Think about today’s most lucrative companies — the Facebooks and Snapchats of the world — and you’ll likely notice a common theme: They have founders who eat, sleep and breathe their companies’ futures.
Organizations born of their creators’ clear values and visions have an edge in reaching a stronger future because vital decisions aren’t made by committee — they were baked in to the original plan. These types of leaders also have the advantage of being able to create friction within their organizations, and even push the business in entirely new directions, without fear of reprimand.
The vast majority of corporate leaders, at least among larger companies, don’t have the benefit of ownership. That doesn’t mean we can’t adopt the mindset and style of such leaders. Here’s my advice for how to implement founder-driven leadership within your company.
Make decisions like you have nothing to lose.
Ian Halpern took an interesting approach to combatting inertia. He wanted to start his own business without a clear idea of what that would be. He quit his job in order to back himself into a corner financially to see what he could accomplish when he had nothing to lose. The result is RentShare, a business that makes it easy for housemates to split the rent and pay it online.
You don’t have to shred your safety nets to make bold business decisions, but you must be willing to take risks. We’ve seen time and again that paralysis is a pernicious enemy of success — Kodak and RIM offer ample proof of that — and that fear of failure can be far more crippling than failure itself. When you think like a founder, you don’t wait around in hopes that some circumstance will force your hand or a brilliant strategy will magically appear. Instead, you push boldly through, doing whatever is needed to ensure continued growth and smart adaptations.
Don’t let go of your business’s founding passions.
There’s a lot to admire about Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. Perhaps more than anything, I respect the level of passion and commitment they’ve continued to pour in to Ben & Jerry’s nearly two decades after they sold it to Unilever.
Speaking at a franchise meeting last year, the two men called upon franchise owners to sell “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” T-shirts benefitting Hands Up United, one of the organizers of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In explaining that request, Cohen said he had asked himself, “What would Ben and Jerry do at the original shop in the old gas station?” His answer: “We’d sell the shirts and do it with pride.” And so he exhorted the new store owners to stay true to that passion for social justice.
We all want our businesses to grow. As you do, don’t make the mistake of leaving your most differentiating principles behind.
Assume ownership, even if you’re not a major shareholder.
When you own a business outright, you’re responsible for every aspect of it and have free reign over its operations. That allows for enormous freedom to do things differently. Think of Henry Ford raising workers’ salaries so they could afford to buy his automobiles. Or Peter Thiel and Max Levchin’s decision to entice new users to PayPal by offering them $10 apiece to join. When you’re answering to a board of directors or some other higher authority, it can be tempting to stay on a well-trod path to avoid potential conflict. Fight that impulse.
Don’t be saddled by someone else’s dream team.
One of the greatest things about signing on to run someone else’s business is the veteran talent that’s already in place to ensure a smooth transition. It also can be the worst thing about taking over a business. You can’t run a company at peak capacity if it’s been optimized for someone else’s management style and vision. Does this mean you need to clear the decks and bring in an entirely new set of direct reports? Absolutely not. What it means is that you must always be mindful of the talent that surrounds you. Think like a founder: Are these the people you would have brought on to help you if you were starting the business from scratch? Are they in the positions that best suit their capabilities and the company’s current needs? If the answer is no, then figure out how to fix it. It’s what afounder does.