Outlasting the Founder
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
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The fall from grace of WeWork’s Adam Neumann after the company failed to find takers for its public share issue added to the list of founders ousted from their companies, in part due to their inappropriate behaviour. Media reports provided unflattering accounts of Neumann’s brushes with illegality, unethical transactions and messianic delusions. The jury is out on whether WeWork will be able to survive, both on account of its unprofitable business model and as an organisation that has been orphaned from its raison d'être, but few companies have managed to thrive after an unplanned separation from the founder. Here’s how to navigate these periods.
Don’t get fired
This might appear blindingly obvious, but obviously it isn’t. An enterprise has many other stakeholders than its financial owners. The greed for maximising value for shareholders (including oneself) can be in conflict with doing the right thing. Being aggressive and contrarian are desirable features in an entrepreneur but in the long run, investors and history seek conformity with generally accepted ethics and values. Every shortcut that we take today is an exception that has to be justified later.
Hire people you might dislike
A strong feature of early-stage organisation cultures is high levels of solidarity among the founders and everyone else. It feels like a family, with the entrepreneur playing the parent-figure. While this relationship-orientation ensures a great degree of alignment and energy, this clannish culture brooks no dissent. Everyone is in awe of or in love with the founder, they can see no wrong. If you want to break out of the clan trap, you need to bring strong leaders from outside; those with proven track record of building teams, those with the courage to speak their mind. Not only should you hire them but also make them part of the “inner circle”…your role should be like that of a sports captain: clearly the team leader, but not the karta of the family.
Shape your culture voluntarily
Most start-ups operate in extreme fluidity in their early days; organisation culture is a far thought, not on the radar of the founder. However, as business strategy becomes clearer, it is also the time to shape the culture. Mind you, organisation culture will develop, whether you want it or not. Therefore, it is prudent to proactively work on its design. It is an exercise led by leaders but not limited to them. Through a process of discovery and dialogue, you can systematically define the culture that you seek to build, and prepare a roadmap to developing it. Whether it is structure, people policies, rituals or communication, all need to be aligned to strategy and culture. It is not science, but neither is it all mumbo-jumbo.
Hire a personal coach
Every leader, however capable or experienced, needs a coach. More so, first-time entrepreneurs who may or may not have significant organisational experience. Often, we mistake our investors or board members or other business consultants as coaches. They may be well-wishers but cannot play the objective and forceful role that a good coach can. For instance, Neumann’s closest adviser was a board member and an investment banker. Nobody could be more conflicted. A coach (one or more) should be “hired”, that is engaged with clear terms of reference and treated formally, even if no commercials are involved. And a clear inclusion in that mandate should be the idea of creating an organisation that will outlive the founder.
The joy of entrepreneurship is in new product creation, innovation, exceeding customer expectations, energising and motivating colleagues and partners, and of course, in wealth creation. The real satisfaction for entrepreneurs is when they turn institution builders, creating an organisation that can outlast not just them but all their successors. Creating such an organisation requires systematic effort, as much as building products or platforms does. And you can start working on it, now.