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Chipotle is the latest company whose founder doesn’t know when to let go

FILE – In this Dec. 15, 2015 file photo, a Chipotle Mexican Grill employee, right, prepares a burrito for a customer in Seattle. An E. Coli outbreak that sickened nearly 50 people resulted in the temporary closure of Chipotle restaurants in Washington and Oregon. The story was a top news item in Washington state in 2015. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear, File)
By Corinne Purtill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

After months of speculation, Steve Ells is finally stepping down as CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, the company he founded in 1993. As Quartz’s Chase Purdy has reported, analysts have been calling for Ells’s ouster for at least a year, as Chipotle shares tumbled in the wake of a 2015 food safety scandal from which the company has not fully recovered.

There’s a twist, however. Ells will remain as executive chairman of the company once a new CEO is named, meaning that he’ll be the boss of the person brought in to replace him.

Having a founder and ex-CEO looking over a new chief’s shoulder is not a great situation, particular a founder “who is very outspoken, some would say authoritative, in his positions,” restaurant industry analyst Aaron Allen told As an example, look no further than the challenging early tenure of Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, brought in after founder Travis Kalanick was forced out. A disgruntled ex-CEO with oversized voting rights is hardly the only problem Khosrowshahi is facing right now, but it’s a big one, and Kalanick hasn’t refrained from causing trouble with the board.

As Quartz At Work has reported, the desire for control that motivates many people to start companies can undermine their ability to lead those companies well—and inhibit their willingness to gracefully step away once those leadership deficiencies are made clear.

Chipotle’s next leader may want to take a cue from Khosrowshahi.

“What I told Travis very early on is that any new CEO needs space, and needs distance from the old CEO,” Khosrowshahi said earlier this month, as Quartz’s Alison Griswold reported. “You’ve got to let me engage with the team, engage with the company, engage with the culture. And I was a little worried about that conversation, but actually he took it really well.”

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