For Founders, it has always been and never ceases to be a matter of trust.
Building trust with a Founder is a critical – and perhaps most challenging – factor for any member of the leadership team. Founders have put an extraordinary level of determination and effort to bring their dream product or business into reality. This is more than a job to the Founder – this is their baby. Any parent or even pet owner can appreciate that level of attachment and commitment.
For that reason, whether you are a board member, C-Suite leader, or chosen successor, creating and maintaining the trust of the Founder is the cornerstone of your success.
At Egon Zehnder, we have studied at length Founders and the role that trust plays in their lives. We have uncovered the elements essential to building Founder trust. We display this information in the form of a radar for a reason. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to creating a trusting relationship. But we have found commonalities – frameworks of behaviors and mindsets – that emerge frequently in conversations with Founders and those they trust. The trick for any individual leader is to find the place on the Trust Radar in which your specific Founder sits. When you understand that, your path to a trusting relationship becomes clear.
The Trust Radar reveals potential entry points into the trust zone of a Founder.
Let’s look first at three behaviors that can open the door to a Founder’s trust:
- Transparency. This means forthright communication. A Founder who appreciates transparency may value a leader who speaks the truth, does not engage in gossip, shares information openly and readily, is solution oriented. This is about transparency in the best interest of the business and suspending one’s own agenda when sharing information.
Results. A Founder who values results will look for individuals who get stuff done, focus on impactful outcomes and are consistently reliable. They will gravitate to people who exhibit a bias to action. To bond with a Founder who trusts results, a leader may look to put “points on the board” and show results quickly. Speed to sustainable impact is key. If an ordinary leader might have 90 days to show results, a Founder with a results orientation may be looking for that kind of outcome in the first 30 days. Often, this is closely correlated with the ability to dive into the details to get to the grit of a problem to unlock it, solve it and deliver outcomes.
Time Together. Some Founders are most trusting of those who have been through fire with them. This is a time-based, contextual kind of trust and it is based on shared experiences; the more grueling and consequential the experiences, the deeper the trust forged. It can generate tremendous loyalty. But it can also be what gets in the way of tough talent decisions.
Now, let’s look at three mindsets or dispositions that can create Founder trust:
- Low Ego. Low ego does not mean lack of confidence; it means a lack of interference with the Founder’s ego. A low ego leader will be focused on the mission instead of their personal trajectory. This individual does not feel the need to play “smartest person in the room” in order to seem important. A low ego mindset is a form of servant leadership – the leader serves the Founder and the company mission above their own goals and aspirations.
Intellect. This mindset puts the leader in the role of mental sparring partner. The leader may possess a wit and clock speed that impresses the Founder, proves an ability to grok details and complexities and perhaps makes the leader seem more like a peer. One leader in a No. 2 position recently told us that he felt it is his intellect that allows him to develop rapport with his Founder boss. We have seen this more than once. The Founder is projecting themselves and their own high IQ on to others who can intellectually keep pace with them.
Sharing Conviction and Vision. For most Founders, this is a must-have. They want to feel as though the leader “gets it” and shares commitment to the mission. The Founder will look for shared behaviors around work ethic, grit and perseverance. This reinforces a Founder’s sense of purpose and it creates an atmosphere of empathy.
While these categories can provide guidance in trust building, there is one more element that trumps them all. That is the bullseye in the Trust Radar – an element that creates a zone of trust no matter all the other factors listed above. It is the zone we call “Trusted by Other Founders.” No matter who comes to work in the organization, no matter who the Founder meets or works with or plays with, the recommendation that matters most to a Founder is the one that comes from another respected Founder. The Founder ecosystem is like a tribe. There are very few people on the planet who can truly appreciate what it is like to have a dream, put your heart and soul into manifesting it, and then trying to manage it in the face of incumbents, adversaries, employee and investor dynamics, and challenging market forces. The pressures and emotions run high. The lows are often deep and lonely. As risk takers and dreamers, Founders are always exposed and vulnerable until their vision becomes a self-funding reality. Founders have few actual peers. As a result, if a leader has been trusted by another Founder in the past, that will speed a trusting relationship with the Founder. In this closed network, a positive and compelling reference from another Founder is an accelerant to trust.
Trust is a complicated emotion and not one easily reduced to general advice. Indeed, building trust with any one Founder will likely demand elements of more than one of the radar points. And that hard earned trust may even evolve over time as relationships and business conditions change.
But putting a focus on the trust issue early is an important foundational component of success when working with a Founder. For the Founder who put so much on the line, trust is a non-negotiable.