Welcome to Stage 7 of your Founder’s Evolution. If you’ve made it this far, you are truly amongst elite company. While every founder begins with the goal of Stage 7 in the twinkle of their eye, few make it this far. Some are content and make the courageous choice to intentionally stay in an earlier stage. But most never make it this far for one simple reason. They simply don’t know the way.
And who can blame them?
Ask a Visionary Founder how they got there, and you’ll get a cookie-cutter answer they’ve developed to look good and stop you from asking more questions. Because they’ve realized most people don’t want the truth, they want a shortcut.
But if you get behind the clever clichés and tweet-worthy truisms, if you can show them you mean it, and you can get them to stop and recount the actual steps they took to get to where they are today, you’ll find it is anything but the straight line up and to the right that we all hope for and expect.
It’s a winding road of brilliant victories, hard-fought battles, and painful experiences, each of which had a crucial role in forming them into the Visionary Founder that we all admire.
How Visionary Founders are made
By this point in the series, you are well aware that you don’t get here by chance. Visionary Founders aren’t born. They are made. You don’t begin day one as a Visionary Founder.
Instead, you start as the Dissatisfied Employee who doesn’t know half as much as you think you do but did get it right in one place: There is a better way.
And by studying the game and learning what it takes to win, you earn the right to play the game as you become the Star Player, the Startup Entrepreneur. And with that stardom, you find leadership thrust upon you.
And eventually, one day, you look up, and everyone around you is waiting for you to make the decision and tell them what to do. So reluctantly, you begin to manage your young upstart team.
And it works but never quite feels like the glove fits. And as the team grows and your ability to single-handedly save the day fades away, you find yourself at the uncomfortable crossroads of the Disillusioned Leader. You are faced with a challenge or set of challenges too significant for you to overcome alone. Your team can do it, but that requires a whole new kind of leadership from you: leading from the sidelines.
This is where most founders fail to make the leap. But if you do, if you hone the skills of winning through others, you will find yourself in a whole new arena no longer limited by sidelines or even scoreboard, and you’ll step into the role of Chief Executive and set your sights on a successful future.
And once you build the foundations needed to ensure lasting and Predictable Success, you create the opportunity to grab hold of the one thing you’ve wanted all along: freedom. And in doing so, you become a True Owner and set the stage for one final and remarkable transformation.
From True Owner to Visionary Founder
At this stage, a growing challenge that you may not have named yet comes to center stage. Of course, it’s been there for quite some time. Lurking in the shadows causing you to question what used to be an easy decision to step, no run, forward. But what is it?
This challenge is quite simple to understand once you shine a light on it, and it is this: you now have something to lose, and that means you have to work to protect it.
When you’re a young upstart full of piss and vinegar, your organization may be fighting for survival, but you approach it like you have nothing to lose. You take risks, you make big bets, you go all in all the time. But what happens once you win? Each successive win brings more people, products, and profits to protect. You have to keep the current thing going while trying to create the next thing.
And the ratio of old (protect) to new (create) switches one day, and you increasingly find yourself, the great visionary risk-taker, opting for the safer bet, taking the slower strategy, walking the more predictable path. Some of this is wisdom in two ways. First, you should never have taken some risks, and you know how that feels. Second, some risks that were necessary early on simply aren’t necessary any longer. And that is a good thing.
But what happens if we are not careful is we go too far. And this is the challenge that comes to center stage as you are transitioning to Stage 7 of your Founder’s Evolution, as you begin to ask the question, “What do I want to leave behind?”
What do I want to leave behind?
While we all face this question at some point in our lives, I believe it is more central and of more practical significance for founders. The answer to that question is often embodied in the organization(s) we’ve started.
- First off, will you continue to let the new Chief Executive’s vision depart from your own? No two people will ever share identical visions. One degree of difference at the start is barely noticeable, but given enough time, that gap becomes a gaping hole. So no matter how much your CEO and you shared one vision, ultimately, her vision will depart from yours, and it should.
