Stage 4 of the Founder’s Evolution is the single greatest shift in the entire journey. Your entire history as a founder and a leader up to this point has taught you the skill of winning the game on the field.
In Stage 1, you learned the skills of the very best players out there.
In Stage 2, you dove in and learned in real-time, real-life what it takes to win.
In Stage 3, you focused on what you did best while learning to keep everything else moving through others.
You won by working, by doing. And the simple fact that you have made it this far is proof that you’ve done all of that exceptionally well.
Few people in business are capable of doing what you’ve done. It takes a special kind of person to see the vision you had for your organization when everyone else said it was impossible. It takes a particular type of person to get back up after getting knocked down as many times as you have. It takes a special kind of person to master as many tasks as you have just to keep your organization afloat.
No matter how you slice it, if you’ve made it to Stage 4, you have earned a phenomenal degree of success.
Unfortunately, very little of that matters in Stage 4. In fact, the better you are at the earlier stages, the harder it will be for you to embrace this next phase in your journey.
Because to do so means to walk away from almost every skill you’ve gained to this point and replace them with a whole new skill set, a whole new set of tools you don’t know how to use, with instructions written in a language you don’t speak.Stage 4 of the FE is the single greatest shift in the entire journey. Your entire history as a founder and a leader up to this point has taught you the skill of winning the game on the field, but that only makes this stage harder. Click To Tweet
In the game but off the field
This stage of the Founder’s Evolution is like the star player and captain of the team stepping off the field to lead as a coach from the sideline.
And in the world of sports, it is rare to find an elite athlete who can successfully make the leap to become an elite coach.
Being an elite athlete is all about how fast you run, how high you jump, how quick you think, and how big you are. It’s fast-paced and physical. It’s very much about you, your gifts, and your abilities.
But when you become a coach, it doesn’t matter how fast you run up and down the sidelines. It doesn’t matter how high you jump when the ball is in the air. So many of those skills that made you a star are now categorically irrelevant.
When you’re coaching from the sideline, it takes a whole new set of skills. Your game is mostly played between games. Once the game is underway, once the play has been called, all you can do is sit back and watch.
In sports, the goal is often to make enough money as a player to retire and make your money milking your stardom. Or maybe change careers. Or become a commentator.
As a founder, it doesn’t really work that way. Not if you want it to keep growing. In Stage 4, you will discover that you can’t sell your way to greater success for your organization; you can’t consult your way, preach your way, design your way, or heal your way to greater success as an organization. In other words, you can’t make your organization grow by pushing further and harder to get the ball across the line.
Is this it?
And that leads to unenviable feelings of powerlessness. When you realize you don’t have the strength, skill, quickness, or size to push things further, you’re left wondering, is this it? Have I gone as far as I can go? Should I sell my business? Should I step down? Should I hire a real CEO?
Because the problems don’t go away, they just change. They get bigger and more abstract. They last longer and grow more complex.
Exhausted from your “real work,” you don’t have the energy to even wrap your mind around what these problems are, let alone solve them. Even though you’ve always been drawn to the big picture, to what could and should be, at this stage, you probably haven’t come up for air in a while. You’ve not taken the step back to see the patterns at play and truly understand the problems at hand.
Before we move forward, I have to answer the original question, “Is this it?” Absolutely not. If you have a greater vision for your organization than what you are currently experiencing, then you can get there. You just can’t get there by doing what you’ve always done.
Embracing Stage 4
Jim Collins brilliantly paints a picture of what is at stake for a Disillusioned Leader in his concept ‘Clock building, not time-telling.’ You can read more of his take on the matter in chapter 2 of Built to Last. But here’s a quick summary. There are two ways to lead. The first is time-telling. Imagine if you met someone who could tell the current time of day down to the millisecond simply by looking up at the sun. Wouldn’t that be remarkable?
Yet, that skill would be limited to just that one person. She would have to be present for you to see or benefit from it. And when she died, all that skill would die with her.
Now, what if instead of continuing to wow the world with her remarkable skills, one day she stepped out of the spotlight and took the time to build a clock that could achieve the same result for anyone, both now and after she was gone.
That’s the transformation founders experience in Stage 4. That’s how enduring organizations are built. And although you don’t have to sprint at all anymore, clock-building is very hard work.
The essential strategies for Stage 4
So how do you do it? How do you win from the sidelines? How do you unlock this next stage of growth for you and your organization?
