One of the most difficult roles at a startup is managing a team of employees who have a long-term, personal relationship with the company’s founder. “I may have authority over these people but really I don’t because they have these personal, long-held relationships with the CEO,” says Michelle Lapierre, a Denver-based consultant who is often brought in help startups grow their brand. “It’s basic human nature for them to leverage that relationship,” she says, and to go directly to the founder.
Lapierre is currently working at a startup where the founder is 21 and just about everyone on staff, except for Lapierre, is the founder’s close, personal friend. “It’s my job to help people understand the difference between passion and profitability, and cause and capitalism,” she says, but at most startups hierarchy is seen as a poisonous term.
Here are seven ways to manage a staff when everyone has a long-term, personal relationship with the CEO except for you.
Have An Honest Conversation
“You have go into these positions with your eyes wide open,” Lapierre says. Before you even accept the position, she recommends having a frank conversation with the CEO about how you will both define your authority with the staff.
Some CEOs might be clueless or not think that it will be a problem so it’s best to ask the CEO how he or she will make your authority clear to the staff, says Nancy Halpern, principal at KNH Associates. Ask how he or she will introduce you to the team and how he or she will lay out the chain of command, she says. You might also ask the CEO to speak directly with any staff members who seem most likely to undermine your authority. Ask the CEO to personally reinforce to those staff members that they no longer report to the CEO, but to you instead.
Set Boundaries With The CEO
The CEO might also need to be reminded not to go directly to the staff with requests, says Tracey Adams, founder of ThriveOn Seminars. State what you see the CEO doing (for instance, giving the team work you don’t know about) and remind the CEO of your overall goal (my goal is to distribute work evenly). Then explain what effect this action has on your ability to do your job (when you makes decisions without my input or knowledge, I can’t do my job effectively).
Make A Bold Move Early On
Establish your authority with the first action you take at your new job by spearheading a project that most people on staff would have expected the CEO to head up or by introducing a new budget initiative, Halpern says. Just make sure the CEO backs up your plan and doesn’t feel that you’re stealing his or her thunder, she says.
If the CEO is charismatic, don’t try to win over followers by out-charming a founder who is a charmer, Halpern says. Instead, develop your own reason for staff to respect you by either capitalizing on your subject matter expertise, your industry recognition, or your connection with investors by creating a personal brand that doesn’t compete with the founder’s personal brand.
Address Issues Directly
If there is one person who consistently goes directly to the founder, don’t try to address the issue by lecturing the entire staff. Instead, speak with that person directly. Trying to address it through a group discussion will only cause the rest of the staff to resent you, and the person you’re trying to send a message to, probably won’t realize you’re talking about them, Halpern says.
Tell Them More Than Once
Establishing procedures for the team is not a one-time event, Adams says. You might need to remind staff three or four times, she says. For instance, if someone on the team consistently forgets to copy you on emails to the boss, you might need to talk with them a few times. “You just have to keep at it,” Adams says. “If you notice it again, say to them, ‘We talked about this a few weeks ago and I noticed you did it again. Let’s talk about that.’ ”
Build Your Case
When making a recommendation to the CEO, spend some time explaining the reasons for your decision, Lapierre says. “I always take the extra step to lay out the foundation for my decision and recommendation,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘Here is my opinion and these are the facts.’ People who have an emotional tie to the CEO don’t feel like they have to take that step.” Lapierre says she often wins the argument because she builds her case around facts, not emotions.