- Secondly, how much are you willing to risk in the next endeavor. Let’s face it. You have all the freedom you want. You have all the money you need. The list of essential reasons to change is small, if it exists at all.
- Third, at some point (maybe not the first time, but at some point), you are not going to want to step back into the game at Stage 1 all over again. And that means to stay in the game and expand your impact, you need to start succeeding through other founders, each with a vision of their own, each with the ability to fail spectacularly.
Together, these realities make stepping into Stage 7 quite the challenge, even for the few elite individuals who have made it this far. However, Stage 7 is so rare that those who make it can make an even bigger mark than if it was easy.
So, what do you want to leave behind? Is it your own story as it’s been written already, or is there one final chapter?
The Hall of Famer
Being a Visionary Founder is like being inducted into the Hall of Fame of the business world. It is about being known and recognized for a lifetime of achievement, not only in what you accomplished yourself but how you changed the game and paved the way for future generations to accomplish far more than you ever imagined.
Very few have ever made it to the Hall of Fame before their career as a player is up. It’s something that is recognized when your time in the spotlight has come and gone. I believe this is even more true in the business world. Visionary Founders are rarely fully recognized in their lifetime. Their brilliance usually takes time for the rest of us to truly comprehend.
So, as you step into Stage 7, your goal is to no longer focus on what you can accomplish in your lifetime but on what you can help others accomplish in their lifetimes.
The essential strategies for Stage 7
So how do you do it? How do you make the most of Stage 7 and do what can only be done once you’ve reached Stage 7?
- Help other visionary leaders build visionary organizations: Using the skills and experiences you’ve gained over all these years, set out on a new journey to build visionary organizations, not by yourself but through others, and help them along their journey to becoming Visionary Founders themselves. Be careful to meet them where they currently are. You have learned some painful lessons along the way, but that doesn’t mean it is time for them to face those same challenges. Make sure you understand what stage they are in and give them the advice they need for their current stage. That usually means stopping and reflecting on your own journey. What worked? When did it work? Remember, wisdom is about not taking unnecessary risks, but the definition of unnecessary changes quite dramatically from one stage to the next. Don’t make cookie cutters of you, but help them fully develop their own visions and learn from your experiences along the way.
- Plant trees: An old Greek proverb provides the perfect advice for Stage 7 Founders. “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” Until this point, most of what you have done has been about building your thing. You may have been kind, charitable, and compassionate along the way, but at the end of the day, you poured your blood, sweat, and tears into your organization. Now it’s time to plant trees for someone else. Not necessarily everyone else. Plant the trees, and put up the signposts you wanted and needed as you traveled from stage to stage in your own Founder’s Evolution. Imagine what you could have accomplished if your road had been well-paved. Imagine the progress those coming up behind can enjoy if you go back and help pave the road ahead of them.
- Build a legacy: This doesn’t mean building libraries with your name on them. That’s all fine, but the greatest legacy you can leave behind is what you leave to those who knew you best. Maya Angelou says, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Take the time to use your position of prominence and strength to make others feel great. Give them a hand up. Give them a high five. Give them more time than they deserve. Tell them it’s going to be ok. This may not lead you to greater fortune or fame. But this entire journey will teach you one thing. It’s not about you. It never was. And when you embrace others’ success, at the end of the day, you will discover that that is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life.
And that concludes your evolution as a founder and our time in this series together. I hope that you were both challenged and comforted along the way because what I’ve found in my journey and in the time of being allowed to help others along theirs is that when you do it right, it is every bit as challenging as when you do it wrong. BUT it is exponentially more rewarding.
It can be easy to settle. It can be easy to blunder and bounce around in any of these stages. But when you do, you severely limit your own ability to progress and, even more importantly, your ability to help others grow through their own journey.
I want to end with this. Take a moment now to identify what stage you are in, and then carefully consider the strategies I’ve given for that stage. How much time are you devoting to those strategies? How much time are you wasting on the past strategies, hoping that if you double down, you will power through?
If you are willing to do the hard work required of your current stage, you will spare yourself a ton of heartache and headache, and you’ll put yourself on the path to becoming a Visionary Founder!
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