Founder's Syndrome

Monday June 6, 2016 comments

Founders’ Syndrome. At least that’s what I call it.

Someone has a great idea, an invention, a new way, a new service. Others join the adventure – partners, employees, investors. At some point one of 2 things can happen:

  1. The founder decides that a new leader is needed. Maybe the founder wants to cash out. Often the founder doubts her ability to lead but still wants to hang around in some capacity;
  2. Someone else decides that a new leader is needed. Maybe that decision comes from an investor, a partner, or the bank. Someone wants a change but kind of wants him around as long as he doesn’t interfere. Think “The Apprentice.” Or Steve Jobs.

Sometimes this works. Kind of. Some founders just aren’t leaders. Some have no idea how to manage relationships with the financial community, employees, customers, or with the broader market. Some can’t sell their concepts, as valid as those may be. Perhaps new leadership is warranted.

Often though, it’s just the allure of “professional management” and the perception of a different ability or skillset needed to get the organization to the next level. And this often does not work. It’s almost funny when the same decision makers have to go back to the founder and convince him to come back. Think Steve Jobs. Or Cindy Carrillo, a Boulder success story who returned to build her company to the point that she sold it for $30 million. To see other impacts of Cindy’s leadership, check out Doesn’t sound like someone who can’t lead. But then, neither does the life of Steve Jobs. Or numerous others like them.

When founders clearly can’t lead and instill confidence, additional leadership of some sort is needed for the long-term viability of the organization. Perhaps that does need to be in the form of new leadership at the top; perhaps it needs to be in the form of a team that supplements the founder’s leadership in some kind of synergistic way. And sometimes the founder really does need to exit.

Regardless of the transition, most organizations blow this in ways that don’t have to happen. When this occurs, PR suffers, employee morale suffers, or the founder can get distant, controlling, or annoying. Sometimes the organization suffers in a way that can only be fixed by bringing the founder back. Think Steve Jobs. As frustrating as this can be, it’s totally explainable. Here’s why:

  • It’s His Baby. No one else put the personal blood, sweat, and tears, sleepless nights, energy, and frustration into the organization as the person who founded it.
  • It Was Her Vision. No one else shares everything that happened before the founding of the organization, when it was just a dream or a vision. No one else knows what it took to make that become reality.
  • He’s the Soul of the Organization. He cares about the organization, the product, the idea, the reputation, in a way no one else can or ever will. His emotions are all tied up in it, and should be.
  • She wants To Be Proud. No matter how much the organization grows or what it becomes, it will always be the founder’s baby. It’s really no different from when a kid who grows up. The parent wants to be proud and can’t really or shouldn’t ever let go of that desire.

So what should we do differently in recognition of this? One word – honor. The founder who keeps trying to control things is probably reacting to his perception that no one is getting the four points above. The founder who just wants to give up and walk away is probably facing the same thing. Often both are feeling marginalized.

We can do better than this. No matter what the structure, we can create roles for founders that honor their ingenuity, their creativity, their effort, their vision, their passion. If we do the opposite and marginalize the founder, we not only are making the wrong move, we’re missing out on a resource that the organization shouldn’t try to live without. To fix this:

  1. Do the Opposite. Wishing he will go away gets the opposite result. It doesn’t work. Instead of marginalizing or sidelining the founder, honor him. Draw attention to him. Recognize him. Focus on him. Thank him. And keep doing that forever.
  2. Look to the Past. The two best ways to build any team – be it a Board, employees, a supportive community, or customers, are to look ahead and look back. It’s tempting with new leadership to only focus on the future, and that works to a point. You want to have a shared vision. But you also want to have a shared history, a shared story. People will know that history if you talk about it, write about it, memorialize it, and honor it. And when you do, you honor the one who made it happen.
  3. Keep Emphasizing Culture, Values and Mission. Talk about the things that drive and have driven how the organization does what it does. And why. These shouldn’t change with a change in leadership. When they do, the transition becomes more like an acquisition or a hostile takeover. Keep those consistent and the founder stays proud of what she started.
  4. Be Picky. Select new leadership that is aligned with the mission, the vision, and the values of the organization. The next leadership should be humble enough to have zero problem with honoring the founder, and taking the organization further down the same path rather – or at least making it look that way. Methods may need to change. Team members may need to change. But not every professional leader is right for every organization. Great skill leading one organization could be almost useless in a different culture. Find that someone who really “gets” the organization, buys into the history, culture, and values. Let the founder help in the selection process.
  5. Listen. Most cultures at some point in history - and many other cultures today - do a much better job of honoring elders. Their experience is listened to, respected, and honored. We could learn from that. You don’t have to implement all his ideas. You don’t even have to like them. But listen. You may get some sage advice that could save you a lot of headaches. You may also get terrible advice. So what? Don’t implement that. Just listen. Actively listen.
  6. Reenlist Her. Give her something that she is passionate about – inventing, being the face of the organization in the community, being the mentor. It’s almost like recycling – there’s another use, another life. Don’t dispose of that. Find something that she can help with. There’s a reason founders call it being put out to pasture when replaced by professional leaders. Save that for horses and reenlist the founder as a crucial part of a compelling picture of the future.
  7. Don’t Burn Bridges. There could be a time you want him back. Think Steve Jobs. If your founder has a chip stuck on his shoulder it will cost you more. It’s hard to see what the founder could do for client relationships, for employee relations, or for community leadership. Burn the bridge and you risk losing all that to the founder when his non-compete is up and he starts new competition for you. Keep him engaged, and he might just save the day in the future as the only one able to get the organization to grow.

Honoring is a choice. That’s what makes this such an easy thing for organizations to do better. Start with the founder, and it’s just possible that you could build an organizational culture of honor that all benefit from.


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