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The Curse Of The ‘Iconic Founder’

When a founder becomes such a larger-than-life character that they overshadow everyone around them, continuity of the business becomes challenging.

Sometime a founder’s image is so publicly associated with his or her company, one rarely stops to ask, “who is that person?” A few, such as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Henry Ford, and Ralph Lauren become something even more than that, they become ‘iconic.’ For many family businesses, having an iconic founder has enormous benefits. But as BanyanGlobal’s Marion McCollom Hampton and Ben Francois wrote in the Harvard Business Review, that can be a mixed blessing.

As Hampton and Francois discussed in this article, though it might be beneficial to have an iconic founder at the helm of a business for years, it can also cause family leadership beyond the founder to be much more challenging. After all, who can live up to the image of a truly ‘iconic’ founder who has become a kind of exaggerated character – a two-dimensional representation of the business without any visible human imperfections? Just google ‘Colonel Sanders or Henry Ford quotes’ and you’ll see the continued reverence for those founders.

When a founder becomes a larger-than-life icon synonymous with the business itself, he begins to overshadow everyone and everything around him. Worse still, an iconic founder can start to believe his own hype and hold next generation leaders to impossible standards, create a ‘loyal’ workforce that is resistant to new leadership, and potentially even cause family members to walk away from the business. Ironically, a wildly successful iconic founder can unintentionally set his beloved business up for failure in future generations.

So how can a family business avoid that very significant downside? Hampton and Francois shared their thoughts in their Harvard Business Review article.

Sometimes the individual entrepreneur is in fact as wise and kind as the image portrays him to be. But in many cases, that real person behind the iconic status is all too human. Successful business leaders, iconic or not, make mistakes in business and in their personal lives. But we have seen iconic founders who begin to believe their own publicity and consistently choose to grow their image over helping others to shine. Sometimes, they hold their children up to such high standards – standards that they think reflect their ‘perfect image’ – that the next generation feel (rightly so) that they can’t possibly meet them.

Iconic founders often lack empathy for the sacrifices others (family, employees) are making. They see the world through one lens, which leads them to push for business growth and celebrity at the expense of all other priorities. As the iconic founder’s family seeks Dad’s approval, he just pushes harder to promote his image as super-human. Those closest to him find it hard to challenge him in any setting, business or family, for risk of being disregarded by the icon – better to agree and stay in good graces than confront and be shut out.

Hampton and Francois have seen difficult dynamics evolve in families of the iconic founder. When the icon makes irrational demands or unkind judgements, everyone snaps to order – no one disagrees. Family members’ (and often employees’ and colleagues’) unpleasant experiences with the icon get buried: to discuss their pain or to criticize is to be disloyal.

The iconic founder’s flaws – some of them grave – stay invisible. And the grandchildren can be affected as well: younger family members know that there are bad feelings and even events that have been covered up, but they don’t know what actually happened. To ask is to run the risk of taking the icon off the pedestal, and then to be criticized or even ostracized from the family.

Finally, the lasting effects of an iconic founder can stretch beyond his or her impact on the family to thwart the growth of the business going forward. The icon can cultivate and leave behind a ‘workforce of the past,’ with loyal long-term employees defaulting to the icon’s preferred ways of managing at the expense of fresh ideas. They can nurture a culture of ‘yes'[ people rather than independent thinkers and drive creative next generation family members away from the business and into their own endeavours where they have more control.

We highlight some of Hampton and Francois’ ideas for navigating the challenges of an iconic founder below:

How The Next Generation Can Counter-Balance An Icon

When family members recognize the complexities of having of a truly iconic founder, you can feel trapped. But there are steps you can take to prevent an iconic founder from overshadowing the next generation’s chance to grow and develop as individuals in your family businesses:

First, acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of the founder, but don’t let his shadow shade your identity. Recognize that the founder was a dynamic person who took risks with his career and with the business. Think of the founder as an inspiration, not a constraint. Forge your own career based on your skills and passions, whether within or outside of the business. Avoid the temptation to be a clone of the icon.

Second, look forward, not backward. Recognize that your generation will need to find your own way. As next generation family members you may not yet be running the business, but as future owners, you can start to communicate, meet, develop trust, and determine how you want to be collective owners of the business. You do not have to be tied to the founder’s version of how family owners should operate.

Third, be prepared to evolve. You will need to recognize the impact of the icon on the family and the business, and to have the courage to say, “we need to do this differently.” Families who move successfully past the iconic founder refresh their strategies and push their businesses to evolve. In the family, they allow the “icon” to fade and instead acknowledge the talented and flawed relative.

About the Contributors: Marion McCollom Hampton is a co-founder and Senior Partner at BanyanGlobal Family Business Advisors. She has been a leader in the family business advisory field for more than 30 years and is a co-author of the foundational work Generation to Generation: Life Cycles of the Family Business (HBR Press, 1997).

Ben Francois is a Principal at BanyanGlobal Family Business Advisors, specializing in family business ownership strategy.

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