The Founder/CEO Paradox

A recurring theme has been present in several consulting conversations lately. Be it at a networking event, over a drink, in the boardroom, or on a golf course, the discussion is similar. It focuses on working for individuals who are both founders and CEO’s. Here is how a typical conversation sounds.

LISA: Oh, you do Organizational Development work – that must be fascinating. I wish you could work with my organization. Actually, I wish you could work with our CEO.

ME: It is fascinating work. But why do you say that?

LISA: Well, our company has this great product/service. Our founder/CEO has worked hard to get this company off the ground and we’ve developed into quite a force. Their idea is brilliant, and we should have a bright future ahead of us. However, the founder/CEO continues to run us like they ran the start-up. And most of us see all sorts of problems that the CEO doesn’t – their leadership isn’t working anymore.

ME: What do you mean?

LISA: It’s like they need to be involved in everything. As we have experienced success, the company has grown beyond the founder’s expertise. As a result, they have hired some really good people. But then s/he won’t let them do their job. They micro-manage, don’t trust people and keep blowing things up because of their over-involvement. When they started the company, they were the reason for our success. But now they limit our success.

ME: Yes, I’ve heard this story a few times…

I’ve begun to quietly call this the Founder/CEO Paradox. It occurs when a gifted individual with vision and skill launches a company but struggles to take it to the next level. These organizations often get stuck. They recruit and lose talented people because of a simple leadership roadblock – the overall organizational capacity can only rise as high as the CEO’s capacity.

A minor Twitter war erupted a few weeks ago when NFL star Jalen Ramsey, tweeted that he could probably crack a National Hockey League line-up if he trained for six months. I should add an important detail – Ramsey has never skated in his life. To most of us on the outside, we know this claim is absurd. However, this laughable tweet exemplifies the same principle as the CEO/Founder Paradox.

Our most important gifts and abilities are not useful in every situation.

So, if this is true, what should we do? I suggest two antidotes:

  1. Hire people better than yourself. I personally sit in awe of gifted entrepreneurs. They have something that I don’t. Their stories, grit, drive and risk-taking abilities are aspirational. During start-up, this determination has them wearing many hats. However, as the company grows hats need to be handed off and experts with higher capacities need to be hired. This is the first antidote for the CEO/Found Paradox – hire people better than yourself to run areas you cannot.
  2. Know your sweet spot. When our children were born, my wife gave me a book about raising kids. While the content did not make me a perfect parent, it did offer some timeless advice that relates to our topic. It taught that each of us has a parenting ‘sweet spot’. For example, some of us love babies while others seem to naturally parent teens. More importantly, they also reminded readers that few of us are good at every stage. This simple lesson contains the second antidote to the Founder/CEO paradox – know your sweet spot (and celebrate the sweet spots of others)!

And based on several other conversations, I suspect that this paradox is equally applicable in the family business enterprise. But that’s another blog for another day…

Footnote: Thanks to CL for the stimulating golf-cart conversation which inspired this post.

Dr. Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Contact him today to find out how he can help enhance your personal and organizational effectiveness –

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