The Founder’s Paradox: How to Prioritize What Others Need When Everyone Is Focused on You
January 14, 2019

The Founder’s Paradox: How to Prioritize What Others Need When Everyone Is Focused on You

by Brian de Haaff

Gravity is what holds our world together. It is the force that draws objects together — literally bringing us down to Earth. But the word gravity can also be used to describe seriousness and importance. By either definition, it is a word that carries weight.

The magnitude of being a grounding force is something I think about frequently as a company founder.

Because while everyone is focused on you and what you need from them, you have the significant challenge of prioritizing what they need to be their best and serve the organizational exceptionally well. Let me explain.

Naturally, there is a pull (you could almost call it a gravitational force) that most company founders have. Over time, the team becomes focused on orbiting around your perceived needs and will change direction on your every word. This pull to focus on the founder is natural, for a few reasons.

You are the one who started the company and have the most organizational knowledge. Beyond that, you likely have the respect of the team — assuming the company has grown quickly and you treat people well. So the team believes that you have all the answers. And of course, new folks tend to be more deferential to the title.

You hopefully do provide clear objectives and treat people with dignity, but the reality is that you have fewer answers to day-to-day questions over time. That is why your work as a founder is not to be served. You set the vision, hire great people, give the team space to excel, and help individuals succeed.

Your job is to serve the team, the business, and customers. Your job is to provide the structure and support that everyone else needs.

So how do you do that? It is hard and always a work in progress. But I do believe that, at its essence, the role of company founder is to help others grow. First, you encourage this growth by identifying and communicating key goals and initiatives — with full transparency.

In fact, you share almost everything you know freely. (Obviously, there is some information that must be confidential, such as a teammate’s compensation and other personal matters.) But unless sharing something poses a real risk to the business, a teammate, or a customer, there is no reason not to be open with the details.

You must be open but you also must communicate the truth.

Second, as I mentioned, you never have all of the answers. And you have fewer of them as the company grows. So let’s start there. Tell people that. Say so. It is okay and even desirable to be vulnerable. Your openness will help others do the same when they need help.

The third thing you should do can be tougher than being vulnerable (if you can believe that), but it is important. You must remain approachable. The larger your company grows, the harder this becomes. Because all that rapid growth makes the orbit a bit broader. The space between you as that grounding force and each new teammate grows.

It is not an easy thing to remain approachable. After all, you do not feel very different. But to new teammates, the very idea of you may be intimidating. Just because the title holds weight, does not mean you must wear it with solemnity. Be humble, share your life with the team, and maintain a sense of calm as best you can and consistency in words and actions.

And finally, be consistent. When people know what they can expect from you, they are more likely to approach you with opportunities and challenges. But do not be deceived. Being transparent, vulnerable, and approachable will not make every day a great day nor will it solve everyone’s woes. Not everyone will receive the same amount of your time or care. It is not possible. And not everyone will appreciate your direct feedback or support.

Being the best version of you will not guarantee that everyone else is the best version of themselves. That is another paradox altogether.  

Remember that it is not your title that people are drawn to. It is your values and the culture you build that create the gravitational pull. It is what attracts both customers and teammates to your company. And your values are what will sustain you over time — in the face of complex paradox and difficult times.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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