Editor’s note: This contributed article was first published in July 2020. In his first blog, C-suite CEO and Co-Founder Dean Carroll deconstructs leadership at start-ups – suggesting that the tech industry’s extreme behavior is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness.


Startup land is incredible in many ways. It’s a place where world-changing companies are built. It’s the arena where the world’s biggest talents congregate. It’s a scene where the “pay it forward” concept of helping others is in full effect.

But, conversely, it’s also a realm where some of the most toxic leadership and management styles imaginable converge. That’s part of the reason we wanted to start C-suite, our “lifetime learning platform for executives.” More on that later.

Now, with all that said, disclaimer time. While I’ve worked for some start-ups over the years, my background is very much media and events. I started out as a journalist and although I climbed the management ranks over the years, I’ll always think of myself as a journo first. Therefore, I’m not a full-blown creature of the start-up scene just yet.

However, many of my friends and industry contacts are. Because of that, I know how bad things can get. I’ve seen people on the verge of a breakdown due to a toxic work culture. Their whole lives dominated by trying (unsuccessfully) to rationalise the lack of professionalism and humanity in the workplace.

I’ve witnessed people being relentlessly belittled by those higher up in the hierarchy. And it’s not just limited to early-stage start-ups – where the pressure is admittedly immense due to the threat of failure and the inexperience is palpable – as portrayed in the Netflix documentary Print the Legend. No, in his brilliant book Idea Man, Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen laments the lack of compassion for colleagues shown by his Co-Founder Bill Gates; even after unicorn status was achieved and chasing revenue and users no longer meant the difference between survival and success.

Why is this negative scenario more of a norm, rather than an exception to the rule? Why have many first-time managers decided the Steve Jobs book of dysfunctional leadership (Apple design genius Jony Ive famously felt he had to present Jobs with two solutions, in order that the CEO could slam one of them and feel righteous) is the way to go when chasing their start-up dream? And why does tech rival politics, in terms of the elevated levels of skullduggery in play?

The answer is simple – a lack of training, feedback, experience and awareness. Disclaimer time again (sorry if this leitmotif is getting annoying, but bear with me – it serves a purpose). I’ve come to realise that at times in my career I wasn’t always the best leader myself. My Damascene moment came via some candid feedback from colleagues, microscopic leadership training and a progressive career mentor who helped me along the way.

Seeing the benefits of these things first-hand inspired me and my Co-Founders Don Tsai (COO) and Alan Yudhahutama (CTO) to create C-suite. All three of us believe deeply in its mission to nurture leaders, managers and aspirational professionals across all of the knowledge economy industries (not just in tech).

So what is C-suite exactly then? You might ask. Well, as it so happens, we have a video to help explain.

And here’s a blurb from our pitch deck (which I’m happy to send out to anyone with even a passing interest, just drop me an email): “C-suite is a lifetime online-to-offline-to-online learning platform for executives, where management becomes leadership. It is an exclusive community hub, a social network, a news and views forum and a recommendation engine – in the coming ExecTech wave.

“Super-serving Singapore and Asia, but in a global context, our mission is: ‘To help managers become high-performing leaders. To help leaders become better managers. To help aspirational professionals join the C-suite ranks. And, as a result, to help businesses win.’

“We do so through a paid-for app, virtual gatherings, real-world conferences and much more besides. Our focus is to support the three pillars of community, content and connectivity.”

Ok, that’s enough of the spruik, back to the matter in hand. Sticking with the start-up scene, I mentioned earlier the “pay it forward” behavioural tendencies. As a new Co-Founder, I’ve found this to be somewhat of a revelation. The camaraderie among those starting new companies is breathtaking.

People are so willing to help you – whether it’s providing free advice, making introductions or even revealing their trade secrets. You reciprocate. It’s beyond quid pro quo. In short, you want to help every start-up founder in the same boat and they want to help you back. It would be great if we could somehow bottle this altruism and provide the same level of support to our own teams, don’t you think?

Only through mutual learning, as opposed to command and control, can we achieve this. That’s the crux of it all. Indeed, the start-up paradox of altruism juxtaposed with toxicity is a topic I want to explore further in our ‘Leadership Mixer’ series of virtual events. I’ll be interviewing prominent C-suite players and inviting you the audience to submit questions too. Please do tune in for the inaugural session at 9 AM Singapore time on August 13, when one Cindy Gallop will be joining us for a candid discussion.

Yes, you heard that right. First up is this advertising industry legend, diversity spokesperson and start-up founder. Cindy herself says: “Out of adversity comes opportunity. It’s only when things break down as completely as they are currently, that new models and ways of doing things are enabled to emerge that never could have previously. My consulting approach can be summarised as ‘I like to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business’.”

It’s going to be a truly fun and enlightening event and we will be lining up many more great “Leadership Mixer” speakers to come. Among those already having agreed to participate are the effervescent NYU Stern School of Business marketing professor Scott Galloway, the best-selling author and world’s most prolific blogger Seth Godin, the dynamic Love Bonito chief commercial officer Dione Song and the firebrand Dentsu Asia-Pacific CEO Ashish Bhasin.

Beyond that, I’ll be blogging on a regular basis in order to take you behind the curtain on the journey of a start-up. At times, it might be warts and all. My hope, though, is that the transparency about the challenges faced along the way will provide some value to others on a similar journey or to those in a leadership position.

Of course, speaking honestly, the goal of these tasters is also to start building a community around the C-suite brand before our product even launches. For you can expect our MVP app in quarter four of this year. In the meantime, enjoy the free content and please do donate to our cause if you like what you see.

Also, we are running a Kickstarter campaign whereby the first 1,000 contributors can get lifetime C-suite “professional” membership for just $100. Check it out here.

Well, that’s all from me for now. I hope you enjoyed this first instalment of the blog. If you did, I’d love to hear from you, so please do email me at dean@c-suite.sg. And if you didn’t, I’d still be delighted to receive your constructive criticism. For with everything we do at C-suite, we want to listen deeply to users so that we can iterate and evolve. Only with this agile approach will we be able to create a sustainable platform that gives you the added value you need.

Thanks. Until next time. See you again soon.

Dean Carroll is the CEO and Co-Founder of C-suite – where this blog was first published.

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