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The 3 paradoxes of start up Founder CEOs

I have been working with a variety of Founders CEO of early stage businesses in the last few years, coaching them to address business issues as well as develop their own skills.

Every Founder is different, obviously, but I’ve noticed some common themes, which I have packaged in 3 paradoxes:

Paradox 1: Resilience <> Self-doubt: Optimists about everything, with the exception of themselves.

I am always amazed by the unbounded level of optimism displayed by founders. There are a million reasons why their extremely ambitious plans could not work but they seem to always think that at the end they’ll find a way. That optimism gives them immense resilience. Despite the many obstacles, with the cash always melting too quickly whilst investors committing new money always too slowly, Founders typically look very much in control and manage to go through periods of huge uncertainty without ever showing the slightest sign of stress. I imagine stress is there under the surface and raises its ugly head often at night, but the composure is inevitably there when it matters.

Despite this considerable optimism and resilience, there is always a small but core level of self-doubt. Being a CEO is a lonely job and one thing that they consistently struggle with is getting open and honest feedback from their teams. As they have high expectations of themselves, they require an external validation that they are meeting those expectations and this validation is hard to come by. So there is always an element of doubt about their performance, are they really a good CEO, do they have what it takes?

In essence, they are optimists about everything with the exception of themselves.

Paradox 2: Growth mindset <> Reluctance to delegate

From what I can see, the era of the all-knowing CEOs who dictate their innate wisdom to their team is over. All the CEOs I have worked with seem to have thoroughly read Mindset from Carol Dweck. They are all thirsty for external input, want to gather every piece of intelligence and best practice available out there and are very self-aware of the limits of their experience and knowledge. They are the epitome of the growth mindset.

Given that, you would think that they would apply this to their teams, empowering them to take ownership of important and complex projects as part of their own growth journey. Surprisingly, that’s not the case, Founders typically find it very hard to fully delegate to their teams. It seems like there is always something niggling in the back of their mind that they can do things better than anyone else and delegating important tasks is a risk that they seldom willingly take.

They constantly feed their own growth but often forget that delegation is the best food for their teams’ growth

Paradox 3: Authenticity <> Change: the tension between old self and new self

All the Founders I have met have strong and usually sparkly personalities. They have a unique story that spurred them into taking a big and exciting gamble in creating their company. They have deeply rooted beliefs about how the world should be. So, by all means, they typically have the ingredients of a strong identity.

However, as their business scales, they progressively realise that just being their old selves will not necessarily be enough. They also come to the realisation that their particular role in the company is changing, from a very informal tribe chief to a more complex and somehow more distant enterprise leader.

So what do they do? Do they keep sourcing their inspiration from that very strong identify and be ‘authentic’, or do they accept they need to throw some elements of that identity away to adapt to new and sometimes radically different circumstances? My experience is that they tend to navigate from one to the other in a rather chaotic and unpredictable fashion, their definition of authenticity becoming looser as they go along.

I hope that these paradoxes will resonate with Founders. I have huge admiration for what they do and feel very blessed to be able to work with them. Most of my work tend to help them find a way through these paradoxes, by tackling their self-doubt, encouraging them to build empowered teams and guiding them through the perilous but required journey of identity change.

Francois is an Aziz Executive Coach with 25 years of experience. He helps CEOs and their teams to better deal with their challenges through a goal-orientated coaching approach.

About Aziz Corporate

Aziz was founded over 40 years ago by Khalid Aziz, a media pioneer of his day who at 21 became the youngest ever appointed BBC producer.

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