What Makes For A Successful Founder-CEO?

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Forbes.

Not every founder goes on to be the chief executive operator of their company. But many do—so how do they make the choice whether or not to take the helm? What kind of person makes the ideal founder-CEO? How do they succeed?

Alisa Cohn, coach and author of From Start-Up to Grown-Up: Grow Your Leadership to Grow Your Business talks to founders, creators, advisors, investors and builders of all kinds about their insights and experiences in growing their companies—and themselves. Here’s what I learned.

Come in with the right mindset.

Cohn stresses that while experience in managing people and organizations is a key part of being a successful founder-CEO, you also have to be able to manage yourself, emotionally and psychologically. That means knowing your strengths and weaknesses, as well as how you react to difficulty and adversity so you can stay above water, mentally speaking, when the going gets tough—because it will. Cohn describes the position as one that is marked by extremes in every direction.

“One founder recently told me ‘I knew there’d be ups and downs, but I didn’t realize they’d both happen in a five-minute stretch.’ I think the totality of all the things going on, those ups and downs and the chaos that happens all around you, can be overwhelming. You might find last week’s playbook suddenly isn’t working, and you need to adapt fast.”

Good leaders are good facilitators.

“I was talking to a three-time founder who lamented that he was an experienced founder making rookie mistakes, but that’s the way it is sometimes,” says Cohn. The environment changes between different companies, and it can be hard to be at one’s best in a fast-paced, dynamic startup environment. That’s where building a leadership team to support the CEO is so crucial, as is giving them the tools they need to succeed.

“You’ve got to learn to manage all sorts of people.” She adds that the skills and tactics of managing, delegating, and giving feedback, especially positive feedback, is a crucial thing for leaders to mentally prepare for. “All of the areas of growth leaders must work on, they start with inner work; then it’s the skill building, figuring out how to do the things you need to do.”

Hiring a coach, finding mentors, and letting yourself learn from those you’re managing are all important ways to grow. As Cohn puts it, “people around you are the best way for you to learn.”

That said, some founders don’t want to step into the top leadership role as the company takes off. Knowing what you want to get out of the position is key when making the decision to be a founder-CEO or if you’ll move on to the next thing sooner. Cohn sees this often in serial founders, that there’s an urge to go back to the ideating, the creating phase. Many founders have the desire to build, to go from thinking Why doesn’t this thing exist in the world? to the actions that can actually take to bring it into reality and solve a problem. “I think that is what drives founders,” she said. To focus on doing what drives them and leaving the rest to those who are motivated to do those other things.

Structure is sexy.

That doesn’t mean, though, that if you’re a founder-CEO you have to be the person handling every little thing. Delegating and finding the right leadership support team is a much better move than trying to handle everything yourself, especially the areas where you may not be strongest or lack a natural passion that others may have.

“Trying to play against your natural swing is hard,” says Cohn. “Founder-CEOs have to shift from wanting to be the smartest one in the room, the one who can do and thinks she should do everything—the hero version of leadership—to the more facilitative side of leadership.”

In practice, that means building structure: processes and systems in place that let the team around you work better.

“Structure is sexy!” says Cohn. “It lets people do things in a consistent and predictable way and removes the friction of having to make up something from scratch every time you do it. If you don’t like creating structure and systems, I don’t blame you, but there are people out there who love to do that. Hire the right person to do that, maybe in a COO role, and then give that person the tools they need to succeed.”

Cohn tells me structure is also important in keeping up employee morale and engagement. “People like to work hard if they’re engaged, if it’s interesting work, if they’re working with great colleagues, or if the work feels meaningful.” But a lack of structure can detract from those positives. “If the work in practice is searching for documents, checking Slack and text and email to do a simple task, that’s draining. And that’s what makes people feel burned out and depressed at work.”

Many founders are successful in the CEO role, but they can’t do it alone, or without preparing themselves mentally for such a unique and challenging role. You can hear more from Alisa and the founder-CEOs she works with by tuning into her podcast on Apple Podcasts. You can also download her “5 Scripts for Delicate Conversations” that every CEO invariable needs to have for free here.



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