7 Keys to a Successful Partnership Between CEO and Founder

by | Aug 20, 2020

THE BIG IDEA

For an incoming CEO, building a deep, trusting relationship with your continuing founder partner is much like investing in a successful marriage. It requires hard work, intentionality, proactiveness, and ongoing investment.

This is among the most important relationships in a CEO’s world, and well worth the investment. A strong Founder-CEO bond can make everything that follows easier and more enjoyable.

 

KEY SUCCESS FACTORS:

  • Build trust, connection and understanding by spending time together, empathizing and listening; use this understanding to plan how best to work together to meet your shared goals for the company
  • Communicate often, openly and without ego
  • Honor, respect and celebrate your founder partner.

 

* * * * *

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that bringing a new CEO into a founder’s business is like gaining a spouse. Anyone who has had a significant other move into the 1-br flat that they had been used to habitating themself for years prior understands what this feels like. You now have to think twice about leaving those dirty dishes sitting on the counter, ordering in Chinese food 6 nights per week, or blaring your favorite 80’s music and dancing like it never went out of style.

Change of either sort isn’t easy, but can offer an opportunity for the rich and successful relationship that neither person could experience on their own.

Follow these seven pieces of advice from those who have been-there-done-that, and you’ll be on the path towards building an awesome relationship with your founder partner where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. (Spoiler alert: Like a marriage, it’s all about communication.)

But first, know this: This relationship, like most, will have its inevitable ups and downs. Just like you don’t really know your spouse until you’ve seen them step on a Lego at 3 am, you’ll soon see sides of your partner you haven’t gotten to know during courting.

When obstacles arise, and difficult discussions need to be had, you need the trust, respect and goodwill of your partner to work through them.

 

1. Mindful Courting 101 – Laying a foundation of understanding and trust.

You both swiped right. You want to take this next step together. Now what? How can you begin to create the right chemistry – the kind that will lead to a successful, happy, and long-lasting partnership?

The starting point is simple: Invest in getting to know one another as whole people. Share your story with your founder partner, and ask him or her to share theirs. Find out about family, hobbies, and favorite foods. You will connect more quickly and more deeply over golf, Breaking Bad or tacos than your will over inventory or gross margins.

Also, no one goes on a second date with someone who spends the whole night talking about themselves…. so actively listen, empathize, and ask questions.  Reciprocate by being open and vulnerable yourself—great relationships are a two-way street.

 

2. Date Night is A Must – Sharing hopes, dreams and fears to create strong understanding of one another.

If courting is where you learn the basics about your intended’s family, hobbies and delights, date night is when you dig deeper to learn about their hopes and dreams and fears, and what makes them really tick. Get to know the good, the bad and the ugly.

Whether you’re a newlywed or a CEO, the need for a deep bond with your partner cannot be overstated; it is critically important to everything that follows in the business (ever heard of the importance of the “tone at the top?”)

Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group states it simply: “To be successful in business, and in life, you need to connect and collaborate with those who you work most closely with.

Plan “date night” with some regular cadence to keep the connection growing (and don’t skip or reschedule it — this relationship should be your biggest priority!). Your willingness and ability to proactively forge this bond will have big impact on the “in-the-business” dealings with your partner.

CASE-IN-POINT: LINKEDIN


The relationship between Founder Reid Hoffman and CEO Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn, is an example of the power of a trusting relationship. Says Jeff Weiner, “I didn’t join LinkedIn in spite of Reid. I joined in large part because of Reid and the opportunity to work with and learn from one of the most talented and thoughtful people I know. As I often explain to people, if Reid weren’t LinkedIn’s founder and chairman, he would have been the first person I asked to join the board. In addition to the respect I have for Reid, a major part of why the transition worked as smoothly as it did was because of the way we each handled it.”

 

3. Everybody Has a Past – Respect and honor your partner’s.

Your partner has arrived to this place in life doing it their way. Now, there is a “We”.

Founders have built something from scratch, taken personal risks and invested their heart and soul into a venture. So selling their company can bring with it a bundle of new emotions for them. Be compassionate. Create the space for them to share what they’re going through, what’s on their mind, and how they are feeling. Listen intently, empathize, and make them feel felt. In doing this, you’ll transform yourself from a colleague or successor, to a friend and partner.

An important way to honor your Founder partner and their journey is to ask for their advice, opinions, and help – particularly when it comes to your relations with his/her people. You’ll learn a lot and strengthen ties at the same time.

Further, you don’t need to rush to make your mark as the incoming leader. Sit back, listen, and observe. Before you reach for the organization chart with a red pen in hand, remember it took your fiancée 3 months before he suggested that 12 throw pillows on the 3-seater couch were a few too many. Pace yourself, and when decisions need to be made that run counter to the decisions the founder had made in the past, work to ensure that the founder is onboard.

