How A Leader’s Personality Impacts the Ability to Win

built for growth

Built for Growth

Many business books are written on how to innovate, achieve faster growth, or beat the competition. I’ve not read many that focus on the personality of the leader. But the founder’s personality has a dramatic impact on all aspects of the company culture and its potential.

That’s the core focus of Chris Kuenne and John Danner’s new book, BUILT FOR GROWTH: How Builder Personality Shapes Your Business, Your Team, and Your Ability to Win.

If entrepreneurs understand their personalities, it will help them choose the right team to enhance their strengths and manage around their weaknesses.

I recently spoke with the authors about their fascinating research into personality in this context. John Danner is a senior fellow at the University of California Berkley’s Institute for Business Innovation. A faculty member, a business adviser, and an entrepreneur, he speaks widely on topics from innovation to strategy. Chris Kuenne is a member of Princeton University’s entrepreneurship faculty, a growth capital investor, an entrepreneur, and a speaker.



3 Reasons Personality is Misunderstood

Personality is one of the least understood elements of entrepreneurial and business success. Why is that still the case after decades of study and research?

We think there might be three converging reasons. First, the business world often tends to overlook introspection and reflection in its bias for action and results, so the issue of who you are can get lost in the impatient focus on what you’ve done. The “do” trumps the “who.” But as any manager or leader knows, personality does matter . . . a lot; so that action-bias has left a void in our understanding.

Second, we love icons. Movies and the media naturally latch onto a compelling storyline, a fascinating individual, and retell that one person’s experience, character and personality. But icons can quickly become stereotypes, and those stereotypes reinforce the notion that you have to be an extraordinarily exceptional person to find success as an entrepreneur. That shorthand can substitute for a deeper understanding of what’s really at play here. In other words, every entrepreneur doesn’t have to be a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk to be successful; our research discovered there are four distinct personalities of successful entrepreneurs. And there are likely millions of individuals the world over who share those same personality patterns.

Third, although most people are intensely curious about who they are and how they’re wired, most personality assessments are ill-suited to the task of cracking the code of successful business building. Many address very broad issues, e.g., am I an extrovert or introvert, a Type A or Type B, etc. Or they’re designed to answer other questions in personal domains, like who might be a good match for me, what music might I like, etc.

Some broad-gauge tools can help people decide whether they might be cut out for entrepreneurship generally, e.g., are they comfortable with taking risks or working for themselves? But those resources don’t address the fundamental question: what are the key personality characteristics of the women and men who actually succeed in building lasting businesses of impressive scale? What makes those individuals tick, and am I like any of them?

And context is key here; people want to know about personalities in action in particular settings. That’s why we concentrated on examining personalities in the context of successful business ventures and used a patented Personality-ClusteringTM methodology that has proven its effectiveness in decoding specific customer behavior in hundreds of markets around the world.

But our research is just a first step in understanding the central mystery of the who of successful entrepreneurship. We invite others to build upon our findings as we refine our own work. After all, entrepreneurship is vital to economic growth and opportunity globally. We welcome others’ insights into this complicated and essential domain of human endeavor.



4 Types of Builder Personalities

Briefly walk through the four types of Builder personalities.

The Driver: Relentless, Commercially Focused, and Highly Confident – Drivers can’t help themselves. They have to become builders of business or social ventures of their own as a means of self-validation. Entrepreneurship is almost hardwired into their very identity. They are supremely confident individuals, fixated on their products, relentless in pursuing commercial success based on their uncanny anticipation of what markets and customers are looking for. Drivers – like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk – often don’t last long as employees in other people’s organizations. They eschew rules and bureaucracy, seeing them as tools to focus the average person, yet often confine the truly gifted, independent-thinking actor. These builders are willing to do whatever it takes to realize the commercial success inherent in what they believe is their unbounded potential, in fact their destiny.

