Why do Founding CEOs struggle with “being firm?”

Close up image of businessman clenching fume in fist“…this leadership stuff is still quite new to me…sometimes you have to be the boss, sometimes you have to be firm with people…that’s one thing that I have struggled with as the team has grown…”

This is what Nathan Chan, Publisher and Editor of Foundr Magazine, said to me during a recent podcast interview. He is the Founder and CEO of a rapidly growing media company with Foundr Magazine as its flagship.

I took notice of his authentic response to my “what’s your current leadership struggle,” because he also interviews many Founding CEOs. To hear this from him made me stop and think more about his response.

Most Founding CEOs I encounter are not very focused on their title and the positional power and authority that comes with the title of CEO. The comment “titles are not too important around here” is a pretty common refrain from Founding CEOs of modern day startups. Whether it’s an egalitarian viewpoint, the realities of a small company shifting out of its infancy stage, or simply a desire to focus on growing the company, some of you seem to downplay your authority and struggle when it’s time “to be firm with people.”

What’s this all about?

To be fair to Nathan, his comment had context. He was talking about giving someone on his team the space and autonomy to “give it a go” first, allow them the opportunity try something their way before potentially directing them to do it another way.  He was suggesting that sometimes you have to be “firm” about giving feedback to a team member whose chosen approach or course of action produces poor results or conflicts with the culture, values, and expectations of your company.

He also said you may have to “be firm” if their behaviors are “out of line” or even threaten the viability of your company. You would probably agree that there are times being “firm” is necessary. Right?

But, what does this really mean? I think this is not so much a management style issue as it is an influencing and performance management issue. I think it gets down to understanding the range of options that exist between CEO positional power and CEO personal power.

As a Founding CEO, your influencing toolkit needs to expand as your company expands. A natural consequence of growth is ensuring your team of leaders develop the culture you desire to establish in your company. I agree with Joel Trammell, author of The CEO Tightrope: How to Master the Balancing Act of a Successful CEO. He writes, “…the CEO must constantly observe and manage for the culture he wants.”


So, why does this idea of using positional power, or “being firm” when it is called for, seem difficult for Founding CEOs like Nathan? Here are a few observations.

  • You recruited your team and it can become challenging to transition a likely friend relationship into one where accountability and performance become increasingly important.
  • Sometimes “being firm” or holding someone “accountable” can be perceived as “being mean.” Who likes being perceived as “mean?”
  • As you move more and more into the CEO role, expectations of YOU change. You may sense that some of your leaders now expect “firmness” from you. Using “positional power” may simply be a new experience for you.
  • As a Founding CEO, most of you try to be fair. You may have three leaders who are exerting a significant amount of energy trying to keep the company moving forward in a positive direction. But, you may have another who is not. You may feel the awkward pressure from those that are performing to take action, “be firm,” or use your CEO positional power with that leader who may not be performing to expectations.
  • Roles and responsibilities change as the company grows. That means your team leaders are learning, growing, and adjusting to their changing roles…just like you. The exact recipe for success in their role is somewhat of a moving and developing target. It can be hard to determine the best approach.
  • Maybe you are caught off guard and never imagined that you would have team members who did not share the same level of motivation, passion, and attention to detail to make the company you founded a great one.
  • You may not be aware that “being firm” is just one tactic that comes from one source of power amongst a continuum of power and influence techniques.

Other Options

It’s this latter observation that I would like to offer some assistance.

It’s possible to look at power from two perspectives. On one side you have positional power and the other side you have personal power. With positional power, like that vested in a CEO, you have several types of influence tactics you can choose from that flow from your position and not you as a person.

  • You might use the inherent power that flows from your position and leverage that to “be firm.” This often takes the form of directing someone to do something a certain way.
  • You might use your position as the CEO and ultimate arbiter of your company’s reward system to provide something of value like a bonus or paid vacation.
  • You might withhold rewards and even punish someone as a result of your positional power.

All of these tactics flow from the authority you created when you founded the company, stayed on as the CEO, and hired people to do some work.

But, there is another end of this spectrum. You can use your personal power, without the title and position of CEO being the source of power.

  • You can inform, inspire, or even create a personal appeal.
  • You can use your expertise and knowledge to create a rational argument.
  • You can seek out understanding of your team members’ individual personal motivators and connect their motivators with the business’ needs for a mutually beneficial outcome.
  • You can use your relationships with influential people.
  • You can even use your network to help someone build a coalition.

My point is a simple, but nuanced one. As the Founding CEO, you don’t have to rely on only one dimension of power to influence the performance of your team members.

Like Nathan, “being firm” is arguably the least comfortable for a relatively new Founding CEO. You probably even have the least experience with this approach. It flows from your relatively new positional power, not the familiar personal power that you likely used when you recruited you team members. So, strive to add additional tools to your “influence toolkit,” from both sides of the power spectrum.

Besides, what happened the last time you directly or indirectly told someone to do something simply because of the CEO position you hold? In my experience, the impact of that approach is often fleeting. Just ask my kids. 😉

What other influencing techniques do you use to enhance the performance of your team? Let’s us know so other Founding CEOs in our community can learn from your success.

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