September 29, 2022

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #138 – How Founder CEOs Self-Destruct Under Pressure, Part 2

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from Carter Cast and Brooke Vuckovic’s HBR Article September 9, 2022

Controlling What’s Comfortable

An initially positive behavior can turn negative. Founder/CEOs do need to dive into the details, especially during challenging times, to get a handle on problems and show appropriate urgency. But this behavior becomes negative if it bleeds into micromanagement. One founder began obsessing about the expense tracking system to avoid engaging with the executive team on big-picture strategic issues. This behavior speaks to a need for control, often by reverting to a founder’s technical skill set where they once felt very competent. The founder/CEO who was an engineer dives deeply into product specs, instead of meeting with investors to review strategy. The founder who was a former marketer obsesses with the latest website look and feel.

Another way of “moving toward” is focusing intently on one or two sympathetic investors and communicating only with them, while avoiding others who ask tough questions. Cast and Vuckovic watched one founder ghost four board members, not responding to their inquiries, while being fawning and ingratiating to two board members to curry support as business performance deteriorated.

The remedy here is to keep an eye on the fundamental drivers of firm value. Cast & Vuckovic’s first counsel to founder/CEOs is to audit their current schedule, removing themselves from low impact activities. They recommend asking the question: “Must this be me?” If yes, proceed; if no, then they are probably doing work below their scope of responsibilities and need to empower those they have hired to do the work (and who are often more expert). Richard Branson, entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Atlantic among other ventures, is a big proponent of delegating to encourage collaboration, while also helping entrepreneurs channel their energy into what they uniquely can do. Branson’s advice to entrepreneurs is to “focus on the big picture and achieve the things you need to do make your product or service stand out.”

But delegating to others and freeing themselves up will be hard for founder/CEOs who seek the comfort of holding on tightly. To counter this tendency, leaders can ask their team directly: “What activities or meetings do you see me involved in that I need not be?” Instead of being overly involved, the founder/CEO can shift from being actively involved to simply being consulted, or from being consulted to being merely updated.

An audit of external meetings forces a founder/CEO to see whether they are spending their time with the right range of advisors at the right frequency, versus operating on autopilot. Such an audit is a relatively simple, but powerful exercise. First, make a list of key advisors, then go through the calendar from the past quarter to map the frequency of meetings with each. The founder/CEO can then adjust as needed in the coming months. Cast & Vuckovic find that most founder/CEOs who “move towards” only one or two (controllable) advisors don’t realize what has happened until they see the evidence on paper.

Final Counsel

With most founder/CEOs, these three patterns of negative behaviors are often rooted in a lack of self-awareness regarding how they behave under stressful conditions. A few tips they routinely give founder/CEOs:

Understand their Typical Behavioral Patterns Under Pressure

If founder/CEOs don’t know their patterns, they counsel them to ask trusted team members or mentors/counselors. Most problematic behaviors are glaringly obvious to others. If leaders are genuinely open to listening, a powerful question for them to ask is, “What’s one of my traits that you see getting in my/our way under pressure?” There is some magic to asking for just one trait as it requires people to prioritize, while also keeping the founder/CEO from being overwhelmed. And the leader’s answer to this feedback should always be, “Thank you.” Rebuttals or excuses ruin the conversation.

Tune in to “Loving Critics”

These are the mentors, management consultants, peer advisors, coaches, and even board members who understand them and the situations they’re facing. Some powerful strategies to explore include: engaging with the executive team in pre-mortems about a particularly ambitious, pet initiative to de-bias thinking or assigning a loving critic the task of calling out the leader whenever they slip into a behavior they’re trying to curb.


Gather the management team around a whiteboard and conduct a “start/stop/continue” exercise by asking: “What should I/we start doing to improve our performance? Stop doing? Continue doing? How might I/we reinforce our key cultural tenets?” Getting everyone involved brings issues out into the open and increases buy-in.

Develop Stress Reduction Routines

Sleeping better (adults who sleep fewer than eight hours a night report higher stress levels), eating healthier (foods rich in omega-3 promote blood flow, which is reduced in times of stress), and exercising more (it reduces the number of poor mental health days by more than 40%), and mindfulness practices (yoga, meditation, etc.) can all yield significant benefits. Regularly taking time for fresh air and/or to have a cup of coffee with friends, socializing, and staying close to nature can provide significant benefits. This can be a tough sell, though, because founder/CEOs are among the most time-starved individuals. The helpful adage for them is: small moments; many times. They advise founder/CEOs to start small (5-minute meditation sessions vs. 30 minutes); partner where they can (healthy meal prep services can save hours) and look for “two-fers” (such as walking meetings or going to a greenspace instead of a dark restaurant with friends).

Finally, Cast & Vuckovic encourage founder/CEOs to take the long view, far beyond the current economic contraction. This means embracing challenging times as a valuable opportunity to build credibility in the organization, with their investors, and in the marketplace.

Since over 60% of our work involves family owned, founder led and private equity backed clients, we find Cast & Vuckovic’s observations extremely valuable. That fact is none of us are perfect and it is impossible for us to diagnose ourselves. Give us a call and let’s have a conversation.

Warmest Regards,


Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory