Learning to let go: Understanding Founder's Syndrome

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Few figures are more caricatured in the nonprofit world than the founder who won’t let go of the organization they started, even to the detriment of the organization itself.

While this is a very real experience in many organizations, it is also a misunderstood and unnecessarily polarizing one. We decided to go beyond the caricature to help with the one thing that both founders and their staff and successors share: a desire to see the mission of their organization effectively achieved.

In praise of founders

“It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t have most of the wonderful nonprofits without these founders,” says Jane Garthson, president of the Garthson Leadership Centre. “They deserve respect and honour. They are innovative, see [a need for] something and figure out how to make it happen. Then pour 23 hours a day and all the resources they can get their hands on into the organization. No one puts in more time or resources than the founder does.”

At the same time, as nonprofit management specialist Deborah Linnell writes, “...it is these strengths of character — insight and vision, a sense of justice, a hopefulness, an ability to take risk, determined purposefulness, and the ambition to succeed for mission’s sake — that can also be their downfall.”

Garthson adds, “Founders are wonderful...if they would only move on at the right time.”

Identifying Founders’ Syndrome

Generally, Founders’ Syndrome is what founders say happens to other founders, not me, while the syndrome is often overdiagnosed by staff as a catch-all for a variety of challenges.

It is generally agreed that no leader has an automatic best-before date, and that even a long-term leader can continue to be effective. Jonathan Bennett, CEO of Laridae and strategic counsel to the nonprofit and public sector, says, “Be careful to diagnose correctly. Just because someone has been in the role for 25 years or is the founder doesn’t mean they won’t gracefully move on when it’s time. If they are still a good boss and leader, they offer deep experience and have a rightful place in the community and sector.”

As we talked with a variety of experts, two key factors recurred when discussing Founders’ Syndrome: identity and resistance to change.

Identity

Often a founder is the face of an organization so that others perceive their identity as being virtually synonymous with the organization. This is especially true in smaller communities. At the same time, founders themselves identify so strongly with their cause and their organization that it can be difficult for them to see themselves as separate from the organization.

Hildy Gottlieb, who has founded several organizations, notes that she and others often refer to their organization as their baby, but reminds founders, “Just as it is with our own children, once they are born, they are their own persons. We can guide our children, teach them, nurture them - but our son or daughter is a person in his/her own right. As is ‘our’ organization. It’s not ours. It is its own thing.”

Just as this is challenging for parents, it can be difficult for a founder not to make all the decisions, even though, as Bennett cautions, this makes the founder “a barrier to good governance.” Garthson says, “In my governance work, the biggest red flag occurs when the founder says ‘I...me...my: my organization, my results.’ Or if the board says we approve whatever the ED comes forward with.”

This identity confusion also makes it very challenging for founders to feel able to leave. Some fear the organization cannot survive without them. For others, this leaving can be especially difficult. One anonymous contributor who worked in several organizations started by individuals who had lost their children observed, “When someone starts a foundation or a nonprofit in memory of someone or following a tragedy, they often become psychologically linked with it. The organization effectively is the child they lost. Leaving such an organization forces them to lose that child all over again. I don’t think this is often recognized.”

Resistance to change

Resistance to change can be as simple (and frustrating) as the founder saying, “That’s not the way we do it here” – something Bennett identifies as his own red flag for Founders’ Syndrome. It can mean, as one anonymous contributor says, “The founder dictates organizational culture in its entirety. The culture is strongly tied to their personality and personal systems of belief. Those who fall outside or who are not in tune with that organizational culture will find it hard to feel at ease working in the organization.”

It also goes deeper. More than thirty years ago, Karl Mathiasen described life cycles of nonprofits, observing that the entrepreneurial skillset and informal organizational structure that initially create the conditions for an emerging nonprofit are very different from what it takes to sustain and grow the organization. Similarly, Bennett says, “There’s lots of evidence to suggest that the founder who has the idea and drive to start and initially scale an organization may not necessarily be the professional manager who can take it to the mature stage.”

But, as Linnell writes: “Most organizations cannot identify the fact that they are making a life passage.” She adds, “Founders do not always understand...the start of an important and somewhat inevitable transition to a more systems-focused stage. They may resist the questioning due to disinterest or because they see all such challenges as malicious or wrongheaded or an abysmal waste of time in the face of the real (mission) work of the organization. This can lead to all-out battles between the champions of mission and the champions of systems. How many wonderfully energetic visionaries have we seen forced out of their organizations as a result of this crisis? Conversely, how many original founders have literally drowned their own organizational baby by resisting the need for change or the call for a change in the power structure?”

This actually isn’t a founder problem

We aren’t alone in rethinking Founders’ Syndrome. A recent article in Nonprofit Quarterly criticizes the fact that the blame for this syndrome falls “squarely on the shoulders of the founder” and that “none of the other stakeholders is asked to share in the blame.” Article author Elizabeth Schmidt, director for George Mason University’s Enterprise in Service to Society Initiative, says, “The simplification, exaggeration, and blame that result from thinking in stereotypes can be harmful to the individuals and institutions involved.”

In fact, Schmidt says, “The common element in each of the symptoms [of Founders’ Syndrome]...is a breakdown in governance.”

One anonymous contributor suggested, “What we call Founders’ Syndrome is directly connected with poor governance — weak boards who are directly or indirectly controlled by founders and who don’t put checks and balances and systems in place.” Garthson agrees, saying, “The reason Founders’ Syndrome has persisted so long is that board members are often friends of family of the founder.” She adds, “The more we can educate board members on their role, the better.”

“A board is entrusted with stewardship and governance,” says Bennett. “They need to ask good performance management, future-oriented questions, such as, ‘Given where we are going, is the organization benefitting from what you have to give?’ Having those courageous but difficult conversations allows transition to happen well.”

Bennett says, “Founders Syndrome happens on boards, too. It can also be even more challenging because these are unpaid positions. This is where term limits are essential.” He also observes that “EDs / CEOs who have been in their role for more than 20 years might as well be founders as the conditions are similar.”

One anonymous contributor said, “Our board’s reluctance and unwillingness to address the problem creates a real problem internally for our organization and it feels like no one is looking out for the staff.”

This is where establishing policies and procedures show their true value. Bennett emphasizes, “Organizations need systems and processes precisely so they aren’t about any one particular person in any particular role. An organization needs to be sturdier and more sustainable than any person.”

Founders’ Syndrome may become less prevalent a challenge as the younger generations step into leadership and founding roles, shifting the models of leadership and expectations around careers, but for now there are challenges. In part two of this article, we will offer productive tips for founders, their staff and successors, job seekers, and boards of directors on how to minimize the challenges and maximize the opportunities.

Read our companion article, Overcoming Founder's Syndrome: Practical tips for founders, boards of directors and employees.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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