What is Founder’s Syndrome? Many times founders get intoxicated with their own success and stop seeking feedback and outside perspectives about their leadership. When a CEO/Founder stops seeking feedback on her effectiveness and overrates her skills and impact, we refer to this as, “blind spots.” In other words, the leader perceives she is operating at a high level of effectiveness when in fact her stakeholders (investors, direct reports) perceive that she is causing problems within the company. Since the CEO/Founder position has the ultimate status and power within the company, many direct reports will not speak up and provide feedback fearing reprisal by the leader. This is especially true of the leader that operates with a “command and control” leadership style. We have seen many great companies stall and fail based in large part on the leader creating a toxic culture, where ideas don’t bubble up, people are fearful of speaking up and contributing, and innovation stops.
So, as a leader, what can you do to prevent Founder’s Syndrome and ensure that you can grow your company to its market potential? There are several suggestions which will help you succeed:
- Secure Board of Directors or Advisors that are willing to tell you the honest truth and provide direct feedback on your direction and style.
- Recruit a few of your internal people to serve as, “advocates.” These are direct reports that you value their opinion, are willing to give you uncensored feedback on your style, and want you to succeed.
- Every six months, bring your team together for an open dialogue about what is working well and not well in the company. As part of this discussion, ask about your leadership.
- As you get larger, engage an external third party to conduct a culture audit. This ensures you have a neutral third party and will be able to help you identify elements of the culture that are working and not working. Recently, I completed such an audit. The CEO perceived she had created an open-door where employees of all levels felt comfortable coming to her office and speaking their minds. I found after two days of employee interviews that employees feared the new leadership and practiced a, “don’t speak up,” attitude for fear of reprisal.
The toughest decision CEO/Founders face is when to give up control of the employees and bring in a leader that has the skills and abilities to marshal the team toward continued success. Look at the Microsoft and Apple companies as great examples of how founders were able to step back and bring in professional managers to take over and ensure the vision is in fact realized. Bill Gates and Steve Balmer are a great example of this successful tag-team combination that helped propel Microsoft to the global leader of software and services. I have worked directly for founders that tried to bring in the next CEO so they could either retire or do what they do best, product development. Many times the apparent successor was fired before he could actually take the reins of the company. In most cases, the successor tried to do different things and take over decision-making and the founder becomes threatened. The Board of Directors (usually investors) has too much at stake and back the CEO in virtually all cases. What is sad is that the new leader is doing what he was hired to do and gets axed.
In conclusion, reflect on your stage of growth and plan for your eventual shift to the background, at least with the day-to-day leadership of the company. If in fact you have the rare combination of vision and management abilities, then seek feedback on a continual basis to be sure you are creating a positive and productive work environment.