Passing the baton: a founder’s guide to a leadership transition

Company founders will naturally have their sights set on growth. But although they managed to turn an idea into reality, they may not be best placed to help it blossom. Pat Lynes, founder of Sullivan & Stanley, explains when founder CEOs should consider handing the reins to someone else – and how to ensure a smooth transition

Smiling Businesswoman Greeting A Colleague with a handshake

I’ve always been an entrepreneur. As a teenager, I was always looking to turn my weird and wonderful ideas into profitable businesses. I thrived off the thrill and meritocracy of being an entrepreneur and salesperson, visibly seeing the results of the work I put in having a positive impact on an industry or community. 

To me, being a founder means building something from scratch that didn’t exist before. You bring an idea to the market, resource it, sell it and energise it. That’s my sweet spot. 

At Sullivan & Stanley, the specialist change consultancy that I founded in 2016, I got to embrace the excitement of being the founder, but also steer the ship day-to-day as CEO. But I knew from day one that eventually, I’d hand the CEO reins to someone else. 

Ego can be one of the biggest killers of success. Many CEOs are guilty of this and don’t realise that there will come a time when they’ve reached their full potential in that role.

As the captain, it’s important to recognise when it’s time to pass the baton.

Find someone who will help you scale

As a football fanatic, I like to look at things through a sporting lens. My role as founder of Sullivan & Stanley saw me establish the ‘team’ – I scouted the best talent and brought us up from the depths of the amateur league to the professional consulting leagues. I’ve now brought in a new CEO to help us get to the premier league. 

For me, it’s the ‘who’ not the ‘how’.

I knew Jason Byrne was the perfect person for this new role. At his last company, Moorhouse, he was one of the original three employees and saw the company go from the amateur league to the first division. 

I brought us up from the amateur league to the professional leagues. I brought in a new CEO to help us get to the premier league

He would have the ideal perspective to help us scale in a way that I couldn’t possibly achieve alone.

Founders are the visionaries and risk-takers. They’ve got the guts to get an idea up and running and get it into a great place. But at some point they need to realise that there’s a better person to take that vision and take it to a grander scale. 

Some CEOs who are brilliant at taking companies to the next level, will fail gloriously in a founder role. They have totally different skill sets and it’s rare to be able to do them both.

I’ve seen so many CEOs let their own ego get the best of them and end up becoming part of the problem. They end up holding their business back because they’ve gone stale. I never wanted that for myself but I quickly realised I was only a few years away from that becoming the reality.

Ensure a comfortable cultural fit

The decision to hire Sullivan & Stanley’s new CEO didn’t just happen overnight. It’s been on my mind from when I first started the business. I must have interviewed hundreds of candidates over the last three or four years. The old saying “if it’s not screaming ‘yes!’, it’s a ‘no’” often stuck in my head. 

Being the founder and CEO, I knew what made the business tick. I knew the new CEO needed to understand and fit into our culture that I worked so hard to build.

I made sure we did chemistry tests with Jason and the team. We held several workshops so we could gather feedback from our teams, and once we were happy, we invited him back to attend company events, as well as our yearly retreat in Lisbon. He became fully integrated into the team so that his role as CEO began before he even started.

We’ve been doing a lot of work with our head of talent and people, to ensure that we’re in sync with job specs across the whole leadership team. You need to establish where the boundaries are and I’ve got a whole document on how I’m going to support him and what I’m not going to do to diminish him. It’s a constant programme of work.

I now need to take a step back and focus on my sweet spot of being the founder, building on our partnerships, growth strategy and bringing new products and services to market, and allow Jason to really steer the ship as CEO. 

To me, the real sign of leadership is when you can recognise your strengths and weaknesses, and you know when it’s time to walk away. I’m leaving the team now to crack on and thrive, building on the success we’ve had. I hope that my decision inspires others to reflect and potentially do the same, because as CEO you can often be the last one to realise when you’re becoming part of the problem, and by then, it might be too late.