Founders of companies rarely do it alone. Most go into business with one or more colleagues or friends. Some high profile examples are the Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, who started Apple Computer; and Ben and Jerry, who went into the ice cream business. I call these entrepreneurial pioneers the “founder and the soul brothers.”
In a company’s early years, the founder and soul brothers wear many hats; every one does everything. But as the business expands, the founder begins delegating many functional, administrative, and managerial tasks to the soul brothers. Many soul brothers are ill-prepared to cope with the responsibilities associated with growth; they have neither the experience to manage nor the personality required to be a good manager. Soul brothers are typically “techies” with much more expertise in their specific field than operational experience in running a business.
One solution to this conundrum may be to reassign a soul brother to a position that again makes maximum use of his skills.
As the business grows, and the managerial aspect of their job increases, many soul brothers become progressively unhappy. Friction results and may show in declining service or missed shipments.
Founder loyalty to the soul brothers complicates matters. They are like combat buddies, fighting in the trenches to win near-death struggles during the company’s early years. Their experiences are etched in the company’s history and culture. But now their operational inexperience hurts the company at a critical time in its evolution.
Where to go from here? A soul brother can leave the company or take a leave of absence to decide what to do. He can be demoted to work for a professional manager, the ultimate insult. He can be promoted to board status to lift him out of the “combat zone.” But that means he won’t be actively involved in the business.
The first priority is getting the soul brother out of the fire zone. Make him a fire investigator, not a fire chief. I advise CEOs to create a staff position called “Product/ Technology Champion.” This gets the soul brother back to what he does best: working on the technology and finding more applications. Product champions are reservoirs of technical knowledge.
A soul brother at a New England-based software firm was struggling to manage the company’s core technology and supervise a large group of young, aggressive engineers who had their own ideas on modification techniques. The brother’s proprietary interest in the technology and his disinterest in managing created morale problems with key staffers. Eventually, the founder asked him to head a new development division and hired a seasoned manager to oversee product development and technology refinement.
Soul brothers also can improve customer relations. Frequently, rapid growth causes firms to become inwardly focused, dealing only with daily crises. Customers suffer from lack of attention. Assigning a soul brother to customer care and the natural new product development ideas that evolve from those relationships makes sense.
Another possible assignment is exploring product/technology acquisitions. Interesting alliances can develop from this activity. With their technical background and feeling for the corporate culture, soul brothers are ideally suited to these kinds of searches.
Pursuing strategic alliances is an integral part of any company’s success. It encompasses exploring joint ventures, licensing agreements, and technology sharing.
At a growing Midwest-based hair-care and cosmetics firm, a soul brother helped the founder create the basic products, then was put in charge of R&D and asked to manage a large laboratory of chemists and projects that were farmed out. After several delays in product development and resignations of chemists who couldn’t work with the soul brother, a newly appointed CEO created a staff position, reassigning the soul brother to investigate alliances in cosmetic dermatology. Performance and attitude at the company, particularly the R&D unit, improved dramatically.
Often, a soul brother can be instrumental in fostering an esprit de corps in the company. When two partners in charge of trading left Lynch, Jones & Ryan, a brokerage firm with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, CEO Howard J. Schwartz gave a soul brother the task of re-engineering the function. The new manager quickly integrated the trading floor into the back-office operations: “His contribution has been greater than the total of the two who left,” says Schwartz. “It’s a classic case of transferring responsibility to a soul brother who was more capable of making the trading department a team-and an integral part of the company.”
Robert M. Donnelly is chairman and managing partner of Alpha International Management Group, a New York-based consulting firm that works with growing companies.