FounderFuel: Effectively putting yourself out of a job as you scale

As our startups grow and the team starts to scale, there comes a point where we need to hand over the reins and empower others to take the lead in different areas. By not empowering and delegating we become the bottleneck, which is why putting yourself out of a job as a founder is often held up as the gold-standard for scaling effectively.

Yet in practise, it proves very hard to do – especially in that startup to scale up phase where you’re caught in the middle of doing and leading. Letting go is hard, empowering others is hard and knowing what your new role is can be deeply challenging too.

So in a recent Scaleup Session for our founder-family, we caught up with three brilliant founders to hear how they successfully handed over the reins, and what they learned along the way. In the conversation we had Lara from ImproveWell – who fully empowered her senior team so that they’re now running the day-to-day, Adam from Switchee who brought in a new CEO and took the exec chair role a couple of years ago, and Darryl from The Safeguarding Company who’s just exited, having spent the last few years consciously building a team that would always run without him. Here’s a few top tips from what they had to say…

Accept why it’s hard

The unique role of being a founder makes handing over the reins inevitably challenging: More often than not, we start out wearing every hat, which inevitably means that we are capable (though rarely brilliant!) at most things. To scale, we need to hand over the reins to people who are brilliant at specific things (the generalists to specialist shift) but having held the reins for so long we often have a strong opinion about how something should be done. This means that we actively need to work hard to break our own habits in order to make the shift.

There is also a natural tendency for others to look to the founder for the answers to problems and to make the final decisions. As such there is an ingrained habit to ask you, rather than take empowered decisions themselves. This means that for the shift to be successful, we need to help others change their behaviours too. Understanding these two barriers helps make a plan to overcome them in practise.

Know your why

Perhaps your motivation is to build a business that can run without you (essential if an exit is the intention), perhaps it is to rebalance where you spend your time after years of putting in the long hours as a founder, or perhaps it is to “get back to what you love doing” within your work, like it was for Adam.

The motivation for handing over the reins to an alternate CEO or to a senior team will be specific to you, and Darryl saw that beginning with the end in mind really helped him and his co-founders define the steps they should take.

Know thyself

The media image of founders like Jobs and Gates who went on to lead billion-dollar companies has a tendency to dominate – and it’s easy to get swayed that this is the only route. Yet in reality, most founders are not all that motivated by the work that comes with running a large corporate – it requires different skills, fills your day with very different tasks and fundamentally requires a different passion.

Being honest with yourself about what you value and where you add value can be hugely empowering if you’re considering a change: If you’re motivated by being a firestarter, a role that requires processes and operational standardisation simply will not get the best from you. Similarly, there will be areas in the business where you add the most value and bring expertise.

With this in mind, reviewing what tasks give you energy, what you want to be doing day-to-day and where you add the most value, provides a solid starting point for designing what new roles or responsibilities would make sense for the business to scale.

Tackle your mindsets

When you’re hiring specialists in to take over the reins, intellectually we know that they know better – but after a long time of running the show, handing over the reins is still hard! Our founders had a number of different ways that helped them let go – for Darryl he focused on the goal:

“Given our exit plans, it was always clear that we were building a team that could operate without us – we wanted to leave a legacy and a team that would live on”

Having this sense of purpose is a strong anchor to come back to when you have the urge to meddle, and Darryl used it to challenge his thinking when he felt he ‘knew better’ how to do something. Similarly, Lara would often use the mantra “70% is good enough” to manage her own meddling and let others get on with things – “at the end of the day, they are the specialists – and my way is just my opinion”.

Focus on the culture to make it work

Trust came up a lot in our discussion: All this handing over and letting go requires a high degree of trust in the individual you’re handing over to. Trust inevitably builds as the other person delivers and delivers in a way that is congruent with your expectations. More proof points, means increased trust over time.

No-one can deliver in line with your expectations though, unless they are clear on how you define success and that’s where the role of culture and behaviours really stood out for all our founders. This all comes down to being crystal clear with those in your team on the What and the How;

  • The What: The tasks, projects and deliverables that a person is responsible for delivering. This drives results and gives you a vehicle for managing what you want the person to be responsible for.
  • The How: The way in which a person behaves and delivers their deliverables within the team. This drives culture and supports you in being clear on what behaviours make up culture in your company.

Define the behaviours that you expect of those taking the lead, and support development with an open feedback loop, and trust can grow over time – giving you confidence to step back and them space to truly lead.

Communication is key

For the individual that is taking over the reins, the way you brief them can make or break their ability to deliver as you hope. Invest time and thought into tasks and projects handed over, being clear on your view of success and when and how you want to be consulted. Our Mini-project brief has some helpful questions for that.

For the rest of the team, communicating a clear picture of the new structure and critically, how this is changing decision-making, is key to a transition working. We all know habits are hard to change, so many of the team will fall back into the habit of asking you for a decision when they should consult a new lead or could either make it themselves. Lara’s go-to phrase for this (one designed to help her also avoid slipping into old habits) is “you don’t need me for this” to empower others to make the decision.

Adam also highlighted the vital need to communicate well with your external stakeholders too. Partners, clients and investors all need to have confidence in the plan ahead (especially if you’re stepping out of the CEO role, for example) so it is worth considering how a plan is communicated confidently and how you can demonstrate it’s a secure and favourable route from the first point of sharing it. Having an onboarding plan can really help with that – in Adam’s case Tom, their new CEO, was operating in a C-Suite role, picking up CEO responsibilities over a 6+ month timeframe. So by the time the switch happened all stakeholders already had trust in his ability to deliver.

Overall handing over the reins as a founder is notoriously hard and the why and the how will be unique to you, but there are a number of learnings here from our founders that will help you navigate your own process – whether it is handing over more day to day to a senior team or replacing yourself in the top job!

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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