Once you’ve committed to growing a business, one of the biggest challenges is the necessary transition from being the driving force of the company, to knowing how to take more of a back seat. Failure to do so can often scupper any chance the firm has of building on its initial success. That’s because, without infrastructure, shared responsibility and fresh ideas, growth can quickly come to a screeching halt. It’s simply not sustainable.
‘Founder’s Syndrome’, as it’s dubbed, can be incredibly difficult to avoid. Usually the force of personality it takes to both start a business and then push it towards expansion, is one that doesn’t easily relinquish control just when things are starting to look interesting. An article in Forbes magazine sums up this struggle quite neatly: “Founders need to be tough, stubborn, and resourceful,” it explains. “The only way to get anything off of the ground is to have these traits, and to be self-reliant. The tension is that these traits are required in the beginning, and then need to be substantially mitigated at a certain point. While the Startup is about personal vision, what happens when other people’s talents are needed for the next step? What happens when other people are needed, and the founder fails to realise it? This transition from individual to team can be exceedingly difficult to overcome.”
But it must be overcome. A clear example of the dangers of not doing this were highlighted in the Guardian earlier this month, when an anonymous charity professional starkly pointed out the pressures employees felt to conform rather than create, in an organisation where authority simply hasn’t devolved. Some of the examples presented were so ridiculous as to be laughable (being told off for using wrong colour of pen) – but, when scaled up, they clearly show how the ‘personal touch’ can quickly sound the death knell of a young firm. As the Guardian contributor wrote: “When the founder is so inextricably linked with the organisation’s identity, there is no way to change, improve or advance things without fundamentally attacking who they are. The [organisation’s] success is their success. And by extension, room for improvement is a personal failing.”
So how can business owners make sure they don’t fall victim? The first thing is to recognise that the company is now an organisation in its own right. It should be able to stand on its own two feet rather than continue to be cradled by the person who created it. Just as parents are told to raise children not to need them, so a company founder should put measures in place for an organisation’s continued survival if they were suddenly struck from the equation.
Doing this starts at the top. Look around at your senior managers: were they all hand-picked by you? If so, there’s a good chance many are simply ‘yes-men’ to your ideas. Try recruiting fresh faces for impartial advice, or give existing team members extra training to give them the confidence and knowledge to challenge you when necessary.
Secondly, write down your values and visions and share these with the company. This will act as a guide for future development and ensure that, even when you’re not around, the company’s ethos is imprinted on day-to-day activities. It’s a way of moving away from ‘personality’ and towards a shared standard or brand strategy.
Thirdly, evaluate your company’s decision-making. If you’re always at the centre of it, or you make choices quickly and with little input from others, consider changing the format of staff meetings to give more team members a chance to chip in. Shared executive agreement on objectives must become the norm.
Finally, train someone to do your job. This doesn’t have to signal your departure from running the firm, but it does ensure the organisation can continue to operate smoothly when you’re out of the office, if only for a two-week holiday. Who know’s – sharing the responsibility and pressure may even make your professional life a little easier!
Do you have Founder’s Syndrome? Answer the eight questions in this PDF to gauge if your leadership style is steering your organisation into troubled waters.
This article is the third instalment of Merchant Money’s Business Growth blog series.