The Cure for Founder-itis
Founder-itis is a serious condition that occurs when one or more of the founders have remained in their position in an organization for far too long. They have remained physically, mentally and emotionally in a position that is preventing the organization from healthy growth. This condition can occur in small to very large organizations. I have witnessed very strong impacts of Founder-itis at large companies.
The cure for this condition is an emotionally evolved founder-turned-leader to fight against their natural tendency to hang on to what is comfortable, what worked in the early stages of the company to catapult its growth.
Long-term CEOs of successful companies such as Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Howard Schultz at Starbucks have broadened their horizons as the company has grown.
Successful founders who transition to long-term leaders by avoiding Founder-itis have learned these four key qualities.
- Deals with ambiguity – When an organization starts out the management team may find themselves working around someone’s dining room table, in a basement or their garage. All the stakeholders communicate and keep each other up to date in real time because they can, literally, reach out and touch. Modern-day conference software works for small teams as they start a business. During this stage, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is engaged in very detailed decisions and aware of every move that is made. When it’s time to move effectively upward with a growing organization at some point, the CEO must effectively delegate those detailed tasks to move up to a more strategic role with the organization. Details they knew off the top of their head intuitively will have to be delivered to them in a report that is generated as a result of a quality process. The CEO must learn to deal with some ambiguity and trust the management team is effectively executing their responsibilities. Founder-itis comes in when the CEO will not let go of knowing small details and continues to micromanage staff. This is not an effective use of CEO or staff time.
- Hires well and timely – CEOs of high growth companies hire professionals for positions that will challenge them and help develop the strategy as well as successfully execute it. If the CEO lets Founder-itis slip in and only hires puppets who will execute only on what they are told without challenging the status quo, they are holding the organization back from the ability to grow effectively. I recently heard a private equity partner state that is one of the things that holds back the execution of the strategy that fuels growth.
- Leads and supports rather than controls and micromanages – If a CEO constantly talks about how easy a certain task is and should be with 1980s style processing; is not open to a suggested change in process, upgrade to a new system or hiring enough staff to complete tasks, they are choking the organization. Two examples I often see of this are processing payroll internally instead of outsourcing and gathering paper receipts and matching against a paper credit card statement. You may think that only happens in smaller companies; however, it has happened in companies that have over $50 million in revenue and operate in most of the fifty states. Such situations persist because one of the Founders thinks that since they had always processed payroll manually when it was their responsibility, it’s just not a big deal.
I also have seen recently where a very young company got hit with an $8,000 fine from the state department of revenue related to incorrectly processing unemployment. This happened as the founder wanted to save money and not incur the payroll processing fee. The fee was taken from their bank account before the receipt of the letter that explained the error and related fee.
- Embraces pivots – Founders who believe they can keep doing what got them to their first $1 million in revenue are not pivoting. Founders need to realize their role has changed and it is essential for the strategy of the organization to change. The world is changing so fast – just when an organization is up to date with technology, it is time to change again. Embracing that change and the short term disruption it causes is not easy, but it is essential if the organization is to remain relevant, keep talented and engaged employees and execute sustainable strategy.
Leadership and sustainability go hand-in-hand and truly make a difference in a growing organization. Especially with today’s low unemployment, leaders must recognize part of their strategy is to provide a working environment that will keep top talent engaged. Expecting employees to be happy that they receive a paycheck while you expect them to deal with 1980s technology and stone age processes will lead to high turnover and unnecessary chaos and is a sure symptom of Founder-itis.