Why Expect Founders To Be Managers?

An article on Inc.com speaks about the evolution of founders from “doers” to “leaders”. The presumption is that, to continue to guide and evolve a company’s products or services, the founders need to be in the senior executive roles. What still baffles me is why industry analysts, and even some investors, automatically assume that someone who invented an idea, or was able to sell that idea, is automatically suited to be a CEO?

I have worked with many, many talented technologists in my time. I have also worked with highly skilled testers, excellent sales people and top-notch operations and support professionals. Virtually all of them were imaginative, inventive and had a creative spirit of some kind. Very few of them would make good managers at any level of an organization, and even fewer would be suitable for a CEO/President sort of role. That isn’t where their strengths lie. The best use of their talent is to do what they do, either building products, selling products or supporting/running products.

But there is this pressure for the original inventor to move up and lead the entire organization. Sometimes that can work. There are technologists, testers, sales, support, etc people who are capable of leading and managing organizations. Some are better at running businesses of a particular size than others. But there are a large number of people, whose skills that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, that simply have no business running a business. Some aren’t great leaders. Few are great managers. Some of them can barely keep themselves organized, let alone try to keep control of the dozens of threads associated with running an enterprise.

Some founders can be suitable for senior management roles, including the CEO. People like Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Larry Page are proof that some founders are the best people (or at least competent enough) to lead the ventures they founded. But just because someone had the original idea, and made it successful, doesn’t mean they are the right people to lead the company through the future. I’ve worked with senior executives, including CEOs, who were very good at leading organizations of a particular size, but the company outgrew their strengths. Some were wise enough to find a successor who could execute on the vision, some hung on a bit too long.

I have also seen companies where the founder was the CEO, and shouldn’t have been the person in that job. Just because they founded the company doesn’t automatically a) make them the best person for the top job; and b) automatically entitle them to take that job. Making the founder the CEO past a certain point should almost require that they apply for the job, and prove that they can either do it or grow into it, no different that if you were to hire an outsider to take that same position.

Founders don’t have to be the CEO, or manage groups of people, to continue to drive the company forward. Bill Joy and Andy Bechtolsheim made plenty of contributions to the best days of Sun Microsystems without having to manage huge staffs of people. Sometimes, you want your founder or founders back in the lab, working on the next great idea. You don’t want them managing other people. The best use of their talents isn’t necessarily in press conferences or delivering keynotes at trade shows and conventions.

It reminds me of a scene in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, when Kirk assumes command of the Enterprise to deal with the latest crisis. Spock’s words to Kirk were compelling:

If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.

Wise words. Sometimes the best place for a person’s talent isn’t near the top of the org chart. It is about using a person’s talent where it best serves the organization, and where it best serves that person’s needs and desires.