As a company founder, you spend hours working on what you love. When your company grows, will you give all this up to keep running the company?
Business coach and host of the From Founder to CEO podcast,Todd Uterstaedt has interviewed more than 300 founding CEOs. These guests include Seth Godin, founder of altMBA; Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and Tope Awotona, founder of Calendly.
Uterstaedt believes the roles of founder and CEO often diverge as a new company grows. Approximately 50% of company founders don’t remain as CEOs for more than three years. Often, they’d rather continue working on what they love, or they care more about vision than execution.
“When someone starts a company, those roles are intermixed … the founder is the emotional source of energy behind the creative idea. The CEO is the part that says, ‘We have to be able to create systems and processes and really focus on building a team that helps bring that vision alive,'” he says.
Many founders struggle to let go of activities they are great at but which they probably should no longer spend time on. For example, Uterstaedt recently interviewed Jenna Tanenbaum, founding CEO of GreenBlender, who explained her biggest struggle.
“I continue to take pictures of all the fruits and vegetables for our website … because the center force of what we do is green smoothies, and the imagery is really important.” Tanenbaum told Uterstaedt.
“It’s a continuous cycle of slowly peeling off a lot of the things that you’ve loved as a founder … at some point in time, you will have to give it up.”
Mark Zuckerburg is one high-profile exception to this problem. On the other hand, some founders have built a career out of selling their companies, such as Michael Birch, founder of Bebo.
According to Uterstaedt, founding CEOs, including Zuckerberg, encounter a common set of problems that evolve as their companies grow. For example, a CEO of three- or four-person companies might complain about conflict with team members, whereas a founder of a larger company might worry about paying employees on time or covering expenses like company health insurance.
“When you get around 10 people, the founder deals with issues of having people on their team who have the direct reports,”says Uterstaedt. “That’s when things get real.”
A founder of a company employing between 20 and 30 employees might realize they’ve some friends in the wrong roles and have to make tough decisions about hiring and firing.
Finally, a founder of a company employing more than 50 people might struggle ensuring teams align on a common set of business goals. “Navigating how they’re able to gain alignment and focusing on everyone’s issues becomes super difficult,” says Uterstaedt.
How to Navigate The Challenges Founder CEOs Face
Founding CEOs at every stage must gain clarity about their role in the company and what they want the company to achieve. Uterstaedt coaches his CEO clients to regularly ask themselves five questions in a journal.
“I typically recommend people to do it in a journal exercise every two weeks or so, because the connection between the hand and the brain creates deeper introspection,” he says. These questions include:
- What am I feeling grateful for?
- What am I feeling optimistic about?
- What am I still wondering about?
- What am I feeling discouraged about?
- What am I feeling worried about?”
“When you get it out of your head and on paper and answer those key questions, you’re able to overcome the issues,” says Uterstaedt.
Self-knowledge should help a struggling CEO gain more clarity about what they’re trying to achieve. It takes guts, creativity and determination to start a business, and it takes discipline and self-knowledge to lead one. The question is: Do you want to succeed as a visionary founder, a respected leader or both?