The Founder’s Trap – Getting In and Getting Out

Some recent experiences with two highly effective executive directors and the challenges they are facing with their organizations has led me back to Dr. Ichak Adizes’ book of, Corporate Lifecycles. In this book, Dr. Adizes writes of the predictable patterns of development organizations go through. In particular, I was drawn back to Dr. Adizes comments about what he terms the Founder’s Trap.



Organization Lifecycles

Every organization, like every living organism, goes through a natural lifecycle with predictable stages, or patterns of growth and behaviour. As organizations develop, they face a unique set of challenges at each new stage. Dr. Ichak Adizes has described an organizational lifecycle that moves from infancy, through adolescence, to stability, bureaucracy and death.

Following infancy, an organization goes through what Dr. Adizes terms as the Go-Go stage. During Go-Go, the organization has a number of successful services, and is growing. Like babies just learning to walk, everything looks interesting. Encouraged by initial successes, Go-Go’s feel they can succeed at almost anything that comes their way. See the newly upright walking child crashing through the garden, unfazed by obstacles in its place.

The Founder and the Go-Go Organization

The Founder doesn’t have to be the initial Founder, she could be the third or the fourth person thereafter. A Founder grows an organization to the point where it becomes so big she finds herself spread too thin. There is a sense of rush that propels the organization, and everything is a priority; opportunities are everywhere. Strategically important but not urgent tasks and decisions get deferred to pursue the coolest new project.

Success for the Go-Go is often the realization of the Founder’s dreams.
Go-Go leaders, with their involvement in the day-to-day work of the organization, have little time to manage. Their work is their sandbox, a place to build their dreams. This is both invigorating for others, and ultimately limiting for the organization. Employees feel frustrated in the face of an overwhelming workload, unclear responsibilities, fuzzy goals and a leader who has fingers in every sandcastle. New people are hired and thrown into their jobs with little preparation.

The Trap

According to Dr Adizes, The Founder’s Trap occurs when the Go-Go organization is unable to release itself from its dependency on the Founder, and when it is incapable of developing the needed abilities to replace the Founder’s unique skills and vision. It also occurs when the Founder is unable or unwilling to decentralize control and delegate effectively. Thousands or organizations around the world are in such a trap.

Up to the Go-Go stage of the lifecycle, organizations need a strong, opinionated leadership. But after a time in the Go-Go stage, the Founder may realize that he can’t run the organization as a one-person show anymore. The capabilities and limitations of the Founder trap the organization in a spiral of frustration and unmet expectations. How best to proceed when so much is at stake?

Getting Out of the Trap

In order to get out of the Founder’s Trap, the organization needs clear responsibilities, authorities and a reward system that makes sense. This means the organization needs accountability, structuring to place people with skill and desire around the organization’s needs, and far more shared responsibility and decision-making than is likely taking place.

Delegating management to a team of people, rather than to a single individual, is an idea worth considering. It avoids employees and managers ganging up on the new leader. Building a management team who have to decide together important issues, develops shared accountability. And if they decide together, they are likely going to make better decisions than the Founder could have made alone. If they can’t agree, the Founder can again step in.

The development of effective teamwork among a skilled senior management group is critical to continued success. Mutual trust and respect between the Founder and the management does not happen overnight. To start, the Founder must ensure the right people are in place, those with the professional skills to help the organization transition from the more entrepreneurial Go-Go stage to the kind of re-birth that an adolescent experiences when achieving independence from his parents.

As the management team matures, they can tackle decentralization and shared, strategic decision-making. Because the changes are so fundamental and so necessary, and the Founder in particular struggles with how to make meaningful contributions when not in control. Creating a way for the Founder to make such contributions while delegating significant strategic and operational planning is a hinge point. For example, the management team and Founder might decide that the Founder will no longer have to attend all management team meetings, and will have some say about the agenda for the meetings, as well as be given the sober second-thought concerning decisions the management team makes. Crafting this arrangement as “rules of conduct” that everyone agrees to lessen the temptation for the Founder to just step in.

So, whether the organization is a new one, or one going through renewal, the Founder’s Trap will arise at the point when the organization is finding its feet, as an adolescent finds her independence. Taking action to create new structures and accountabilities that builds shared decision-making and supports delegation is easier said than done. And is as necessary as is the Founder learning to let go.