The Founder's Guide to Giving Up Control

Enabling your team by ceding control is tough, so here's my advice.

For three and a half months, I was in charge; I drove everything but the building of our product — customer development, marketing, sales, product decisions, design, company operations, recruiting, almost everything. Then two employees joined, eager to learn and impress, to give commitment and take ownership, and suddenly everything was harder.

My assumptions were challenged, holes in my thinking exposed and my rationale tested. It was an unfamiliar feeling to be on the back-foot against people I had hired; analogous, I imagine, to parents facing their kids asking lots of uncomfortable questions.

As a founder you have to build your team to be the most effective group it can be — its power is far greater than anything you can accomplish individually. A big enabler for this is sharing ownership (formal and informal) so that employees are motivated to give their best to your mission. And this requires ceding control. Which is tough. So here is my guide on how to give up control:

1. Do, don’t tell

Instead of trying to teach new employees everything about your company, get them to dive into actual work early on. Ross at SendBloom has new engineers push live code on day 1. This way they feel involved and you gain confidence that they are able to execute.

2. Communicate expectations & context (and limit feedback)

Striking a balance between letting employees be independent and setting them up for success is hard. My solution is to provide context as much as possible because that will likely allow employees to make their own best decisions which you can trust. It will also be surprisingly valuable because it will empower employees to feel on par with you.

Be clear with expectations and gentle with feedback. Early success and building relationships are both equally important.

3. Accept mistakes, delay, imperfection

It’s easy to lose patience because of the pressure to be quick and be right. However we are prone to over-optimize for the present and under-optimize for the future, so invest in your employees learning from their mistakes. Let them be slow and imperfect and encourage them to grow.

4. Challenge employees to solutions

Early employees will expect you to drive a lot of decision-making (e.g. “What do you think I / we should do?”) and it can be easy to slip into that pattern and build those habits for the long-term. Therefore challenge employees to figure out the best answer to a problem or lead with their opinions. Often ask “what do you think?” and sometimes avoid presenting your point of view. This will help build a solution-mindset.

5. Indentify areas of limited interference

Identify tasks you’re able to let employees manage and execute from start to finish. It’ll be very easy to give your input on at least some part of everything, so start with something simple. Each week you should expand this zone of non-interference to give employees the space to run with their ideas. Of course discuss and iterate on the outcome but let employees get to delivery without any proactive involvement.

6. Rinse and Repeat

Keep doing these things! In my opinion, giving up control and empowering your team will be the best enabler for your collective and long-term success. As one of our investors told me recently: founders tend to worry too much about their individual productivity and not about their team’s collective performance. So learn to lead from the back.

For those are able to build this into part of their early-stage culture, later-stage hiring and scaling will become a lot easier. Molly Graham explains more about this in her article “Give Away Your Legos” in FirstRound Review.

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