We all have a picture in our heads of what the model founder looks like: they have bags of energy, are super-confident and have strong ideas about where they want to take their product and their company. They’re comfortable with high levels of risk and they’ve sacrificed time, money and emotions to get their company to where it is now. They think big and want to scale their company up to that billion-dollar valuation.
And yet… sometimes this super-confidence and clarity of vision takes a turn for the worse – self-confidence mutates into arrogance and strong ideas become rigid and inflexible. Maybe the founder thinks he has all the answers and does not need to heed advice. Maybe the founder overrules decisions that he does not accept.
The ancient Greeks had a term for Founders’ Syndrome – they called it “hubris” – and when a hubristic individual offended the gods, punishment would often follow. In modern times the punishment for a hubristic founder could be that the board runs out of patience and replaces him with a new CEO. Worse, the company could join the 9 in 10 startups that fail (Startup Genome Report).
As a founder you may occasionally catch yourself showing some of these behaviours:
- You try to keep total control of decision making and intellectual property;
- You are reluctant to accept input from others;
- You do not want to share the inner details of your projects;
- You need to be the centre of operations or attention;
- You believe that achieving product/market fit is an inevitability;
- You don’t need partners if it means giving up control.
What we’re not saying is that if you occasionally over-rule someone, or ignore someone’s advice that you are going to fail as a leader and lose your job; however what you need to watch for is if these behaviours start to repeat, become engrained and become your new normal.
Boards can help you avoid going down this track: they are there to provide guidance and advice to founders and the other directors.
There are two important steps that you can take to avoid going down this route:
Develop your own self-awareness
This is quite possibly the single most important thing that a Founder can do – and it’s also the hardest to develop.
Recognising where your own shortcomings lie is a humbling and cathartic process: it sometimes goes against the entrepreneurial grain to accept that we are deficient in certain areas, particularly when those areas in question are so intertwined with that which we hold most dear in our professional lives – the company that you founded. But when you start the process of realising where you do have gaps, the feeling is liberating.
On the one hand, it is relatively straightforward to identify functional areas where we fall short – for example many founders are technically very capable, but lack finance skills. In these cases, it does not take too much to remedy functional gaps with some key hires.
Where it takes more guts is to look at those aspects of our personalities which may hold us and our companies back. For example, it’s all very well in the early days for you to have made all the key decisions, but now that your company is grown up, your confidence in solo decision-making may miss the input of others and consequently some of those decisions might well be wrong.
Work with your Chairman
At the heart of a well-functioning board is the relationship between you and your chairman. Elsewhere in this series I’ve written about the formality of the board and the flow of information between the executive and the board through the board reports, but the informal relationship that you have with your chairman is equally as important.
If your relationship with your chairman is healthy you can sit with him out of the spotlight of the formal board cycle and discuss where your gaps lie and how you can address them together.
There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and a confident, self-aware leader, backed up by his chairman is an incredible asset for your company.
Where you don’t want to end up is being labelled as “uncoachable”: if the board perceives that your unwillingness to change is holding back the progress of the company, they may move to replace you as CEO.
In the end analysis, founders need to evolve their working style over time as their companies grow. What works for a seed company will most likely not work for a C or D round company turning over millions of pounds with operations in more than one country and multiple product sets.
Having the awareness to recognise where your abilities lie as a founder (and just as importantly – where they don’t lie), when to leverage these abilities and when to ask others for help is critical to ensuring that your company goes from seed to unicorn.
Where can I get more information?
Notion’s SaaS Board Workshops are run for Founders to find out more on managing Boards – ask Notion to find out when the next workshop is scheduled.
Mark Ellison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a strategic partner of Notion and provides advice and consulting to Founders on working with Boards. Feel free to reach out to him for more information.
Blog produced in partnership with Mark Ellison at Tall Cedar Consulting.