The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


April 24, 2024

The Trap

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For me, few things are more satisfying than spending time with young women and men starting a company or non-profit. While most of the conversation is about start-up, I try to get around to the topic of what changes when it grows. How does one make the transition? One of the most useful tools for understanding the lifecycle of an organization is that developed by Dr. Ichak Adizes, the founder of the Adizes Institute in Santa Barbara. We all begin at the same place: an idea born in response to an opportunity. The new idea becomes an infant dependent on the resources of the founder and that stage may last months or years depending on the growth. We pour everything we have into it. We "sleep on the floor" for it. If the infant survives, it evolves into the “Go-Go” phase where the founder experiences the thrill of success.

Go-Go companies are like babies that have just learned to walk. They can move quickly and everything looks interesting. Fueled by their initial success, Go-Go's feel that they can succeed at almost anything that comes their way. Accordingly, they try to eat everything they touch. On Friday night the Founder of a Go-Go retail shoe business goes away for the weekend. On Monday morning, he walks into the office and announces, "I just bought a shopping center". This does not surprise the employees. It has happened before. The success of the Go-Go is the realization of the Founder's dreams, and if one dream can be realized, why not other dreams too? "What we did for shoes we can do for a whole mall". This arrogance is a major asset of the Go-Go, but when taken to an extreme, it is also how they get into trouble.”

And it is just at that point the founder must learn to shift and recruit leadership that can take the organization successfully to the next level. It is the only way to avoid “The Founder’s Trap.” Unfortunately, many are incapable of doing that and instead tighten their grasp thinking they cannot trust anyone else with what they have shaped with their own hands.

Venture capitalist Ed Fernandez wrote, ”Founders tend to protect their parcels of control and finally retreat to their comfort zones, limiting the ability of the company to grow and embrace new initiatives. Talent is lost as there are no proper long term retention mechanisms. People and management lose faith in the company. With time, a zero-risk policy becomes the default decision-making criteria and the CFO takes over the reins.”  In extreme cases, founders even destroy what they have built and loved.

I had a chance to listen to a founder this week talk about his struggle with making the transition. It’s glib and not really helpful to say “Let go and let God.” All entrepreneurs are, by nature, high control. In our desire to do things right we sometimes smother the baby and shut down the people around us.

In the earliest years of The Gathering, a Board member recognized this in me, pulled me aside, and told me I needed to unclench my hand but I did not know how. That weekend I went to the account of the birth of Moses and found a story that is true at all times, especially for those wrestling with the trap.

First, had his mother kept Moses he would have eventually been found and killed. Her natural desire to hold him close for protection would have been the cause of his death. As well, had he died he would never have accomplished what God intended. Not that God could not have used someone else but He wanted to use Moses and his mother’s natural love for him ironically was an obstacle to that.

Second, in turning loose she put him into the hands of a natural enemy but the only one who could guarantee his survival. Founders feel that way about governance, boards, and accountability sometimes. “They” are trying to control the vision. “They” don’t understand the threats to this ministry. “They” want to take it away from me. They are choking me with constraints.

Third, we don’t learn the names of Moses’ parents until several chapters into the story. They are almost props for the drama. Moreover, his mother is willing to become the nursemaid to her own child when every fiber of her body must have wanted to scream out “This is my child. I am the mother. He is not yours.” A founder to truly love their creation must make that sacrifice and accept their role as the nursemaid and not the mother. To be unnamed is hard enough but to be content to play such a role is the litmus test.

It is one of the hardest transitions an entrepreneur must make but, unless we do, what we birthed will never accomplish what God intends.

Art by Gualtiero Boffi

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