Adopting a Founder’s Mindset: Leading like an Owner | Leading from the Library

It’s good when library leaders talk about having a start-up mentality or entrepreneurial spirit. One thing is missing though: Ownership. These leaders have little of their own to lose if things go bad. Thinking like an owner may make a difference.
Steven BellIt’s good when library leaders talk about having a start-up mentality or entrepreneurial spirit. One thing is missing though: Ownership. These leaders have little of their own to lose if things go bad. Thinking like an owner may make a difference. A running theme of this column is the value of learning from leadership stories. Some of the best ones profile entrepreneurs. What makes the stories so compelling is the personal commitment, investment, and sacrifice these individuals make for their ideas and dreams. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say they risk it all. Take the case of Alex Andon: After being laid off from his biotech job he decided to start a business selling and maintaining jellyfish aquariums. Even after acquiring a few customers, it was unclear if the business would overcome the many hurdles to achieving an affordable home aquarium where the jellyfish survive. While Andon eventually obtained Kickstarter funding, it’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to go deeply into personal debt for the sake of a startup. These stories may even take on a “root for the underdog” dimension when they involve an against-all-odds entrepreneur who succeeds in taking on an entrenched industry that long ago forgot about caring for its customers.

Above the Waterline

When library leaders innovate, they do so to improve services, eliminate problems, or increase the library’s value to the community. While it may involve some risk to the library as an organization, the leader’s level of personal risk is minimal. In the event of failure, other than a loss of funds, wasted staff time, or some reputation damage, library leaders survive such incidents personally unscathed—except perhaps for a bruised ego. In today’s prototype and fail fast environment, leaders may get support, and possibly even kudos, for taking risks, experiencing failure, and learning to do better. Leaders must be mindful of what Jim Collins called the “waterline” principle. Using a ship as a metaphor for the organization, as long as leaders’ failures resulted in damage above the waterline, they and the ship would survive. Below the waterline, a leader could expect their career to sink like the ship. Though most library leaders will stay safely above the waterline, might they improve their organizations by leading and practicing as though there was much more at stake?

Different Mindset

No one expects library leaders to invest their personal savings in any new idea, but perhaps there is something to learn from understanding the experience of someone like Andon. Thinking, deciding, and acting as if one were the developer and owner of an enterprise could make for a surprisingly different approach for the leader and library workers. Adopting this completely different mindset is the subject of the book The Founder’s Mentality (Harvard Business Review Press), by Chris Zook and James Allen. In their research for the book, Zook and Allen studied 8,000 organizations over a five year period to identify the factors that most contributed to “inner health” rather than the bottom line. Not surprisingly, the healthiest organizations had the strongest performance. The authors offer a three-part formula for leaders who want to adapt this mentality to their leadership style and philosophy: Insurgent Mission: Founders are driven by wanting their organizations to break new ground and achieve something that is both different and valued. They are willing to try new tactics and strategies that are unconventional and untested. For library leaders that might mean abandoning a long accepted practice, such as subscribing to bundled journal packages, in favor of pay-per-article journal fulfillment. That’s why it may help for library leaders to view themselves as insurgents, fighting against industry practices, on behalf of their community members. Frontline Obsession: Inner health depends on organization’s ability to meet and exceed the expectations of customers and clients. Founders pay close attention to service quality and employee satisfaction. According to Zook and Allen, owners who build their organizations from the ground up know every workflow and job—and likely performed many of them themselves. That leads to a laser-like focus on details and getting things done right. How many library leaders could claim to understand the frontline operations of their libraries in great detail? They can start learning by asking questions, not to micromanage, but to assure every aspect of the library experience benefits the community member. Owner’s Mindset: Bureaucracy, rules, and unnecessary procedures are as damaging to organizations as fat is to our arteries. They clog workflows, slow projects, and ultimately hurt what happens on the frontlines. Founders are quick to identify and acknowledge problems, take responsibility for them, and rally library workers to fix what’s broken—and they work to eliminate bureaucracy and rules that hurt inner health. When staff knows that their leaders fight for them and do everything possible to clear obstacles that hamper their individual success, they too will feel more like owners with an investment in the organization’s success.

Be Bold

Having three core practices to adopt in pursuit of the founder’s mentality seems eminently doable for library leaders: 1) Think and act differently. 2) Focus on the frontlines. 3) Avoid allowing bureaucracy to strangle the organization. What surprised me about the founder’s mentality is that it has less to do with risk taking than I expected. In some sense, there is an element of risk in being an insurgent, in paying as much attention to the frontline as the administrative office, or attempting to break free of rule-bound practices. When the parent organization is in poor health and encases the library in bureaucracy and rules, library leaders need to take greater risks to break through those barriers. Adopting a founder’s mentality need not require library leaders to operate as though they must routinely test the waterline principle. What appears to matter more than risk is boldness. When leaders are willing to do those things that promote the inner health of their organization, they should expect to see results in engaged staff and satisfied community members.

