior. But also Larry Page, even Elon Musk, got Bill Gates. There's actually quite a few of them who have been ultra successful but haven't necessarily been I guess the outward and the vocal and the really energetic kind of founder. So they're just some examples of people that are quite different to the norm of what people expect. They're definitely not an Adam Neumann from WeWork for example, who's out there and incredibly loud. They're very different.
Everybody though, inherently is driven by something different. So for these individuals without knowing them intimately, what else when you think about more broadly motivate some founders to get into the line of work that they're doing?
K: I think for sure at face value, there's always an element of them seeing something in the world that others can't see, and that goes back to that sense of vision and breaking boundaries and exploration and seeking system. So for sure at face value, there's an element of that to all of them.
But then when we look more deeply, why do humans do the things they do? We have to say that we're very, very good at superimposing compelling narratives on top of why we do what we do. And there's a lot of narratives from companies out there, no doubt. It's no point repeating those but think at a deeper level, we are all driven by a lot more primitive and primordial things as well as psychological things that have shaped us.
And I think if we're honest, we're not just trying to, for example, make humankind interplanetary or whatever some of these other missions might be, but we're also deeply flawed children at heart in a way trying to prove to our fathers that we're worthwhile trying to fit into the peer group and get over some trauma of being ostracized or the like.
And I think everybody has got some kind of narrative in their life around something like that. Pretty primal, pretty simple things. We want to fit into the group to survive.
We want to be recognized and feel loved and worthwhile. We want to have a sense of purpose and reason for getting up.
We want to connect with others and play and bond in that way. And we want to feel safe.
And so these are very, very simple things that I think if we're honest, what really drives someone at the core, we also need to look at that. But that can be powerful drivers to discover that in yourself. That can be an important ingredient to self-knowledge and to understanding what drives you at deepest level.
T: And also I suppose potentially a double-edged sword for even people that are joining early on in a company, because we've seen that play out with a number of companies. And when I say, we, I mean just the general public is seeing that play out when people are motivated by perhaps not the right thing or they've got a lot of emotion on the line for something, and that can lead to spectacular collapses of companies. Because quite often, it's the founding team that falls out with one another as opposed to the business idea not being right or not enough traction being there. It actually comes down to the fundamentals of they're just butting heads.
Is that again, because then the makeup of that team wasn't quite right from day one, where they just didn't have that mix and they were perhaps too similar with people? Just say, for example, rank. Two people or three people all have rank, and they're going to just completely butt heads and try and overtake each other at the same time rather than actually helping each other.
K: Yeah, I think there are two different things at play. One is those unconscious rather emotional drivers that can, on the one hand, provide us with a lot of energy and drive, but if not made explicit in aware can lead to a lot of irrational conflict. So number one I think is for everyone to know their stuff in that respect.
Secondly, going back to the primary emotion systems and the kind of personality composition, yeah, we know that there are certain combinations that are right for extreme conflict and that are unlikely to succeed, and then there are others that are naturally super complementary and harmonious. So the example you gave of two high ranked people is a prime example of if they can get aligned around the same goal and around the same mission, They can be an amazing team. But there's also a huge amount of potential for conflict and competition. That's not constructive because after all, if you're in the same company, you don't want to compete with each other but against the market.
But that kind of make up unfortunately carries a psychology of trying to outcompete the immediate person next to them. So that's one example where--
But none of this is deterministic. So the good thing is that any makeup can be constructive. The key lies in making the unconscious, conscious. So the key is in revealing those kind of mechanisms in the team and the kind of dynamics because as soon as they become explicit and conscious, you can manage them, and you can use them to your advantage. So there's absolutely no reason to think there is a combination that's not workable. They actually all are as long as they're made conscious.
T:Where does expectation come into this? Because I guess knowing myself, knowing a range of other people who have started companies, the expectations that they have can often be huge. That the expectations they have for themselves and therefore what they expect of the people that they work with. And this has been something that has been debated. I've seen a couple of articles about it actually recently where you have to understand that if you are the founder, your expectations will be very different to that of the people that you employ that may not have the same amount of equity on the line that at the end of the day, they could just decide to go and work somewhere else if they wanted to.
How would you look at founders when they go about this notion of expectation? When you're looking at particularly that makeup of that initial founding team, do they all need to share this similar expectation of each other, that they'll do everything that's required to achieve the goal that they have in front of them?
