Monday, December 16, 2013

Alphas, Betas, & Deltas

Each of us has a different personality type, and that's a good thing.  It takes all kinds of people to make the world work as well as it does today.  If everyone was the same we would never have athletes & actors to entertain us, soldiers to protect us, customer service agents to take our abuse over the phone, and politicians to...well... you get the point.  Having different personalities has given each of our societies the ability to create places for us all to live and thrive.  But at the same time, as our societies have become more complex it has become more important than ever to make sure that we create the proper match between each person and the function that they are to play.

For the sake of simplicity, let's define all possible personality types into three distinct categories.  As shown by our graphic, we'll call them Alphas, Betas, and Deltas.

A lot of the talk I've heard about personalities revolves around the Alpha type.  I suppose this is most likely true because of the terms "Alpha Dog", "Alpha Male", etc.  These terms describe people that are in charge, go-getters, and typically the ones that folks look to as leaders and winners.  However, in my experience, things are not always so simple.  More often than not, I see many CEOs and senior executives as Betas.  That may sound odd, but let's explore it further.

(In case you're wondering why we don't talk much about technology these days in a "CIO" blog, remember that the modern CIO succeeds through people)

Alphas -- These individuals attack problems head on.  They are typically very tenacious, results driven, intensely focused, and don't take "No" for an answer.  In my opinion, the best project managers are Alphas.  I've seen all sorts of project managers, but the ones that are most successful are those that are hard drivers.  Since the project manager rarely has direct authority, they have "break through walls" through force of will at times to accomplish the difficult tasks of bringing projects in on time/budget.  Another area where I see Alpha's flourish is in the area of the physical.  The more hands-on and physically active an environment is the more I see the workforce gravitate toward "Alpha" types of leaders. 

Of course you'll find Alphas everywhere.  In sports and the military, it's almost a given that Alpha personalities are rewarded for their specific behaviors.

Betas -- Just like Alphas tend to be lionized in many cultures, people may assume at first that Betas are destined to be followers.  In my experience, nothing is further from the truth.  What the person with the Beta personality recognizes is that it isn't always prudent to always go through the wall, as our graphic suggests.  The Beta personality is more circumspect, looking for ways to solve a problem that may not be immediately obvious.  While every company has Alphas in high positions, if you take a long look at corporations and politicians you will find that most of them likely have a Beta personality.  As a mentor said to me when describing corporate politics -- "You will see the Alphas coming from a mile away.  The Betas you won't see until the knife slides in."

Deltas -- The Delta personality is the hardest for me to describe.  Why, you might ask?  The answer is that Deltas almost always masquerade as either Alphas or Betas.  Not always, but quite often.  The Delta personality is where we find our innovators, great thinkers, and entrepreneurs.  Before you get too envious, though, it is from the Deltas that we also get our troublemakers and psychopaths!  The Delta personality is one that sees the world for what it is and refuses to accept it.  In essence, the Delta is the one that does not go through or around the wall.  The Delta either changes the landscape or goes another way altogether.  From an organizational perspective, many of your consultants today may be either partially or fully Delta.  These people both embrace and crave change.  If you want to shake things up, put a Delta in charge.  But if you want a discrete problem solved or to maintain a healthy status quo, look to the Alphas and Betas.

Putting together a winning team requires a careful and dynamic balancing of personality types.  This task can be especially hard in IT where the types of demands can be so varied.  Yet, if you can master the skill first of identifying who and what type of people you have and then put them in the right roles at the right time, the rewards will be tremendous.  Just ask Ronald Reagan and Alexander the Great...


  1. Nice post, this one definitely got me thinking about the people that work for and with me, though I did pay particular attention to THIS line: "remember that the modern CIO succeeds through people". As a company grows, I'm quickly learning that identifying, training with, and working with good people is more critical than being tech-savy.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Bryan. Some people have disagreed with that assertion, pointing to different people in the "CIO" role who are hands-on and succeeding. I answer back that there are many companies, especially in the small to mid-size space, that call their top IT leaders CIOs. However, these people are focusing on doing the work and not developing the actual workers. Those types of people are most definitely not "Modern CIOs".

    Unlike the days of yesteryear, the CIO position has fast gravitated away from contribution work into dealing with the humanistic side of IT. Today, practitioners are getting so good that if you, as a potential CIO, try to do what they do you'll be ignoring their growth needs and the politics that surround IT. Good CIOs today succeed through the people that are around them.