Founders

Famous founders from L-R: Ezra Cornell, Mary Pickford, Jack Ma and Steve Jobs.

Successful companies heed the principles of their founders, even those companies whose founders are long gone. This is the theme of the recent book The Founder’s Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth by Chris Zook and James Allen, as well as Allen’s companion Harvard Business Review article. The premise is that when organizations lose their way and become untethered from many of the characteristics of the founder’s mentality, a “stall out” can result in which growth becomes hindered.

The key distinction here is honoring the founder’s mentality and not simply worshiping the founder as a person. As heritage management consultants, we come across many companies that revere their founders. Quotes adorn walls, portraits and busts are prominently displayed. Sometimes the corner office or another landmark of the founder has been carefully restored. Eli Lilly has a replica of its founder’s first laboratory from the late 1800s at its corporate campus. The Walmart Museum includes founder Sam Walton’s 1979 Ford F-150 pickup truck and a replica of his office as it appeared in 1992, the year of his death.

How a great founder’s legacy is shaped and leveraged—particularly for firms whose founders are no longer alive—is significant for the present and future of the enterprise. Would you rather have a founder who is portrayed as synonymous with your history of accomplishments or a founder who is portrayed as the pioneering enabler of a heritage of accomplishments? As your organization continues to grow and change, you want a founder who becomes the embodiment of where you came from and what you stand for, not the standard-bearer for how great you once were.

In a world that is becoming more global and diverse by the day, it’s more important than ever to share your corporate heritage by complementing your founder with other characters from your story who reflect a continuum of values and behaviors you are reinforcing today. This history is filled with authentic people and stories that will resonate with current employees and customers. Southwest, for example, dedicated its June 2016 inflight magazine issue to the airline’s 45-year anniversary. Five years ago, founder Herb Kelleher and his successor, CEO Gary Kelly, appeared on the cover. For the 45th? Then-and-now photos of Sandra Force, one of the company’s first flight attendants, who, along with a few colleagues hired at the same time, is still on the payroll today. Force is also an ambassador of Southwest’s unique culture and brand.

Regardless of the age or size of a company, how and when the founder moves on presents a critical test for any organization. For smaller firms it can be a question of survival as explored in Noam Wasserman’s award-winning 2003 study, “Founder-CEO Succession and the Paradox of Entrepreneurial Success.” For big and mega-big firms built to last, whether their best days lie ahead or have already passed remains to be seen. While Facebook appears to be planning ahead, will Apple match or surpass the era of innovation it had during the Steve Jobs era? Will Starbucks stay on track when Howard Schultz steps aside as CEO (again)?

The real litmus test: Would your founder be proud of today’s enterprise, both in terms of the accomplishments on the company timeline and how they were achieved? The best way to honor your extraordinary founder isn’t by merely putting him or her on a pedestal, but also truly understanding and celebrating what made this person extraordinary.

While the organization may never replicate all of the same talents in one individual the same way again, preserved effectively, the founder’s greatest legacy is a mindset and set of competencies that can be sustained and built upon for generations.