Considering Working for a Founder? Read This First!

A good friend of mine is the CEO of an early-stage company. After his arrival, he boosted sales to a profitable level and made many business improvements. He’s now looking for a round of financing to grow the organization and make some of the investment their operations require.

The founder — someone who birthed several companies but never got any of them to profitability — has turned from “The Creative One” (he developed the first product) to “The Critical One,” now more boat anchor than cheerleader.

I’ve seen this motion picture a few times. It’s about control.

You might think I’m writing to counsel the entrepreneurs of the world to grow up and allow others to help them succeed. I’m not. My message is to those talented business leaders who are tempted to step in to a founder-led environment. While it can be a wonderful place, the message is: Be careful; do your homework and make the founder pass the growth test.

Although I’ve met many executives (those with significant organizational and leadership experience) who accepted positions with founder-controlled organizations, I’ve never met a founder who wooed those executives by saying, “Now look, you’ll have the title of president or CEO, but I’m going to reserve the right to overrule all of your decisions, act irrationally to protect my ego — which takes precedence over the company’s success — and generally fight you for control at every corner. Are you interested?” Rather, they talk about their need for help, their appreciation for your background and the wonderful things you’ll accomplish together. (This is absolutely not universal, but extremely common.)

As Ronald Reagan said to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, “Trust, but verify.” You don’t need “The “Creative One” to turn into “The Critical One.”

If your soon-to-be employer/partner is unwilling to have an open conversation around roles and responsibilities and about giving you positional authority (for example, changing the org chart, allowing you onto the board — perhaps with others you name, providing a path to equity, and announcing your new position and authority in the press), do yourself a favor and pass on the “opportunity.”

Our economy and the well-being of all citizens rely on business founders, those “Creative Ones” who birth new ideas. In spite of my warning, I admire them. A few of them move on to become real leaders, some of them hire leadership to bring their great idea into the world of real growth and profitability, and many of them value control over success. Stay away from the last group.

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