When To Fire Yourself, or Change Before You Have To
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Successful founders often have a fierce, singular vision, and an unstoppable determination to will that vision into reality. I've coached many leaders who are programmed to be the smartest person in the room — and often they are. But there are downsides to this sort of zealous personal conviction. Founders' single-minded focus may inspire their company while it's getting off the ground, but as the business begins to grow, it may also discourage others from sharing their ideas. Too often, this results in missed opportunities, a diminished sense of agency and motivation among team members, and ultimately suboptimal performance.
Consider these sobering statistics from Noam Wasserman’s research in The Founder’s Dilemmas:
More than 50 percent of founders are replaced by the third round of financing. The traits and skills that get a founder to achieve success in the beginning often inhibit their progress once the company gains financial and market traction.
73 percent of replaced founders are fired by the Board of Directors. Only 27 percent leave voluntarily. The fallout from these types of transitions can wreak havoc on a company.
65 percent of start-up failures are caused by people problems, not business ones. They fall into 3 main categories: relationship issues, role and decision making confusion, and dissatisfaction with rewards (equity splits). While most start-up founders are exceptional technologists or entrepreneurs, they sometimes lack the emotional intelligence required to navigate interpersonal issues.
Surprisingly, a founder's best shot at staying involved with their company is probably to fire themselves. When a founder voluntarily steps down, she stays on the company board 96 percent of the time, or in a different executive role 37 percent of the time. If you want to grow with your company, you've got to know when it's time to step back, and make space for fresh, innovative leadership.
To stay ahead of this curve, the best CEOs can anticipate the following four pitfalls.
Know when your ego gets in the way
I’m not talking about a strong and healthy sense of self here. Your ego is the part of you that doesn’t want to be wrong, or thinks you should be able to handle things yourself, or is unwilling to show any kind of vulnerability. If you find yourself talking (persuading, defending, justifying) more than listening, or canceling one-on-ones to spend time working on your own, or finding it hard to get others to open up, it may be time to look inward.
If you don’t know it’s happening, the problem is probably worse. Having done thousands of 360 reviews in my career, I can guarantee that every leader has blindspots that will derail them if they go unchecked. Leaders tend to either be curious and open to feedback or closed-off and defensive. If you're defensive, it will be very difficult for you to evolve as your company’s needs change. If you are committed to continuous growth, it’s vital that you actively seek honest feedback from all your key stakeholders. To ensure that you're getting the real scoop, doing a 360 review every year is a good practice. If this seems too painful or uninteresting, it may be time to consider moving into a position that doesn’t require as much personal scrutiny, like senior technical or professional individual contributor roles. There's nothing wrong with making this kind of move if it's a better fit for where you are emotionally.
Loyalty can backfire
In the early days, founders tend to hire people who are close to them. But it can be hard to set boundaries— especially with friends, family, and prior co-workers. Everyone is in a flat, inner circle with informal communication and blurred social lines. Loyalty is natural and it can become difficult to make objective decisions or hold people accountable for performance.
I find that the biggest people-challenge that leaders face is confronting issues early and directly. When leaders make excuses for their people, work around problems to avoid difficult conversations, or express frustration to third parties, issues go unresolved and affect others on the team while they fester. If loyalty is holding you back from delivering hard messages and taking swift action, you may need to consider stepping out of your management role.
You’re not the Chief Problem Solver
You are used to being the go-to person. Most likely you are the most knowledgable expert, the final word, and the most available, enthusiastic person on the team. But once your company grows to more than eight people, it becomes imperative that you build a team you can delegate to. The biggest mental hurdle is to switch from being the star player and on-the-ground decision maker, to being a coach with the "30,000 foot view." In this role, your personal success metrics change from having the answer to every question, to bringing out the best in each player and facilitating teamwork.
To move nimbly as a team, prioritize relationships first
There is a clear cut sequence to forming a great team and most leaders miss it. Staying ahead of the competition in an accelerating world creates an urgency to act fast. Interpersonal breakdowns and wasted efforts will significantly hinder your team's ability to move decisively and effectively as a group. To sidestep these obstacles, follow this 3 step dance:
Resist starting with action planning; always build relationships first. Take time to set a baseline of trust so that people are aware of the humans around them and how to best work together.
- Create alignment (deeply felt agreement) around the three to five big outcomes the team needs to achieve in a specific time period. These outcomes always require cross-functional coordination and horse-trading, which is where breakdowns usually happen. Teams need this tangible destination to help them prioritize and sequence the many competing, potential solutions.
- Define tasks and take action. Now you can go fast.
The work involved in doing this can seem like a low priority compared to running the day-to-day plays. A successful founder CEO of a multi-billion dollar company that I coached over a four-year period used to say, “I used to tell people that I was a player-coach until I began to realize that there is no such role in sports. There comes a time when you learn that growing leaders is the most important thing you can do." He became one of the most successful founder-CEOs in the valley, and ultimately fired himself as CEO after many years to become Chairman of the Board.
A final word: The best leaders are trained observers of both their business landscape and the people around them. They value relationships as much as results. They keep tabs on their evolving motivations, strengths and weaknesses. They strike the right balance between conviction and curiosity — so they can change before they have to.