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Chris Zook: THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth 

Chris Zook is a partner at Bain & Company and was co-head of the firm’s Global Strategy practice for 20 years. During his more than 25 years at Bain, Chris has specialized in helping companies find new sources of profitable growth. James Allen is a partner in Bain’s London office. Co-head of the firm’s Global Strategy practice, he is founder of the Bain Founder’s Mentality 100, a global network of founder-led companies. They are the authors of five bestselling books on strategy, including most recently THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth (Harvard Business Review Press; June 2016).

THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth

Growth creates complexity, and complexity is the silent killer of growth. This paradox of growth explains why only about one company in nine has sustained more than a minimum level of profitable growth during the past decade, and why 85 percent of executives blame internal factors for their shortfall, not external ones beyond their control. Their increased internal complexity leads them farther astray from the clear values and attitudes that their founder put in place. The few companies that avoid such internal crises and sustain long-term growth are those that maintain a “founder’s mentality.” In fact, of the roughly one in ten companies that achieve a decade of sustained and profitable growth, nearly two in three are governed by the founder’s mentality. That’s why what counts is not how well a company plays in the outer game of quarterly earnings, returns to shareholders, market share shifts, and profitable growth. Instead it’s how well they play the inner game to manage internal complexity with a founder’s mentality.

Whether you work at a founder-led startup or a founder-less multinational, THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth (Harvard Business Review Press; June 7, 2016) by Bain strategists Chris Zook and James Allen empowers executives with the necessary mindset to safely steer their company through every stage of growth and past the inevitable crises of internal complexity that follow.

These crises of internal complexity that follow growth include:

•    Overload: The internal dysfunction and loss of external momentum that management teams of young, fast-growing companies experience as they try to rapidly scale their businesses.

•    Stall-out: The sudden slowdown that many successful companies suffer as their rapid growth gives rise to layers of organizational complexity and a dilution of the clear mission that once gave the company its focus and energy.

•    Free Fall: The most existentially threatening. A company in free fall has completely stopped growing in its core market; and its business model, until recently the reason for its success, suddenly no longer seems viable.

The authors’ research shows that more than 80 percent of a company’s major swings in value can be traced to the decisions and actions the companies take—or do not take—at these three moments of internal crisis. If addressed with a founder’s mentality, each crisis can be leveraged into a moment of huge value creation, but if not addressed, they can destroy huge amounts of value and even spell the end. In fact, over two thirds of large companies will stall-out or be acquired within the next fifteen years, and the odds are only about one in six that a company, after stalling out, will recover fully. Sony, Philips, Panasonic, Sears or Mazda are among today’s companies in stall-out because their growth formula of the past stopped generating growth in the present.

That’s why a founder’s mentality isn’t just a nice to have, but a must-have. A founder’s mentality consists of three elements: an insurgent’s mission, an owner’s mindset, and an obsession with the front line. While it is undervalued, the incentive to have one is strong. New research by Bain shows that companies able to maintain a founder’s mentality as they grow large and complex—companies like AB Inbev, LBrands, IKEA, Haier, Google, or Nike—achieve three times the economic returns of companies that let these attributes erode. And more than 80% of top performing companies adhere to the traits of a founder’s mentality.

Based on the authors’ decades-long study of companies in more than 40 countries, THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY identifies a profound connection between these “founder’s mentality” traits in companies of all kinds—not just start-ups—and their ability to sustain performance. With this powerful mindset, companies will grow safely and steadily past any crisis to their highest potential scale.


“The concept of the ‘founder’s mentality,’ and in particular our ‘ownership’ culture, has been central to our evolution and growth as a company.” —Carlos Brito, CEO, AB InBev

“As a founder I resonate strongly with the themes of THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY, especially with regard to the overwhelming importance of speed, singular focus, and the ability to invest for the long term.” — Michael Dell, founder and CEO, Dell Inc.

“Zook and Allen share invaluable insight as to how to preserve a company’s founding purpose, perspective, and energy, while preventing institutionalization from diluting it. Their work has been instrumental in the way my leadership team and I think about our culture, our structure, and our business model.”— Adrian Gore, founder and CEO, Discovery Group

“In this heavily researched and compelling book, Zook and Allen provide a road map for winning growth. Companies that build and maintain healthy cultures scale with speed and sidestep avoidable stall-out. Whether you are a start-up entrepreneur, an investor, or a Fortune 500 manager, you need THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY!” — Linda Rottenberg, cofounder and CEO, Endeavor Global

“As companies grow, scale and complexity can become a real threat to momentum. Zook and Allen’s THE FOUNDER’S MENTALITY offers useful insights to help leaders maintain agility in order to sustain their success.” — Les Wexner, founder and CEO, L Brands