Founder’s Syndrome: Is it Affecting your Organization?

Kristi Birkeland on Jun 23, 2017 3:00:00 AM

Ours is a culture that worships entrepreneurs. We love go-getters, self-starters, and hustlers. Heck, at some point we even decided that being a disruptor is a good thing.

On one hand, it makes sense. 

These are the people who come up with new ideas, new technology, and new businesses. They’re confident and charismatic. Making big decisions doesn’t bother them, and they seem to thrive in chaotic, high pressure environments.

On the other hand, these very same individuals and qualities can pose a risk to the long-term health of your organization. How, you ask? In the form of Founder’s Syndrome.

Wait, what?

Okay. So we just listed off a bunch of characteristics that most people would consider great for business. And they are. Especially in the beginning.

Think about all of the conditions that are present in start-ups: high levels of risk taking, lots of unknowns, big decisions on short timelines, and small teams that have to move lightning fast.

Many times, there is one person in particular who literally IS the brand. Without that individual on the team, there would be no team.

And this is where things can get tricky.

What is Founder’s Syndrome? 

Founder’s Syndrome is a phenomenon that occurs when your awesome, inspired, fearless leader becomes more of a liability then an asset. (For our purposes here, we will refer to this person as the founder or leader, but it could be a President, CEO, Board member or other powerful person within the organization.)

Your founder’s affinity for making solo decisions, operating on the fly, and being inseparable from the core of the company may have been a huge asset at one point, but these traits aren’t necessarily going to be helpful or sustainable as the company grows and changes over time.

Expanding organizations need to evolve in thoughtful ways. Gone are the days of one or two people making lightning-fast decisions over energy drinks in someone’s garage. As organizations grow and develop, things like collaboration, process, planning, and consensus must come into play.

As passionate and motivated as your founder or CEO may be, no one person should be the heart, soul, and supreme leader of an organization. There’s just too much at risk. Think about it.

What happens if that person were to suddenly disappear? It could very well be the end of the organization as well.

What happens if they stick around? An individual vision becomes the company vision. Alternative ideas are stifled, and the business becomes more about the charismatic leader than the organizational mission.

Have you ever worked on a group project where one person used their influence to hijack the original idea and take it in a different direction, ultimately making everyone but them unhappy and producing a sub-par result? (If you’ve never experienced this, just watch one season of Project Runway and you’ll see plenty of examples.)

Founder’s Syndrome is much the same, but on an organization-wide level.

Symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome

While Founder’s Syndrome is more common in non-profit organizations, for-profit companies (especially small to mid-sized ones) can easily suffer as well.

So how can you tell if your organization has issues? Here are some common warning signs:

  • The organization is largely associated with one key person
  • Strategy and planning are limited, infrastructure is weak or undefined
  • Decisions are made reactively, often in a vacuum, and with a lack of collaboration and buy-in
  • Few systems and processes are in place or implemented, problems tend to repeat
  • Lack of communication
  • Irregular staff meetings that focus on tasks assignments, crisis management, and troop-rallying
  • Motivation is primarily through fear and guilt; employees may be afraid of the founder
  • Excessive micromanagement and squashing of new ideas
  • Capable employees feel unable to effectively contribute
  • Leader is unwilling to ask for or accept help, and there is no succession plan
  • Support people (advisors, staff, Board members, etc.) are chosen primarily based on their loyalty to the leader instead of for their skills, knowledge, and experience
  • Organizational focus is more on serving the leader than the mission

If a few of these things are ringing bells for you, it’s possible you’re in an organization suffering from leadership dysfunction. But if the fire alarms are shrieking, you could be experiencing the effects of Founder’s Syndrome.

Uh Oh. Can Founder’s Syndrome be fixed?

The key to fixing Founder’s Syndrome lies within the founder or leader. Will this person be able to recognize what’s happening, accept their role in it, and be willing to make changes?

Not if everyone keeps pretending everything is fine.

The first and most important step to recovering from Founder’s Syndrome is to identify it as an important issue and help others do the same.

Yes, this may sound terrifying, especially if you’re afraid of the founder. But one thing to keep in mind is that your leader’s passion for the organization is real, and just might serve you well here.

Steps to recovery include:

  • Speak up. Be firm and direct, but not mean or vindictive. Use concrete examples to illustrate Founder’s Syndrome symptoms and point out ongoing issues that are holding the organization back.
  • Offer support. Most founders have played an integral role in organizational success and achieved some pretty great things. Acknowledge them for that. But also recognize that they may need professional mentorship to help pinpoint problems and transition to a new leadership model. They might also need reassurance that it’s okay to ask for help.
  • Ask for help. Just as no one person should have too much power in an organization, no one person should be expected to solve tough organizational problems. Seek outside experts as needed. Involve all key leaders and managers in the change process. Consider conducting staff and customer surveys to gather additional observations and feedback from all levels.
  • Get back to your mission. Remember why the company started. Revisit or redefine core company values and how they relate to the work. Remind everyone that achieving the vision is more important than any one person, but that everyone in the organization is critical to making it happen.
  • Motivate through collaboration and collective buy-in. It’s time to get the entire team back on track and working toward the same goals. It’s also time to start taking advantage of your talented staff. Ask for ideas and get good at not immediately swatting them down.
  • Go from reactive to proactive. Once you’ve focused back in on the mission, it’s time to set goals, build infrastructure, and put processes in place, then start planning for the future. Strategic planning. Workforce planning. Succession planning. Sales processes. Customer service processes. Project management. Having these systems in place will create a model that is more sustainable and predictable— and way less stressful.
  • Monitor your progress. Determine your success indicators and monitor them religiously.
  • Embrace your new culture. If you’ve done things right, you just might feel like you’re working in a whole new company. In a very good way. Take those positive changes and make them part of your organizational DNA.

When it comes to Founder’s Syndrome, discovering it and recovering from it can both be a bit tricky, but that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause.

There are reasons so many founders get so wrapped up in every detail of the businesses they run. They love them. They believe in them. And they want them to be successful. Tap into that those desires and help make those dreams come true. 

Photo by NatoPereria

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Topics: Leadership + Management