What Is Your Professional Tribe? And Why Does it Matter?

  1. People with similar backgrounds
  2. Companies
  3. Profession

People with similar backgrounds

It’s of course natural to feel connected to people who are like you. Even if we don’t like to admit it, it’s simply easier to relate to somebody who has the same nationality, language, gender, educational background, socioeconomic status, and so on.

Companies (particularly startups)

Young founders and managers often receive the advice to not think of their company as a “family”, but rather as a “sports team”. That’s indeed a better metaphor. You can’t get fired from a family, but obviously a sports team will only let you stay on if you perform.

Profession

In my own career, I’ve had the privilege of working with a substantial number of different professions, in particular: Software engineers, designers, business consultants, tech entrepreneurs, corporate executives, professors, data scientists, product managers, lawyers, ad agency people (both on the business and creative side), VCs, bankers, government employees, journalists, military people.

  1. Most tribes — and here’s where our stone-age heritage comes in — think highly of themselves but can be a bit dismissive of other tribes. They often have not the slightest clue what these other tribes do and why their work might be challenging, but they assume it must be easy, not nearly as difficult as their own work.
  2. Most people spend their entire career as part of such a professional tribe. That’s not surprising, but it can limit their understanding of other tribes severely — and, even more importantly, harm their effectiveness at collaborating with members of other tribes.
  3. Tribes have rituals, orthodoxies and specific ways of communicating. They wear uniforms, even (or maybe particularly) if they think of themselves as being unconventional. Try going to a meeting with designers carrying a Windows laptop. They will never think of you as being one of their own. It’s simply a uniform violation. Similarly, software engineers react almost allergically to suits. That’s strange for a profession that prides itself on being all about substance over form.
  4. People of one tribe have a high affinity to tribes that are similar. For instance, it’s well documented that in my chosen most recent profession as a venture capitalist people tend to prefer investing into founders that are similar to VCs: Articulate, analytical, familiar with the latest buzzwords, good at creating compelling narratives, educated at a top university, good with numbers. That’s why former consultants are often assumed to be “strong founders” by VCs, despite there being no evidence for that to be true. Founders who are different often struggle to raise funding despite maybe having more substance.
  5. Crossing boundaries into another tribe, i.e. changing careers, is very challenging. It’s not just about acquiring the necessary skills, it’s all the subtle social and communicative aspects, about showing the right kind of pedigree (“Stallgeruch” as it’s called in German) that make it hard. In my MIT mid-career study program they always told us “You can’t run from your résumé”. And that’s very true. Huge jumps to an entirely different profession rarely succeed, and I have seen many cases of where people ended up back at their home tribe after a few years.

What to do about it?

So what to do about all of this? First of all, it’s important to understand which tribe(s) you are a member of. Sometimes it’s obvious, but many people belong to multiple tribes. I would describe myself as being a tech entrepreneur, with a side membership in the VC tribe and a friendly affiliation with data scientists and software engineers. Most people are probably a bit like that.

  • Become aware of your tribe’s biases. As mentioned, tribes tend to think highly of themselves and have all kind of biases about others. It’s easy and feels comfortable to stick with these biases, because your tribemates have them too. Expressing them is a form of signalling that you belong. But needless to say, biases will hold you back because most great work is done in collaboration beyond your tribal borders. For example, most of the really great tech entrepreneurs — people like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk — would very much look out of place at a VC conference. But the VCs who invested in them anyway made history in their tribe. And yet, most struggle to think that way.
  • Really understand how to work with other tribes. Developing curiosity and empathy for other tribes is a professional superpower. It’s not necessary or possible to understand all the nuances of a profession that isn’t yours. But at least acquiring some knowledge goes a long way. For example, if you are business-oriented startup founder and you can at least code a little bit or have played for a few weekends with UI design tools, your understanding of your colleagues’ challenges will be fundamentally different.
  • Be creative beyond your tribe’s orthodoxies. Every tribe has its unquestioned orthodoxies that enable it to be productive, but also limits creativity. For example, product managers think in terms of sprints, user stories, user testing, etc. and often have a hard time coming up with product ideas that are more speculative. Data scientists are trained to optimize for an easily observable single variable and struggle with real-world problems that might be more complex and noisy. Once you recognize your own orthodoxies and start going beyond them — for example by adopting methods you learned from other tribes — you can be a real outlier within your tribe.
  • Understand if you’re in the right tribe. Being part of the wrong tribe is a very important reason for professional unhappiness. We all are made to decide which professional route we want to take in our late teen years, which is of course ridiculously early. It’s not surprising therefore that a lot of people discover that their profession is not right for them. Leaving your tribe and joining another one is incredibly hard, beyond the factors mentioned above. As a species, we are hard-wired not to do that, but sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for your career and happiness.

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Andreas Goeldi

Andreas Goeldi

Technologist, entrepreneur and investor. Likes startups, gadgets, movies, good audio technology and rambling about any of those topics. Partner at btov.vc