The Explorer: Curious, Systems-Centric, and Dispassionate – Explorers are first and foremost fascinated by the problem or puzzle. They’re not necessarily motivated to build a new business from scratch, but they are inveterate solvers and systems thinkers. Whether the problem is designing better pantyhose (Sara Blakely of Spanx) or unlocking the potential of e-commerce (Jeff Bezos at Amazon), their solutions may focus on product or process, or both. These men and women become stand-alone entrepreneurs or builders of new ventures inside existing corporations because building new businesses seems the best way to solve and commercialize their solutions. Once hooked by the problem, they fixate on execution, at least until the next intriguing problem emerges in search of a solution. Their management style is hands-on to the point of being overly controlling at times.

The Crusader: Audacious, Mission-Inspired, and Compassionate – Crusaders are very mission-focused, primarily motivated by an intense desire to make the world a better place—by solving problems that matter to markets and society. The crusade may be ice cream with Ben & Jerry’s social mission, a designer dress made affordable for a special occasion by Jenny Fleiss and Jenn Hyman’s Rent the Runway, or a more responsible approach to managing garbage, as it is for Nate Morris’s Rubicon Global—the Uber of the waste management business. Anchored in a deep-seated ability to empathize with others, Crusaders create mission-based companies with bold, long-range vision. They appreciate—indeed, even look forward to—the opportunity to invite others to help bring their mission to life. In that sense, Crusaders have an unusual mixture of both sensitivity and humility, combined with a confidence in their animating vision for their business. Unlike Explorers, their decision-making mode is highly intuitive and anchored in their almost instinctive sense of what is right.

The Captain: Pragmatic, Team-Enabling, and Direct – Captains are intrigued by the potential of the teams surrounding them. These builders are intent on creating a company culture around values and mutual accountability. Comfortable with leading from behind, they trust their colleagues and culture to fulfill the vision for the company whose future they share. Unlike Explorers and Drivers, they find gratification in the “we” rather than the “me.” But these men and women are Captains nonetheless, with a clear notion of where they want the ship to go and what needs to be done to get there—although they are more willing than their three builder counterparts to hear ideas from others first.  As leaders, Captains believe in setting clear goals and expectations, then delegating responsibility for execution. While they prefer consensus-rooted decisions, they sometimes manifest an iron fist in a velvet glove when their teams underperform.



Discover Your Style

Where can you take the assessment to determine your own style? 

You can take our 10-question Builder Personality Discovery quiz at You’ll get an immediate assessment by return email of which Builder Type you are most like, along with an explanation of how that type differs from the other three, plus a description of some specific ways in which you can leverage your own particular pattern of gifts and gaps in building a business.


Would you share some examples of how you should work with these different styles? For instance, what will get you in trouble if working for a Captain? What endears you to a Driver?

If you’re working for a Captain, the good news is that you will probably have a fair amount of latitude in your day-to-day activities so long as you contribute to the overall team’s success. But don’t confuse this builder’s preference for a collaborative culture with either indecisiveness on his or her part or willingness to tolerate mediocre performance. You can expect opportunities to voice your opinions and share ideas in a Captain-led business. That may be a great fit if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t need or want someone looking over your shoulder or giving you detailed instructions.

Built for Growth coverBut check your showboating tendencies at the door. Remember: this is more of a “we” culture of mutual support. Think of playing for a Steve Kerr rather than a Bill Belichick, a coach comfortable with a fair amount of individual empowerment and freedom. Just be prepared to demonstrate you were worth the draft pick that got you on the team in the first place.

In contrast, working for a Driver can be an especially intense and exciting experience, but you have to be prepared for a much more directive, dare we say driven, environment reflecting the leader at the top. Drivers expect their colleagues to be as committed to the business as they are, and often have trouble accommodating to people with different priorities. They are commercial animals, fixated on the wonders of the products and solutions they are convinced the market needs. So, if you’d like to apprentice yourself to work closely with such a builder to observe and absorb his or her special strengths, you can learn (and maybe earn) a lot very rapidly. But Driver teams are not for the faint-hearted. Be prepared for a fair amount of impatience and high expectations that can take a toll on one’s ego in the white-hot intensity of this builder type.

Explorers are first and foremost problem solvers who love taking apart complex puzzles that engage their systems thinking capabilities. If you share that analytical bent, you may find a natural fit with an Explorer-led business venture. Be on your toes; Explorers prefer evidence-based arguments to “shoot from the hip” speculation from their associates. They admire clever solutions but can create somewhat impersonal cultures indicative of their own somewhat aloof personal style. So, don’t expect a warm and fuzzy work environment, unless your Explorer in charge has turned his attention to that particular puzzle and has perhaps solved it in an unusual way.

