Making the Transition from Founder to Leader

How do you go from doing everything for your startup, and having your head in the weeds, to becoming an inspirational leader? This is the ultimate challenge for startup founders from all backgrounds. It’s one thing to be taken by an idea and to work on your “baby” full-time in hopes of seeing it grow. Leading a team and driving organizational growth is an entirely new ballgame.

Startup CEO

From founder to executive

No doubt about it, starting a company is emotional. It’s your dream. It’s your idea. It’s your vision. And suddenly it has got legs, a (wobbly?) business model and a burgeoning fanbase. To say that you have your heart set on its success is an understatement; you have your claws sunk into it and you’re rabidly obsessive about its trajectory.

Okay, perhaps we’re being a bit too primitive here, but you get the idea. Your company is your heartbeat. And when it’s in its earliest phases, you’re the one doing it all: the all-nighters. The non-stop networking. The technical, the marketing, the operations, everything. And you may be kicking ass at all of it!

But what happens when you hire a team?

Reality check: you may not be a leader.

Executing and dreaming your company to success is one thing. Leading a team and successfully steering the ship is another. Because so many founders—inexperienced founders—become CEOs, it’s quite common for them to eventually be replaced by “professional CEOs”, or those who have hardcore track records of leading others on the path to success.

You need to be open to the idea that you may be a badass founder and an average leader. And that one day you may need to step back from your CEO duties in order to see your vision come to life.

Become a better leader.

So, what do career leaders do different from founders? And, how can founders step back and become more effective CEOs?

  • Learn to love process. When it was just you running the company, it was okay to have things your way, even if it meant that it was a tad sloppy. Did you keep your notes in email? Have no file system? No project management platform? Well, no problem! But when you have a team, even if it’s just a few members, you need to embrace the beauty of process and systems. You can’t have your team stepping all over each other in an attempt to get things done; you can’t have messy communication; you can’t have lack of accountability. Sexy or not, process solves many of these challenges.
  • Hire a great team. And by that, we mean hire smart. Don’t hire on a whim and don’t hire a friend. Give thought to what your needs are, and go on a hunt for those who can fulfill them.
  • Learn to love the idea of ownership. And remember, when you tell everyone to do something, it’s just the same as telling no one. Give your team clear roles, clear responsibilities. And then let them shine.
  • Prioritize. As CEO, it’s never going to be exactly your way. Since you’re not doing it all yourself, you’re going to have to let things go. The way you did something may not be how your team prefers it (nor may it be the best way of doing it in the first place!) Sure, you’re the boss. But remember to prioritize your wishes, otherwise your team is going to get lost as they focus on inconsequential details versus critical strategy.
  • Be realistic. One of the best ways to rope in your team is to come at them with a big heart and a generous spirit. This creates loyalty, it leads to comradery. A large part of this is breaking yourself from the habit of arbitrary emergencies and deadlines—and taking the time to know what your real values are. After all, if you can hire for those values, you’ll be in great company!

What happens next

Ask for feedback and take the time to give yourself feedback. Are you a good leader? Do you have what it takes to be CEO? Be willing to be vulnerable. Be willing to step back. It may be one of the hardest things—and most rewarding things—you’ve ever had to do.

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