Not so long ago, you knew who you were. You were the founder, the builder. You were an entrepreneur, goddammit. Back then, life was simple. You came up with an exciting idea for a business and then did whatever it took to make it work. Sure, you were stressed, tired and – at first – broke, but you were the pilot, the driver and the fixer. Happy days. Halcyon days.
But things have changed. Your vision became a reality. You achieved your initial goal and now you have a dedicated team in front of you and a crew of investors behind you. You’re no longer required to buzz around like an amphetamine-addled bluebottle doing whatever it takes to make your idea work because everything works fine without you. Your business is taking on all the hallmarks of a corporate, so it’s time to move on – it’s time to hire others and inspire them to create, build, drive, fix and improve. Welcome to the role of CEO.
But here’s the thing. Few people can jump from founder to CEO without some degree of turmoil. Only a lucky few slip into their new corporate role easily, like donning a pair of silk pyjamas; most must work really hard to build the skills they need for this new and often unexpected journey. Some walk away entirely after finding they have no aptitude for – or indeed a deep hatred of – their new responsibilities.
James Hyde, 36, co-founder and CEO of James and James Fulfilment, has made that tough transition and he’s the first to admit that it’s been challenging – often painful, sometimes soul-searching. But necessary.
His company, which he co-launched in 2010 from the corner of a Cambridgeshire warehouse, secured more than £11m of funding from private-equity firm LDC in March 2020. The investment ushered in a new era for James and James, and after ten years of fast growth, the co-founder is completing his transition from the Wild West of start-up entrepreneurship to the Wall Street of chief execdom.
“It’s been challenging,” says James. “It either comes naturally or, as in my case, you resist and try to keep things as they are, attempting to maintain control and hanging on to your old vision ways. But if you resist, you eventually reach a point where something breaks. That’s when you realise you have to do things differently.”
James identifies four phases on the journey from founder to corporate CEO. He says: “In phase one, you’re the founder of a small, boot-strap company. Every job is your job and even when you hire people, you still know how to do those jobs best because you’ve built them. Next, you become the knowledge bank – moving from doer to advisor. Then, in phase three, you realise there are too many plates spinning and forget how to keep some in the air. Others don’t know either, so you end up retro-fitting solutions. You become the problem-solver. And it’s in phase three that the turning point usually comes – that’s when you must make the jump to CEO.”
James says that, for him, the turning point came when he finally realised that he had to relinquish control to move the business forward. He says: “The moment arrives when you start to hire people who know more than you – experienced individuals who manage rather than do the work. That’s when you become the mentor – the leader – who provides direction to skilled people. Your role then is to glue a consistent vision across the business and make that work.”
But, for many founders, reaching that fourth CEO phase is fraught with difficulties because it requires such a fundamental change of approach. This was true for James: “For me, it was a big change,” he says. “It involved a huge switch from task-delegation to team motivation. In my founder’s role, I was process-driven. But as I moved towards CEO, I needed to become much more emotionally tuned-in to my colleagues. It isn’t just about getting the job done anymore. Now it’s about motivating effectively, which means I have to understand people and grasp exactly how they feel about the business and its values.”
James recalls how the change whipped up a whirlwind of self-doubt and anxiety. “For me, it was painful because I quickly realised that this new way was a more effective way of doing things. This realisation caused me to seriously question myself. Why hadn’t I done this before? Why had I been so process-driven? Even: What’s wrong with me?”
However, thanks to coaching (“never underestimate the power of coaching and counselling,” says James) and his determination, self-doubt did not win the day. Instead, James is growing into his new role and working hard at it – in much the same way he had to work hard at building his company from scratch all those years ago.
“Eventually, you realise those self-analytical questions are unnecessary,” he says. “You learn to accept that that’s just the way you were then and now it’s time to learn the new skills you need.”
Today, James is in what he sees as phase five on the founder-to-CEO journey. In this phase, you focus on stamping the correct culture across your company while also perfecting the art of stakeholder management.
“Once you’ve transitioned to CEO, your company’s culture and values become even more vital. When you’re leading a smaller company, people pick up the values naturally, but when you grow into a larger entity, you need to make more of an effort to communicate and embody them. It also becomes more critical to hire people who are a good cultural fit.”
On investor management, James says: “Phase five is also about managing expectations. You’ve got to think about things from an investor’s perspective. Life becomes less: ‘Right, we’re doing this’. And more: ‘I want to get here, how will that be perceived and how can I explain the benefits? How can I achieve that in a way that gets people on side?’. Perfecting that process is the next step in my education.”
It’s appropriate that James’s final word is ‘education’. Because when you’ve founded a business, moulded it into a high-potential small company, and now find yourself leading a mid-size corporate, learning on the job becomes a way of life. You must keep pushing your creation forward, sinking or swimming every time you dive into a new, unchartered stretch of water. James Hyde has managed to transition from founder to CEO by accepting that his CEO role is an entirely different kind of challenge, which requires new skills and a novel approach. Getting his head around that has been as testing, if not more so, than founding the business. Because as CEO it’s not enough to do whatever it takes to get the job done, to put out the fires and to keep on trucking. Being a brilliant entrepreneur is one thing. Being an effective CEO is quite another.