Consider the old adage that “founders can’t scale”. Why is it that as a company grows the founder often finds him or herself replaced by someone from a traditional management background? More often than not, the reason for the replacement has less to do with the founder’s technical ability and more to do with their overall leadership style. The problem is that as the company grows the founder-centric (and often ego-driven) approach that helped get the company off the ground becomes something that can hold the company back.
Successful long-term leaders exhibit a markedly different skill set than founders, one that plays down their ego and puts the needs of their company and team before their own wants.
It’s a deceptively simple concept, but one that is incredibly difficult to put into practice with any consistency, especially when you’re dealing with the business you founded. The truth, however, is that if you are going to have even a remote chance of creating a successful, long-lasting company you will need trust, loyalty and support. The only way to gain those things is to give them away. That’s the very core of being a servant leader, and it’s the secret to beating the “founders can’t scale” curse.
Transitioning into this mature management style can be an incredibly difficult task for founders who risked everything to build their company, but it is by no means impossible.
As the co-founder of BodeTree, a financial-management platform, I have had to set my own ego aside as our company has continued to grow. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but here are three steps that helped me transition into servant leadership.
1. Stop worrying about yourself. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the petty details of running a company. Worries about compensation, titles and who gets credit can (and often does) eat up the bulk of your day. These worries are not only pointless but harmful and counterproductive.
When we made our first key hires, I felt excited and threatened at the same time. What if the person we hired knew more than me? Would my opinion still carry weight? It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that these concerns were ridiculous and wildly immature. Instead of worrying, I should have been doing everything in my power to help make everyone on my team as successful as possible. It was only after I stopped fretting about myself and started worrying about my team did I begin to earn their trust and respect. The change in attitude filled me with a newfound confidence, and the team had a renewed sense of energy and excitement.
2. Take a back seat. It’s really difficult to “sit low” and take a back seat, especially for young founders. I’ve always had an underlying fear that my position and authority was tenuous because of my age and relative lack of experience. This previously caused me to jockey for attention and praise in an attempt to find validation. However the more I did this, the less confident I felt. I’ve since realized two things are necessary in order to have the confidence to always put others before yourself: trust and humility. The inescapable fact is that you are never as smart, talented or lucky as you think you are. Trying to prove otherwise is a recipe for disaster. Having the humility to recognize your own shortcomings is the path to success. This sense of humility, coupled with a team that you trust, respect and admire can make it possible to easily put others before yourself.
3. Keep trying. Even the most dedicated servant leader will stray from the path at times. What’s important is that you keep trying to get back on the right track.
One thing I’ve found helps is to be totally transparent with your team in regards to your shortcomings. People are far more patient and forgiving when they know what you’re striving for and quickly admit when you’re in the wrong. Even more importantly, you need to be patient with yourself.
A healthy ego can help a founder get started but unless they learn to grow alongside their company and serve others first, it will become a major stumbling block.
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