I’m not a CEO. I’ve never been a founder. And I’m not exactly an “entrepreneur.” However, if you believe that every successful company leader is a byproduct of the very teams they build, which I do, those teams’ insights can be just as important to understand these visionary, idiosyncratic and sometimes downright crazy species of executive.
Here’s what I believe are what it takes to work, survive and maybe even succeed with the people we call founders.
1. Looking beyond the strengths and identify the weaknesses.
When choosing a CEO or founder to work for, the majority of individuals tend to focus on the qualities that will make you and the business successful. However, it’s just as important, if not more, to take a holistic view. What does this mean? Don’t just concentrate on their strengths — pay attention to their weaknesses. Those sneaky traits have a habit of showing themselves at the worst times, and may end up being the thorn in your side that makes work more challenging, or worse, the wrong fit .
It’s important to be realistic and tackle the areas of the business where they are not comfortable. It’s time to get personal and understand the worst first or be held victim to the weaknesses that will hold you and the businesses back from being the most successful it can be.
2. Work with founders that will broaden your business horizons, not stunt your growth.
There’s a certain amount of opportunity that arises from working with a young company filled with fresh ideas. There’s the opportunity to build a stellar team, solve new problems, change the world and even accelerate your own personal growth as well.
Most important, an executive’s opportunity to play a role within a new leadership team and work directly with the founding CEO to create a business is one of the parts of my experience I’m most thankful for. However, if you have a founder whose own vision, wisdom or simple ability to be self-aware about what they know and don’t can greatly impact how much learning you get to do vs. how much time you need to educate.
Gaining more experience and being a leader means you should be teaching and mentoring, but spending more of your time doing that with the CEO vs. the team you hired means you may be learning less. First determine how much time you want to spend learning vs. teaching and make sure your founding CEO maps to that split.
3. Look for a generous spirit and avoid the know-it-alls or credit seekers.
A founder is as much a cultural leader as they are the chief executive. Founders who are unwilling to share the decision-making, the voice or the credit are not only spirit drainers — they make work less fun. Control seekers are much less likely to empower their executives to lead and make decisions, making the de facto standard operating procedure to involve the founder in every decision or end up waiting for input. This makes for an impotent team and operational inefficiency that can be the difference between doing well and crushing it.
4. Question how they will support you, not only how you need to support them.
I once had a manager that described her management style as an inverted triangle, where she was there to support her team. What I love about that is she understood that even strong, high performers need help or support in different ways at different times.
Even the most senior executive needs a leader and a person who’s in their corner and wants them to succeed. All too often the interview process is the leader looking for an executive who can come in and do amazing things for their company. We also need leaders who are going to do amazing things for our teams and our careers.
5. If you’re not interested in having a drink with them, don’t assume you want to work with them.
We spend a lot of time at work, and even more time thinking about work. It seems obvious, but I don’t think enough people ask themselves this question: Would I enjoy grabbing a drink after work with this person? If the answer is no, why would you want to work with them?
As a senior individual, whether on the executive team or not, the impact of the founder or CEO on your every day is significant, even if you don’t have one on ones every week or at all. Their personality, values and likes (and definitely their dislikes) will impact how everyone feels about their day, even if it doesn’t impact the actual work.
Working with founders is more than a job, it’s a lifestyle and selecting which founder/CEO you are going to “walk down the hall” with can’t be done through interviews filled with questions about the business and the culture they want to build. Have a drink with them or anything that tells you if you are interested in partnering with the person to build the business together.
If you don’t like them, you probably won’t like working with them. And I will tell you from personal experience, motivated, happy and encouraged teams perform the same tasks as downtrodden teams much more elegantly.