The Genius With 1,000 Helpers

“You are a genius. And what you have is 1,000 helpers.”
–Jim Collins, The Tim Ferris Show, 2/20/2019

Good to Great author Jim Collins was describing a charismatic founder who is to their industry what Walt Disney was to the animation industry. Despite the high standard set by that comparison, the comment hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t help but think that Collins was describing every founder I know.

It’s a great time to be a founder. Let’s qualify that statement: It’s a great time to be a founder of a revenue-generating, venture-funded company.

The data proves this. According to TechCrunch, venture-backed companies have raised over $125B in 2021 alone. The mandate from investors is clear. These are optimistic times. You, as a founder, are onto something. Here’s some money, let’s make some more.

As easy it is to raise capital, the challenge of running and growing a business hasn’t gotten any easier. Scaling a founder remains the biggest challenge of all.

The genius founder

If genius results from untiring work over long periods, then every founder building a company is a genius. They know the customer, the product, and the business better than anyone else. At their best, a founder cares about how all of it comes together more than anyone in the company.

Genius, then, is not about the intellectual horsepower or the expertise, but the intuitive feel that a founder gets for the business. They know when to push and when to pull. And at their best, they also know when to get out of the way.

The dark side of a genius founder

A founder is the soul of the company. Their passion is aspirational to those around them, and yet they’re constantly aspiring to be better.

But genius has a dark side. Unchecked, it reveals itself in constant micromanagement and the inability to delegate and provide latitude to leaders.

These behaviors aren’t peculiar to founders. Ineffective managers display them, too. But unlike the professional manager, a founder is a central figure in the company—especially in the early years.

An ineffective manager has little hands-on expertise in running the shop. A founder, on the other hand, has deep institutional knowledge, and many times only they know what they know. This makes them indispensable to the organization. An ineffective manager delegates before they understand, and a micromanaging founder doesn’t delegate at all.

The root cause

A manager is a generalist. Peter F. Drucker notes in The Effective Executive that when stepping into a new situation, a good manager assumes they know little and that problems are generic. They focus on people, processes, and systems and understand that delegation is a cornerstone of management. Their goal is to understand the issue enough to delegate it effectively.

A founder, by definition, is a practitioner. Stuck in a daily routine of constant firefighting, they rarely have time to think strategically. The inability to delegate creates a downward spiral. The daily routine, designed to recognize and trap escalations (as noted in Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead), becomes constant escalation processing.

In the absence of a routine, there is no operational cadence. People don’t know if they can move forward because there isn’t enough information to decide. And there isn’t enough information to decide because everything is in the founder’s head. The founder’s calendar is triple-booked, and they routinely miss meetings, unable to share knowledge.

This organization of intelligent, motivated, passionate people suddenly can’t get anything done. The lack of movement creates distrust, and distrust kills execution.

It’s easy to blame the founder. Phrases like “They’re always busy,” “They’re always jumping in to solve the problem,” “Why did they hire me?” are often used to voice frustrations.

The key is to realize that’s how the company has succeeded thus far—lack of not knowing the solution never stopped the founder from jumping in and figuring it out. This is how the company has grown big enough to hire people.

But as Warren Buffet says, the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they’re too heavy to be broken. The can-do attitude and fearlessness have created feedback loops that reinforced this behavior. And yet, it’s a habit that has to be broken.

Why change?

The first step to breaking a bad habit is to understand why it needs to be broken.

Inability to delegate is terrible for business. As Snowflake CEO Frank Slootman says, “Trust your team, it is the only thing that scales.” If you can’t surround yourself with a team that can grow, expand, and execute with minimal oversight, you’re always going to be in a firefight.

In his book Common Stocks Uncommon Profits, investment legend Philip Fischer ranks management depth among the top 10 signals of high-growth companies. He says that organizations where the leadership interferes with and tries to handle routine day-to-day operations are rarely attractive investments.

At some point, Fischer explains, the personal ability to handle all minutiae is irrelevant. There’s just too much detail for one leader to address. This creates talent stagnation where capable people have not been developed to handle the details, thereby allowing the leader (i.e., the founder) to focus on the further growth that lies ahead.

The fact is that if your company is to grow, you have to delegate. And if you don’t know how to, you must learn.

How to change

Step 1: Encourage irreverence
Prize irreverence—especially from people with trustworthy skills and steadfast character. The friction that comes from debating with smart, hardworking, irreverent people will propel you forward. This becomes essential the bigger the company becomes.

You may not realize it, for it happens slowly, but at some point you stop being “one of us” and become the capital-F Founder. Knowingly or unknowingly, people will self-modulate, or self-correct their thoughts and opinions in the context of what you want to do. Before you know it, you’ve built an echo chamber.

Of course, you must do the usual things like talk less and listen more. But more importantly, you must work hard to be more inclusive when getting feedback. The most candid feedback will come from the renegades, the rebels—the ones with an intrinsic disdain for authority. You must grow them, encourage them, and ensure they don’t give in to apathy.

If you succeed in fostering such a culture, there will always be that one person in the room who will ensure no one gets comfortable with the status quo.

Step 2: Make yourself irrelevant
Wanting to feel appreciated is human. Just like how every parent wants to raise an independent, self-reliant human being who is healthy, happy, and engaged, you need to ensure that your company is self-sustaining.

