Professional jealousy is powerful. We want the title, money, power and perceived respect that go along with those things. People climb ladders and play corporate politics to advance ahead of others. Some companies foster a super competitive environment that endorses, tacitly or not, team members vying for coveted positions and recognition. Does it work and is it good for the company and the team members? I don’t think it is, but many company leaders do.
The fact is, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Most companies are structured as pyramids with far fewer positions of recognition, power, control, and large compensation packages being reserved for those at the top of the pyramid. Corporate hierarchy and structure probably has as much to do with professional jealousy as anything else.
There are other factors present that fuel professional jealousy - where someone went to college, where they are from, and their family’s prominence or lack thereof. Even the perceived substance of someone’s LinkedIn profile can contribute. These and other factors can be substantiated as being signs of pedigree that translate to predictors of future professional success.
The professional world of work can be related to “survival of the fittest”, where only the strongest and most determined get ahead. It is easy to fall prey to professional jealousy in any profession, especially if you don’t really want to be one of the people playing corporate politics and pushing colleagues off of the corporate ladder so you can ascend it.
Professional jealousy is even harder in the startup world for Founders. The corporate ladders and politics don’t exist yet at startups (for the most part, although I’ve even seen them at startups), but Founders comparing their companies and themselves to others is omnipresent.
Being a Founder and starting a successful company is the hardest professional thing anyone can do. It is also the most personal, professional experience anyone can have. I have written and spoken about Founders trying to distant themselves from their companies, so their company doesn’t define who they are, but that is easier said than done. To start and build a company, with any level of success, is both a professional and personal endeavor. This is why professional jealousy for Founders is difficult to identify and overcome.
Founders put all of themselves into trying to make their product/service and company successful and when they see other Founders having more success than they are, and often faster, it is hard to ignore. There are public success and milestones for startups and their Founders that are the loose equivalent to a corporate person being passed over for a promotion for a newly defined and highly coveted position. In a Founder’s world these are things like a big customer signings, a consequential new partnership, a significant round of funding from a well-known venture capital firm, a sale (exit as it often referred to in startup lexicon), becoming valued at a certain level, such as a unicorn (valued at $1B or more), and going public through an IPO (initial public offering). All of these events and more are how the startup industry keeps track of the winners and losers. Founders know this and they sign up for it, but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with if your company isn’t experiencing these events while others are with great fanfare.
Most of the time a startup can’t and shouldn’t be compared to other startups trying to solve different problems in different industries and in different ways, but it happens. Founders see other companies growing, getting investment, and on a faster track than their company is on, and they try to figure out why. Make no mistake, they are keenly aware of how other Founders and their companies are performing compared to theirs. It also works the other way too. Founders are aware of whether they are outperforming other startups that started about the same time and in the same area. If a startup has gone through an accelerator, which I’m not a huge fan of and I write about in by book The Founder’s Manual, the Founders are tracking and comparing their companies progress to accelerator cohort brethren.
It is easy to say that Founders shouldn’t be jealous of the other Founders. They are after all building different companies in different ways. Logic doesn’t takeover and win in situations like these. Every Founder in a moment of clarity and rational thinking would say they don’t pay any attention to what other Founders are doing and how their companies are progressing. Founders know that’s what they should say. But the reality of founder jealousy is that it happens because it is human nature. We’re wired to think scarcity over abundance and that for someone to win, someone else must lose. Founders are not immune to either of these.
The best way I have seen Founders control and manage their jealousy of other Founders is to become friends with other Founders they respect. Befriending other Founders and sharing experiences makes it much harder to be jealous of the other’s success and makes it easier to learn from the other person’s success. Becoming friends also changes the dynamic from being jealous of the accomplishments of a stranger to being happy for and supportive of a friend and colleague. In the best of scenarios, Founders support each other and overcome any initial instinct to be jealous and become allies. Founders get to relish in the fact a friend and colleague is succeeding even if they are not yet having the same level of success.
Founders can’t befriend every other Founder, so they still have to find ways to manage the jealousy of other Founder and startup successes. The time, emotion, and energy put into being jealous of other Founders is wasteful, unproductive, and negative. Founders need to celebrate their company’s wins when they happen, even if a win is small. The acknowledgment and celebration of even the smallest wins will remind them that their company is progressing. The team needs this too. Celebrating the small wins also helps a Founder and their team to have a breadcrumb of wins to be able to look back on. The win breadcrumb trail provides a team with something to compare the impact of wins to as the wins increase in magnitude over time. Founders hear things from the team like, “Remember when Acme Corp became a customer and we thought that was a big deal? Now look at where we are with the new deal with ABC Inc.” Celebrating these small wins help Founders to stay focused on ,and aware of, the successes their company is having so they are less consumed with paying attention to and being jealous of the success of others.
Another defense mechanism of Founder jealousy is having advisors, mentors, investors, and supporters that remind a Founder of the path forward and the milestones along the way. This group of key advocates for the Founder and company can remind a Founder of how far the company has progressed and keep them focused on the path ahead, rather than getting distracted by things like being jealous of other Founders and companies. A Founders support squad is crucial to lifting the Founder up and keeping them focused. A Founder who is focused on executing their company’s plan is much less likely to be inclined to be jealous of other Founders.
Being a Founder is ridiculously hard and most new products and companies don’t work. I write about this in my book, The Founder’s Manual. Given the difficulty of the journey and the likelihood of failure it is no wonder that Founders can fall prey to being jealous of Founders that are making it all look so easy. It isn’t easy for any Founder. There are just degrees of hard for all of them. Founders who can stay focused on their own and their company’s execution rather than being overly concerned with what other Founders and companies are doing, will be much more likely to have their companies progress faster and with a lot less personal angst.