Photo by Rocco Caruso / Unsplash

Founder as Leader. Liability or Legend?

Regardless of your legendary status as founder, CEO, CTO, head of product, or CMO, how you lead people has the greatest impact on the whole business.

Mary Butler
Mary Butler

Like it or not, Founders are People Leaders.

Do you want to be a liability or a legend?

So, you’ve founded a successful business - one of the 10 percent who got it right. You discovered, created or designed something outstanding that the world needs and wants. Things will never be the same again. That is amazing. Congratulations!

You’re definitely a legend in your field and in your area of expertise.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you’re a successful leader of people – you might even be a liability. This is one area you might need some help.

Regardless of your legendary status as founder, CEO, CTO, head of product, or CMO, how you lead people has the greatest impact on the whole business. And now more than ever, with a skills shortage and the rapidly increasing cost of hiring, you will want to create an environment that attracts the right people, and build engagement to help your business succeed.

According to U.S. Labor Statistics, "as of December 2020, the global talent shortage amounted to 40 million skilled workers worldwide. By 2030, the global talent shortage is expected to reach 85.2 million. Companies worldwide risk losing $8.4 trillion in revenue because of the lack of skilled talent". (Ref #1)

By investing in yourself as a people leader, you will:

1.     Build a strong team and support network

2.     Fulfil your own potential, as well as that of your business

3.     Be one of only 25% of venture-backed companies who returns cash to their investors (Ref #2)

4.     Scale your business, with the time and space to do the work you want to do

It’s your responsibility

It often feels like there is so much going on with distractions, deadlines, and launch dates, making it hard to step back and assess what’s working and what’s not.

But being a people leader IS your job. As a scaleup legend, you lead your people, set direction, and support them to achieve the business goals that represent success for you.

When you started out there was only you and maybe your co-founder. Then, you recruited a few mates. Now your business is growing rapidly and yet you want to keep working the same way; keep the same vibe! But you know deep down, you can’t ...

Which of these misconceptions are you operating under?

  1. If I keep slogging it out, things will get better. I’ve done it before, I’m just a little stuck. (This is known as the ‘halo effect’.)
  2. Everyone respects my style of leadership. It worked for Jobs, Musk, and Bezos; it’ll work for me. No need to adapt or grow.
  3. I’m fully self-aware, I’ve no blind spots. Nothing to learn here, folks!
  4. Of course, people love working here! There is no risk of them leaving. We have ping pong, bean bags, and Friday drinks! What’s not to love?
  5. I must be all things to everyone; the founder, CTO, Adviser, Head of Product, Head of Marketing, Head of People, the ‘inspirational CEO’.
  6. I’m expected to manage all of the day-to-day people stuff. I’m a bit exhausted playing ‘whack-a-mole’, but it comes with the founder territory, doesn’t it?
  7. We all know what role we’re in, and who’s doing what. No need for hierarchy or reporting lines, even though we’re growing rapidly. Everyone likes the informality of it.
  8. Everyone likes my mates! Sure, maybe they’re not the best fit anymore and they’re getting a bit disgruntled. But they were here at the start, so I can’t ask them to move on. It wouldn’t be right.
  9. Everyone’s aligned and fully engaged. We’re all in sync. No need to check in and confirm.
  10. We can communicate just like we always have, even though we’ve grown to more than thirty people. We’re family here, and if someone misses something, somebody else will pick it up.
  11. I can outsource the big decisions. No one likes having challenging conversations and making tough calls. Someone else can manage that.
  12. There’s no need to involve anyone else in this discussion. Sure, investors and advisors could probably help, but why bring them into this conversation?

It’s your choice to be a liability or LEGEND with your people.

Founder liability statistics, compiled by CB Insights June 2021, (Ref #3) shows six of the top twenty reasons for startup failure are directly related to the founder’s role as leader of people.

What are they?

1. Founder lacks passion

2. Founder lacks focus

3. Founder burnout

4. Founder didn’t use the network

5. Disharmony among team and investors

6. Didn’t have the right team

Becoming a liability may happen gradually. You might not be aware of this happening, but it may feel like ‘death by a thousand cuts’ to your team.

Why does it matter?

How you lead people has the greatest impact on the work environment for the whole business. You cannot avoid it, do it badly, or outsource it.

What are the consequences?

To you personally:

  1. Damage your reputation and status in the startup community

2. Vulnerable position with investors and the board

3. You might even be forced to step down!

To your business:

  1. Lose key and specialized talent who are not easily replaced

2. Fail to scale

3. Won’t be able to secure funding or IPO

How do you shift from liability to legend?

You have a product roadmap, but without a clear people leader ‘legend roadmap’ your business will likely fall victim to you.

Here’s what you can do

A legend roadmap requires mastering many elements of people leadership like leading self, leading 1:1, and leading the team. And it starts with three key focus areas: Reputation, Role and Relationships.


  • What do you want to be known for?
  • What’s your identity and your brand, both within your team and externally?
  • What’s important to you, and what do you value?


  • What work do you really want to do?
  • Are you very clear on the work you’re responsible for (and not!)?
  • Do you have clear boundaries on your work?


  • How effective is your communication style and delivery?
  • Are you building trust and connection with with your team?
  • How strong are your relationships with your investors, the board, your customers?

Clearly defining these three areas becomes even more important when there are co-founders.

You can decide, do you want to be a liability or a legend?

If you'd like to learn more, contact me through my wesbite:


  1. “The Software Developer Shortage in the US and the Global Tech Talent Shortage in 2021.”
  2. “Startup failure rate.” Nicholas Cerdeira and Kyril Kotashev,
  3. “The top 20 reasons startups fail.” CB Insights, June 2021

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Mary Butler Twitter

A people strategy expert, who helps founders and scaleups experiencing growth, build leadership capability. Co-author of "What the hell do we do now. An enterprise guide to Covid-19 and beyond."