Five ages of a founder


You’ve no doubt heard of the various ‘Ages of Man’**, well if you apply that concept to the life of a founder, our business growth model visualises five main transitions on their continuous journey from foundation through to exit.

What are these five (st)ages?

  • Artisan; you and your co-founders do everything in the business.
  • Hero; you have now brought in others to help as the business is expanding but you have many of the answers they require to do their jobs so they often turn to you for help; you are their hero.
  • Meddler; the people you brought in are now fully capable of doing their jobs having learnt from you but they are also applying their own ideas to getting the job done. You probably haven’t fully developed your next role so you turn to what you know which is helping your people but as they now know the job you may end up meddling. Test yourself; do you find yourself saying; ‘we don’t do it that way’, or ‘we tried that and it didn’t work’ or worst of all ‘in my day ….’ Ouch!
  • Manager; this is the logical step for you from Hero. You trust your people, there is mutual respect and you know that in some cases they will have better ideas than you. Rather than measuring their activities at minute level you set them objectives and use a few KPIs to monitor progress. If your KPIs are well designed they will warn you of impending problems so you can step in to see if help is needed and if it is provide that help with laser-like focus on the problem and then step back again. This enables you to multiply your influence many times over as you are helping others to do their jobs rather than you doing the work for them; when required you are a hero coaching your people to perform better.One key thing the company will need from you, while wearing your manager hat is for you to be a rainmaker. Using your contact base and depth of knowledge of your company to create new opportunities that your team can pursue and turn into new customers. This will help you to deliver the hero role while avoiding becoming a meddler.
  • Leader; here the role is mainly about setting the strategy and ensuring the whole company is focused on pursuing it. You are confident that your managers and their people are doing their jobs driven by the strategy and the principles you have set for the way the company conducts its business. You have your own KPIs for monitoring the business and if you spot a problem coming down the line you speak to the relevant manager to see what they have planned to deal with the issue. If necessary you can coach your managers if they are struggling with a particular issue.

So, what are you? Are you doing what you think you should be doing and is it the most effective way for you to develop the business?

Developing through the stages

Many businesses feel they have no choice but to start as artisans and while that is true for many there is no reason why the journey has then to step mechanistically through the other four stages or indeed become mired at stage one.

Our formula for developing a healthy growing business can be summarised as:

  • If you are able then start the business wearing the leader hat and no other. I accept that for most this will not be possible.
  • Even if you start as an artisan think leader; prepare for the day when the business will have grown to the point that it needs a leader. By preparing in this way you will be speeding the process to when that day comes and you will be ready. Businesses that think this way invariably grow faster and go further.
  • As the business grows and you start to employ people, or get work done through suppliers or contractors, think and behave as the manager. You will need to wear the hero hat but you will do it always thinking manager, never meddler, looking to coach your people to solve their own problems rather than telling them to do it your way. In this way you will also begin to identify those candidates for succession planning and building your own confidence that the roles are in safe hands.
  • If you have followed the previous two steps you will quickly find yourself spending time leading; it will just happen naturally as a progression because you have always thought leader you will naturally become one.
  • If you are comfortable with the words used for the five stages then as you employ people and take them through the on-boarding process you can share the model with them as a way of marking where you are on the journey. Give them permission; no, make it a requirement, to pick you up when you are meddling as this will help to lock the whole team together around a common idea while helping you to stick to your plan.

The key messages here are; start with the end in mind, behave like a leader even when you are an artisan and do all you can to skip the meddler stage.

Happy hunting and enjoy the journey.

** 3 from Sphinx, 4 from Ovid, 5 from Hesiod, 7 from Shakespeare

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