Scale-up leadership pitfalls: founder versus CEO

Scale-up leadership pitfalls: founder versus CEO

02 June 2021
Gerrit Sarens
Gerrit Sarens
  • At Ambits, we often work for scale-ups that realize leadership is essential in their race for the moon. They have decided to invest in leadership support to achieve their ambitious growth objectives.

    We see several typical leadership pitfalls in scale-ups. One of them is the founder versus CEO challenge. Not every founder is, by definition, a good CEO.

    There have been several instances historically where professional CEOs have replaced founders. This, however, does not mean that founders cannot be CEOs.

    In the start-up stage, you need entrepreneurial founders who get the company off the ground. In the scale-up phase, you need a solid CEO to scale and bring the company to the next maturity level. It is essential to bring in that distinction as companies scale.

  • The difference is simple

  • A founder gets the idea for the business and acts on it. He brings resources, builds the team, finds new customers, gets financing, focuses on the right products and services to sell, and so on. Whatever needs to be done, a founder rolls up their sleeves and gets the job done. In other words, a founder typically does most of the job himself.

    Founders are visionaries who come up with the original idea (the why) and think more about their product (the what) than running their company (the how).

    A CEO is an integrator who flourishes in transforming chaos into order. He builds up the company while paying attention to organizational operations (the how).

    CEOs delegate effectively to talented people on their team and then get out of the way to let them do a great job. For the most part, CEOs spend their time coaching the team to bring out their best.

  • Successful founders versus successful CEOs

  • Founder










    Risk manager


    Continuous improver


    Strong communicator

    Relationship builder


    Situational leader

  • Our best advice

  • Two scenarios are possible when going from start-up to scale-up:

    1. Either one of the founders takes up the CEO role
    2. Or somebody else takes up the CEO role

    Making the transition from founder to CEO is far from easy. If you have the ambition to do this, ensure you have the necessary support. As you can see above, the competencies you need to become a successful scale-up CEO are very different from those that have made you successful as a founder. Several Ambits Mentors have gone through similar journeys and are well-equipped to help you.

    Moreover, don’t fall into the trap of having more than one CEO or co-CEO. It often doesn’t work. A growing company needs one lighthouse with a clear mandate.

    If you conclude that you are not the right person to take the CEO role, it’s a courageous decision.

    There are two options again: either you find your future CEO internally or search externally. In both cases, it will bring challenges. Will you leave the company? Will you search for a new role within the company? What do you expect from the new CEO? What is needed to guarantee a smooth transition? To avoid disappointment and emotional damage, we recommend getting advice from an experienced mentor who can warn you of the typical pitfalls.

      • Manager types

      • Who are you?

    • Ambits offers business mentoring to different audiences. Our mentor community is equipped to help them with their specific leadership challenges. Discover below what Ambits can do for you.

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          • Starting or scaling up your own company
          • Experiencing growing pains
          • Eager to develop solid leadership to move to the next level
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