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Free Your Organization from the Founder's Trap

May 10, 2016


What is the Founder’s Trap?


The term founder’s trap is used inconsistently in business literature, sometimes it is referred to as founder’s syndrome.


However, there are commonalities that are applied across the literature to someone who elicits one or more of the following symptoms:

  • A sense of grandiosity: The the organization is the founder’s organization. It exists to serve the founder.

  • An inability to delegate: Delegation is non-existent either through mistrust or the sense that only the founder can complete tasks correctly.

  • An inability to transition from the founder to new leadership.

  • An unwavering dedication to the original vision for the organization without regard to the maturation of the business.

How to Avoid the Founder’s Trap

It’s easy to figure out if an organization is at risk of the Founder’s Trap. Simply look at the founder(s). Just ponder the following questions:

  • Will they maintain commitment?

  • What will the company require from them at a later stage?

  • Are they committed to a succession plan?

  • Will they release equity to management and, with that, authority?

  • Can they let others lead and inspire the team in their own way?

  • Can they get out from the camera’s spotlight?

  • Do they fear losing control?

It Takes a Certain Leader to Avoid the Trap—Are You One?

Ed Fernandez, venture capitalist and former BlackBerry executive has identified three capabilities that leaders need to be to avoid the trap.

  • Can you transition from selfish to self-aware?

Self-awareness is essential. What are your limitations and your true motivations? It is imperative for you to detach yourself from your company, embracing it as an independent entity with its own needs and demands to grow and prosper.

  • Can you become a storyteller?

Empathy and credibility, combined with your ability to articulate a narrative around the necessary changes, are part of a continuous process of rebuilding expectations and generating hope.

  • You can change fortunes by channeling your inner fortune teller.

Can you anticipate the moment when the organization will outgrow you? If so, plan accordingly and prepare to release control and power for the greater good of the organization. 


First Step in Setting Your Organization Free from The Founder’s Trap

So what does Dr. Adizes in his visionary book Corporate Lifecycles (and the likely “coiner” of the term Founder’s Trap), believe the best way to get out of the trap?


In an article called Leadership Changes in Getting Out of the “Founder’s Trap” Adizes states “Bringing in someone from outside should happen during the transition between Go-Go (The Go-Go stage of a company is early in the company’s history, when it is sales driven and has an insatiable appetite for growth. More is better.) and Adolescence (During the Adolescent stage of the organizational lifecycle, the company is reborn. This second birth is an emotional time where the company must find a life apart from that provided by its Founder. The Adolescent company teeters on the brink of both success and disaster.), not before and not after that. This is the most difficult transition in the corporate lifecycle…because the changes are so fundamental…and the founder often appears to be an obstacle…”


So, to get out of the Founder’s trap, the founder must re-structure the company with outside help, best done by implementation consultants with an expansive range of skills, prior executive and ownership experiences, all of which is backed by a proven process.  


Next Steps

To escape the Founder’s Trap, an organization needs clear responsibilities and authorities aligned with its core strategic initiatives; in other words, it must distribute the founder’s tasks and decision-making responsibilities.

Think about delegating to a management team rather than an individual. This circumvents the potential for employees and managers from banding up against the new leader. New leaders can do this in stages, negotiating the transfer of responsibility and decision-making with the founder.


In addition to building a more valuable company, the leader’s job is building a competent management team to decide important issues and spread the sense of shared accountability. A quality management team is needed for continued success for companies at any stage. The founder must ensure the right people are in place, those with the skills to take the company to the next life cycle.


If you are a founder, acknowledge that the day will arrive when a split may happen. To ensure your legacy, treat your company like you would a child—with the knowledge that you are grooming it to be self-sufficient and successful long after your protection and oversight diminishes.


Those are the children most likely to succeed.



image credit: Shutterstock

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