3 August 2018 Issue 24: Aug/Sep 2018

Sophie Theen on the right personalities for high-growth startups

There is a lot of misrepresentation about what it is like working at a startup.

There is a lot of misrepresentation about what it is like working at a startup. In a founder-led company, there is probably no governance, no rules. It’s all based on one man or woman’s decisions about how to move forward. The vision and mission of the company is that one person’s vision. And because of that, every decision you make, no matter how much autonomy you have, will eventually go back to whoever is leading the company. 

The people who thrive in these ever-changing environments have a certain personality type. Take Revolut, for example; I knew it had a reputation for being aggressive and rigorous – I knew what I was walking into. Other people too were knocking on the door: they were bored in a corporate environment, and they wanted to be confronted by a new challenge every day. 

There’s a mantra you hear a lot at hyper growth startups: there are only seats for drivers, no seats for passengers.

I had to understand why people were failing at Revolut despite having masses of experience on their CVs. So at one point, we used a personality test – the Enneagram test – to make sure we weren’t hiring people who couldn’t thrive. The test tells you how people make decisions, and how they react. 

The people who thrived were types seven and eight. Eights are naturally challengers – every decision that comes through that they don’t agree with, they push back on. They have a strong mindset – when a curve ball is thrown at them they’ll spin it round to a positive. 

Sevens are adventurers. When they decide to do A, and founders say to do C, they’re the kind of people who can brush it off easily, without it greatly impacting their motivation. 

But at some point, they will end up breaking. Nobody likes fighting a war on a daily basis. 

Sevens have no loyalty. And because they don’t wear their heart on their sleeves, you can’t tell when they’ve had enough and will leave. They’re the people most at risk in your company; you can’t tell if they’re struggling, or not motivated. 

Some personality types will never last long in a high-paced environment like that. It’s no myth that in a lot of startups, there isn’t a place for B or C players. 

I was an eight, enjoying the challenge, taking the curve balls, until I didn’t want to do that anymore. People will eventually burn out, or they will start to look for new opportunities. 

It makes me wonder if this way of working is sustainable for a long period of time. At some point, these companies will realise that they’ve burnt through all the tech talent in a market – and that there’s none left. At that stage, a brand can’t be resurrected. 

Sophie Theen was previously global head of HR at fintech firm Revolut, and is now head of HR at consultancy 11FS.