Three Tips for Working for a Founder CEO of Scaling Company

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If you do a simple internet search on founder CEOs, you will find a multitude of articles and advice directed to those in the position of a Founder CEO. In fact, we at Summit Leadership Partners have added to that list with our own research and insights about founders (check it out here)1. What I find interesting is there are far less articles available about how to successfully work FOR a founder CEO.

Those who have made the jump from a corporate atmosphere to working for a founder CEO of a scaling company know it is a completely different ball game. Experts will tell you it takes some learning and a different skillset to effectively navigate and influence within the founder CEO environment. At Summit, we work with numerous founders, but we also work with their executive management teams and the leaders who report directly to them. In this blog, I share advice on how to effectively work for a founder CEO of a scaling company.

  1. It is their baby, do not call it ugly! A founder has created the company from nothing, so it should not be surprising that there is a great deal of earned pride and satisfaction in the company. They have tended to its growth and spent crazy hours to do so. In fact, a survey from HBR2 shows that founder CEOs have more trouble disengaging from work than subsequent CEOs. When coming into a founder led company it’s important to first understand what made it great before criticizing and trying to immediately make changes. One of my clients recently shared how he came into a new company and immediately created a list of everything that did not currently work to share with the CEO, trying to show his value. Not surprising, it did not resonate with the CEO and his trust was quickly diminished. To build trust and create value you must first make sure you understand the full story and what has worked/not worked in the past and why. Make sure you fully grasp these pieces so that you can be “on their team” and better able to speak in their language.
  2. Speak in their language. A client recently shared her comparison of trying to talk to her founder CEO in a similar vein as the Far Side cartoon talking to a dog (shown below), which compares what you actually say to what is heard. Bottom line, founders are busy and they have multiple things going on at any given time. That distraction combined with the fact that founder CEO’s tend to be less sensitive and empathetic, results in less listening to what you say unless it resonates on their level. Therefore, if you really want to talk to a founder CEO and have them listen, be purposeful about finding their frequency. To accomplish this you can ask questions such as the following:
    • What metrics are most keeping you up at night?
    • If you sold your company today, what would you want to gain? What would you want to avoid losing?
    • What does success look like for the company?
    • What do you need from me to get you to that success?
  1. Influence on steroids. So, if you have their trust and you have them listening, now comes the real challenge of influencing them. As a company scales, the CEO can turn from being the visionary who created inspiration and cohesion to quickly becoming the bottleneck for all decisions. Some founder CEOs don’t even want to be the operating CEO but they don’t trust others to execute on their vision. To help them scale, you will need to help them prioritize and let go. By building the trust and understanding what is important to them on the prior steps, you can help them focus and offer advice on how decisions can be delegated to others on the team. Remember, they are likely caught up in the notion that they can do it all themselves, and so should you. Therefore, you must help them understand the importance of role clarity and how having roles with clear accountabilities and decision rights will ultimately help their baby, err… I mean company, to grow.

Coming from someone with experience working for a founder CEO in a scaling company, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that while these lessons are things I have also experienced personally.  Successful founders can be brilliant, inspiring, a bit impulsive, and at times frustrating! As the “parent” of the company, they are constantly weighing the long-term effects of each decision and are willing to be the bad guy if it means success for their baby. As a well-known founder CEO once said, “Patience is a virtue, and I’m learning patience. It’s a tough lesson.”—Elon Musk


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1 Hawkins, D. 2020, August 4. The most genius founders can also be erratic CEOs. Here’s how to fix that.

2 Firestone, K. 2014, December 17. How Hard Do Company Founders Really Work?