Founder Separation Anxiety

You’re the founder of a growing startup and it seems like just yesterday that you were a team of five, sharing a co-working space with one table and five chairs. There was an open flow of communication in the room and unless someone’s headphones were on to signal they were “in the zone”, anything was fair game to chat about.

Full Stack Engineer: “I’m thinking of moving the ‘Learn More’ button to the bottom right of the home page.”

CEO: “Sounds good. What do you think about what that potential customer said yesterday about our pricing? Should we push harder”?

CTO: “I d’no. Maybe we should talk to a couple more prospects and compare reactions?”

Full Stack Engineer: “Just so y’all know, I am probably going to revamp the pricing page layout in the next few days so if you’re thinking about changing things, lmk sooner vs. later, cool?”

CEO: “Totally, no worries, friend.”

Customer Support Rep: “Keep me in the loop too, all. I want to be prepared if customers start asking questions about the new layout or pricing changes.”

CTO: “You got it, friend.”

Operations Tech: “Yo, after lunch today can we talk about how capacity is doing with all these new customers? We might need to buy more cloud storage.”

CEO: “Ugh, I was hoping to keep our spending down before we close our A round next quarter, but I guess that’s a good sign that we’re selling. Revenue, yay!.”

It wasn’t unusual for the whole team to know every facet of the business. Where you were with sales, fundraising and how customers were feeling about every little change you made to the product. You saw each other’s work on your screens or perhaps, if all remote, you were in a non-stop thread in Slack with very few separate channels. It was intimate and cool….intoxicating. Even as the team grew from five to twenty five, there is this sense of deep connection that the early employees had with the founders of the business. A unique badge of honor which often garnered the respect of newer employees eager to hear the lore of those early days. However, with that growth, there becomes less intimacy and these early employees often find themselves with managers between them and the founders. This can create separation anxiety which manifests in different ways — from temper tantrums in meetings to disengagement and generally bad behavior — and can be the root of cultural issues or worse, unwanted attrition.

While many early employees will adjust to the scale of the business and the founders letting go of the details, some can become frustrated. They no longer feel “in the know” or are recognized as the CEO’s trusted advisor on particular decisions for the business. They are scolded for going around their new manager’s back to get the CTO’s opinions on their work or they try to undermine a decision made by the new head of a department by complaining to the CEO. Even finding time to just chat with the founder is a game of calendar Tetris for them. “They don’t have time for me anymore.” is a common sentiment. For these employees, you (or they) may feel that a scaling business is not a fit. Early stage is their sweet spot and a transition may be necessary. However, before concluding that it’s time for some of these early team members to transition, here are a few suggestions to manage Founder Separation Anxiety:

  • Openly discuss this situation with your team. It is a natural aspect of growth and success, but it requires managing expectations. “Good news, we’re growing! But this means we are going to be shifting how we work and some of us will be less in the know than we used to be.” This can be a great opportunity to ask the team what they need and where they are feeling the biggest gaps. Address what you can, but accept that you may not be able to honor all their asks. For example, being less in the know on board-level or financial issues as they may have in the “old days”.
  • Make sure you are accessible to your entire organization as much as you can be in both structured and unstructured ways. Create open office hours or lunch-n-learns for team members other than your direct reports to get time with you. Open office hours can be a standing block on your calendar (1–2 hours per week) where anyone can pop into your office (or jump on a zoom if you’re remote) and chat. Be clear that this time is to chat or bounce ideas around, not for decisions or setting strategy. Some newer employees might just want the time to get to know you better — your founder’s story or background (or theirs). These are invaluable opportunities to build a connection with your team. Unstructured time is simply ensuring you’re not tied up in meetings all day and have blocks of open time to walk around the office or pop into different Slack channels or Discord or whatever your business uses for remote communication.
  • Offer suggestions on how and when team members should book time with you outside of office hours. E.g., “Office hours are a great way to bounce ideas around with me or share ideas or thoughts about the business, but if you want to go deeper on a topic, let’s schedule a specific time to discuss and include others as needed.”
  • Set boundaries for early-timers when they try to end-around new bosses. Be open to listening to their ideas/complaints, but redirect them to their new bosses to make decisions. Coach them on how to express their concerns with their new bosses vs. offering to talk to their boss on their behalf or (worse) commiserate with them. Just because you used to sit next to them in a WeWork a year ago, does not afford them the privilege of undermining their leadership. Hold the line.
  • Be mindful of perceptions that come from “special relationships” between founders and early employees. It is not unusual for early employees to form personal relationships with founders outside of work. Late night beers or weekend family BBQs may have become routine. With a larger team, consider how these special out-of-work connections reflect on your leadership. Optically, it can infer special treatment or that some employees are privy to deeper business details. This does not mean you should end these friendships, but you should set clear boundaries and be transparent about them to the rest of your organization — especially if one of these individuals now reports to someone who reports to you. “Lisa, let’s be sure we don’t talk about work when we get our families together this weekend.” For the team, even just naming this, can allay concerns, but again, transparency is key. To Lisa’s new boss, you might say: “Lisa and I became BFFs in the early days of the company — our kids are BFFs too — but we’re committed to not discussing work when we connect outside of the office”.

This may seem like a lot to manage, but the time investment should result in team members better adjusting to the growing separation between them and the founders and having less anxiety about their roles in the business. You may not retain all of your early employees, but these tactics should mitigate some loss and will likely contribute to fostering a healthy culture of transparency, trust and respect among team members.

What creative techniques have you employed to mitigate Founder Separation Anxiety? Please share in the comments!