K: It's a really good question. I don't think I have the complete answer of it, but I think some of the ingredients are to have clear different responsibilities and do everything that needs to happen to deliver on that particular responsibility. When it comes to engaging a wider team around the founding team that of course doesn't maybe have the same equity and so on. The key is in understanding who they are and what motivates and drives them.
So don't think whilst a company purpose and mission is a nice thing, it is unrealistic to think that this is what really moves people emotionally for themselves. I think the key there lies in understanding what motivates them, what are their life goals, what really drives and inspires them. I think if we can identify what that is for people and how that connects to what we're trying to achieve as a company, then that's a success formula.
T: And I guess related to that is the notion of perseverance and grit. I mean, this is a really big attribute that everybody says that they're the companies that make it the people who just never give up, who keep going despite whatever hits them in terms of adversity, et cetera.
I guess for those people that are all working together, that want to keep striving for what they want to achieve, I mean, it's a really difficult thing because again, how can everybody have that sense of grit and determination? Does it come back to exactly what you're talking about there where if you know intrinsically what motivates that person, then you can effectively get that determination from them because you know how to motivate it out of them. So it kind of comes down to this continuation towards a goal or is it something different? I don't know. I don't know if it's black and white.
K: Yeah, well, there's a system that's actually the behavior continuation system that you can observe is different in different people. So we have a different disposition to get up and go after what we want. We all have a different disposition to inhibit impulses that could potentially endanger us. And then the third thing is we have a certain disposition to continue when the going gets tough or not. And I think also in founders, it's not at all the case that they all have a huge behavior continuation system activation.
In fact, a lot of them don't. A lot of them are very, very good at inception, but then this is why they need to pay themselves very, very quickly with someone who has a high behavior continuation system. And just out of the data that we've got we can see that it is in fact, a lot of those high-seek founding people that do not have a high behavior continuation system. They might really care about their idea and their purpose, but they're not necessarily the ones that grind out the detail that needs to happen day in and day out.
They can actually lose interest and start the next thing, which is a disposition a lot of them have as well. Which is why we see more companies--not the only reason but one reason why we see more companies fail than succeed I think is a big contributing factor to that.
So long story short, I think it's important to understand who on the team has that ability to grind it out and task them with things that need to happen to keep going when it gets tough.
T: I'm conscious that we're probably at time. But maybe a related question to that, which we can use to close out the conversation. And I feel like probably a number of branches or forks in what we've talked about today, which we'll probably do some follow-up episodes on just because it's such a complex area.
But I want to come back to what you mentioned at the very start around diversity and particularly diversity and values when it comes to that team. Because again, values, as I say it here and I hear everything that you're saying, you've kind of got all of these motivational components that sit there but at the same time, if those people don't share those same values that you have, you're then never actually going to be as successful as you could be. And we see this translating into scale-up companies, larger corporate companies, whatever it might be. That's why everybody has a set of cultural values attached to it.
But how important when you're looking at these foundational teams, when a lot of these people will just be trying to survive, is it that values naturally come out of who they are? And just by understanding one another in more detail because they're not going to be the sorts of companies that sit down and are writing a list of oh, our mission is this and these are our company values, because they've got maybe three, four, five people, maybe 10 if they're lucky depending on what stage they're at. They're not going to sit there writing all these values down. So how do they know that from the very beginning? Is it just something that they intrinsically feel from one another?
K: I think they should sit down and write their values down that actually apply to them as a founding team. I think that would be--and with respect to their reason for being in the world and the customers they're trying to address. I think this is a super valuable thing to do very much at the beginning. And a lot of successful startups that I've seen have actually done exactly that. Even if they're just three and four people, they have become very, very clear about their values because then, you can make sure that you're bringing on people that are aligned around those values that you've got.
T: Otherwise, how do you do that?
Yes, because you want to hire for diversity in personality style, so there's not a good idea to align everyone around that. That's where we want diversity but where we want alignment are the values. So it needs to be the values that very, very early on guide who you're hiring amidst a diverse pool of personality.
T: Well, I think there's so many different facets to this, so I do feel like we will be doing some follow-up episodes. But hopefully that's been insightful for the audience. I know that myself, I've even learnt more again just by looking at it.
So Kat, thank you, again. I look forward to delving into a number of different topics. I've been writing these down. I'll have to talk to our editor and senior producer, Jean-Claude, right after this.
I think it can be everything from personality and team situations to how you scale teams to how you have--what's the role of behavior in boardrooms? I think it can go that far.
But we will leave it there for this episode. Thank you, Kat. And we will see you very, very soon on another episode of The Science Of Us
K: Thanks so much everyone listening.
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