When ‘big’ business becomes ‘too big’

FSB's new columnist explores why success can be psychologically problematic.

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Editor’s Note: In the July/August issue of Fortune Small Business magazine, we ran a leadership story that explored the detrimental workplace of a pyromaniacal small business owner. We hoped the story would generate a lot of mail from readers with similar experiences, but we didn’t expect to receive a letter from a noted Manhattan psychoanalyst, who eloquently chided us for not anteing up a deeper, more thought-out solution.

“The imperative for these managers to detonate is governed by unconscious factors that cannot be eliminated on demand,” he wrote. We were intrigued, and even more so when the doctor, Alexander Stein, agreed to work with us on a regular basis.

Stein’s column, Business in Mind, will appear monthly on our Web site. Stein, who runs a private practice and consults for a variety of small and medium-sized businesses, will use the column to tackle the emotional and psychological issues that plague owners of small companies. We’ll trawl for subjects who are willing to spend a few hours speaking with Stein over the phone; he’ll compose a brief analysis of what he thinks is going on.

Of course, there’s no way to cure such complex problems in 800 words. Instead, we hope the column offers an insight into work matters whose solutions can’t be found in any business plans, and that readers experiencing similar situations might be able to relate.

Stein would be happy to answer your questions. Send him a note – or let us know what you think of his work – at fsb_mail@timeinc.com.

Stories are prevalent of those wrecked by success – athletes, politicians, rock stars and even executives who crash and burn at their pinnacle. Those who struggle privately with their achievements are less visible.

Consider Anton Meadow (not his real name), the founder and CEO of an e-commerce company based on the West Coast, with whom I recently spoke. Meadow started his company 11 years ago with a fishing buddy and seed money earned from an earlier venture. They had ten employees. Fast forward to 2007: They recently hired their 180th employee; moved into a 46,000-square-foot, eco-friendly facility; and expect $26 million in sales.

Meadow seems to exemplify success, having steered his company through rapid, steady growth while preserving a set of core values to govern its corporate culture, customer relations and operations. So what’s the problem? Why has he sought consultation with a psychoanalyst?

He’s worried about how to grow still larger without losing the ethics and institutional values central to his vision. He fears, he says, becoming the “Big, Bad Sucky Company.”

Beneath the characteristics typical of many successful people – an acquisitive, competitive personality, for example, or an unquenchable passion for challenges – is each one’s unique history. That past influences the present in sometimes fantastic ways.

Consider the executive who spent her childhood being undermined by her father and then set into competition with her siblings. Today, her professional life is defined by this family dynamic: personal success implies another’s loss, burdening her with guilt. Or look at the partner in a boutique financial services firm who was raised to believe that he should not want or ask for anything for himself. He may be perfectly suited to the culture of a firm that prides self-sacrifice – but still miserable, something none of his colleagues would detect because he learned early to conceal his emotions.

Meadow – who strikes me as an articulate, smart and level-headed businessman – has a firm grasp on corporate matters now, but he is aware that his job could one day outgrow him. (If need be, he says he’s open to ceding the helm.) Meadow remembers feeling bored in high school. Here’s a significant point: Rather than imploding, exploding or flunking out, he went to a guidance counselor. Another trait of enduringly successful individuals is the ability to recognize a need for help, and then get it.

Given that Meadow has been able to develop his company so well thus far, I wonder about his idiosyncratic ideas concerning “big” and “sucky.” At what point does “big” make the transition to “too big”?

Issues from the past

Smirking over the sexual innuendo? You’re on the right track. Trepidation about being “too much” – and the concern that it’s dangerous or destructive, rather than positive – often has its roots in psychosexual development, and is linked to formative relationships and experiences.

Meadow shared with me an early memory of pushing his younger brother’s stroller at a protest march about fair housing practices. Their father, a lawyer for a big-city, white-shoe firm, took part in liberal political causes and was president of a housing council that opposed economically and racially divisive urban policies. As a six-year-old in the 1960s, Meadow heard his father arguing on behalf of plaintiffs in a segregated busing issue. Later, his father pursued a case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a beef industry dispute.

In short, Meadow was deeply sensitized from a young age to social inequities, and had in his father a model of compassionate activism. His memories share the common theme of an aggressive, larger organization imposing itself unfairly or abusively on smaller prey.

These map precisely with his personal definitions of “sucky.”

This child’s word may provide a meaningful clue to the convoluted origins of his worry. Bigness past a certain threshold may have solidified as unacceptably counter to his family’s values and ideals; greater success translates internally to Meadow as his becoming something his father would oppose.

Psychodynamically understood, a psychological sticking point is often operating as both itself and its functional opposite. This idea helps explain Meadow’s dilemma: the potential roadblock – “being sucky” – is also an unconscious aspiration – “to be bigger.”

So, how to proceed? Helping Meadow deal with institutional growth requires understanding his personal substructure – learning how his contemporary attitudes intersect with and become deformed or constrained by historic ones shaping the adult he became.

Business is often the field on which more intricate psychological issues play out. There are many ways for a successful company to expand without degrading key values and falling over an ethical ledge.

But for Meadow, making psychological peace with further growth requires defusing the fear that expansion inevitability brings with it a sudden descent into big-corporation “suckyness.”

Alexander Stein is a psychoanalyst and consultant in practice in New York City. He is also a training analyst and faculty member of The National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and a strategic partner with the Boswell Group.Disclaimer: This column is designed for educational purposes only. Due to the individual nature of each situation, Dr. Stein cannot offer advice or suggestions beyond what is presented here. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for personal therapy, or construe it as the offering of a diagnosis or remedy.