You Are Never “Too Good To Step Aside” As CEO

Sometimes your ego will write checks your body can’t cash.

This is so true for the startup founder who chooses the role of CEO in his own company.

I thought of it recently as I read a great post by Jonathan Strauss, former CEO and founder of awe.sm, about stepping down from the founder/CEO role after 4 years.  In it, he very honestly describes his feelings on the decision and what ultimately brought him to remove himself from the leadership role.

Jonathan aptly describes entrepreneurship:

To be an entrepreneur I believe one must have a somewhat irrational belief in your own capabilities, otherwise you’d never be dumb enough to start a company. Regardless of any perceived glamor, most entrepreneurs I know will tell you that starting and running a company is fucking hard and there’s often more misery than joy.

He. Nails. It. On. The. Head.

If you are a frequent reader you will know this description of entrepreneurship can be found here on this blog as well.  No doubt, founding a company is one of the most difficult and emotionally taxing things in the world.  It’s a wonder company creation is actually on the rise when you read statements like these.

Jonathan goes further on why it was so hard to remove himself:

I put hiring a CEO in the same category as taking an acqui-hire or just closing up shop and moving on — things I would think about at 4am in the office on those darkest nights when I’d have a bout of sobriety about the insanity I’d turned my life into. And ultimately, things that represented the one unacceptable option motivating me to push even further beyond my limits I’d long surpassed: failure. In the early days, the only way for me to keep awe.sm from failing was to tie my fate with the company’s. If awe.sm failed, I failed. But as we switched from lean startup to growth company, I didn’t fully realize how making my ego a shareholder went from being necessary for survival to being a limitation on what we could achieve.

One of the toughest “checks” to cash as a founder is to think you are the sole reason for company success or failure.  Notice how Jonathan admits he attached himself and his fate with the fate of the company.  It is indeed one of the inherent flaws of us founders.

I commend Jonathan for his decision but I am also not letting the lesson pass me by, and you shouldn’t either.  The ego issue is very dangerous for both of you and your company.

Founders need to have a healthy balance of ego.  On one side you need to have an almost superhuman confidence about yourself and your vision because that is the only way you can get thorough the really tough times of starting the journey.  But – and THIS IS A BIG BUT – you also need to understand you are not Superman and the company can actually succeed with someone else at the helm.  You aren’t the only person on earth who can identify a market, describe a vision, build a team, sell customers and increase monthly revenue.  Other people can do that too.  And even with you still on the team.

More importantly, others might be able to do it all better than you.

So, take Jonathan’s example and learn from it.  Sometimes removing yourself from the most scrutinized and stressful position in the company is the best decision for everyone involved.

Even you.

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