The only way to do this: Commit to making yourself irrelevant to day-to-day operations. It’ll be emotionally challenging, but it needs to happen. It starts with simple things.

Begin every day by asking yourself, “What can I do today that only I can do?” Ruthlessly defend your calendar, delegate the invite to someone else, defer to the current manager, or delete the invite all together. Make people work hard to pull you into a meeting. It may be painful and counterintuitive, but it’ll break the bad habits you and those around you have formed.

Step 3: Fight your urgency addiction
When it was just you, or you and your co-founders, you did everything.

If you’re a technical founder, you were taking customer phone calls, raising money during the day, and writing code at night.

If you’re a non-technical founder, you were selling, raising money, marketing the product during the day, and working on product-market fit at night. You were constantly working long, tough days. This is especially true if this was your side hustle.

Now you have help. You have smart, hardworking people who are fully capable—so let them do the work. Do you really need to write code, or is your time better spent on the product that will save the company’s bacon in the future? Do you need to run payroll, or can you start working on new business that will be transformative to the company?

To think about these big-arc plays, you have to give yourself the time and space to think. Which means you have to take a dispassionate look at your calendar and question your choices. How much of your workload is because you’ve become habituated to the high that comes from constantly working? Is what you’re working on right now the best use of your time?

This is where surrounding yourself with irreverent people is helpful. They won’t be afraid to call you out on your unproductive habits.

Step 4: Find your Ex-O (There may be multiple)
You have to find your number 2, your Executive Officer. The key is that this person would be your buffer between you and the day-to-day escalations. They’ll ensure that the escalations that bubble up to you indeed require your decision-making skills. At the same time, they’ll keep you informed of developments, major and minor.

This should be someone who can someday do your job better than you and lead your company.

Picking such a person is going to be very hard, as the choice might be counterintuitive. Even the best judges of talent, as Don Valentine put it, are right 52% of the time. For example, if you’re looking to promote someone to be your VP of Engineering, that person will rarely be your best programmer. If not building the next grand cathedral of code, they’d rather be yak shaving than be in a management role.

So yes, you should pick a great candidate—but be aware of the Peter Principle where people rise to the highest level of incompetence. One way to work around this is to create an informal apprenticeship where you include this person in your day-to-day work. Some describe it as a two-in-a-box model. It sets up the person for success because so much of what you do has not been codified.

The two-in-a-box model works because you give people room to make mistakes. Remember: They haven’t learned what’s in your head and probably never will. You’ll never know if you’ve chosen well beforehand. The only way to know is to pick someone ambitious and with the right temperament.

You can start by selective out-tasking or outsourcing parts of your job to this person, but it won’t break you of your habits, nor will it meaningfully solve the problem. Set high and clear expectations and throw them in the deep end of the pool—under your watchful eyes. The right candidate will thrive and do the job better than you ever did. And then you’d have found your number 2.

Sometimes your pick won’t work out. Maybe they’re not the right fit. When this happens, the best you can do is act decisively. As VMware founder Diane Green says, after letting go of someone, you rarely say, “I made that decision at the right time.” Typically, you’ve waited too long. Don’t wait too long. Do them a favor and send them packing—respectfully—to whatever comes next.

If you wear multiple hats in the company, you’ll have to do this exercise multiple times. To be an effective generalist, you’ll have to replace yourself with specialists in that domain.

Progress is a process

The journey is an incredibly personal one, and one that will play out in the open. People around you will see all the improvements you’ve made—along with all the pitfalls. It’s going to be emotional and exhausting.

The biggest challenge will be working through your fear—the fear of not knowing the details, the fear of not being there when things are going wrong, the fear of screwing up. The fear of losing control of your brainchild.

The fact is, all of that will happen and you’ll be okay. As the authors of Riding Shotgun note, there may come a time when you have so many layers around you that, like a good sweater, you might no longer be able to tell the temperature. But if you’ve staffed up your team with iconoclasts, they will call you out before that happens. What’s more is that they’ll let you know of the big storms when the captain needs to be seen on the bridge. As David Ogilvy says in Ogilvy on Advertising: “There is nothing like an occasional all-night push to enliven morale—provided you are part of the push. Never leave the bridge in a storm.”

As a founder, you’ve had your share of recipes that provided a neat checklist to accomplish something, only to find out that the linearity was an illusion. The process may look like an ordered list, but the journey is anything but even. It’s messy and chaotic in a two steps forward, one step back kind of way.

But as a founder, you’re already primed to win this journey. Everything in your path has brought you to this point, to the most challenging part of your skills growth—scaling yourself. Like the challenges you’ve faced in building your product, your company, your story, you will overcome this one as well.

Realize that by being the genius with 1,000 helpers, you’re not just limiting the growth of your company—you’re holding back your personal growth.

More leadership advice

TJ Thinakaran
TJ Thinakaran
EZ Texting

TJ is a founder of EZ Texting. A software engineer by training, TJ has spent two decades building teams across multiple industries, including government, automotive, and telecom. He also serves as an advisor to early stage companies in the Finance, Healthcare, and Big Data spaces. He blogs on Software, Startups, and Simplicity on tjthinakaran.blog
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