There is one choice every successful Founder must make. At some point, every Founder will need to choose between transforming culture and character of the organization to create the ability to scale OR limiting the growth of the organization to keep it within its current operating capacity. The dividing line between them is a stage in the organization’s life cycle we call Whitewater and suffice it to stay; no one wants to stay in Whitewater for long. To get out, the Founder has to make their decision.

For some, this may be an obvious choice, but for many the events that lead up to the decision can be quite painful. This difficulty is seen most readily in the culture of the organization.

Why cultural changes are particularly hard for the founder

Here’s why cultural changes in Whitewater hurt so badly, especially for the Founder/CEO. During Early Struggle and Fun, the culture was largely an extension of you, the Founder, the Visionary. You had a visionary culture with visionary traits, and it worked. Specifically, this setup works in the first two phases of corporate growth because they are really all about getting a bunch of Operators working together to maximize the reach of the Visionary and his/her ideas.

During this time, the company and its Visionary look nearly inseparable, and to the Founder, they are inseparable. The company is often more like their child than a business, they care about it deeply, and they relate to it personally. When the company does well, the Founder feels good about themselves. When the company does poorly, the Founder wonders if they even have what it takes. This tension grows and grows, and when you are deep in Fun, there are two equally problematic responses from the leader. Most leaders don’t necessarily give voice to them, but they exist nonetheless. 

Icarus Syndrome

You start to sip your own Kool-Aid and begin to believe you have unlocked the key to perpetual success. You have been growing like crazy, and you’ve been beating companies that are 2x, 5x, or even 1000x your size. You know exactly why they’re failing, and you’ve got it all figured out. Then Whitewater hits. You slam into a wall (usually more than once), and your philosophy on business growth and success is left in shambles. 

Too good to be true

You start to worry that it’s all going to fall apart. The organization begins to feel big and complex. You don’t know how to do everything anymore. You probably don’t even know what everyone does. You feel overextended, over-leveraged, and burned out. When the tremors of Whitewater first set in, all those alarm bells and internal prophecies come screaming to the forefront of your mind. You know that you know, this is it. We had a good run. It’s time to sell or wind its way down to something more manageable. If this is you, you’re not alone. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great notes Herb Kelleher of Southwest airlines, successfully predicted all 11 of the last three recessions!

This tension is felt most in the culture of the business. The culture is an extension of the Visionary. If the culture is working well, the Visionary is alright. If it is falling apart, the Visionary will often look inside his or herself, trying to find some fundamental flaw within.

Then Whitewater hits.

In Whitewater, the business needs additional support from systems and processes, so they start bringing in Processor leadership. The Processors RARELY fit the culture. Not because they are a cultural mismatch, but because the visionary culture is too small. 

The idea that anything about a Visionary probably comes across as odd. How do these larger-than-life dreamers, these big thinkers, do anything too small?

To understand this, we have to look at the differences between Visionaries and Processors. When we do, we have a lot to talk about because Processors and Visionaries often seem like exact opposites. Visionaries value ideas, dreams, highly individualized customer care, excitement, and selling no matter what. Processors don’t appreciate any of those things as highly. Instead, their attention goes to predictability, consistent quality, systems, and processes that scale.

For the Visionary to lead his or her company into Predictable Success, they need to separate the company from their person and allow it to grow to integrate the right Processor world view as well. While this seems so obvious, it is difficult to adequately describe how painful it is for the leader.

More than anyone else in the business, they are responsible for the current culture and its shortcomings. They enjoyed the highest alignment with the culture because it was just a reflection of their values and world view. The enjoyed the greatest satisfaction from the success in Fun because it affirmed them and their values and may have even tricked them into believing they’ve figured it all out.

The Founder’s choice

Avoiding these painful experiences of letting go and separating from the company in this way is the reason many founders choose not to go to Predictable Success. Let me be clear with this next point, that is 100% valid. Choosing to go back to Fun and accepting the limitations that will keep you in Fun is every bit as compelling as choosing to push through Whitewater and into Predictable Success.

The only option that isn’t valid is to try to achieve Fun+. Fun+ is the myth Founders believe that tells them they can keep growing rapidly forever without having to make any of these systematic changes. It’s natural to want to have your cake and eat it too. But just like a delicious chocolate cake, the decision between Fun and Predictable Success is a forced choice. 

I’m making a point of this because when you don’t choose Fun or Predictable Success, you end up stuck in between the two: in Whitewater. Getting stuck here is about the most painful thing any Visionary can do because it is so hard to make sense of what is happening. They feel like they are being forced to make a difficult choice, but they often don’t know what the options are. They realize their culture isn’t working anymore and that you are going to have to let go of some of the very things you hold most dear, the ones that got you this far so you can move forward.

I am so passionate about helping founders, visionaries, CEOs, and other leaders get out of Whitewater as quickly as possible because the toll of staying stuck in this “in-between” space is just too high. With the right understanding of what needs to happen, you don’t have to be stuck. You can build a great Fun company or a great Predictable Success company, and you get to decide which one YOU want.