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As startups work to find their footing, entrepreneurs need to have firm hands on the reins. They guide every aspect of the business, from sales to operations to paying the bills. As momentum builds, those same hands may start to strangle progress and success. A diagnosis of founder's syndrome can be a death knell for businesses - so what's the cure?

What is Founder's Syndrome?

Founders begin with an idea and work, often tirelessly and relentlessly, to translate it into a viable business. Here's where the stereotypical image of an entrepreneur comes into play: tenacious, passionate, decisive, independent, do-everything-be-everything.

And this is exactly what the business needs - in its startup days. The danger is that founders fall into the trap of believing they are indispensable in every single business function and that they are the only ones who can do it.

Those suffering from founder's syndrome are unable to delegate and have a tremendous fear of "losing control" of the business they've worked so hard to build.

As John Greathouse writes in Forbes, these owners "say things like, 'I am open to giving up control to the right person at the right time.' However, the reality is that the 'right person' does not exist and the 'right time' never arrives."

By extension, sustainable growth never arrives either.

The Power of Letting Go

In a letter to Jack Clayden, Virgin CEO Richard Branson writes:

[W]e would never have got off the ground without you. Your understanding since then very much kept us going, and I'll always be enormously grateful to you.

Branson says Jack, and people like him, are the key to his success. So who was he? Mentor? Coach? Jack Clayden was Virgin's first accountant. Branson, who is admittedly not a numbers guy, recognized he needed help. He hired people who "had skills that I did not. In some areas they knew better than I did how to make my vision a reality."

Branson had to trust his people - and it is a leap worth making. According to Gallup, leaders with "high Delegator talent":

  • Had an average three-year growth rate 112% higher than those with "limited or low Delegator talent."
  • Generated 33% more revenue.
  • Created an average of 21 jobs in three years, compared with 17 for those with low Delegator talent.

Thoughtful delegation has a clear impact on the bottom-line; without this critical skill, founders limit their business's odds of survival; forget success. The question is: if an entrepreneur has a bad case of "founderitis", how does he or she start treatment?

  1. Develop trust. In The Third Opinion, Saj-nicole Joni describes three fundamental distinctions of trust, one of which is "expertise trust." This is when people - whether founders or team members - believe their colleagues are competent and capable in their areas. Founders need to build this level of trust and demonstrate it by giving their people responsibility. Then they have to get out of the way and let them do their jobs. Easier said than done! But when founders select the "right" people (yes, they exist when founders are willing to see them), they fill the inevitable gaps in skills, knowledge, and experience.
  2. Give up areas that they don't enjoy - or which they are not competent. No head for numbers? Hire an accountant, like Richard Branson. Don't like maintaining your own computers or technology? Hire an IT manager. This puts these critical functions into more capable hands - and frees founders to do what they do best.
  3. Focus on what they should be doing. And what do founders do best? They focus on vision, accountability, talent development, and the creation of key relationships. If they're mired in daily minutia, they are not going to give high-level tasks the consideration and attention they needed.
  4. Change their mindset. Entrepreneurs have to shift their mindset from "what benefits me," to "what benefits the organization." To maintain growth, an organization has to exist as its own entity. It has to break out of the founder's grasp - out of his or her ego - and stand on its own.

The same hands that build a company can just as easily tear it down by failing to adapt to and evolve with growth demands. The only one who can cure founder's syndrome is the one causing it. By learning to let go of the right tasks to the right people at the right time, the prognosis is promising.


Larry Hart

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