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What traits do successful founder-turned-CEOs share?

Posted by Carol Mahamedi

February 11, 2022    |     3-minute read (537 words)

Many founders also serve as their startup’s first CEO, but that doesn’t mean the roles are interchangeable or that it’s ideal for the company. Starting a company and running a business require two completely different skill sets. To answer the age-old question as to whether founders inherently make great CEOs, let’s examine how the roles differ from one another.

Roles and responsibilities, founder versus CEO

While the CEO runs a company already in existence, the founder is the one who came up with the idea for the business and started or launched it in the first place. They usually build the core team, establish needed resources, drive the company’s vision and seek out initial funding. They may also form a board of directors or decide what type of governing body the organization will have.

Unlike the founder, whose role focuses heavily on the early stages of a business, the CEO’s responsibilities span the life of the organization. As the firm’s senior-most executive, the CEO works to implement the company’s long-term goals, often in tandem with the founder.  They oversee operations, communicate with the board of directors (to whom they answer, if there is one) and serve as the public face of the company.

Clearly, the role of founder and the role of CEO differ greatly, which reinforces the idea that they require different skill sets. While famous founder-CEOs such as Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos have captured public imagination as the norm, research suggests that their level of success is a relative anomaly as most founders may not make great CEOs, and vice versa.

Successful founder-CEOs tend to have these traits in common

A review of the accounts of some highly successful founder-CEOs, as well as those of similarly high-profile founders who failed as CEOs, shows certain attributes are favorable for the founder to succeed as CEO. These traits comprise:

Thought leadership – They are good problem-solvers. This lends itself to the ability to figure out customers’ pain points and then build a business to address it. Their confidence in the solution is likely to position them as an industry thought leader.

Unflagging curiosity – They succeed by finding solutions to problems nobody else has solved. To do that, they continually scan their environments to find information that could be a solution. This curiosity and willingness to learn spurs them to try new things instead of staying with the comfort of the status quo.

Will to win – They have an innate drive to win that helps them achieve their business goals. This is often represented with a demonstrated record of victory, whether it be in business, sports or other competitive endeavors.

Surrounded by smart people – They seek out people who are more intelligent and more skilled than they themselves are, rather than seeing such individuals as a threat. They prefer to work with people who know more than them in the interest of serving the company better.

Risk management skills – They are not only aware of the risks facing the organization, but also prepared to remove or confront them. Because they excel at taking a forward-thinking strategic approach to threats on the horizon, they are willing to embrace innovation.

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