According to Les McKeown, business consultant, career coach and columnist, every business follows an arc from the early struggles of starting up, through phases of rapid growth, stability, and eventually onto the slippery slope of decline. How well your company maneuvers through these phases depends a lot on the type of executives on your team.

That might seem obvious, but when McKeown talks about types, he means something quite specific, a point he made to comic effect at Inc.’s 2013 Grow Your Company conference last week in New Orleans. In his view, there are three main executive personality types: the Visionary, the Operator, and the Processor. All play an essential role. None play well together.


Every start-up needs one--the idea person, the proselytizer, the infectiously enthusiastic salesperson. The outside world tends to see them as the alpha dog of their company. Internally, they are more likely to be seen as the seagull--the one who hovers overhead and poops on everyone else’s work.

What they’re good at: Framing the mission, selling the company, and hoarding most of the equity. You unleash them on investors, customers, and in motivational town hall meetings with the team. The rest of the time you just try to keep them from interfering with those doing the real work.

What they’re no good at: Detail. Visionaries have the attention span of a Chihuahua. They may be the first one into a company--but they’re also often the first out when they feel the company has "lost its soul," a stage others might recognize as "the company has emerged from its start-up chaos and is now performing a useful function." 

What they think of Operators: Visionaries need Operators, especially early in  a company’s life cycle. After that, they tend to ignore them, except to wish Operators would stop telling them their ideas are impractical, even though most are.

What they think of Processors: Visionaries realize that businesses need structure and think that the team needs to follow the Processors’ rules. Everyone except them, of course.

How you can identify one in a meeting: You can’t. The Visionary bagged the meeting to close “an important deal.”


They get things done. They love nothing more than solving problems and hate anyone who gets in their way, which is almost everyone.

What they’re good at: Work ethic. They will work themselves to death for the company and resent those who won’t, which is almost everyone.

What they’re no good at: Patience, tolerance, perspective. And people: most of them just get in the way.

What they think of Visionaries: Operators are often intensely loyal personally to Visionaries. Thus, when the Visionary starts to ignore them, they compensate by working harder. This makes them simultaneously happier and more miserable, which is the operator’s preferred state.

How you can identify them at a meeting: They’re the ones thumbing their smartphones under the table, all the while fuming silently that they are at the meeting at all, since it keeps them from getting things done.


Brought into the company after it has grown too big to act like a start-up any longer, Processors invent... well, processes that allow companies finally to exist in a state other than chaos.

What they’re good at: Analyzing how things work and how to get them to work more efficiently.

What they’re no good at: Improvisation, change, and recognizing when they have added so many processes they’ve turned a once-dynamic start-up into a bureaucracy.

What they think of Visionaries: Inspired at first, they soon come to regard the Visionary’s lack of focus as proof he is a complete whack job.

What they think of Operators: There’s a natural antipathy. Processors love rules, Operators hate rules. Ergo, Processors sooner or later hate Operators.

How you can identify a Processor at a meeting: They’re the ones armed with 64-page decks rendered entirely in 9-point type.

McKeown says that all of three types are essential to a growing company, but friction between them is inevitable. Leaders who fail to recognize that tend to interpret every clash as the other person’s personal shortcoming. An Operator, for example, might complain that a Processor who is merely doing her job “just doesn’t get the company’s culture.”

The solution is to ensure that enough leaders at your company leaven their Visionary- or Operator- or Processor-ness with a touch of a fourth personality McKeown calls the Synergist. The key traits here are empathy, perspective, and a willingness to put the company’s interests ahead of one’s own. Executives with a strong undertone of Synergist are hard to come by, to be sure. But when you find them, the best thing you can do for you company is simple: Promote them.