E-MAIL FROM THE VALLEY: Now I really do see something clearly: that being labelled a visionary is fatal to one's credibility in business Visionary is an insult.

E-MAIL FROM THE VALLEY: Now I really do see something clearly: that being labelled a visionary is fatal to one's credibility in business Visionary is an insult. - I have had it with being called a visionary. Eighteen months ago, a colleague bought me a bo

by NICK DENTON, founder of Europe's start-up community FirstTuesday, is CEO of Moreover.com (nick@moreover.com)
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I have had it with being called a visionary. Eighteen months ago, a colleague bought me a book by Carlos Castaneda about 'seeing', the implication being that I had some mystical ability to envisage the future. At the time, I was flattered. But now I really do see something clearly: that the label of visionary is fatal to one's credibility in business.

A visionary may have the idea for a company, but cannot hire the management team, motivate the staff, close a sale, drive product development, or even organize the office Christmas party. As far as I'm concerned, visionary is an insult.

Visionaries have traditionally driven the technology industry. The PC revolution was sparked by Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple Computer Inc, and a notoriously divisive and abrasive manager. As the centrepiece of his book The New New Thing, Michael Lewis paid tribute to Jim Clark, the man behind Silicon Graphics and Netscape, among others. That book was all about the power and marketing of ideas: Clark was a bad manager but, hey, that didn't matter.

Others remember when Bill Gross, founder of idealab, was a business hero.

Here was a man so fertile in his creativity that no single company could keep his interest. What better job than dreaming up ideas for new ventures, then getting someone else to manage them?

So what changed? The end of exuberance, for a start, as technology stocks crashed last year. The visionaries may have thought they were founding companies but, as often as not, these were mere concepts or, at best, projects. Their value was in an imagined future which the founders' salesmanship made more tangible.

Also, fluency with ideas often translated, in the workplace, into inconsistency.

A common complaint about late-1990s technology firms is: 'The company's strategy seemed to change every week, we were constantly reinventing our business model.' The visionaries didn't realise that intellectual creativity, and the brainstorming that sparks it, are highly disturbing to most staff - particularly to the individuals who ensure that a company actually functions.

Third, the technology boom and bust confirmed that organisational cliche: creative individuals tend to be bad managers. The best managers are good listeners, who synthesize views from the whole organisation. Visionaries tend to be so in love with their idea of the moment that they are deaf to more practical opinions.

At Moreover Technologies, the web information management company I co-founded, we have just landed a new CEO.

We weeded out the visionaries early on. Eventually, we picked an individual with an outstanding record as a sales manager and builder of executive teams, a Silicon Valley veteran who would never claim to be a visionary.

Silicon Valley companies have traditionally replaced first-time founders with seasoned executives. This institutional recognition that creativity and organization rarely come together in a single person is one of the reasons why the Valley has been successful. However, for a brief period in the late 1990s, a premium was placed on originality and the Valley relaxed its rules.

At Microsoft, Bill Gates, a product visionary, gives way to Steve Ballmer, a motivator of the troops. And visionaries such as Nathan Myhrvold have been sidelined. At CNET, Halsey Minor seemed one of the rare examples of a founder who remained as CEO; he is now running his own incubator.

The suits are taking over in Washington DC, too. Bill Clinton was eloquent, persuasive, notoriously tardy, disorganised, surrounded by an enthusiastic but inexperienced staff, best late at night, fuelled by pizza. And now in George W Bush, the revived managerial ideal: collaborative, a builder of teams, loyal and demanding, obsessive about punctuality.

And what does this mean for the entrepreneurial generation of the 1990s?

Well, some will continue to lurk in the corner, with nonsense titles such as Chief Yahoo! Others are returning to the organisations, tail between legs, that spawned them in the first place.

A few may be able to reinvent themselves. Jobs may have lost control of Apple in the 1980s, but he is back. And his latest claim to fame is his tight inventory control, which has left Apple in a better position during this downturn than many other manufacturers. A deliciously managerial achievement for someone marked as a visionary.

As for the remainder, they will have to wait till the next boom. Going by the record of past cycles, that should come sometime around 2016.

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