CASE-IN-POINT: EBAY


Meg Whitman joined Founder Pierre Omidyar in 1998 and took the company from 30 employees to more than 10,000. “The tendency when you come in from outside is to prove yourself by finding what’s going wrong,” Whitman has said. She suggests a counterintuitive approach: Find out what’s going right first. Although it may seem that identifying and correcting problems is the best way to add value early in a new job, focusing first on what’s being done well is a valuable way to learn about the company culture.

 

4. Everyone Loves a Compliment – Dole them out generously and genuinely.

Part and parcel with honoring their past, publicly and privately complement your founder partner (and everyone you work with) in ways that are timely and authentic. (Remember: Research shows that top performing teams offer five positive comments to every one negative remark made to colleagues.)

Try to be specific and personal in how you complement your founder partner. “I’m really impressed with how you have structured our service team – they are very efficient.” The key is to be aware of not crossing the line from sincerity to gratuitous flattery.

A marriage analogy: If your husband randomly says, “You look hotter than [insert attractive person] today,” you might be suspicious that he wants something—like to ditch that couples book club meeting for an afternoon of golf with his friends.

 

5. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – Communicate regularly, be specific, and talk it through.

Overcommunicate with your founder partner in the first 90 days, in order to be transparent and model the type of communication you want in return.

Be in the regular habit of sharing with them, things like “Here’s what I’m up to…” “Here’s what I’m thinking…” “Here’s what I’m excited about…” and “Here’s what I’m concerned about.”

Strive to achieve absolute candor in the way that you communicate with one another (which is something you should explicitly design into your alliance, above), and ensure they know that you’re doing so in a way that come from a place of deep respect, caring.

Nothing makes a partner worry like radio silence. Tell each other everything all the time until you develop some shorthand. Decide what warrants a meeting, call, text, or message. This effort goes hand in hand with #6…..

CASE-IN-POINT: WARREN BUFFET AND CHARLIE MUNGER


In his 2010 book Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner analyzed many successful high profile relationships, including Warren Buffet and vice-chairman Charlie Munger: “[Warren’s] tough and he has a [business] partner who has an enormous influence on him. They talk to each other all the time. Warren is the enthusiast and Charlie is the pessimist. If Charlie only hates a project, as opposed to despising it or getting physically ill over the idea, then they will go forward. They don’t have systems or analysts. They do it themselves. They talk it through.”

 

6. Who Gets the Remote Control? Who Takes Out the Garbage? – Create clarity and alignment on who does what, and how decisions are made.

For go-getter’s like many CEOs, it can be tempting to want to get in there, put your head down, and just “get to work.” But too often, we skip past an opportunity to be intentional about defining with our partner about how we’re going to work together. A little bit of time and intentionality upfront can save lots of time, frustration, confusion as you move ahead.

Clearly define your roles, and how you’ll engage with one another in those roles. Consider and discuss details like who meets with customers, who kicks off the staff meetings, who does performance reviews, and who has the ability to make which decisions.

Intentionally split the chores: knowing who does the laundry and who does the dishes upfront reduces potential tension, manages expectations, and makes for smoother sailing. Discuss how your skill sets compliment each other and what, therefore, you should each take on. As important as who does what is how will we be with one another? In coaching lingo, this is called “Designing the Alliance”. To support each other in work and life you must cooperate with intention and discuss things like “What do you need from me to be successful?” “How do you want me to show up in situations where you’re the lead?” Be specific.

 

7. The Little Things Are The Big Things – Practice appreciation and assimilation.

Know how you feel when your spouse empties the dishwasher without being asked or texts “I’ve got dinner”? Small, thoughtful gestures truly strengthen relationships and inspire reciprocation. If you furnish the break room with a new coffee maker, or you show up at the staff meeting with muffins, you demonstrate you’re part of the team.

Know how you couldn’t care less about hockey, but your fiancée has season tickets and a tattoo of his favorite team’s mascot? That’s a signal to learn the rules, pick up a jersey and watch some games. If your colleagues go for Thursday night drinks or play paintball every month, show up with spirit and get involved; show respect and enthusiasm for valued cultural rituals.

 

Bonus Tip: Refer Back to #2

Even when you have several years under your belt, your relationship is stable and you’ve fallen into a comfortable routine, date night remains a must. Just as in a marriage, strive to keep that spark and connection alive. People evolve. Hopes and dreams and fears change. Don’t let them go unspoken. One of the most successful CEOs that I have worked with made it a point to go on a hike (the founder’s favorite activity) with his founder partner—every month over the 7 years that they worked together!

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