Position: Chief executive of Force 3, a Crofton-based IT company.

Les Trachtman knew early in his career that he wanted to run a business. He has been hired four times as a chief executive to take on a business that had been run by its founder. This time, it is at Force 3, where he has taken over as chief executive after the company’s founder stepped down.

What’s the key to being successful in a founder transition?

You have two edges that you have to deal with. The first one is, you have to have the confidence of the founder that your intentions are pure. In each case, my goal was to benefit the company and not myself. Number two is you have to enable them to let go. I always use the analogy of riding on the back seat of a bicycle built for two. I’m on the back seat peddling. The founder is on the front seat holding the handlebars. If you hold the handlebars really tight, you feel every bump. But if you loosen your grip, your ride is much more comfortable. And they don’t have to pump the pedals very hard. I’ll pump the pedals. All they have to do is steer a bit and we’ll get to where we need to be.

What is the definitive signal that it’s time to let go?

It’s when the people who work for you tell you how good you are. When you look at them and they don’t point out weaknesses, don’t disagree and hold you on a pedestal. When they’re no longer questioning you, that’s when it’s time. No organization succeeds when that happens. We’re all human beings. We don’t have all the answers. When we’re told that we do or, worse, think that we do, that’s when we begin that fast spiral down.

What mistakes have you made in replacing a founder?

Starting out, I assumed that as chief executive, you’re supposed to know what you’re doing. I approached it as if I was the guy who needed to have the answers. There was a bit of ego. What I’ve learned more than 15 years later is that it’s okay not to know what you’re doing. In every other role in the company, you’re typically a specialist and expert in your domain, but when you’re the chief executive you’re no longer
the expert.

— Interview with
Vanessa Small