Working with founders

| From start up to grown up

The journey from founding to leading is a challenging one and requires adaptation to changing circumstances, shifting focuses and the skilful use of different behaviours and communication styles. However, when working with a founder, a group of founders or a leadership team that reports to a founder, there are also many systemic things to consider.

| In the beginning

The first questions to consider exploring are the dynamics around starting. Who generated the original idea? Who generated the funding? Who else had a stake in the business? What circumstances led the founding? When there are a group of people who describe themselves as ‘the founders’, who was the first? If these things are not clear from the start they always come back later as limiting patterns and dynamics. Everyone and everything that contributed, even in a small way, needs to be acknowledged if the system is to find balance and flow.

Going back further, it’s often very important to understand where and how the founder(s) worked before. Many founders start a company in order to get away from a working environment or culture they disagreed with or rejected. Or to protect themselves from being treated badly or excluded, hence the common inner ‘life sentence’ in founders: “I’ll never get excluded again”. Others want to compete with their previous employer or prove something to them. This is often the source of the inner ‘life sentence’ “I’ll show you!”, as described in the main article, this pattern may have often begun in the family of origin.

All these different kinds of motivation – especially a clarity around ‘moving away from’ or ‘moving towards’ – can be important to understand as they will influence what happens after the start-up phase.

| What’s the point?

Clarity around the original intention is important. What or whom is the system designed to serve? Does the founder want to build reputation, a lifestyle business, build to sell – or something else? Systems don’t function well when the intention is not clear or shared or if there is a secret unspoken intention that sits under the stated intention.

If the goal or intention for the system is changed at a later date, even hundreds of years later, it is always important to fully acknowledge and honour the original purpose or intention so it has its place and will allow a fresh one to emerge and thrive. Those that are privately loyal to the original intention are then able to feel the respect and move on, to a fresh perspective and intention.

| Where are the children?

If you are familiar with systemic coaching, you will be aware of the importance of including everything that is held in the field of the client. When working with founders the presence, often the absence, of children can be important. Female founders in particular sometimes get caught in painful just out of conscious dynamics which may include: and inner tension between mothering their business and their own children (which can create a business-wide difficulty with work-life balance); a heartfelt and psycho-biological longing for children but a difficulty in creating one (which can result in over-giving at work and treating employees like children); a sadness or guilt about having had an abortion (which can also result in over-giving and a prioritising of the ‘baby-business’ to balance the loss.)

These and other patterns and dynamics can also lead to perfectionism in founders of either gender.
When these difficult, challenging and often painful dynamics are named and felt, systems settle.
Please scroll down for more on working with founders.

| As above so below

If you are working with a senior team in a founder-led system then you should look out for repeating patterns that they get caught in as these are often limiting dynamics in the founder(s) and the relationship system around them. Teams in all business systems embody what has not been resolved by the board or those above them, but this is particularly prevalent in founder-led systems.

Systems are often slowed down by a number of ‘missing conversations’ that sit in the system limiting the flow of leadership. Once again these conversations may need to be had ‘above’ the team by the founder and their immediate team. The job of the systemic coach or facilitator is to support the inclusion of everything and this means that you will need to develop the capacity to facilitate these key conversations which may be difficult for the founder(s) to have.

| Creating chemistry

When a coach makes contact with a potential client, whether they are a founder, individual, team or corporate executive they will build a powerful understanding of some of the dynamics that exist in the system, just from the contracting process. This is often particularly noticeable when contracting with founders and you can predict many of the behaviours and challenges that they face – and that you may face as coach working with them, from this part of the process.

For more on this subject please see this site The Chemistry Check which offers some guidance on connecting clients to their material – and with their coach, in first meetings.

| It starts in the family.  Yours.

As will be clear from the main article on founders there are often links between a founder who requires or requests coaching or organisational consulting support, and their family-of-origin. Indeed for many founders the organisational system is mistaken for and often referred to as their family – as it often feels safer to belong in or recreates the comfort of familiar pain. This means that the coach or consultant needs to be awake to those dynamics in their own life and work as well.

People who are attracted to work with founders are often founders themselves and may have an inner mirror of their client’s personal system within them. As a result it can be important to build self-awareness but also do some personal development work in this area. If you are resourced from your origins you will be better able to work without getting entangled with founder dynamics. This is clearly even more important when working with founders who have family members within the business system, as they often do.

Likewise it is also important to look at and resolve all your past organisational exits. How did you leave? Is that inner process truly complete? This is because founders are usually frightened by anyone leaving – most especially themselves – and so this is a very common area of work when working with founders.  However you develop yourself in this area you are encouraged to explore the hidden loyalties, entanglements and resources that are within your family-of-origin and professional field. All adults have binding connections back into their origins as well as all the systems in which they belong and it is by illuminating and accessing the resources within these that serenity, inner strength and clarity can be found.


Working with founders is a complex area but one that is full of rewards and satisfaction because you are working with the person or people with the most responsibility for the system. They are the parent(s) of the organisational system and so you are working at the source. It is from this place that systemic change can be most effectively achieved and organisational health can emerge and endure.

© John Whittington 2019

Links and resources

This is a ‘pop-up page’ about working with founders that goes into a little more detail than is possible within the main article.

For the main article about Founders please see this page.

A link to an article about how founders can disengage, when it’s time to exit.

For all the articles on this site, please see this page.

For further reading with a systemic perspective please see the ‘Further Reading’ page, here.

For workshops designed to resource founders and those they work with please see the workshops page here.

Please Note: From March 2021 this article and the others in the series will only be available through our new 'Mighty Networks' online community HERE.


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