Not Owners but We Can Think Like Them

Of course library leaders don’t own the library. None of this is to suggest that any library leader should operate under the assumption that they and they alone are ultimately in control of the organization’s fate and future. Nor should the burden for achieving outcomes fall to one person. Leading the library is, to an extent, a shared responsibility; all library staff play their role in contributing to its success. The point is that thinking more like an owner may give us all an added incentive, beyond wanting to be helpful, competent, and productive, to accept that we occasionally need to take chances and decide on actions that only an owner, fighting to survive and thrive in a competitive environment, would take. None of us who work in libraries will ever know what it’s like to have another library open up across the street from us whose expressed mission is to put us out of business. What if we operated as though we were in that situation? It might change how we think about our work, how we respond to the need to do things differently, and how we support our leaders when they adopt the founder’s mentality.


I love this post! More people need this mindset. Libraries are supposed to stimulate the economy with their resources and services (both public and academic). Why are so many maintaining the status quo just to get by? Losing money for resources and not getting a financial reward for your work can be discouraging but engaging the community and doing your work for the greater good can only bring a positive outcome.

Posted : Mar 22, 2017 11:31

Bob Holley

I've been a risk taker all my life so that I'm not suggesting that libraries and librarians shouldn't take risks. My point is that worst case scenario thinking is a useful step in the planning process for any new initiative. Not considering what can go wrong has led many individuals and organizations to disaster. I have often said that I'm willing to skate on thin ice as long as I've measured it very carefully before starting out. I also believe that libraries can afford risk taking more than for-profit organizations. Most libraries have assured continued funding, which can both foster risk taking or more often lead to complacency. The for-profit business can find itself in bankruptcy after a significant failure or inability to adapt to changing conditions as is the case now for many brick-and-mortar stores. On the other hand, to go back to the very beginnings of my career in the 1970's, I remember two high level library directors who lost their jobs because of failed automation projects. One of my units in my management class talked about more recent library directors of all types who were fired, sometimes for reasons not under their control. Finally, consider the push back from faculty and users when the library has not taken enough care to justify reducing the size of the print collection or putting the materials in storage.

Posted : Mar 02, 2017 08:15

Bob Holley

The flip side of the column above is that the lack of ownership not only eliminates risk but also reward. An entrepreneur can fail twenty times and then become a multi-millionaire from the next start up. I taught my management students that the biggest risk in implementing a new non-revenue generating service is not failure, but unexpected and overwhelming success. Success for the corporate entrepreneur brings in new revenue that can be used to expand the service to meet demand even if the entrepreneur may face some short-term scaling problems. An unexpectedly, popular new service in non-profit libraries creates a budget problem. The library can move money from other parts of the budget, ask for additional funding from the governing body, or find some way to limit use of the service either by imposing some sort of fee or by letting the its quality deteriorate to the point that it becomes less in demand. I once was very unpopular at a library meeting when I suggested that, if somehow magically every faculty member became committed to inviting librarians to provide information literacy sessions, the library wouldn't be able to cope. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

Posted : Mar 01, 2017 02:11


Thanks Bob for sharing a different perspective on risk taking and reward. It's possible that too much of a good thing can become problematic. I think that's a risk worth taking. I certainly wouldn't be displeased if our success created good buzz about the library, but yes, we'd have to be careful not to overextend ourselves. Let's say every faculty member did request more librarian participation. There might be ways we could scale up (giving them tools they could integrate into their own courses to improve student research skills), or it might allow us to make the case that we need to add another librarian or two to the staff - particularly if we can document faculty demand for services. Something to think about.

Posted : Mar 01, 2017 02:11

anonymous coward

Bob, that's a very sad outlook to approach success with, IMO. Why not just say, "Don't reach for the stars, but be comfortable to be good enough to not get fired."

Posted : Mar 01, 2017 02:11


"Focus on the frontlines." This is the radical idea here.

Posted : Feb 24, 2017 01:03


You'd certainly hope that would be the case - even if the founder's mindset was secondary to the a leader seeing the value in an engaged front line staff - and understanding the challenges and concerns of front line workers. But I get your point that not enough leaders are taking that position. This column has on multiple occasions discussed the reasons why leaders would want to do that. I hope the message is sinking in.

Posted : Feb 24, 2017 01:03




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