Founders create culture, indelibly. Even at 50,000+ employees you can see Jeff Bezos’ personality and values at work in every corner of Amazon; similar stories can be told about Apple, Oracle, Bloomberg, and any other founder-led company.
Knowing that every early hire will have a lasting impact on your company culture can be scary for early-stage company founders. I’ve seen teams handle this in one of two ways — one is productive and enabling, the other, not so much.
Let’s start with the negative case…
Founders who fear the impact of strong early hires — which often means they lack confidence in their own ability to lead and set direction — reveal their fear by hiring competent doers who can move the ball down the field without threatening the authority of the founding team.
This works fine for a while — scaling from a founding team of two or three to an operation of 10 or even 20 employees — but it comes back to bite the company *hard* when they try to break through that level and scale up to 50 or 100.
Because they haven’t build a bench of leaders capable of independent strategic thought and action, all important decisions still have to flow through the founders. Complexity in the business has increased by this point, but there aren’t enough empowered leaders at the top to process and manage the complexity. Decision-making begins to slow down and innovation suffers as more and more of the founders’ finite time is taken up with operational firefighting.
The net result of fearful hiring over time is a company and culture that is no longer capable of explosive growth.
Now for the happy case…
Founders who have a bedrock belief in themselves as leaders — and I’ll admit that this often looks like something close to arrogance — take the exact opposite approach: they go out of their way to hire people who outshine them in important ways, and then they give those people as much responsibility and latitude as they can handle.
In the short-term, this can create some weird company dynamics — lots of strong personalities at the top usually means more frequent and intense debates about product and strategy, not to mention a hotter burn rate and bigger bites from the cap table.
But the benefits quickly start to outweigh the costs as the company begins to scale:
- recruiting in every function gets easier, because each discipline has a leader who can attract and close other high performers in the discipline;
- strategic thinking and innovation accelerate, because the founders have more capacity to work on it, and better thought partners to refine it with;
- organizational friction goes down (or at least stays under control), because the strong leaders in each discipline spread the load and remove founder-centric bottlenecks.