I’ve been good friends with Bernie Daina, an industrial Psychologist, for a few years now. He’s helped me quite a bit with employee and team related decisions over the years, and I respect his insight into people and their motives thoroughly. Bernie calls it like it is.
The last time we were together, he asked me to describe in 15 words or less every other Friday what I was thinking about, and so over the last few months, I think I’ve stopped to send him a quick email two or three times.
He finally got around to responding to one of my emails, and I thought other CEO’s might benefit from his response.
On a Personal Note
While I believe I have suffered from CEO Survivor Remorse, and I no doubt miss some of the friends I worked with early at Ping, my current team of partners are simply amazing people, so I’m living my life enjoying every minute I have together with them.
My 15 Words
What a challenging task it is to keep the torch lit, when so many of the people you started with aren’t around.
Some founding entrepreneurs negotiate progressive stages of funding and growth, and remain CEO, by successfully adapting to the evolving requirements of leadership for a successful emerging-growth enterprise. Rarely do they manage to forge ahead without suffering casualties among colleagues who were crucial in the startup era of the organization. The loss of colleagues outgrown by the business is so common, it is widely considered an ordinary expense of corporate maturation. However, such losses do not come without organizational and emotional costs. Some of these costs are felt immediately. Others take time to incubate and become a source of personal reflection, even misgivings, for the entrepreneur.
Feeling haunted by a sense of loss concerning a loved one who left us, or whom we’ve left behind, is a universal experience. The feelings are most prominent following death, divorce, relationship breakups, kids departing for college, and so on. In those situations, we enjoy social permission to be preoccupied with the loss, to share our grief, let our mourning show, and we benefit from the sympathy and understanding of others.
However, CEOs are usually not afforded the same privilege of freely airing their humanity that the rest of us enjoy. Anything that smacks of weakness is taboo. Foremost, this pertains to sadness, even normal sadness. Founders/CEOs of high-growth companies lead very full lives integrated with other people with whom they form close bonds suffused with camaraderie, shared sacrifice and promise. Rapid, early-stage corporate growth implies scaling a business and this involves continually adding new functions, and delegating the planning and operation of those functions to trusted colleagues.
More often than not, founding teams do not survive intact. Consequently, the Founder who persists as CEO absorbs the pain of saying goodbye to early-stage colleagues, and is occasionally plagued by “survivor guilt.” If suppressed, this guilt can prompt the CEO to avoid closeness with current or successive colleagues. What’s needed is sanction for the Founder/CEO to express his sense of loss for the people left behind, and their contributions. This sanction mostly has to come from within. This does not imply prolonged wallowing in remorse and regret. It does imply honoring what others have given to the cause, presenting it as a foundation and point of departure for the contributions of new colleagues rather than a competitive basis for comparison. This provides a sense of relief to the CEO; it humanizes him to others; it inspires confidence in current team members that their contributions will be likewise honored; that people are not treated simply as replaceable pieces of equipment; and it encourages the newer, successive contributors to step up and get closer to the CEO — to share his sense of responsibility for keeping the flame lit.
On a deeper level, the Founder/CEO who replaces people close to him can feel the loss of strong leadership within himself. The inner sense of drive and purpose that comes from collaborating with other types of leaders within the company can be worn down by having to let go of those people, and further corroded by the necessity of replacing yet more people. In order not to become jaded, maybe that Founder/CEO needs his own set of personal “dog tags” to continually remind himself of who he really is? When important people leave, all their photos on the CEO’s credenza should not be removed and all the concrete reminders of their efforts should not be purged. Surrounding himself with symbols of constancy and continuity can serve the purpose of keeping the CEO anchored in the heritage of his own professional community and in pride in his own leadership. But it is not just a matter of concrete symbols and representations. The CEO’s identification with the people who have helped him build an enterprise — but have moved on — can be integrated into his sense of community and belonging, rather than extruded as some cast-off or foreign object. The CEO’s responsibilities isolate him, to some extent. But he does not have to feel like a lonely person. He does not have to become hardened and repudiate all those whose contributions have been outgrown by the company. He can remain grateful and appreciative to those who have helped him. This will enrich him, and help him continually grow as a leader that others will trust and seek to emulate.
Bernard L. Daina, Ph.D.
Management and Organizational Psychology