Tips for Dealing with Founder’s Syndrome07 October 2019 / By Misael Lizarraga Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on October 07, 2019
In the last article, we talked about what Startup Founder’s Syndrome is, its symptoms, how it adversely affects a company and which personality types are most at risk of developing it.
Now let’s take a look at the steps that can be taken to deal with a sufferer of startup founder’s syndrome.
Addressing and defining the problem
The first step towards dealing with startup founder’s syndrome is admitting its existence. If the founder is exhibiting several founder’s syndrome symptoms, and his/her leadership style is adversely affecting the company and threatening its future well being, the company’s board members need to come together and have an honest discussion.
These board members need to discuss how the founder’s personality and leadership is creating issues in the company, what efforts have been taken in the past to try to curb these issues, and why it’s absolutely necessary to escalate their efforts to fix them.
While this process will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable one, it’s absolutely necessary if founder’s syndrome is to be addressed. It shouldn’t be procrastinated just to avoid any discomfort.
Focus on solutions, not grievances
Of course, for this conversation to be a productive one, its main goal needs to be fixing a problem, not simply an airing of grievances.
At the same time, the board members need to honestly consider the developmental stage of the organization to determine how much the founder is still needed before deciding how to address the situation.
If the organization is still in its early developing process, it might be better to simply power through. The founder's knowledge, skills, and networks may still be a considerable asset that far outweighs his/her personality issues, and he/she may still be needed to lead at the top of the organization.
However, if the organization is a mature one, it will need to have a strong board and a competent staff capable of managing and pursuing the growth of the organization.
At this stage, stability is a far greater priority, and the funder’s influence in decision making should not be the end-all decision maker.
If the board members agree that the founder’s anarchic leadership style can no longer be tolerated, they need to plan an intervention.
Planning an intervention
Once the board members have determined that something must be done about the founder, they need to determine the end goal of the intervention.
Will the board members allow the founder to retain a leadership role, albeit a reduced one?
Will the founder remain as an active decision maker, or simply retain a leadership title for the sake of public appearances?
Is the founder’s syndrome situation so dire that the founder needs to be voted out for good?
By planning the intervention ahead of time, and not skipping it, the board members will be more likely to find the right position for the founder; one that respects his/her contributions towards founding the company, but also one that looks for the best interests of the company.
If the board members don’t want the intervention to feel like a mutiny, they could potentially bring in a professional and neutral third party into the discussion. This professional could be invited to the intervention to act as a mediator.
By doing so, the board members can facilitate the intervention process and will be able to find a more objective and fair solution that primarily focuses on the success of the organization.
This third party professional will help to design the best agreement and ensure that it is properly executed. With its expertise and a fresh perspective, no stone will be left unturned, and will relieve significant pressure off the board.
Confronting the founder
The conversation the board needs to have with the founder will be crucial, and should not be taken lightly. It needs to be an honest conversation that clearly and decisively addresses the issues caused by the founder’s syndrome, and how it has negatively affected the company. However, this conversation should not turn into a witch trial. There’s no need to come in with a belligerent and confrontational attitude.
Don’t forget that the main goal of this intervention is addressing and fixing a problem, not simply attacking a person. Of course, that’s easier said than done. It takes a great amount of skill and self control to be able to clarify the board’s motives and intentions, while reducing defensiveness in the founder.
Remember, the company is very personal to the founder, and it’s very likely directly tied to his/her personal identity. You can expect him/her to react in an exculpatory or even aggressive way to the intervention.
Don’t let that stop you or intimidate you. Remember, the board has the ability and power to make decisions.
Sufferers of founder’s syndrome typically feel very uncomfortable about the idea of being wrong or feeling inadequate. When addressing the founder, be clear and very specific about the reasons behind the intervention. But don’t make the founder feel like a failure. The founder is, after all, the founder. If it wasn’t for his/her vision and drive, the company would not exist.
However, the board should make it clear that it has been decided that the founder will not continue in the same leadership position in the organization, and his/her responsibilities and influence in making decisions will decrease.
Since the board has lost faith in the founder’s ability to drive the organization toward its strategic objectives, they need to step in and take the organization in a different direction. It’s time for a change and the founder needs to accept the board’s decision.
That doesn’t mean that the founder is completely expelled from the company. If the founder remains committed to the success of the organization, he/she can still be part of the team. The founder’s experience and knowledge are still a valuable asset for the organization, albeit in a different role.
The chances that the founder will listen and accept the intervention are higher if the conversation takes the focus away from the founder as an individual and keep it where it really matters, his/her past actions, as well as the future and success of the organization.
If you present facts and documentation that shows how the founder’s actions and decisions have harmed the organization, be it a consistent pattern of failing to meet expectations, or to perform according to the demands of the organization, it will help the founder to realize and accept that he/she has developed founder’s syndrome. It may even help the founder take steps to take a self-examination and address those traits.
Confronting a founder with founder's syndrome is never easy nor comfortable. But unfortunately, in many cases, it’s necessary. If it’s done properly, the founder will understand why the board has decided to step in, and reduce the founder’s influence and power.
Company discipline, probation, and performance reviews and documentation will give the founder ample opportunity to correct any personal issues he/she needs to work on.
When it comes to the intervention, don’t negotiate or argue the reasoning. The board needs to stand firm with its decision.
Be clear and direct but professional and cordial with the founder. Create a Succession Plan and build a coalition, coming together is the best formula to achieve success.