Working with and for a Crusader can be an exhilarating and personally meaningful experience. If you sign up for the campaign they are championing, you’re likely to find other inspired fellow travelers among your midst at work. You will likely take pride in explaining to friends and family the why behind your business and how it is a more worthwhile undertaking than creating the next social network app or mechanical widget.

However, Crusaders may not be as focused on the details of daily operations as they are on the long-term mission of their companies. And that can result in confusion and frustration among the inside teams, especially when conflicts are not resolved timely. If you’re comfortable working in that kind of ambiguous setting, a Crusader-built business may be for you. But if you thrive better in a more structured environment, you might want to look elsewhere for a different kind of builder – say, a Driver or Explorer.


The Implications for Team Building

What are the implications for team building? 

We think they are significant. As coaches are wont to say, there is no “I” in team. But there is a “me.” A builder’s understanding of his or her own personality makeup can help anchor conscious choices in assembling a first-rate team that best complements those patterns of gifts and gaps.

Anticipating the dynamic challenges likely to most test each builder personality type can also guide a founder in “hiring forward,” i.e., selecting associates with capabilities beyond the requirements of their immediate position. In this way, builders can create a more resilient and flexible team to adapt to the changing requirements of their growing businesses. That is especially valuable in arenas that don’t match well with the builder’s own personality pattern.

But as useful as these insights can be for the business builder him or herself, they can be as valuable for the team members themselves – in helping them figure out how best they can work with, and even occasionally around, the builder in charge. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the builder you are working for can give you insights into why they behave the way they do, how they make decisions, manage and lead. And that, in turn, can inform your strategy in collaborating more effectively around them.

Successful businesses are built on team success. Our research can improve the ability of both team leaders and team members to make intentional, informed decisions on team composition, structure and dynamics that will leverage the personality of the builder at the center of the business.



You actually make some interesting and somewhat surprising observations about personality and financial partners. What has your research shown in this regard?

Simply put, builder:investor fit may be key in shaping the growth trajectory of a business. And aligning the expectations of both parties can avoid counterproductive, even fatal, intramural battles that vitiate the underlying potential of the business itself.

For example, investors primarily focused on immediate product:market fit and/or an early cashout for their money may well prefer Driver- or Explorer-led ventures to those led by a Crusader or Captain. Such investors may care less about the relative health of the company’s culture or team dynamics than whether the business is meeting or beating its aggressive milestones, and may well lack the patience to support a business predicated on long-term shareholder value generation.

Conversely, investors and executive sponsors who see the value in supporting a builder with a strong, committed and collaborative team are probably better matches with Captain-type builders, and may be particularly well-suited to assist Crusaders in making sure their teams are as competent as they are committed to the mission of the enterprise.

Whatever the configuration of the parties involved, our research provides both a framework and a vocabulary that can assist both builders and backers to make more clear-headed choices about whether there is a truly strategically valuable fit between their respective agendas and styles.


What are some of the gifts and gaps of each type?

Personality Types
Copyright Chris Kuenne & John Danner. Used by permission.


What are the important takeaways from Built for Growth for people involved or interested in the entrepreneurial ecosystem?

Who you are shapes how you build your business. If you’re an entre- or intrapreneur today, understanding which Builder Personality you are can help you make better choices in how you manage, lead, forge teams and align with the right kind of investors. If you’re a member of a builder’s building crew, this book can guide you in ways you can more effectively support and work with your particular type of builder. If you are a potential investor or executive sponsor trying to figure out how to grow your portfolio or business, Built for Growth gives you practical tools to identify promising builders and specific suggestions for how you can best build businesses of lasting scale together. Finally, if you’re a “wantrepreneur” considering entering the marathon of entrepreneurship, our book shares insights from winners of that marathon and examples of how you might fashion your own career as a business builder.

For more information, see BUILT FOR GROWTH: How Builder Personality Shapes Your Business, Your Team, and Your Ability to Win.


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