1. Up or out
Just as it was in Stage 3, the very first thing you must do is to decide whether or not you want to move forward. Because if you do, you have to step off the field. Tragically, what typically makes this stage even harder is that we try to do both. We run to the sidelines and “play coach” for just long enough to run back onto the field and make the play ourselves. This is the worst possible strategy. You need to decide where you are going to stand and stay there. If you’ve got more time on the field, then pull back on the reigns a little and get your organization to a more manageable size and operation and enjoy the game. However, if you don’t have the energy anymore, or you just realize you can accomplish far more without all the hustle, then it’s time to lead from the sidelines.
2. Lead not leave
Just because you aren’t in the game doesn’t mean you’re not at the game. The biggest mistake I see Disillusioned Leaders make even after they’ve left the field is that they leave altogether. Absenteeism isn’t leadership. Walking away isn’t delegation. To succeed in Stage 4, you need to be at the game, right there on the sidelines for every minute and every play. I see many leaders at this stage walk away with the keys. They leave someone in charge of the door. They give responsibility, but they don’t give them the authority. This is maddening for your team. They need you there. They need you to stand in that uncomfortable place in between. They need you calling plays, giving feedback between plays, and giving pep talks in between. They need you strategizing, teaching, and pushing between games as well.
3. Focus on your leaders
Don’t leave a leadership void on the field and try to fill it from the sidelines. At this point, you need to promote or hire a strong captain to fill your shoes. And you need to give them the space and freedom to do their job. In other words, stay on the sidelines. But that is a lot harder to do when the sidelines aren’t clearly marked as white stripes on green grass. In your organization, it is up to you to clearly define the sideline, stay on your side of the line, and permit them to call you out when you overstep your bounds (for more advice on healthy ground rules, check out the Five Rules from the book Rocket Fuel). Practically, this means putting leaders in charge of each of the most critical aspects of your business, whether it be sales, service, administration, creativity, pastoral care, communication. Whatever the three or four most important elements of your organization are, you need to put a leader other than you in charge.
4. Build systems
Do you sell better than anyone on your team? Then take the time to figure out what is different about how you sell and find a way to systematize it so that it can be repeated again and again. Do you have more knowledge in your sphere than anyone else? Commit yourself to teaching and training individuals who can go even further than you. The whole of this stage is building systems to reproduce what made you so effective. And then look out because an explosion of growth is sure to follow when you do this right.
5. Find a guide
Most visionary types are not inherently systems thinkers. Most doers aren’t entirely content to sit by while they “lead through others.” For this reason, I strongly recommend that you hire a coach to help you get out of your own way and look for consultants and others who can help ease and streamline the process for you. Finding external help can be counterproductive at earlier stages, but don’t let that trick you into thinking they aren’t even helpful. You will find that the transformation of Stage 4 will happen ten times faster with the right guide to show you the way than if you try to fumble through the dark on your own.
The most impactful transformation
While this is undoubtedly the most challenging transition, the transformation it creates is by far the most impactful.
If you want to scale your organization, this is precisely how you need to do it.
If you want to build an organization that will last beyond your years, this is exactly how you need to do it.
If you want to go further, faster, and still have plenty of energy left over, this is precisely how you do it.
Everything up to this point rested squarely on your shoulders. And no matter how strong you are, there is only one of you. You were a great time-teller. Well done. And by being a great time-teller, you created the opportunity to become a clock builder.
Transitioning Out of Stage 4
By wrestling through the tensions of leading from the sidelines, you begin building three critical skills:
- Leading through others
- Building systems
- Seeing the big picture
And once you have achieved all three, you will be ready to take on a title you’ve been using already for quite a while: Chief Executive. And that is Stage 5 of your evolution as a Founder. It’s also the first big step toward owning your organization instead of it owning you. And it’s a significant upgrade because you get to get out of the rain and the weather and lead from the box seats. You get to get out of the play-by-play grind and start thinking about winning seasons and decades. And oh how fun that is!
Enjoy the gift of Stage 4
But before you get too excited and try to get rid of Stage 4 as quickly as you can, I want to encourage you to enjoy this time because you will never be this close to the game again. The closer you get to 10,000 feet, the further you get from ground level. So enjoy the energy of the game, the buzz on your team. Enjoy the loud salesrooms. Enjoy training your new employees. Enjoy giving high fives to your top producers. Enjoy seeing your new leaders crush their goals. And enjoy not having to run anymore. This is an in-between stage, but because it is in-between, it is the best of both worlds in many ways.