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    Coach-Soch: When a startup suffers due to 'founder's syndrome'

    Coach-Soch: When a startup suffers due to 'founder's syndrome'

    Coach-Soch: When a startup suffers due to 'founder's syndrome'
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    4 Min(s) Read
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    By Srinath Sridharan   IST (Published)


    A short business narrative (of a 3 min read) that sets the context, challenge(s) faced, the type of leadership involved and the questions to ponder about, to solve for the issues. This is not to give answers; for business & life in general is not like a school guide book. This column is to provoke the reader to think more. And to sensitise that each individual or organisation are unique, and the answers would depend on the situation, difference in organisational culture, context, etc.

    To question, is to think. To think, is to introspect. To introspect, is to seek. To seek, is to be aware. To be aware, is when the journey begins.
    Founder’s syndrome
    Founder's syndrome is the challenge faced by businesses, especially startups when the founder or a co-founder has disproportionate authority. They can yield power to steer the effective initial business and the cultural norms that get seen as being acceptable.
    Founders have huge passion and commitment to their idea and the driving force of the idea is the founder’s personality. They help in attracting talent to the startup and have the ability to build the initial business.
    But it is the same founder’s personality, which at times becomes overwhelming for others to handle. It starts to create conflicts, a sense of helplessness, emotional turmoil as well as organisational politics. In some cases, the founders start taking the ‘my way or highway’ approach, which puts off talent who start drifting away or leaving the platform.
    I, me, myself behaviour
    It is common to hear startups' core teams crib that their founder thinks that (s)he is the only one who can lead the platform to success.
    And most often the hypothesis might be even true. Founders have the vision, idea, and drive to build the startup. They are ready to experiment and fail. They are ready to take the onus for the outcomes. It is the founders who have thought about the idea of that product or service.
    It is with this vision that the founder hires the core team to build the platform and the business. Being employee #1, the founder also draws out the contours of the culture. In most cases, it is invariably an extension of their persona or preferences. The stakeholders too identify with the platform through the founder.
    This is all well. But there comes a time in the organisation when it is disheartening for the team to see a delusional or overbearing founder who just does not let go of the personality cult feeling and wants blind obedience.
    Hard reality
    A business that suffers from founder's syndrome usually faces these challenges :
    –The platform’s operational existence seems to be related to founder’s whims and fancies.
    –The founder works like an autocrat and does not like honest feedback and critique.
    –Leadership is not inclusive and poses challenge of losing meritocracy and making way for nepotism.
    –The core team feels left out of strategic work. At times, they feel that they are being micro-managed by the founder.
    –As the platform scales, the founder feels insecure not to allow new leaders to emerge.
    –Newer ideas don’t emerge and the business could use its advantage to its competitors.
    –Core teams end up defending their positions to the founders’ whims, rather than building on additional capabilities, and what’s for the benefit of the business.
    –The governance aspect starts decaying as the founder brings in family and friends into the Board roles and key staff roles. This complicates governance standards as those individuals feel obliged to the founder and not to the business.
    –The ability of the organisation to have honest conversations starts to reduce.
    –The ability to attract key talent into the business is reduced.
    –Team politics overtakes all positive efforts.
    Founder and mentors
    This is where mentors to the founders are helpful. For the founders listen to their mentors and might pay heed to their inputs. Founders are not all-powerful superstars, they have their follies and fallacies too. In their journey towards building a scaled and successful venture, their drive and energy have to be balanced with not being a repellant. Hopefully, before much damage is done by the founder’s syndrome…
    — The author, Srinath Sridharan is a Corporate Adviser and Independent Markets Commentator. For other articles in the Coach Soch series, click here.
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