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Transitioning From Founder to CEO – 4 Mental Knots to Untangle

Founding a company is a lot like bringing a child into the world. Just like a baby, a company is something that you have created all by yourself, a reflection of your own attributes, and for the well-being and growth of which you are fully responsible. And just like a child, as a company grows, it becomes more and more independent. New people step into the equation, giving their own contributions to its trajectory. Even though the founder will always have a unique role in the life of the baby (the company), that role will inevitably change as time passes.

The most notable transition the founder might go through is probably that from founder to CEO. This change is anything but easy, and it requires a ton of new skills to be acquired. However, maybe the most challenging (and unfortunately most often disregarded) part of this change is the mental work it demands.

Here are four mental knots that one has to work through in order to successfully transition from founder to CEO.

Let go of perfectionism and the need for control

Since a company is often like a child to its founders, they tend to believe that no one else could ever care about it as much as they do. Albeit there might be some truth to this belief, it has some undesirable consequences. It tricks founders into acting like an overprotective parent, feeling that they need to stay on top of everything and to participate in every single decision. Only in this way do they feel confident that everything will go as planned and no mistakes are made.

Granted, no one else may not take as strong ownership of a company’s success as its founder. But that doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t be willing to put in the same amount of work - their motive might just be different. But just as the child of an overprotective parent often develops into an insecure adult, doubting his competence to make decisions and reluctant to take risks, a company raised under the yoke of perfectionism and control often comes out weaker, not better.

Questions to consider:

  • Do I need to be involved in all these decisions? What would be the worst thing that could happen if I wasn't involved?
  • Consider the strengths of your team: what qualities did you hire them for? Do you allow them to make the most of these features?

Identity shift - from builder to enabler

For most entrepreneurs, work is a very strong part of their identity. More often than not, founders identify themselves as builders, someone who generates ideas and transforms them into reality. In the transition process, however, a founder has to let go of his old identity – at least to some extent – and adopt a new one instead. After all, a CEO is no longer just a leader of the company’s vision, but also a leader of people. The focus shifts from creating an idea and putting it into practice to building a team of experts who make the vision come to life.

It’s like the first day of school, and from now on you will be sharing the responsibility for your child’s development with the teachers. They will be doing most of the hands-on work, and your job is to provide the child with an environment that supports his growth. As your role changes from builder to enabler, so should your identity. However, building a new identity is easier said than done – it demands conscious effort.

Questions to consider:

  • How can I reorganize my role so that the focus is on supporting and empowering my team but I still find it fulfilling and enjoyable?
  • How can I harness my personal skills to serve my business in the new role?

Shake off the feelings of guilt

For many founders, the biggest concern is not their own capability to adapt to the new role as CEO, but rather the uncertainty of how others will react to the change. Will they think that you are trying to put yourself on a pedestal? That from now on you will be the big boss, looking down on them? Will they resent you for no longer doing the daily grind on their side? Truth be told, no one cares. Your team members don’t expect you to keep on doing the same stuff: that’s what they were hired for. They expect you to take care of your own responsibilities, those of the CEO.

People tend to feel guilty when they feel like they are letting themselves or others down by failing to meet some sort of standard. When struggling with the feelings of guilt, we often seek to alleviate the unpleasantness through self-sacrifice. Some founders sacrifice their free time, drowning themselves elbow-deep in work. Others drift from their guilt-evoking managerial responsibilities to work with some hands-on tasks, just to be able to feel like they are still grinding with the rest of the team. However, no amount of self-sacrifice is enough to wipe out the feeling of guilt, as it does not tackle the real cause behind it. You can only be freed from the guilt by working on your deeper beliefs.

Questions to consider:

  • What kind of standards are you trying to live up to? What are the standards you set for yourself at work?
  • Is your feeling of guilt self-imposed (not living up to your own standards or values) or is there someone else posing those expectations on you?

Tackle the impostor syndrome

A great deal of founders experience impostor syndrome from the day one of starting their business, but it becomes even more salient as the company grows and it’s time to take it to the next level by hiring new people. Widely experienced, highly talented people. As a founder, you might be asking yourself: who am I to lead these people – they know their stuff better than I do.

Impostor syndrome is closely tied with identity. If you don’t identify yourself as a leader, you are bound to feel like an impostor when acting as one. Founders, who have not yet adopted the identity of CEO, often feel like frauds, tricking others to follow them and to believe in them. In the fear of being exposed, they try their best to keep up the facade. They may cover up their true, insecure self behind a mask of a confident leader. They might refrain from asking for help, so as not to expose their inadequacy. And they may end up losing the very thing that would make them a great CEO – their authenticity.

Questions to consider:

  • Which of your strengths do you tend to overlook?
  • Do you have some beliefs about leadership that are holding you back?

A lot of good can come from a founder choosing to step into the role of CEO: statistics show that founder-led startups tend to create larger value. However, to make the transition as smooth as possible, it’s important to give enough time and effort to the psychological adaptation it requires.