Beware the Leader’s Curse

As an entrepreneur or founder, the bond you have with the company you created can be as strong as that of a parent with her child. CEOs who take command of a company also forge intense bonds, even if they are not the actual founder. The devotion that many leaders feel for their businesses infuses everything, from company culture and engineering to the snacks in the kitchen.  This devotion can also be a curse, blinding you to potential flaws in your product or the holes in your strategy.  It can impair your judgment and objectivity, preventing you from hearing what you need to hear. It can affect your ability to make the right business decisions in a timely manner. 

The leader’s curse is a condition that can be very dangerous to the financial health of your company, your competitive edge, culture, and professional career. And it is more common than you might think. To avoid falling prey to the leader’s curse, consider the following steps:

Planning—Early in your company’s life, set a plan with your investors and leadership team for the milestones you want to achieve that relate to your current role. Identify a role within your company that you might assume at the right time in the future, that plays to your strengths, like chief evangelist or chief technology officer. Remember you may be the perfect person to take your company from 0 to $10MM, but you may not be the right person to take it to $100MM.  It’s really important to be proactive about this.

Agreements—Hire a personal attorney to draw up a founder’s employee agreement. Make sure you have a clear plan around your vesting schedule, and agreements around a possible termination or company exit.

Relationships Matter—Always remain on good terms with your investors and board members.  

Mentors—Create a safety net of mentors outside of your advisory board and board of directors. These are the people who have been in your shoes, watched your ascent, and care about your success.  They are the people who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear, when you are in trouble or way out over your skis. 

Checks and Balances—Schedule your own annual performance review. No one is above it, not even you.

Annual Self-Assessment—Be honest with yourself about your skillset and value. Introspection is vital to planning. To stay grounded in reality, conduct your own annual self-assessment. Questions to ask include:

  • What does the future of my company need from its leadership, given where it's headed?
  • Can I still help my company achieve its goals?
  • Am I still having fun, and do I have the energy for it?
  • Am I still providing value beyond what I created, and how is my value changing? 
  • Am I in conflict with others, and why is that happening?
  • If I were to do something else, what would it be? How do I feel about it? 

Succession Planning—Understand that everyone is, at some point, replaceable in their current role. Make sure you participate in your own succession planning. 

Remember that regardless of your role, you are in business; you are not the business.  Michelangelo created David, but he did not become that sculpture. He went on to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Like Michelangelo, you, the entrepreneur, executive, or leader, are free to attempt as many masterpieces as you want. Stay grounded in reality by making a commitment to keeping an open mind, to being humble, and to surrounding yourself with those who will always, always give it to you straight.

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