“If we have data, let’s look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”
This is a famous quote by Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of Netscape.
When I’m advising members of a leadership team that is struggling to break through with their founder, I pull out this quote.
Founders have incredibly strong points of view about every aspect of their business. This is what enables them to go from an idea on a napkin to actually launch a company. It’s an incredibly important trait in the early days.
They deem themselves to be experts on what the customer wants, how the product should work, the go-to-market strategy, and how happy the company’s employees should be.
However, more often than most founders would like to believe, many of their assumptions turn out to be wrong. Particularly as an organization grows, founders become less connected to various parts of the business and the customer base, and what may have been valid initial assumptions no longer hold true.
Founders also tend to create a “Reality Distortion Field” where they focus on desired outcomes and then try to will it to happen without regard to what’s possible, or how to deal with the obstacles that will be in their way. It’s a powerful force that can push a company forward at times when others would give up, but unchecked, real problems can arise.
It is the job of the leadership team to help operationalize the founder’s vision, and bring back the facts and data that help the founder make the right short and long term decisions around the strategic direction.
If you find yourself disagreeing with the founder on an issue where they hold strong opinions, you will not convince them if you are talking on their terms, in a data-free environment where only opinions live.
Because if all you have are opinions, you’ll end up going with the founder’s.
You have to bring the data to back up your assumptions.
If you are working on sales goals for next year, and the founder is proposing targets that are double what you believe to be achievable, you need to show the bottom-up build that explains your path to growth.
If you are working on the UX design for a product update, you need the user engagement data to support your point of view.
When I have had to advocate for staying within our spending plan, or even reducing spending against lower than expected sales, I would have a hard copy of the cash flow with me that showed how many months of runway we had left.
You need to be prepared for the fact that the founder will continue to argue from the fact-free zone for as long as they can. You need to keep bringing the discussion back to the facts and ground your point of view there.
I often find members of the leadership team frustrated by this dynamic, and I’ve seen teams start to splinter and companies struggle because teams can’t overcome the founder’s opinion.
But the leaders in an organization that support the founder have a critical responsibility to their teams and the success of the company. Do the work. Bring the data to back up your point of view.