The Founder’s Paradox: How Do You Throw Credit When the Big Idea Was Yours?

founder's paradox: big ideas

Few actions spark real disgust at work. But I can think of one that never fails to cause a personal fury. It is when someone takes another person’s idea and presents it as their own. It is even more annoying when the idea is well received and the taker gets kudos for coming up with such a clever concept in the first place. But as a founder, this is exactly what you want.

Leaders need to share bold ideas and encourage others to adopt and champion those ideas as their own.

Now, I am not saying that coworkers should be stealing one another’s thoughts and running off with the credit. (Even though our individualist culture is an ideal breeding ground for this kind of behavior.) And I am not saying that founders should or even do have all of the ideas and answers in a company. Although good ones definitely have many.

This is not about groupthink either. No, I am referring to a more nuanced paradox. As a founder, you have to present your ideas with confidence — so that others can rally groups of their peers and teammates towards action. Your team must deeply believe that your ideas are their own. The success of the company depends on your ability to do so. It is a requirement of the job.

This ‘your idea is my idea’ concept can feel a bit unnatural at first — especially for first-time founders.

When a business is growing fast, you might think it is your role as founder to be the source of all things — to keep the team inspired and focused. Your vision, your business, your big idea. But throwing credit to others when they present your ideas as their own is what you should be aiming for. Why?

You have limited interactions
Rapid growth means a rapid contraction of who you interact with on a daily basis. The team swells and you have fewer opportunities to communicate with all team members. So you need others to carry your vision forward as their own.

Your job is to make others great
Explosive growth rarely happens on the backs of one or two people. You need to build up the team around you. The more people who are operating at a high level and being recognized by their peers for it, the more successful the company will be.

Your influence needs to be subtle
Your mission should be shared transparently with the team. And there will be times for edicts, when you need to steer the team in the direction you know is needed. Or when you need to make a tough decision because different groups are seeing different paths. But most often, your role is to lead through sharing insights and allowing others to reach the right conclusion.

You are a teacher
Part of helping others is by asking tough questions, the kind that help others refine their ideas and align with what you think is right. This means that you do not need to verbally share all of the answers. You nurture and develop people to the point where their conclusions to difficult challenges are what you would have said from the beginning.

You do not need praise
Ego is a trap. It snags too many ambitious founders who have had early success. To grow the business in a sustainable way over a meaningful period of time, you need to get comfortable letting others shine. Remember that each team member’s success is your success too — even if no one else recognizes that.

All of this requires a trait not often associated with founding a company — selfless service to others.

You need to have both self-confidence and a willingness to sacrifice self-recognition. When you can straddle these two selves, you can propel others forward. I am definitely not suggesting that it is easy, but it is the best way I know to grow a lasting company and work with happy people while you do it.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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