Typically in the tech world, most of the examples of superlative leadership we cite are in the visionary Founder-turned-CEO mould, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But how does this transition from building a startup to running a company take place?
Rather than see Founder and CEO as two distinct roles, it can be helpful to consider them as different stages in the overall leadership journey. There is no singular moment when a Founder becomes a CEO: healthy, successful businesses must evolve continuously. It follows that their leadership should do the same.
The foremost challenge for Founders in the transition scenario typically revolves around where and how to direct their focus as the company scales. In addition, on the simplest level, it involves shifting perspective and moving from being deeply embedded within the business to working on it almost as though it were a product in and of itself.
Whilst most good Founders recognise this progression as essential to scaling their company, many struggle to make the step change. The outcomes are all-too familiar: bottlenecking, reluctance to delegate, high staff turnover, low morale, a lack of focus, to name but a few. Some of these problems can be seen as the consequence of a values-action gap within the Founder: for example, they value autonomy yet micromanage their team.
Founders can overcome self-defeating behaviours like these by making mistakes, learning from them and thus experimenting their way to an optimal solution. However, this is costly, both in terms of time, resources and opportunities lost. A far more efficient way to preclude these common transition challenges is to consider the reasons that lie behind the behaviour. In other words, to cultivate greater self-awareness.
Self-examination is particularly difficult given the prevailing “cult of the entrepreneur” narrative that extols the virtues of being always-on, resilient, never wavering, all-knowing. Such an environment leaves little room for vulnerability.
The avoidance of self-examination also sometimes stems (often subconsciously) from fear of what we might discover about ourselves. It’s important not to underestimate the way that fear tacitly impacts our behaviour. It’s a particularly powerful factor behind our resistance to change, whether it’s our fear of losing control; losing face; finding ourselves redundant; or that we lack the competence to adapt to a new challenge.
Identifying and overcoming these fears on one’s own is not impossible but extremely difficult. Bringing in the right advisors make it significantly easier. ‘Right’ advisors include not only people with great networks or strong expertise but those who have the courage to be direct and honest.
In addition, the Founder may be operating within a company culture that does not foster open dialogue, and thereby could be missing out on valuable feedback from their team. As Pixar’s Ed Catmull noted, “lack of candour leads to dysfunctional environments.” Ultimately, however, both candour and self-awareness are only truly valuable if coupled with openness and a willingness to take action to develop oneself.
The prioritisation of self-development is understandably difficult for Founders, given the myriad competing demands on their time and attention. But in order to evolve oneself (and one’s company) the undertaking is essential. After all, leaders are not born, they are made. And that can take time – as Biz Stone of Twitter said “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”
To take a further example from outside the technology world, Ray Kroc who was responsible for turning McDonald’s into a global business said “The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.” Taking the time for self-reflection is key for self-development, as well as leading by example to set the benchmark for teams to aspire to. Making the transition from founder to CEO is fundamentally about scaling oneself to unlock the scalability of the team and business being built.
Multiple are engineers of scale: we help technology companies nail their purpose, fire up their people and build platforms for growth so they can take out the competition, take a big exit or take over the world.
We’ve been the investor and the founder, the client and the consultant, the tea-boy and the CEO. We’ve backed, built and sold businesses. And we’ve had our share of screw-ups and successes along the way. This means although your business and its challenges are unique to you, we’ll share values, experiences and ambitions – different battles, same scars.
Post produced in partnership with Abbie Pugh, Partner at Multiple.
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