Leadership

Musk, Zuck and Up: Should the actions of a founder taint their company?

Michel Hogan /

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Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg. Source: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez.

Every organisation starts with a person or people. And in the early days of existence, founders (aka people who do the starting) understandably provide an outsize impact on its doing and being. Hopefully for the better, and recently, all too often for the worse.

So, when it’s for the worse, can we and should we separate the individual actions from the collective whole?

To be clear, I’m not talking about the chief executive officer who takes the lead many years later. There is plenty to say about their actions, but that’s a different article. I’m explicitly talking about founders, the ones with the idea and effort that got things rolling.

Psychologists are quick to remind us how important our parents are to our sense of self as adults and so too the echoes of founders can reverberate long after they have left.

We’re quick to tout the admirable stuff — think Hewlett and Packard’s garage of ideas, Bowerman and Knight’s waffle-iron pursuit of a better running shoe, Google’s guys monkeying around with algorithms in their dorm room. All are embraced as central to the enduring character of the companies they founded.

Yet, when actions run counter to past promises and perception, people are quick to claim distance and suggest they don’t reflect the organisation. A couple of recent examples provide some food for thought.

It became a story heard around the world. Tesla founder Elon Musk lit up a joint as he was interviewed by US podcaster Joe Rogen and settled in for a rambling and often incoherent chat. Not a good look for any chief executive, let alone one with 45,000 employees depending on his example. And it’s far from an isolated incident, capped by a string of ill-advised statements on Twitter leading to Tesla’s skittish investors suing Musk to try and curtail his actions.

Closer to home is Grant Thomas, co-founder of neobank Up. Grant created all sorts of problems for his company when he participated in Sam Newman’s recent insulting transgender-focused video. He later issued an apology and asked for it to be removed after his organisation’s damage-control denials distanced itself from his actions.

So should an organisation be allowed to hold itself separate from the views and actions of a founder? Especially when other more convenient views and actions are embraced and upheld as virtues. Is it fair to judge an entire organisation by the words and actions of one person?

When that person exerts the kind of influence founders do, with who they are and what they do woven into the fabric of the organisation, I think the answer is yes.

And any action can have far-reaching consequences. An arrogant, careless founder will inevitably inspire arrogant and careless actions around them. Not in everyone and not all the time. But enough to smear how the organisation operates well into the future.

For example, Zuckerberg’s early contempt for privacy is now deeply embedded in the way Facebook thinks and does things. Sure he’s not smoking joints or vilifying trans people, but there’s more than one way to set a bad example.

People are imperfect works in progress. And yes, we can all do and say stupid things, with the ripples hitting others we didn’t intend to hurt. But that acknowledgement comes hand-in-hand with higher expectations and, yes, a burden for some.

You are a founder. A word derived from the Latin word for a foundation. So be the steward, not the wrecking ball. Understand and respect the inherent responsibility and disproportionate impact of what you do on your achievement. That your actions can equally set the stage for generations of greatness as they can taint the entire endeavour.

The brand is a result of the promises you keep (emphasis in this case on you).

See you next week.

NOW READ: How Mark Zuckerberg is stopping American men from living “double lives”

NOW READ: Why Up’s transgender controversy shows there can be no separation between founders and their companies

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.

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