Startup Life/Opinion/

Founders, you don’t have to be CEO

Founders don’t always make the best CEOs or enjoy the job — and it shouldn’t be taboo to admit that and find someone else.

Credit: James Routledge, Founder of Sanctus
James Routledge

By James Routledge

“I’m not enjoying my job.”

This was the subject title of an email I sent to a startup founder community I’m in, about 18 months ago. 

It was embarrassing to admit that I wasn’t enjoying being a CEO. On paper I had everything I’d always wanted. Product market fit, supportive investors, a great brand, a great team, an impactful product and a noble mission — all in a fast-growing market. Yet something didn’t feel right. I was feeling anxious before leadership team meetings. I was stuck on decisions; I felt really low. 

Being the founder of an early-stage company is very different to being the CEO of a scaleup. The CEO role just wasn’t a fit for me. I like starting things. I’m creative, I’m entrepreneurial, and I don’t enjoy managing people or leading a team. I couldn’t be myself as a CEO. And I couldn’t give the team the structure and support they needed to grow and operate efficiently. 

I stepped down as CEO, and we hired a replacement last year. It was one of the best moves I’ve ever made for myself, my mental health, my relationships and my business. 

I stepped down as CEO, and we hired a replacement last year. It was one of the best moves I’ve ever made for myself, my mental health, my relationships and my business. 

The evolution of the CEO role from early to late stage 

In the tech startup world, it’s rare for founders to step down as CEOs until the very late stages. Look at Tom Blomfield at Monzo — he stepped down as CEO when they’d already achieved unicorn status and had around 1,000 staff globally. He’s been very public and candid about his experience and his struggles with his mental health along the way. 

So why do founders feel like they have to be a CEO?

It makes total sense in the early years, when you’re at the pre-seed or seed stage when the business is just you or it’s you and your cofounders. Someone has to be the CEO by default. Plus, in the early stages, the CEO is less of a defined role. The CEO might mean head of product, finance and people all at the same time in addition to being the ultimate decision-maker for the business. 

As a business scales and hires more functional specialists, founders have to learn to let go of certain responsibilities. They have to acknowledge perhaps that they aren’t the best person for that particular role, and hire the CMO or the CPO the business really needs. This natural growth process is healthy, yet it leaves founders vulnerable to an existential search for their place on the team, especially founders from a commercial background. Technical founders might find this a little easier and fall naturally into a CTO or CPO role.

At the same time, a CEO’s responsibilities and deliverables become clearer in the scale-up period. These include hiring, fundraising, overall business direction and people management. These might not be the responsibilities that make the founder happy and they might not be his or her strong suit, as was my experience. It’s not healthy for a founder’s mental health.

It’s not good for the company either. The founder has an influential voice in the company that can stifle other opinions even if they aren’t making the right decision. A founder ill-fitted for the CEO role can adopt unhealthy expectations and ill-considered objectives that lead the business in the wrong way. (Of course, if the founder is in the right place, there’s nobody better in the world for that role.) 

How founders can avoid CEO burnout

Here’s what I think founders can do before they get to the unhappy state that I experienced:

  • Reflect on what you actually want to do for your job. What fills you up? What do you want to get out of bed every day and do? 
  • Ask for help. Open up to your advisors, other cofounders, board, chair, friends or partner. Be selfish and talk about what you’re enjoying or not enjoying. 
  • Get a coach. As a founder, it’s hard to have an impartial and confidential space because everyone always wants something from you. A good coach can be transformational for both your personal and professional development. You might want to open up about issues in your family life or issues you’re facing at work. Together you can work through limiting beliefs or different tactics to change things for yourself and relieve some stress or anxiety. The best place to go looking for coaches is usually to get recommendations from peers or other founders — some VCs may even cover the cost. Or you can bring in a coaching provider for you and your team so others in the business feel the benefit too (full disclosure this is what my business, Sanctus does).
  • Don’t just follow the status quo. You started a business to do something different. Just because Zuckerberg did it one way, doesn’t mean you have to. 

As the barriers to building a business become even lower, we’re going to see even more types of founders. Influencers, ex-bankers, coders, kids in their bedroom — so many uniquely talented individuals will build incredible companies. Not all of them will want to be CEO. But all should be celebrated. 

James Routledge is the founder of Sanctus and author of ‘Mental Health at Work’.

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