Recent Advances in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Founder’s Syndrome

by Arlen Meyers

Recent Advances in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Founder's SyndromeMost of us are familiar with the story and moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes. People reference it to express when many people believe something that is not true. It is also mentioned to express something as untrue. These days, it has taken on particulary new meanings and, it seems, appear in the headlines daily. For many reasons, sometimes personal, sometimes political and practical, it results in people not telling truth to authority or failing to challenge the conventional wisdom as fake news.

There are many examples of how the emperor or the emperess has no clothes, the most recent being Therantology and the tale of Elizabeth Holmes. Employees and stakeholders of startups and non-profits can fall victim to the syndrome, which, given the rise of founder power and companies staying private longer, is spreading.

Some signs and symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome are:

  • The organization is largely associated with one key person
  • Strategy and planning are limited, infrastructure is weak or undefined
  • Decisions are made reactively, often in a vacuum, and with a lack of collaboration and buy-in
  • Few systems and processes are in place or implemented, problems tend to repeat
  • Lack of communication
  • Irregular staff meetings that focus on tasks assignments, crisis management, and troop-rallying
  • Motivation is primarily through fear and guilt; employees may be afraid of the founder
  • Excessive micromanagement and squashing of new ideas
  • Capable employees feel unable to effectively contribute
  • Leader is unwilling to ask for or accept help, and there is no succession plan
  • Support people (advisors, staff, Board members, etc.) are chosen primarily based on their loyalty to the leader instead of for their skills, knowledge, and experience
  • Organizational focus is more on serving the leader than the mission

In the startup world, it shows when:

  • A founder intent on keeping total control of decision making and intellectual property rights for their technology.
  • Already “has all of the answers”. They are reluctant to take input from others, even top experts.
  • Often fail to share information about the inner details of their projects.
  • They often have a deep seated (and mostly unconscious) psychological need to be the center of the operation, and to be recognized.
  • Often tacitly believe that the value and elegance of the invention makes its widespread adoption inevitable, and that it will change the world.
  • Don’t believe they need partners or help if it involves giving up any measure of control.

Treatment largely rests with eliminating enablement and having the courage to expose the truth and fix what’s wrong:

  • Speak up. Be firm and direct, but not mean or vindictive. Use concrete examples to illustrate Founder’s Syndrome symptoms and point out ongoing issues that are holding the organization back.
  • Offer support. Most founders have played an integral role in organizational success and achieved some pretty great things. Acknowledge them for that. But also recognize that they may need professional mentorship to help pinpoint problems and transition to a new leadership model. They might also need reassurance that it’s okay to ask for help.
  • Ask for help. Just as no one person should have too much power in an organization, no one person should be expected to solve tough organizational problems. Seek outside experts as needed. Involve all key leaders and managers in the change process. Consider conducting staff and customer surveys to gather additional observations and feedback from all levels.
  • Get back to your mission. Remember why the company started. Revisit or redefine core company values and how they relate to the work. Remind everyone that achieving the vision is more important than any one person, but that everyone in the organization is critical to making it happen.
  • Motivate through collaboration and collective buy-in. It’s time to get the entire team back on track and working toward the same goals. It’s also time to start taking advantage of your talented staff. Ask for ideas and get good at not immediately swatting them down.
  • Go from reactive to proactive. Once you’ve focused back in on the mission, it’s time to set goals, build infrastructure, and put processes in place, then start planning for the future. Strategic planning. Workforce planning. Succession planning. Sales processes. Customer service processes. Project management. Having these systems in place will create a model that is more sustainable and predictable— and way less stressful.
  • Monitor your progress. Determine your success indicators and monitor them religiously.
  • Embrace your new culture. If you’ve done things right, you just might feel like you’re working in a whole new company. In a very good way. Take those positive changes and make them part of your organizational DNA.
  • Don’t commit career suicide. A head on assault on the founder is dangerous to your career health unless you have a strong enough relationship based on trust.
  • Build a coalition and take action to be good rebels. Google employees recently walked out to protest the company’s handling of sexual harrassment and their “unethical and thoughtless decision making”
  • Learn how to practice intrapreneurship. A core skill is perfecting office politics.

Innovation takes courage, not just from the leaderpreneur, but from the followers as well. Founder’s syndrome, like fatigue, can make cowards of us all. But, when your white coat gets the pink slip when the company runs out of money or is exposed for fraud and deception, remember that, like bullying, there are no innocent bystanders and you might be one of them.

Get the Change Planning Toolkit from Braden Kelley

Image credit: joangarry.com

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Arlen MyersArlen Meyers, MD, MBA is the President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs at www.sopenet.org

Leave a Reply