A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
Founder ≠ King
Everyone around you knows that you have it, but you are in denial. You say things like, “I am open to giving control to the right person at the right time”. However, the reality is that the “right person” does not exist and the “right time” never arrives.
Founderitis, Founder’s Disease, Founder’s Syndrome; by any name, this my way or the highway approach to running a business is the same affliction. When Founderitis strikes, the Founder’s drive, energy and vision(characteristics crucial to the startup’s initial success) become a hindrance to the company’s maturation into a self-sustaining entity.
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All too often, one or more Founders become afflicted with Founderitis, a my way or the highway approach to running a business that can destroy a startup.
A Founder exhibiting one or more of following symptoms likely is a victim of Founderitis:
- Inability to delegate
- Anger when not included in every decision
- Paranoia derived from a sense that the venture is “slipping out of their control”
- Ignoring input from subject-matter experts
- Expressing prescient knowledge, even when lacking subject-matter expertise
- Lack of respect for formalized planning
- Subterfuge of efforts to institute procedures, processes and controls, which would decentralize decision making
Ten Step Program
As with most mental illnesses, there is hope. The following Ten Step program will put even the most resolute cases of Founderitis into remission.
Step One – No surprise, the first step to recovery involves the Founder admitting he has a problem. For most Founders, this is a challenging admission. Their high self-esteem makes it difficult for them acknowledge their deficiencies.
As such, an intervention is often necessary to force a Founder to recognize that they have a problem. The company’s Board should initiate the intervention, supported by the Co-founders and other key employees. It is important that the Founder understand that he is valued, and that the intervention is not a coup. The Board should make it clear to the afflicted Founder that the goal of the intervention is to help him define an appropriate and constructive role in which his skills can be properly channeled and leveraged as the company moves through its maturation stages toward its ultimate exit.
Step Two – Once the Founder acknowledges that he has a problem, he then needs to accept that the issue is bigger than he is, and that he must enlist the power of the Board and his fellow employees to set him on the road to recovery. To facilitate this acceptance, the Board should present a plan to the Founder in which he can continue to play a key role within the company.
This step involves a heavy dose of tough love. If the Founder believes that he can simply apologize for the past err of his ways, without modifying his behavior, the situation may improve for a short period, but he will eventually return to his destructive tendencies if the root of his Founderitis is not resolved. All too often, the key to forcing the Founder to change his ways is the Board’s willingness to force the afflicted Founder out of the organization if he refuses to acknowledge and treat his illness.
Step Three – The next step requires the Founder to accept his new, more conscribed role within the company. He needs to understand that it is inevitable for everyone’s responsibilities to become more focused as the startup matures. Such enhanced focus of key roles should be viewed as a sign of the company’s success, not a cabal designed to reduce the Founder’s autonomy.
Step Four – At this stage, the Founder must demonstrate a deep understanding of his strengths and weaknesses by identifying how those characteristics can be best deployed to further the company’s overall mission.
Step Five – Unfortunately, the road to recovery often becomes more difficult at this stage because victims of Founderitis must identify and analyze their past wrongs. This challenging task requires the afflicted Founder to perform an honest post mortem of his past behavior and acknowledge how his Founderitis has detrimentally impacted his company.
As with each of the ten-steps, the Board and the key employees need to assist the Founder in this process by ensuring that such analysis includes examination of the mistakes made by all parties. In addition, the discussion should be impersonal, and focus on how the organization can avoid such missteps in the future.
Step Six – Once the Founder has confronted his past wrongs, he must accept that the Board can help him address the defects in his personality that have caused him to put his self-interest in front of the company’s interest. As stated previously, the key to the successful completion of these steps is to ensure that the Founder properly and honestly separates his self-interest from the company’s best interest.
Step Seven – Central to the Founder’s recovery is the process of reparations. This requires the Founder to swallow his pride and make a list of the employees, Board members, and other stakeholders whom he has alienated or otherwise negatively impacted. Recovering Founders must repair the damage caused by their past actions, and make appropriate amends to the impacted parties.
This might involve reassuring an executive that his opinions really are valued, and that they will be heard in the future. It might also include a public admission of one or more significant mistakes, and a commitment to change the underlying behavior that led to such mistakes. In whatever form it manifests itself, it is vital that the Founder heal the wounds caused by his destructive Founderitis activities.
Step Eight– Once amends have been made, the Founder must diligently monitor his actions for future signs of Founderitis. Acknowledging the err of his past is only part of the problem. During tranquil times, recovering Founders can often keep their Founderitis in check. However, as soon as the stress level is heightened, they are apt to go into a maniacal crisis style of management. Thus, he must be especially careful to not slip into his old ways during the inevitable fire drills his venture will encounter.
The Board can assist the Founder at this stage by gently reminding him that he is edging toward the Founderitis precipice. After pointing out the slippery slope that he is flirting with, the Board should help him refocus on the aspects of the business in which his skills are best suited – in other words, help him get back into his ‘proper position’ on the volleyball court. If a particular problem is outside the scope of his ‘position’, the Founder should be reminded that the company faces a variety of challenges, and that his time is best spent managing the responsibilities encompassed in his newly defined role.
Step Nine -At this point, the recovering Founder must stay in close communication with the Board. If he has fully accepted that the Board has the company’s best interest in mind, then their guidance will help him stay on the path of recovery, and avoid actions that may lead to a return of full-fledged Founderitis.
Step Ten– It is important that the Recovering Founder never forget that “once a victim of Founderitis, always a victim.” One way to ensure that the evils of Founderitis remain top-of-mind is for the Recovering Founder to counsel other afflicted founders who are either in denial, or at the early stages of recovery.
Founder status should be celebrated throughout a startup’s lifetime. However, Founder status does not equate to veto rights over key decisions. As a startup matures, the Founders must be comfortable proving their abilities, on a daily basis, just like everyone else. They must also understand that the scope of their role will narrow over time, just like everyone else’s.
If a Founder’s performance is not meeting the company’s expectations, they should be treated like everyone else. If their performance remains suboptimal after they have been put on notice and given a chance to meet the challenges laid before them, they should be asked to leave the organization – again, just like anyone else in a similar situation.
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