How Founders become Leaders

Founders must become leaders

5 ways founders need to change as leaders when their agency starts to grow.

When you start a business with someone else you all tend to adopt roles. I don’t mean the tasks we pick up, I mean behavioural roles. We take on the role of “the optimistic one” or “the cautious one” or “the process one”. It’s all a bit like Friends. And in successful start-ups, these roles equate to the behaviours that are necessary for the business to establish. “The optimistic one” is entrepreneurial. ‘The cautious one’ makes sure that there’s money in the bank. ‘The process one’ beavers away building foundations, rarely worrying about clients.

But when a business moves from establishing itself, where you’re in survival mode, into a growth phase, you need to change. Your role needs to adapt from founder to leader. “The optimistic one” has to be careful not to overdose on adrenalin; “the cautious one” needs to recognise that growth needs to be fuelled and “the process one” has to learn to become me flexible and agile.

As your business evolves from a foundation phase to an expansion phase your role and approach to leadership needs to evolve too.

Do you recognise any of the following?

  • You don’t intimately know all your client challenges (and you may not know all of your clients)
  • You have more direct reports than ever before
  • You spend all of your time making decisions and not “doing the real work”
  • You can’t name every member of staff (and you certainly don’t know all of their personal drivers)
  • New hires don’t tend to stick around

None of these are unique but all of them are tell-tale signs that you are not adapting as quickly as your business is changing.

I spoke with a number of Waypoint clients and agency founders to see how they had addressed these challenges. Five broad themes emerged:

  1. Leaders lead. Your job isn’t to do everything, your job is to lead. In the early stages of your business you probably did every job. You probably did them better than anyone else. But now you are hiring specialists. They don’t need you to tell them how to do their job – but they do need to be led. They need direction, purpose and vision. Drive is not enough. If you’re going to be really successful, you need to inspire your team.
  2. You are not the business. Being the founder is a big deal – it matters internally and externally – but it is not a role. It may be your agency, but the agency isn’t you. You may still be front and centre (or not), but your responsibility is to create a structure which enables others to thrive and allows the business to scale.
  3. Hire well and let go. Not only must you avoid doing everything, you’ll need to accept that you don’t know everything. Hire fantastic, motivated people who fit the culture of your business and give them the headroom to do amazing work. It’s hard, but you must be prepared to relinquish some control. You’ll find better people, keep them longer and grow faster if you do.
  4. Hunt down the pounds. You’ve fought tooth and nail to stay in business, you’ve fretted over every purchase and you’ve created a profitable business. But the fuel of growth is cash. Your focus now has to be on finding the revenue that will drive your bottom line, not on getting the best deal on copier paper (leave that to someone else).
  5. Be bold. Be decisive. And trust yourself. Understand the options in front of you, then make a decision. Vacillating and dithering is still a decision, it’s just a bad one.

I hope you found this list helpful. I’d be interested to hear your views on this.


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