Save the Founder’s Mentality

Founder’s Syndrome

If this musing by an organization’s founder on the value of organizational founders seems self-serving, indeed it is. But with the conventional avalanche of driveling complaints I hear and read about “founder’s syndrome,” it’s high time to speak up about the invaluable asset that many organizations forfeit when the founder walks out the door.

Examples abound of founders who become a liability to the organizations they labored hard to birth and nurture. They hang on too long. Or they don’t know how to keep their noses out of the successor’s business. Founders whose tenures are long and whose track records are stellar can be particularly annoying when it’s time for a leadership change. Boards, stockholders, and staff are regularly warned of the dangers associated with transitioning founders. We get the message: founders can be a pain!

Another angle on Exiting Founders – Save the Founder’s Mentality

But there’s another angle on exiting founders that often goes unnoticed – at least in the short term. When head-hunters go looking for a successor, they typically short-list candidates whose resumes read like an alter ego to the founder. In their well-intentioned effort to select a leader to shore up areas where the founder has been weak, search committees sacrifice much more than they ever bargained for. In a new book The Founder’s Mentality, Chris Zook and James Allen identify three defining traits that often get lost in the transition from a founder1:

  1. The insurgent mission – the founder’s driving conviction that the organization is at war with an industry stuck in the past or not effectively serving their customers.
  2. Front-line obsession – founders have an intense focus on every detail of the organization’s relationship with its customers.
  3. Owner’s mindset – the founder and people who work for a new organization are fighting for its survival. They all see themselves as owners, and they are completely invested in the shared purpose.

These traits give an organization its edge and its energy. But over time, the organization becomes more focused on its success than on the customer’s needs. New leadership tends to become more hierarchical, and they are further removed from the font lines. And the committed “owners” morph into employees that are paid to keep the machine humming.

Certainly we founders can be more gracious and cooperative as we ride off into the sunset. But smart successors can do the organization a big favor by sincerely embracing the founder’s heart and mind for the mission.


1Chris Zook and James Allen, The Founder’s Mentality, Harvard Business Review, 2016.

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