Plenty of founders find themselves sidelined, or removed entirely, in favour of leaders considered more capable. Steve Jobs, famously deposed at Apple, managed to return and engineer a remarkable turnaround at the company. Most don’t get that opportunity, and none should rely on receiving it.
So how do successful founders adapt to their evolving roles? And what lessons about leadership can be learned from their methods?
Think like a chief executive
Founders, particularly in technology companies – where they are often coders or engineers and are primarily motivated by product development – often lack formal leadership experience. Even those from business backgrounds tend to have little experience. Their mindset has to change. They are no longer tinkering in the shed; they need to think beyond the product and consider their employees and how to lead and motivate them.
Leadership needn’t be a mystery; it can be learned by anyone at any level. Look for opportunities to connect with mentors, manage junior colleagues, lead projects, and undertake training. Proactively developing leadership skills demonstrates a growth mindset that will help you advance your career.
Effective leaders strike a balance between clear-minded confidence in their vision for the company (and their and others’ ability to achieve that vision) and the humility to invite and accept diverse views on work.
At any level, combining confidence in your own abilities with an openness to accepting help, support and direction from others will make you more flexible and easier to work with.
Accept decision authority
Two heads may be better than one for problem-solving, but joint leadership generally doesn’t work. Teams need a single guiding voice. If a startup has two or more equal founders, one must lead, with the others taking clearly defined secondary roles from the outset to reduce the potential for conflict.
That’s not to say that the best leaders are autocratic dictators. Rather, they are open to influence and empower others, but also make it clear that final ownership over company-wide decisions rests with them. This need for clarity is exactly the same when managing a team or project within your organisation, at any level.
Devil’s advocates can be valuable to any leader, offering a counter-point to their thinking and ensuring diverse opinions are considered.
Debate should trickle down through all levels of a company, as it has benefits for productivity. You should be open to new or different views in your day-to-day work, but also have the confidence to play, or encourage others to play, devil’s advocate to those around you to help everyone make better decisions.
It’s one thing for a founder to understand their vision, but a leader ensures that every employee is versed in that vision and the company’s values.
Leadership communication has to be a two-way street. It’s important for employees to know that there are regular times when they will hear from their leader and also be able to share comments and ask questions. The best leaders use regular all-company town halls and meetings to reinforce their vision and solicit feedback.
Pay close attention to how your company communicates its vision and strategy, and make sure your day-to-day work exemplifies its values and pursues its goals. Communicate openly – and more than you might think you need to – with your direct colleagues.