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Founders Evolving into Leaders

Ryan Frederick | June 2nd, 2021

Investors and some Founders won’t want to hear this, but Founders don’t start out as good leaders. In fact, the longer it takes for a company to realize its potential the more likely it is for a Founder to evolve into a leader.

Founders, especially first-time founders, need the time to learn about themselves and to acclimate themselves to leading a team. In many cases first time founders have never led a team or initiative anywhere near the scope and challenge of making a company successful. These founders don’t know what they don’t know.

Starting a company isn’t something you can prepare for. You can’t train and learn how to lead a company ahead of time. Sure, founders can read blogs, listen to podcasts, and attend events but every founder’s journey is different. And not much of the content and events around being a founder and startups centers around founders becoming effective leaders. Leadership is an afterthought. Often, it’s viewed that a founder either is a leader or isn’t. They will either figure it out and become an effective leader or they won’t. This perspective is probably true, but most founders aren’t given enough time to grow into an effective leader.

Startups have to move quickly. Time is not on the side of most startups and founders. The problem evolves and shifts, competition is ever changing, customer perspectives and priorities ebb and flow. Not to mention investor pressure and their desire to get a return on their capital as fast as possible. A case can be made that time kills more startups than any other factor. I write about the importance of speed in my book, The Founder’s Manual. But a founder might benefit from a startup taking longer to mature.

Founders of companies that have a slower and more consistent growth trajectory have the time and space to become better leaders. Founders of companies that are rocket ships are forced to hang on as much as anyone else a part of the company hampering the founder’s ability to grow as a leader. We repeatedly see this take place. Companies like We Work, Uber, and Theranos are some prime examples. Of course, the founders of these companies are responsible for their decisions and actions, but the rapid expansion of their companies also didn’t afford them the time or ability to improve their leadership style and skills. These founders and others of fast-growing companies have to rely on who they already are, not who they might be able to become. This depends on who the founder is and their innate leadership capabilities. In most cases founders don’t know who they are as a leader and it is hard for an investor to figure that out as well.

I have met many founders of slow growth companies and they consistently apologize for it. I ask them how the company has evolved and redirected over time, of course, but I also ask them how they, as a founder have grown and evolved. With very few exceptions, the founders of slower growth companies can point to many ways that they have personally grown. The biggest single area of growth is their leadership. They needed the time to become a leader rather than just a founder. Leaders are made and not born.

Startups that grow methodically don’t get the headlines and accolades that fast-growing ones do. I’m not making the case that they shouldn’t, just pointing out that the narrative around startups is that if a company isn’t growing fast then the founder(s) is doing something wrong. Founders justifiably, might need some time to get their legs under them for a company to start growing fast and that might just be best for the company and the founder. It ultimately might be better for investors and other stakeholders too.

Founders have to be the “first best” at just about every role in a company at the beginning, and no one is or can be great at everything. The intensity and volume of work at a startup for a founder leaves little room for founders to figure out who they are as a leader and how they want to lead. It is imperative founders find their leadership groove before the team expands too fast or everyone is setup for failure.

Let's give founders a chance to evolve from founders to leaders. Let’s be okay with steady growth that facilitates this versus rocket ship growth that hinders it.