September 8, 2021

Founders Syndrome

I learned a new concept this morning: ‘Founder’s syndrome’.  Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

  • The organization is strongly identified with the founder;[8] and a result sometimes believed to be related to the founder’s ego.[9][10][11]
  • Obsessive leadership style compared to a more standard behavior.[12][13][14]
  • Autocratic decision-making (autocratic management style): Founders tend to make all decisions in early start-up companies, big and small, without a formal process or feedback from others. Decisions are made in crisis mode, with little forward planning. Staff meetings are held generally to rally the troops, get status reports, and assign tasks. There is little meaningful strategic development, or shared executive agreement on objectives with limited or a complete lack of professional development. Typically, there is little organizational infrastructure in place, and what is there is not used correctly.[11] Furthermore, the founder has difficulty making decisions that benefit the organization because of their affiliation.[10]
  • Higher levels of micromanagement by checking on employees or colleagues subject matter work instead of maintaining and evolving the overall company’s picture.[15]
  • Entrepreneurs show higher levels of bias (e.g. overconfidence) than do managers in established organizations.[16][17]
  • There is no succession plan.[11]
  • A failing so-called leadership transition[18] within first couple of years leading to consequences such as trust, moral, unforeseen future for the business.[19][20]
  • The founder has difficulty with adapting to changes as the organization matures.[10]
  • The culture of the leadership team and company plays an important role for success or failure.[21][22]
  • Often the founder’s idea is central to the initial business and clients of the company, so that if markets change, the need for the initial idea might vanish.[23]
  • Key staff and board members are typically selected by the founder and are often friends and colleagues of the founder. Their role is to support the founder, rather than to lead the mission. Staff may be chosen due to their personal loyalty to the founder rather than skills, organizational fit, or experience. Board members may be under-qualified, under-informed or intimidated and will typically be unable to answer basic questions without checking first.[24]
  • Professionally trained and talented recruits, often recruited to resolve difficulties in the organization, find that they are not able to contribute in an effective and professional way.[24]
  • The founder begins to believe their own press/PR and other marketing related issues.[25]
  • The founder, who is usually the CEO or managing director, suffers HiPPO (Highest-paid-person’s opinion), which means that often their ideas, decisions, etc. keep winning over the actual better ideas, decisions, etc.[26][27]
  • The founder becomes increasingly paranoid as delegation is required, or business management needs are greater than their training or experience.
  • Falling into two traps:[28]
    • Actions without a goal or
    • Wrong actions based on defined goal

The founder responds to increasingly challenging issues by accentuating the above, leading to further difficulties.[29] Anyone who challenges this cycle will be treated as a disruptive influence and will be ignored, ridiculed or removed. The working environment will be increasingly difficult with decreasing trust. The organization becomes increasingly reactive, rather than proactive. Alternatively, the founder or the board may recognize the issue and take effective action.[30]

A lot of this looks to me like the classic painful transition from one-person-band, to few-person-band, to full-blown company.   Which is really the transition from a small, personal, human-scaled business to a large, impersonal capitalist corporation.   The founder wants to keep things personal and true to their original vision.  New owners or new management want to make things efficient, corporate and therefore impersonal.  As far as the founder is concerned, they want to make it ‘someone else’s business‘.  Of course the founder resists.

There is a preventive for ‘Founder’s syndrome’.

Embed the founding vision and personality into the operating processes of your business before you try to scale, with a Customer Experience Score.  You’ll be able to scale without managers, even without investors other than the people you serve.  The best of both worlds: personal, true to the original vision and magnifying your impact.

Even better, once it’s built into the way your business works, your Score takes on a life of it’s own, nurtured and improved by everyone in the business.   It becomes harder for anyone to interfere – even you.