Founders are a breed unto themselves. They have to be. After all, it takes a special kind of person to create a business from scratch. Founders not only have vision and passion, they have to be able to inspire others to see their vision and share their passion. In a startup setting, founders are the creative force that drives the organization. In this role – whether they are an actual founder or a founding team member – these unique individuals are involved in everything. They are in every meeting, participate in every decision, and know what’s happening throughout the organization, from the product roadmap to the company gossip. In a way, founding team members are the company.
Ironically, if the founding team does a good job, they put themselves in a challenging situation. Transitioning from startup mode to “scale up” mode requires an entirely different infrastructure, strategy, and leadership team.
all-nighter approach doesn’t work forever. And having one person or a small team of founders managing every aspect of a company just doesn’t scale. More to the point, most founders lack the skill set needed to run a larger operation successfully.
So, what happens when your company starts to outgrow its founding team? How can you keep the talented individuals who started everything engaged and invested in the future of the company? How do you ensure that they remain bought into the organization, even as it morphs into something new and unfamiliar? This is a critical question for expansion stage companies
that are experiencing growing pains, and the best approach will vary slightly from company to company and founder to founder. There are, however, some time-tested strategies that many startups have used to help founding team members transition into new and highly valuable roles.
Set the Stage. Change the Role.
Before we get into my top three tips, it’s important to acknowledge that these tactics will only work if you’re able to get your founding team members to the point where they have accepted the changing scope of their work. As the old saying goes, change is always hard, even when it’s positive. This is why – even though the shift in a founder’s role happens because the company is growing (a good thing) – it’s often hard for people to accept their reduced ability to influence every decision and solely control the direction of “their” company.
The goal of guiding founding members through this transition is to help them evolve from a broad role (in which they are involved with every area of the company) to a narrower, deeper role. This new, more focused role allows them to ultimately have a greater effect on outcomes, but also requires that they let go of some things, delegate more, and collaborate more deeply with new team members. As you can imagine, this isn’t always an easy pill to swallow.
But, once your company reaches a certain size, it’s critical to have this conversation with your founding members. That’s the first step to getting them reoriented in the new company. From there, you can work on finding the right way to give your original team of founding members a special and important role within the new context.
Though it may seem superficial, it’s wise to take care in how you brand or label your earliest employees. You can call them whatever you like – The Founders Group or The Originals – just so long as you are paying them appropriate respect and acknowledging their contributions. As a company grows and new leadership is brought in to navigate the unfamiliar waters of scaling operations, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of what’s coming next and forget about all the work that went into getting you to where you are. It’s this kind of attitude that leaves founding team members not only adrift, but also disgruntled. Being intentional about calling out their work and worth can go a long way toward letting this group know they still matter, even though the company is “growing up” and getting ready to cut the apron strings.
Focus on Company Culture
On a closely related note, one of the most appropriate and valuable roles founders can take on in an evolving company is Keeper of the Culture. The importance of culture, especially in technology companies, has been known to make or break organizations. Companies like Hubspot, Slack, and others have created cult-like followings among both customers and team members simply by cultivating strong values and culture.
It makes a lot of sense for founding team members to take point on preserving and shaping company culture. After all, they have been there since pretty much the beginning. They know the history and the back story. They understand the nuances of why the company exists and why it is the way it is. They understand the company “mythology” and are the people best suited to keep that alive and vibrant. At the same time, if they are able to focus their attention and energy on the culture, they can play a crucial role in determining how it should expand and adapt as the company grows.
There are dozens of ways for founding team members to fulfill this important role. Hiring and onboarding, for instance, are key functions that require alignment with company values and culture. By focusing on company culture, these original team members can help define the interview process and create new-employee sessions on company values and so forth. On a day-to-day basis, they can create programs to highlight cultural successes, proactively identify potential threats to company culture, and make sure the organization is taking advantage of every opportunity to strengthen customer and employee relationships.
Create Mentoring Opportunities
Founding team members can also play a vital role as mentors, both to company leadership and to individuals. A mentor role can be as informal or formal as you like. As mentors, team members have an opportunity to impart some of their hard-earned wisdom and to feel respected and valued as an important member of the growing team. It puts them in a position of leadership and ownership that goes beyond reporting lines and company structure.
The shape this kind of relationship takes depends on each individual and the needs of the organization. A founding team member might be asked to provide input at critical stages to the board or might be prevailed upon to counsel the new CEO. An original team member who managed a specific aspect of the company during the startup phase, marketing for instance, might be asked to take on a mentor role to a new director.
The key is for the company to capitalize on each person’s strengths and, reciprocally, allow each to continue to influence the company in the area he or she is most passionate about. The fact is that founding team members have a unique and valuable perspective that no one else can provide. It’s to everyone’s advantage to tap into that perspective as the company continues to grow.
Find the Happy Ending.
While it doesn’t work out one hundred percent of the time, it’s always worthwhile to have the conversation and see if you can get a founding team member bought into the new paradigm within a growing company. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, certain original team members cannot be happy in any role other than the one they’re used to, and that’s okay. I would estimate that three out of four founding members will remain bought in as long as the company is still aligned with the original culture and values. That fourth team member though is kind of the graduating alumni who is moving on to a new adventure. Your best bet there is just to wish them well and help them be successful in their next endeavor.
For the team members who choose to stay and accept a new role, your job is to provide a fulfilling opportunity to go deeper on what they love most. After you’ve explained that they now own a smaller piece of a larger pie, help them understand that by focusing and going deeper, their level of impact will be exponentially bigger once it’s distributed at the larger scale. They will be contributing to the company’s success in a way that is different from how they contributed in the early days of building the company, but in a way that is still very real and very valuable.
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