Beware of Founder’s Syndrome

Sarah was a talented women’s advocacy activist who established a thriving NGO in her field. Her passion, warmth, and charisma drew a broad range of influential supporters to join her organization as employees, volunteers, board members, and donors. The organization grew, and became a brand name that meant integrity, values, and most of all….Sarah.

Fast forward 20 years. Sarah is nearing retirement age and she feels that the time has come to step back and bring on a new Executive Director to steer the ship that she has so lovingly constructed. Sarah and her board conduct a search and decide to hire Rachel, a respected NGO executive with experience in the field of women’s advocacy. It looks like a fantastic fit.

And then very quickly things begin to go wrong. The board and employees all continue to feel very loyal to Sarah and have trouble learning to defer to Rachel; Sarah insists on receiving regular reports from Rachel, attending all board meetings, and retaining her exclusive relationships with the most senior donors. Rachel feels unsupported and even tripped up at every turn.

 Within less than a year, Rachel has left her position, leaving the organization in a worse state than it was in when she arrived. The organization suffers, losing support, stature, and income, and eventually loses momentum and peters out.

If you have been involved in a startup or NGO from start to bitter end, this story may sound painfully familiar to you. It illustrates the destructive impact of what has become popularly known as Founder’s Syndrome.

As a recruiter for senior positions, business and NGO executives are my clientele. I am always glad to assist these professionals in finding candidates to fill their openings. Except when they ask me to help replace them.

I have learned to spell out the signs and pitfalls of Founder’s Syndrome to founders who ask me to help find their successor. Sometimes, this conversation can truly make a difference, and it becomes possible to place a new Executive Director or CEO who has an excellent chance of success; however too often, founders find it so emotionally difficult to let go, that even while agreeing to step aside and support their successor, in practice they sabotage the new director’s efforts and hold on with an iron grip to the control panels of the organization.

So what can be done to combat Founder’s Syndrome? The secret to a successful handoff is a clearly defined, gradual and public process that is supported by all parties, coupled with a new professional or personal direction for the founder.  An ideal leadership transition process will be comprised of the following elements.

Inform everyone professionally

Once the decision to replace the founder has been taken, everyone involved deserves to be informed in a professional, respectful and timely manner, and not to hear about it through office gossip or guesswork. Depending on the situation and each person’s role, this may be done in a personal meeting, a group meeting, or by email. It should not be done informally or as part of another conversation.

Establish a timeline

A clearly delineated time frame for the transition should be made available to all the parties concerned. A reasonable timeline would allow a few months between the announcement of the intended change and the actual transition. During this period the founder would still act fully as the director, and would meet with staff, board, donors and investors to discuss plans and concerns.

The following few months would see a period of collaboration and changeover with both the outgoing director and the new director working together. During this period the founder would guide the new director in understanding the organization and its challenges, introduce the successor to donors and investors, and generally assist in ensuring a stable transition. At the end of this period, a formal public event would announce the transition, and the new director would completely take charge of the organization or company.

Founder role clarity and transition to a new phase of life

This is the really difficult part. The only way for a founder to clearly signal that he or she trusts the successor is to truly step down. It needs to be crystal clear to the founder that he or she is in a process that will culminate in a complete transition to new leadership.

While during the transition phase it is appropriate for the founder to attend donor or investor solicitations together with the new director, and to offer guidance, advice and professional support to the incoming director, once the new director has taken the helm, the founder must let go of control. This means that the founder should not join the board, attend board meetings, conduct uncoordinated solicitations, or retain the role of executive director in any relationship with staff, board, donors or investors.

The founder may be feeling a great sense of loss at this point; the project to which he or she has devoted a lifetime is slipping away. It is therefore imperative that the founder choose a next step that will engage, interest and excite her, so that she will be able to leave her position while looking forward to the next stage of her life.

This can mean any number of things, such as writing a book about her professional experience, beginning a second career as a public speaker on her area of expertise, becoming an active member or board chair at a different organization (preferably in a different field), or deciding to spend more time on travel, recreation, or family.

To the founders I would say: you will be respected and remembered for a successful transition. Just as letting a child grow up, become independent and move on can be bittersweet, so can letting your brainchild grow up and away from you. But in the same way that love for our children lets us pull away and let them go, love for the cause you hold dear can fortify you in letting your company or organization grow and succeed.

Leadership transition is always a complex and sensitive process. However with awareness of the pitfalls, a healthy internal process, a public celebration of the past and the future, and most of all, clarity about the founder’s role in the new situation, we can all feel hopeful that great causes and valuable ventures will continue to thrive into the next generation.

About the Author
Gila Weinberg, CEO of Mikum Consulting, is a recruiter and a career coach. She helps organizations and companies find great employees, and helps great people figure out their next career move. Gila is also the author of Not So Grimm: Jewish Fairy Tales, a comparison between tales from the Talmud and classic fairy tales.