Navigating startup politics as a founder

Startup founders have a ton of problems to juggle. As such, worrying about executives or team members playing power games is the last thing a founder wants to deal with.

But an organization is inherently a political structure, and executives nowadays are increasingly learning these dark arts.

Image credit: Timmy Loen

So whether they like it or not, founders need to manage and minimize the power games going on in their startup or face the consequences of ignoring this task. Here are some thoughts about how to do just that.

Shared values and mission

Making sure that your values, mission, and vision are aligned helps reduce political maneuvering in a startup.

Customer-centric or belief-based mission statements that are easier to describe than quantify are ideal. They are useful in filtering out the kind of employees you don’t want, and you can quickly spot those who are working towards the mission versus those who are after individual gains.

You can guess which of these two slogans would attract more selfish individuals: “Creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere” versus “Delivering top cash-on-cash returns!”

Narrow and flatten your organization

The only startup with zero politics is one with just a solo entrepreneur. Adding team members from that point on increases the amount of politicking.

It isn’t a linear relationship, though, as a flatter organizational structure with fewer layers of management can curtail power struggles and boost collaboration.

At the same time, having fewer functional subteams reduces the number of leaders and makes it easier to form a solid top team.

Information and decision-making transparency

Transparent decision-making processes, policies, and procedures help build trust and dispel perceptions of hidden agendas, thus blunting the usefulness of politicking. However, transparency can be challenging, especially in times when bad news drives some decisions.

Founders – myself included – naturally prefer amplifying good news rather than communicating hard truths. In the long run, though, sharing openly and allowing employees to understand the rationale behind decisions creates a more trusting and cooperative environment.

Clarity of roles and responsibilities

Startups often encounter issues with this as roles evolve quickly and often. The responsibilities of some team members often drift far from their original job descriptions.

It requires a significant investment of time and resources, but keeping the organizational chart, team charters, and individual job descriptions up to date can be helpful in preventing misunderstandings and conflicts related to power and control.

This clarity also helps employees understand how they fit within the organization and contribute to its overall success.

Growth – the wonder drug

Like everything within startups, growth helps keep politicking in check. It’s both difficult and futile to hoard power when a company is experiencing hypergrowth.

But the problem is, growth is harder to come by these days amid less available funding and a stronger emphasis on the bottom line. In these circumstances, founders must be more vigilant.

Study up

As a founder, you need to know the dark arts so you can notice signs of politicking and power games within your organization. Armed with this knowledge, you can address these issues.

You don’t even have to take a “Paths to Power” module at an Ivy League business school to be a student of the dark arts. Just read classic tomes like Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power or get ChatGPT to discuss it with you, and you’ll be good and ready.

This article originally appeared on JJ Chai’s LinkedIn page. It has been edited for clarity.


JJ Chai

JJ Chai is the CEO & co-founder of Rainforest, an ecommerce house-of-brands focused on the modern parent. Before founding Rainforest, he held prior stints at xto10x, Carousell, Airbnb and McKinsey.

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