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7 Traits for Founders & CEOs In Transition
Change, pivot, adjustment — whatever you want to call it, I’ve had to navigate transition many times through each stage of my career. And if you’re even adjacent to the tech industry, you’ve probably experienced it too.
But the trick to transitions isn’t letting the new state get the better of you. Knowing how to get the most out of the sea change is an indispensable trait of being.
Whether it’s the first unforeseeable news you’ve gotten, or tenth company that does multiple pivots you’ve experienced, there are 7 guiding principles that can help founders transition into a CEO, or part of the C-Suite, or any other role:
Keep expectations (and emotions) in check
Let go of the need for control and embrace uncertainty
Avoid concrete thinking
Lead growth through innovation
Set healthy boundaries
Trust your gut
Let me dive deeper into these principles.
Keep expectations (and emotions) in check.
Solo company founder? On a founding team for an extended period of time? You obviously care about your co-founders and employees, but this transition impacts them differently. You can’t expect everyone to match your energy, or take on your exact view of the shift.
The expectation that your board, executive leadership team (ELT), managers and individual employees should perform at the same level isn’t realistic. Startups, early stage and emerging companies are constantly faced with new challenges — and this inconsistent status quo can trickle down, understandably, to performance.
Frustration, disappointment and conflict can be kept at bay, if you keep your expectations and emotions in check. Expectations (those high ones especially) will give you a false sense of control and certainty, which assuages your anxiety temporarily. But in the long-run, reality will give way to even larger issues.
Let go of the need for control and embrace uncertainty.
The old adage “Man plans, and God laughs” should have been “Founder plans, and God laughs.” The control you have as a founder, or a prior job as CEO, or as a board member, just isn’t transferable. Luck plays a very important part of startup success — and it’s the diametric opposite of control.
Founders and CEOs often believe staying hands on with key corporate functions (like the product roadmap, pricing, even down to the engineering) means the company will avoid failure. And it’s not true… because there’s that other adage about “Best laid plans”.
I’ll be clear: No one *enjoys* uncertainty and all the anxiety that goes along with it. Quick fixes are one way of navigating uncharted waters, but they may cause bigger problems down the road.
Tolerate that anxiety, because uncertainty is unavoidable as a Founder. In the long run, it builds confidence in your ability to handle it all, successful outcome or not.
Avoid concrete thinking.
Empathy, creativity and flexibility. All qualities of a remarkable executive. People with concrete thinking can’t get to that level. Sticking to literal interpretations and rigid behaviors doesn’t account for progress, and inflexibility can often cause conflict in the workplace. Abstract thinking and imagination is required in any higher level role, and having that block won’t get you far.
Ask yourself: would you rather be effective — or right?
Lead growth through innovation.
Identify growth levers from the jump – potential gains from participating in market growth, pursuing M+A, out-of-the-box business models, and so on. Encourage managers to build-in innovation in their business plans and encourage them to “make their numbers” by using other more innovative approaches.
Set healthy boundaries.
The only way to maintain productive business relationships (at an executive level) is to set up healthy boundaries. Find the courage to set (and enforce) these guardrails, and there will be a payoff in efficiencies, performance, and likely less controversial company meetings. Continue playing golf and showing up at happy hours, but consider how and when you interact, to maintain approachability, as well as respect, for the company at large.
As a leader, always default to your values. They are the things you know to be right, true, and genuinely important.
Integrity is necessary in leadership. Being honest and showing a consistent and uncompromising adherence will only guide you in the right direction. Leading with integrity will lead to more internal consistency within a startup, fewer discrepancies and as a result, fewer misunderstandings.
Trust your gut.
Some default to pro/con lists. But wrangling your inner instinct will set you apart and build your team’s confidence in your leadership.
As in most areas of life, what feels good emotionally now can often end up making you feel worse later. It can be difficult to recognize your gut in the moment, but try your best to listen. It’s often profoundly beneficial long-term, and can pay off in big ways.
Upon starting your next transition, consider which guiding principles will lead you in your next role. With these 7 as a base, you’ll be set up for success in navigating any endeavour.