The Founder’s Mentality: Find it or Flounder


It’s not often that I meet a legendary business leader. It’s less often that I receive a book in the mail from that person. So when Robert K. Irving sent me a copy of The Founder’s Mentality by Chris Zook and James Allen, I was eager to discover what Mr. Irving found to be so compelling.

What I found was a book that answered the twin questions: why do successful, growing organizations stall, and what can their leaders do to restore sustainable growth? Every business has to find an answer to those questions. So do volunteer organizations.

I work for a family-owned business that lives many of the same values that Mr. Irving described as the bedrock of his companies. I was not surprised, then, that The Founder’s Mentality is applicable to my work. What delighted me was how relevant it is to my volunteer activities.

What does the founder’s mentality look like?

  • It features a bold sense of mission that everyone in the organization understands.
  • It obsesses about the front line, where employees interact with customers and suppliers.
  • It shares an owner’s mindset, which is biased towards action and against bureaucracy.

As I worked through the opening chapters, I kept nodding in recognition. Among others, I recognized:

  • Robert K. Irving, who had paid a visit to our company—a new customer—to personally ask whether we were being well served and to explore whether we could find more opportunities to do business together.
  • Ward Griffin, whose passion for customer service has been the north star during our company’s growth over the past two decades.
  • Fr. Michael White from Timonium, Maryland, and Fr. James Mallon from Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaders in a movement to build vibrant, energetic Catholic parishes.

The authors maintain that success and growth present an organization with potentially lethal challenges. As they grow, businesses become more complex. They offer more products, they cover larger areas, they hire more people. Volunteer organizations introduce more programs and recruit more volunteers. Each addition adds complexity and dilutes the common vision. Growth stalls and, at best, the organization treads water.

Reigniting growth depends on adopting, maintaining, and spreading the founder’s mentality throughout the organization. A sampling of the recommended practical steps include:

  • Embed the front-line obsession throughout the organization.
  • Open up the lines of communication.
  • Share the burden of leadership.

Do I recommend The Founder’s Mentality? Heartily. For anyone who cares about their business or volunteer organization, it offers important insights and practical suggestions. I expect it will be part of my working library for years to come.

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