Getting CEOs and Business Founders Onside


Whether you’re trying to influence the CEO, or the founding owner of the business, it can seem like an impossible task at times. There are reasons for this – after all, they built the business and may be finding it hard to let go of the reins. Once you understand how to get inside the head of your business, you can create real change. This issue dominated our recent Director’s Development Forum, so we decided to explore this topic in our latest blog.


Who’s holding the business back?

We had a range of different businesses in the room, and yet, despite their different sectors or company size, every person shared similar challenges. The burning issue in the room seemed to be where an original founder of each business was either heavily involved in terms of delivery or focused on small details that did not require their input.

Some of the main problems arising from the founders included:

  • Lack of vision or a strategy for the business.

  • Lack of communication or inability to influence upwards.

  • Deflated managers not eager to drive change or take the lead.

  • Family business; avoiding communication to prevent any conflict.

  • Unable to react to rapid growth despite the need for extra resource.

  • Other people in the business not doing what they should be doing who need ‘managing’ out.

  • Senior management having to push back on petty involvement when they are trying to get on with jobs.

  • Owner is a 'client magnet’, schmoozing with clients instead of allowing other people to manage client relationships.

  • Lack of understanding around remuneration; what's needed to achieve promotions and incentives for employee rewards.

It can be really difficult for owners to stop being 'player-managers', especially when they are still heavily involved in day-to-day operations. This results in a seemingly endless ‘push-pull’ situation, where senior managers feel trapped and unable to move forwards because the leader of the business is unable to make key decisions for the benefit of the business.

Challenges or secrecy around pay levels may be due to a level of embarrassment regarding their wealth; it can be hard for a founder to share their pay or the salaries of other employees. What’s more, along the way, founders will have made certain mistakes, which is why they react to situations by always stepping in when they see potential issues arising.

Challenges with 'managing upwards'

Many of the problems being discussed at our Directors Development Forum were viewed as potentially putting the business at risk and there was a clear need to release at least two of the owners being discussed in case they were in danger of ruining the business. So, how do you get the founders to take a step back? We need to recognise that the original founding owner has put a lot of effort into their business over the years.

All of the originators discussed in the room have different traits and characters, and some have very strong personalities. From their perspective, they have built the business to where it is today, so they may not wish to think about a future where they are not part of the company. They may lack the passion to drive the business forwards. They may not want the company to be a big business and cannot see the need for expansion. It usually takes around 5 years for an owner to leave their business. These factors may account for the lack of vision or strategy - until their priorities change, they may be content in running the business as it is.

However, when an originator does not allow people to make mistakes (within reason), they run the risk of senior managers and directors not being given the chance to learn. Despite the fact they may actively ask for involvement from senior management teams, they are often guilty of undermining managers who need to be trusted to do their jobs. In many ways, smaller businesses have more ownership and engagement at this level. However, changes can occur when a company floats, buys in other business portfolios and client bases, and when there are changes in share options to incentivise manager earnings.

How to take the lead

If you want a founding owner to take a step back, so you can ‘take the reins’, you will need to prove yourself to them. By this, I mean pushing back on their decisions if you do not agree with them - challenge why you felt a decision was unsuitable and create a robust argument.

If you want to get your opinions noticed, you need to knock on the owner’s door; take a leap of faith and convey your ideas for the business. You need to be passionate; most owners like being challenged, so if you're showing ambition for the business, this will build confidence and their trust in your abilities.

If you want to be a successor, you need to bring something to the party. You need to show the CEO or founding owner exactly what's at stake if things remain the same. Look at your role in the business and how you could strategically add something that will change the business – for example, design a new pay structure or carry out some resource planning, but always show the potential impact to owner.

  • Develop a senior leadership team for support and to ‘manage out’ higher involvement.

  • Encourage founders to take on more responsibility, so they can make key decisions for the business instead of being distracted by delivery.

  • Build a business case: shortlist key problems affecting the business and create an achievable action plan and proposals to help take the business forward.

  • Create a vision or business plan and present this to the CEO or founding owner.

  • Demonstrate your hunger to overcome performance issues by explaining how you can deal with those issues.

If there are family connections within the business, this tends to pose an additional challenge - for example, sons and daughters may not want to fail in front of their mother or father. However, whether you are in a family-owned business or a large company, you need to find creative ways to move the owner on and out. Never wait for permission to step forward. If you don't get the reaction you would like, bring in others from within the business to support your ideas. People only get to the top by knocking on the door, and not waiting for permission. You need to stimulate founding owners by pitching new ideas with vigour. And my last piece of advice - keep pushing!

Interested in our Directors Development Forum?

Our Directors Development Forum is a great way of bringing together business directors to share valuable experiences and best practice. The aim is to provide guidance, mentoring and support, so you can leave this forum with helpful ideas, useful advice and inspiration, as well as meeting like-minded people. Our Directors Forum will be on 5th September, 14th September, 1st November and 14th November 2018 if you’re a director and you’re interested in coming along, please...