6 Contrasts Between Founder CEOs and Corporate CEOs


Compare an interesting article Satya Nadella and Bill Gates points out why Nadella “gets it” and Gates seemingly doesn’t.

However, it is important to recognize the inherent differences between multi-billion dollar entrepreneurs (founder CEOs like Gates) and CEOs in established companies (corporate CEOs like Nadella). This article explores the contrasting dynamics of those building from scratch versus those managing existing entities.


#1. Founder CEOs use startup and growth skills. Corporate CEOs use growth skills.

Billionaire entrepreneurs possess a unique blend of visionary and constructive skills essential to building a business from the ground up. These founder CEOs navigate the uncertainties of emerging industries and strategize to dominate. Corporate CEOs manage to expand on an existing basis and take advantage of the resources already in place. Satya Nadella’s achievements are remarkable, but they are built on the foundation laid by Gates.

#2. Founder CEOs do it their way. Corporate CEOs do it the corporate way.

Billion dollar entrepreneurs start with nothing and rely solely on their abilities. This experience can shape their personality and attitude towards things. Conversely, corporate CEOs often climb the ladder within an organization, necessitating a careful balance between ambition and corporate loyalty. They learn to navigate the dynamics of an organization and prioritize diplomacy over naked aggression.

#3. Founder CEOs adapt from startup. Corporate CEOs don’t start.

Billionaire entrepreneurs must adapt and grow as their venture evolves from idea to giant. They become leaders – and learn to steer the company in new directions. Or they fail. Gates adapted to the Internet when it threatened Microsoft. Corporate CEOs also need to adapt, but in most cases they adapt the company to evolving evolutionary trends, as Nadella did by adding cloud services for the next phase of Microsoft’s growth, not revolutionary trends.

#4. Founder CEOs don’t have to kiss each other. Corporate CEOs do.

Billionaire entrepreneurs have no one above them to kiss. While some are able to secure venture capital, most multi-billion dollar entrepreneurs avoid or postpone getting venture capital in order to maintain control of their venture. However, as their companies grow, they learn to soften their image and exude a more approachable demeanor. On the other hand, corporate CEOs acquire and refine the skill of navigating the corporate hierarchy and fine-tune their communication to satisfy their superiors.

#5. Founder CEOs make history. Corporate CEOs build on history.

Billion dollar entrepreneurs start ventures without the benefit of historical policies or data. They must forge their own path, relying solely on their abilities and entrepreneurial vision. Conversely, corporate CEOs are professional managers who draw on past experiences and existing corporate structures to make incremental progress and strive to improve on what already exists. They rarely break revolutionary ground.

#6. Founder CEOs Win in Revolutionary Industries. Corporate CEOs fail especially in revolutionary industries.

The success of billionaire entrepreneurs, from Andrew Carnegie to Mark Zuckerberg, can be attributed to their ability to capitalize on emerging trends to dominate industries. By identifying and exploiting opportunities within these burgeoning industries, they leverage their vision to outperform entrenched corporate entities. In contrast, CEOs often feel threatened by emerging industries and are unsure how to respond when they resort to acquisitions. Unfortunately, the statistics show just about that 70% – 90% of acquisitions fail.

MY TAKE: Understanding the clear differences between the needs of founder CEOs and corporate CEOs will help business schools better meet the needs of growth-seeking entrepreneurs and provide targeted support that addresses the unique challenges founder- CEOs face, rather than mirror, the curriculum designed for Corporate CEOs.