18 August 2006

A clear willingness to fail

Founders are typically strong willed individuals who focus on a goal and don't let much get in their way. "Driven" is a word often used to describe them. Founders typically are true entrepreneurs in every sense of the word - undeterred by lack of resources, stubborn, won't take "no" for an answer, and unwilling to follow norms and traditions. However, along with that comes a lack of willingness to fail - actually to allow anyone within the organization to fail. Often that means attracting individuals who "listen" rather than take initiative on their own and reinforcing that behavior by maintain themselves as a central point for all decision making.

At an early stage organization, this type of management by autocracy sometimes works well. Even small mistakes in the very early stages of a venture can be catastrophic. But as the organization grows, this type of behavior stifles (or perhaps strangles as one transition CEO put it) the organization. Single point decision making can work with a small team. However, as the team grows past the point of the founder's direct sphere of control, this type of management breaks down and likely will retard the organization's growth.

Letting go, or perhaps handing someone else the reins, is contrary to this type of behavior. And of course, letting go is a prerequisite to allowing someone else to fail. But just as all of us parents have found in raising our kids (perhaps the most challenging management task any of us will ever encounter), unless we are willing to let go, to let our kids try their own limits, make their own decisions, and perhaps fail - sometimes incurring direct physical pain as a consequence - they will never grow, flourish or reach their own potential. So founders who are not willing to allow their prodigy to fail ARE NOT READY TO TRANSITION TO AN OUTSIDE CEO!

While founders are often the most capable among us, one great person will find it tough to compete with a team of empowered individuals who can think, make decisions, and learn from their mistakes. Edison was often quoted as saying the secret to his success was increasing the number of times he failed. A founder who just can't stand to let a new CEO come in and fail (or perhaps do things that the founder views as a prescription for failure) will constantly be taking the baton back from the new CEO's hands - neutering the benefits that might have accrued to the organization.

Not all transition CEO's get this concept either. So the idea of handing off the organization from one autocratic leader to another, provides no benefit to the organization. On the other hand, if the new leadership is based upon a decentralized and employee empowering strategy, the benefits to the organization can be immense.

A founder's willingness to fail may be a key indicator of the potential success of a transition CEO.

01 August 2006

A Factor Impacting Successful transitions

Some recent discussions have led me to to believe that a critcal factor that impacts the success of a CEO - founder transition may be the prior cashing out of at least some material portion of his or her ownership. Arguably, cashing out enables the founder to take some of her risk off the table. By doing so her replacement is more likely to be given the freedom necessary to make the decisions required to successfully lead the company.

Noam Wasserman writes on his blog Founder Frustrations, that "Bridge CEOs" are most times not successful and that VC board members have suggested that companies be prepared to hire two, since the first CEO who replaces a founder will not be successful. I've lived through both situations where founder successors have and have not been successful. A differentiating factor seems to be a pressure relief valve that is at least partially opened by cashing out.