I recently wrote about founder’s syndrome from the perspective of those of us who work with founders in one capacity or another and there was so much interest in the topic that I wanted to address it from the perspective of founders themselves. I myself am a founder and have worked with founders, and as such have experienced the downsides of this syndrome from both angles. The first thing to understand here is that as founders we also suffer from founder’s syndrome. The fact that we might have more power doesn’t equate necessarily to more well-being.
We, too, may be trapped in our roles, feel a great deal of responsibility to the whole organization, and not know what to do differently.
Here are some of the symptoms that founder’s caught in founder’s syndrome may be experiencing:
- Being overworked with a sense that everyone is relying on you; everyone comes to you with their questions, even if you don’t have the answers for them.
- Feeling isolated, alone, or/and afraid that you will let everyone down and your business.
- Spending too much time in the weeds of the organization and not enough on the big picture.
- Decision fatigue, i.e. being the one to make all or many of the decisions in the organization can lead to exhaustion and reduce one’s ability to make good decisions
- A sense of being on a pedestal and any attempt you make to come down off it can be met with hostility or suspicion.
- A feeling of being trapped, underappreciated, and criticized behind your back, while at the same time being adulated.
Founder’s syndrome is not just caused by power hungry narcissists that seek to dominate an organization. This can sometimes be the case, but more often than not, founder’s syndrome is the byproduct of both the leaders and the followers. Many people just want a strong leader to rely on and shy away from responsibility and pressure. They want to be able to leave their job at the office and go home carefree. Being a leader holding a lot of responsibility can be challenging and painful, and if you are a leader that also cares, then it definitely goes home with you to wake you up in the middle of the night with cold sweats. The pleasant side of being a founder can be hard to find, and it can seem nigh impossible to get out of the dilemma of your position short of walking away from the whole thing.
“Founder’s syndrome” refers to the challenges associated with organizations that have one or a few strong personalities in power, usually those of us who started the organization, but sometimes also applies to charismatic leaders who have assumed power after an organization was formed.
Symptoms of founder’s syndrome include, but are not limited to the following:
- Decisions are made by the founder often without input from others.
- The founder is deferred to in all matters regardless of their actual expertise.
- Snap decisions and decision reversals are common without any explanation, warning, or consideration of the impact to others.
- Information flow throughout the organization is stilted or actively stifled, with the founder at the center of all information flows.
- Planning courses of action and setting priorities are the purview of the founder.
- Employees can often feel like they are not paid to think but simply to deliver on orders, which themselves can change at the drop of a hat, undoing weeks of effort.
- If the organization has a board, that board can be filled by people who are loyal to the founder and not likely to countermand anything the founder has said or done.
- Proposals for change coming from any direction other than the founder are expertly resisted and even actively discouraged.
- Founder’s usually have an ‘inner circle’ of people they ‘trust’ to whom implicit power is conferred through their proximity to the founder.
So what actually can be done about this? The good news is that there are some remarkably effective tactics that you as the founder can implement to get yourself and your organization out of founder’s syndrome.
Use the power you have to implement a collaborative operating system throughout your organization for leader-full benefits for everyone
The first, most effective, and most far reaching action you can take is to use the power you have to implement a collaborative operating system throughout your organization.
An operating system for an organization has to do with the ways that people communicate around their work. Every organization already has one but often it’s implicit and not consciously constructed to deliver the desired outcomes. Implementing a collaborative operating system will enable you to distribute the power you currently hold to others in your organization and have them hold each other accountable, thus taking you out of the bottleneck you are in. Distributing power to others doesn’t mean that you lose control over everything that’s happening, which would be scary indeed and inadvisable. Any transition like this must be given the time it needs to happen incrementally, with checks and balances. If you are curious about organizational operating systems, please check out Collab, a researched, synthesized and tested collaborative communication operating system.
One of the benefits of a collaborative operating system is that it will enable you and the organization to collectively revisit and clarify (as needed) the crucial conversations on Purpose, Business Model, Strategy and Governance of the organization. For example, Purpose (vision, mission, and values) as the north star that guides the organization at all times, defined collaboratively, the power you hold as a founder will begin to safely and incrementally transfer to the whole organization, without your losing control of what the purpose is because your voice is included in that process. In addition, a comprehensive operating system will also include professional personal development for everyone on staff, which will give you as the founder support for your own growing edges, and also give you an explicit mechanism for ensuring your staff is developing in line with the organizational leadership needs that you see are needed.
Clarify your decision making process including who has the authority to make what decisions without you.
Creating an organization wide standard for decision making can be liberating for both founder and employees. However, it’s critical to choose one that can reliably work. There are a lot of decision making models out there, and you may choose to use more than one as we recommend in Collab, but it’s important that the entire organization understand when which type of decision making should be employed. We also highly recommend a collaborative decision making process like Integrative Consent for the benefits that come from rapidly including the perspectives of the people who are impacted by a decision.
*Learn more about decision making and get the tools on integrative consent in Collab 101!
Make your power and the power of others explicit by clarifying the roles that you are holding and determine which one’s you would like to pass on.
And then make that official, explicitly passing off the authority to make decisions regarding those roles. This part can get a little tricky if you as the founder are unwilling or unable to confer that authority and relinquish your right to manage their work. It doesn’t mean that you must give up control of quality or priorities. In fact, you can gain more control by using a team based priority setting process and inviting all team members to contribute to the creation of policies that cross check work in line with explicit standards.
If you find you are in a position to have to also train the individuals whom are filling new roles, create a trainer position for yourself that is temporary but with the authority to pass on how things have worked in the past, with the understanding that this new individual may choose to do things differently and as long as that isn’t causing harm to the organization, you agree to step back and let them have the autonomy to deliver on that role as they best see fit.
Clarifying all roles in an organization will also set you up to onboard new people more easily and transition yourself out of the organization when you are ready to do so. This step also sets you up to do succession planning, which is essential if you want to consider the long term health of your organization.
Set up a collaborative accountability system and reduce the number of hours you spend in one on one meetings with your direct reports.
One of the most effective ways of getting yourself more time and increase the capacity of your team to lead is to reduce the number of one on one meetings you hold. Instead, institute a team based, rapid-fire collaborative accountability system including a transparent and accessible location for project and task tracking. This tracking system can be virtual or physical depending on the needs of your team. The key here is to make reporting back on target projects part of a regular meeting process followed by an opportunity for questions, comments and appreciations on those projects. Any detailed discussion of an item should be saved for the main agenda segment of the meeting. This process will enable the whole team to be much more in sync and informed, reducing the amount of information that has to flow through you in order for the organization to function well.
Explicitly encourage others to build the agenda during your meetings.
In addition to explicitly asking others to raise their tensions as agenda items during meetings, make sure you have a facilitator that’s not you, and an effective process for ensuring that the outcome of the agenda item moves forward the issue raised by that person. Over time this practice will build the shared leadership capacity of your team. This will also institute a mechanism for continuous improvement in the organization that’s independent of your perceptions but without diverging from what you know as a founder would cause harm to the organization.
So these are the top level suggestions I’ve seen work for preventing and transitioning out of founder’s syndrome. I encourage you to give them a try, though I would offer a caveat that having expert facilitation through a transition out of founder’s syndrome can be extremely helpful for navigating the details of your situation. Set up a call with us HERE to discuss how we can support you through this transition and meeting your goals.
Come get your questions answered at our next FREE webinar on Smooth Collaboration between Founders and their Teams on August 23rd, 2017. We would love to have you join us to represent your experience and engage in the conversation. Register directly here and learn more through our summer Collaborative Leadership Webinar Series here, including getting access to the recordings from our past webinars.