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10.18.17

Challenges for Founder Leaders and How to Make Things Easier

Maxine Harris

F
OUNDERS of organizations, whether non-profit or for-profit start-ups, often feel that they occupy a very lonely space. Every decision, every responsibility seems to weigh heavily on their shoulders. But it doesn’t need to be that way!

Here are 4 tips for leading a founder run-organization more effectively and more efficiently while getting better results in the process.
  1. Build a team: The word “team” can cast fear in the heart of a founder. Does this mean that I need to surrender “my baby” to someone else? Of course not, but even the best CEO can’t do everything alone.

    Think of a team as a group of trusted advisors, not as a group of potential rivals. First, a healthy team should consist of anywhere between two and three members, growing to six and eight members over time. Members should be selected because they bring a range of skills to the table. Sometimes, founders think that a team should consist of 20-30 people, a number that seems overwhelming. And team members should share a level of trust with one another and with the CEO.

    Teams can serve a variety of functions. Some teams are purely informational. They bring information back to the CEO, either in the form of an update on current projects or in response to a specific question or assignment. In this way, not only does the CEO keep up to date, but other members of the team have a broad sense of what is going on in the organization. Organizations flounder when key members feel they are being kept in the dark about important aspects of the organization.

    Teams can also be places where discussions take place, and remember a discussion is different from a decision. Every new direction or new business opportunity presents a variety of options. Which choice is best? What are the barriers to success? What are the potential consequences? No founder leader can answer these questions alone. A healthy discussion can make it easier for the leader to make a decision.

    And finally, some teams are actually decision-making bodies. After discussion, debate and thinking through the options, the team reaches consensus about the best course of action to take, or how best to solve a problem. Leaders should always remember, however, that how they want to use a team is up to them. Just let team members know what the ground rules are. As in “today’s meeting is just for sharing information.”

  2. Delegate authority: As an organization grows, leaders need to get comfortable with delegating authority. Sometimes, it is as simple as putting someone in charge when you are away from the office for several days, at a conference, on vacation, or out with a family or personal emergency. While the leader is gone, a trusted advisor, usually a member of the senior team is empowered to make final decisions.

    Delegated authority can also be used in a more limited way. In this case, a manager or program director is given the authority to make decisions within a particular department. Those decisions can be for the purpose of hiring new employees, or making programmatic changes or spending money within a certain range. When these decisions are made, they should be respected by the leader. Everyone needs to know that when authority has been delegated, it does not get taken away on a whim.

    And finally, authority can be granted for the purpose of dealing with organizations or stakeholders outside of the business. There are times when a senior team member is given the authority to speak for the organization when interacting with the environment outside the agency.

  3. Make use of networks: Much has been written about the value of networking, but many people don’t know exactly what that means. At its most basic, people say they are networking when they have lunch with a colleague and discuss how the business is going. And while it might help a leader to feel less alone and more “connected,” it doesn’t necessarily increase their knowledge or their ability to move their business forward.

    Sometimes people think networking is the equivalent of asking someone for something you don’t already have, as in “I need a job, so I’ll go meet someone who might have possible employment.” Networking that is essentially an “ask” does not increase knowledge and perspective and if nothing comes of it, it may end up leaving the parties feeling used or rejected.

    So, what is good networking?

    Networking is when you connect with someone who can open your eyes to a new way of looking at things. A good networker knows lots of people who operate in fields adjacent to his or her own. When a real estate developer meets an architect who knows a city planner who works with someone from the area neighborhood advisory board an interlocking network of cross connections starts to emerge. You are no longer talking to people who think like and do what you do, but you are meeting and exposing yourself to people whose worlds are different, but intersecting. Networking happens when you meet people at conferences, at business gatherings, by talking to a friend of a friend. And networking often starts with the offer “Oh, you should talk to so-and-so. I think you’ll like what she has to say.”

    And remember, no new contact is too small. You never know where the next new idea may come from. And with the explosion of digital technology, you don’t even need to be in the same city, much less the same room, to start connecting!

  4. Don’t hesitate to use an outside coach: Sometimes leaders who have founded their own organizations are reluctant to ask an outside coach for help. “After all, I started this business, why do I need someone to help me run it?” And that’s where founders make their first mistake. A coach is not an assistant. A coach is not a critic. And a coach is not a counselor. Rather, a coach is someone who can help you take a step back and gain perspective on the overall business. When you operate in the thick of things, it is hard to evaluate how things are going. “What am I doing right?” What am I doing that I could be doing better?”

    A coach functions as a trusted advisor who works for and with the leader to gain perspective on how the organization is functioning and where it should go next. The coach functions as an observer who can help the leader take a gentle look at her or his leadership style and how it enhances or impedes the work of the organization.

    There are always challenges in starting and running a business, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. Look to others who have walked in those same shoes. It might make the journey a lot easier and you might find that you are having more fun at work and are a lot less tired at the end of the day!

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Leading Forum
This post is by Maxine Harris, PhD the co-author of Lessons for Non-Profit and Start-Up Leaders: Tales from a Reluctant CEO, and CEO of Community Connections, a large social service organization in Washington, DC. For more information, please visit Community Connections.

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