Founder, not CEO

In November I decided to step aside as CEO of Sanctus and we hired an exceptional new CEO (Chris Slater).

It’s 7 months on and I’ve had more reflections on the transition.

Today I want to share some thoughts and observations on a transition and separation in roles that seems to be coming more common in the startup ecosystem. More Founders are deciding not to be CEOs.

Here a few well known examples.

• Ben Francis at Gymshark. Hired a CEO and now stepped back into CEO role.
• Julian Hearn isn’t the CEO at Huel.
• Ella Mills isn’t the CEO of Deliciously Ella
• Charlotte Tillbury isn’t the CEO of Charlotte Tillbury
• Tom Blomfield stepped down as CEO of Monzo.
• Joe Wicks isn’t the CEO of The Body Coach.

I see that there is becoming a much clearer distinction between Founder and CEO and many more entrepreneurs and businesses are separating out the two roles.

When I was considering making this move myself I spoke to a lot of Founders and I saw the following patterns.

1. Founders who grow to absolutely love being a CEO. They love the challenge of growing a team, hiring people, setting a strategy and developing on a personal level in a CEO capacity.

2. Founders who are stuck. They’re stressed, anxious and don’t know why. They’re out of their depth doing a job they don’t want to be doing in a company that is growing faster than they are.

3. Entrepreneurial founders. They’re in a CEO role but are still acting like a founder and causing absolute chaos, changing their mind every 5 minutes, not holding people accountable and/or making rash decisions.

4. Founders who leave. They get disillusioned with their business/startup and make the decision to leave because they fall out of love with it. Often because they are not doing work that fulfils them.

5. Burned out founders. Similar to the above. The stress gets too much and their mental health is affected so they have to leave or they break down and the business breaks.

6. "Unicorn" Founders. The business grows at such an exceptional rate that they are always in a Founder role as the CEO. The Founder and CEO role are deeply intertwined in this instance.

I felt quite saddened speaking to a lot of peers who didn’t make a transition from Founder to CEO and ended up leaving their business for whatever reason. I’ve met lots of Founders along the way who on some level have grown to resent the very business they have started and poured so much love and hard work into.

I felt saddened too by the many Founders I meet who are in a job they don’t enjoy, simply because they feel like they have to be. Every Founder I have ever met starts their entrepreneurial journey with a zest and a hunger. To see this fizzle out into the stress of a 9-6 or more like 8-10, is very sad.

I felt really inspired too and deeply impressed by Founders who grow into CEO roles in a really authentic way. It’s incredible to see Founders who are CEO of their business from 5 to 20 years in. Simon Rogerson who is Founder & CEO of Octopus Group is someone I am incredibly inspired by. 20 years into Octopus and he still absolutely loves it.

The type of business that the Founder creates adds to the dynamic. Founders of businesses of all shapes and sizes get trapped. Yet Founders with VC backers seem more likely to get stuck in the dream they sold someone and feel like they can’t open up and be honest about their own fulfilment.

Founders with bootstrapped businesses or businesses that are profitable do seem more able to accommodate themselves and focus on their own happiness.

Something I really struggled with as I made my own decision about the best place for me in my business, was the pressure I put on myself to get it “right” and to try and fit in with what others do.

I felt a pressure to follow some sort of playbook or some form of blueprint and whilst I did find inspiration I didn’t find a carbon copy Founder or business that I could just follow in the footsteps of. Every Founder is different, with different skills and different desires. Therefore every business is different too, with different products, a different team and different growth horizons. Therefore I think we have to accept that every single business is inherently unique in the way it is structured and the dynamics between teams and leaders in the business. This often comes to light with COO roles where the role is very much different in every business depending on the current CEO.

I am a certain type of Founder with specific skills and specific areas where I am very weak. I score very high on anything public facing; PR, thought leadership, public speaking and the essence of the Sanctus brand. I’m also quite handy when it comes to fundraising too. I am really not good at people management or distilling a vision into a strategy, which are core skills needed as a CEO.

Therefore I carved out the Founder role as PR, thought leadership and fundraising. Then the CEO in our business is focused on execution, strategy alignment, performance, scaling and team management.

I got some feedback from people that this might look more like a COO or you could even call it an MD. Ultimately it’s words and letters and you can call roles in your business whatever you want. In our case I’m the Founder and Chris is CEO, that distinction is clear and it empowers Chris to lead Sanctus in the way he believes is right with my support at a board and peer level.

I find the obsession with the CEO title fascinating. I said for a long time I didn’t care whether I was CEO or not, yet then when I gave myself that title I must say I did get quite attached to it. I started to associate my identity with it; “I am a CEO”. I’ll be honest it made me feel important, it made me feel powerful. My ego grew to bloody love the CEO title.

In the end, for me, if I retained the CEO title and brought someone in under me as an MD or COO I don’t believe id’ have let go in a way that would support Sanctus to grow or the person to come in and feel like they could make decisions and changes, I’d still be in command and control mode. Letting go of the title was a big thing for me and I think it’s made everything better for me and the team.

This a topic I’m fascinated by and think we’re going to hear more about, as more Founders become more aware of their mental health and what fulfils them, more businesses will take this route.

Investors have a job to do to make this path accessible to people and teams can also help too. Ultimately though it’s got to be the Founder who works out what they want to do and what job they want in the company they start.

James x


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