Overcoming Founder's Syndrome: Practical tips for founders, boards of directors and employees

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In an attempt to move beyond the caricature of the founder who won’t let go of the organization they started, even to the detriment of the organization itself, we looked at what was behind Founders’ Syndome in a recent article and also gathered useful tips to reduce Founders’ Syndrome and help founders, their staff, successors, job seekers and board members develop productive strategies to work better together at achieving the mission of their organization.

In this second article, we round up advice and best practices for founders themselves, as well as boards of directors and staff and job seekers.

Productive advice for founders

1. Begin with the end in mind. Jonathan Bennett, CEO of Laridae and strategic counsel to the nonprofit and public sector, notes that an exit strategy is easier to build into the beginning of a for-profit enterprise because the impetus for work is completely different, but that it is useful for the founder of any type of organization to think early on about an exit strategy.

2. Listen carefully. If you are experiencing turnover immediately beneath you, this may not be a question of their loyalty but their recognition that you will never leave, Bennett advises.

3. Find peer support, say founders. No one knows the founder experience like another founder. Having such support can allow you to be honest before facing the potential vulnerability of addressing your board of directors or other stakeholders.

4. Take time to self-reflect. It is important, says Bennett, for founders to take time to truly self-reflect. Take time and space to look at yourself as separate from your organization, and to examine the reasons you want to stay, as well as comparing these to the actual and anticipated needs of the organization.

5. Recognize the career risk. Bennett has observed in a variety of organizations (and particularly those in smaller communities) that a founder often becomes known as the face of their organization. For such founders, leaving can be difficult because there is nowhere comparable for them to go. It can be tempting and feel very risky personally and career-wise to leave, although it is sometimes necessary for the sake of the organization.

6. Ask yourself tough questions. Jane Garthson, president of the Garthson Leadership Centre, says, “If you don’t think the organization can survive without you, you’ve probably answered that question because you haven’t made sustainability a priority. Your attitude toward innovative ideas determines the effectiveness of your staff. Ask yourself whether you care more about legacy or ego.”

7. Figure out your exit strategy. This is separate from the succession plan done by the board, says Garthson. If you don’t have a new passion, travel or retirement plan, an executive coach can help you think about your next step separate from the organization. Hildy Gottlieb, who has founded several organizations, suggests founders try an extended sabbatical as a test for both themselves and their organization. Garthson adds, “Recognize you have proven you are really good at starting an organization, and those skills are transferable to an emerging cause. Consider being a serial founder.”

8. Address your fears. Gottlieb advises: “Create a succession plan that proactively deals with all the things you (or the board) is scared might happen when you leave. Are they afraid that you have been the link to the community, the public image of the organization? Then determine a way to proactively deal with that, perhaps creating a speaker’s bureau or PR committee...train someone now who could replace you, even temporarily, in the event something happens to you.” She also advises, “Codify the vision and values that are at the heart of the organization. Create a working credo that will guide both the board’s future decisions and those made by the staff. There is nothing to say that the credo won’t evolve over time...But the core of what is important will remain, and that will be another part of your legacy.”

9. Let your baby grow up. Gottlieb says, “Yes, it was our vision that founded the organization in the first place. But as the organization grows and matures, that vision may not be all there is. The ability for the organization to dramatically affect the community may be far larger than the vision we had when we first opened the doors. Doing things the way they’ve always been done, and thinking the way things have always been thought, is not necessarily the best thing for the organization, nor for the community it serves. It is simply what WE would do. So if we fear the vision would change if we weren’t there, perhaps it’s time to let it evolve while we are still present.”

10. Transition well. “If you’ve spent 25 years founding, establishing and helping an organization thrive and you still have twenty years ahead of you in retirement and you want to make a meaningful contribution, it may seem reasonable to continue in some way, but that can be where the problem starts: if you function as a kind of shadow cabinet,” cautions Bennett. New research by the Bridgespan Group shows that a clean break is not necessary or always even ideal, but cautions that “transition work is not easy” and that the founder must be “willing to play a different role and genuinely want the successor to succeed” while the successor needs to be willing to work with the founder.

Productive advice for staff and job seekers

1. Do your homework before you start. “It’s easy in 2018 to know how long an executive director has been in their role,” says Bennett. “Address this in an interview: ‘You’ve been here a long time. Tell me about your journey.’ Careful questions will tell you what kind of leader a founder or long-time leader will be.” One contributor advises with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, “Don’t be afraid to turn down a job if you don’t get good answers to your questions.”

2. Pay attention to warning signs. Look for anomalies when going through the application process, particularly those that show consolidation of power or lack of trust in an incoming employee. One anonymous contributor said, “There were signs from the start that I should have taken note of — for instance, I wasn’t given a job description. I didn’t think they would be insurmountable and I wrongly figured the board would take care of things.”

3. Focus on what matters. One contributor says, “At the end of the day, if you are able to connect with the work and what matters to the founder and move away from the personality aspect of things, you have the opportunity to be successful because the founder really does care about the work.”

4. Document your efforts. One contributor whose founder’s control of the contributor’s work slowed his efforts to do his job began documenting his efforts and the conversations with the founder. “If my results were called into question, I could show what I had done and what the response had been.”

5. Stay positive. “Finding the workaround has helped me,” says one contributor. “Learning to pick my battles has also been important. Having key people I trust within my organization as well as externally has helped me enormously to stay positive.”

6. Focus on the impact you and your organization are having. One contributor said, “I take my career very seriously and am results-driven so it was challenging to have the accountability without the responsibility, and to have someone standing in my way. It was a personal decision to stay and I based my staying on the fact that my organization had a very compelling cause and was having a significant impact on people’s lives.”

7. Avoid Founders’ Syndrome yourself. Anyone can fall victim to the same attitudes that typically characterize Founders’ Syndrome. While every organization has its own culture, Garthson advises, “The way to turn off innovative employees is to say ‘No, that’s not how we do things around here.’” An anonymous contributor said, “I don’t generally stay at an organization for an extended period of time, so that I don’t get stale. I also hope I’m attuned to my team and that I pick up on signals or that they would be willing to speak up.”

8. Make your own succession plan. “All of us ought to think about who we are mentoring, how we can be replaced, who would be better than us at our work. This makes an organization stronger and more resilient,” says Bennett. Garthson suggests partnering with a colleague to learn one another’s job. She says, “No one should be indispensable at any level of an organization.”

9. Know when to walk away. One contributor said, “I was told by the board that they were starting the process of replacing our founder. If there hadn’t been that light at the end of the tunnel, I would have left. I could hang on because there were going to be opportunities with a new leader.” Another said, “I’ve been beaten up in the last few years and that has taken a toll on me and on my team as well. If things don’t change soon, I will leave.”

10. Succeed successfully. Nonprofit consultant Joan Garry advises that the person who succeeds a founder should: “establish [their] own credibility with a few targeted quick hits”; develop a board that does not allow the founder to undermine you; and, “treat the founder just like your most important donor.”

Productive advice for boards

1. Set up solid policies and procedures. “Organizations need systems and processes precisely so they aren’t about any one particular person in any particular role,” says Bennett. “An organization needs to be sturdier and more sustainable than any person.”

2. Recognize that organizations and their needs change. Nonprofit management specialist Deborah Linnell writes about the natural life cycles of nonprofit organizations from a start-up to a more systems-focused stage. “...Different phases in an organization call for different kinds of leaders, flexible governance models and different types of skills and competencies among staff.”

3. Stay mission-centred rather than person-centred. In a recent article on founders’ syndrome, Elizabeth Schmidt determines that the root of much of what is called Founders’ Syndrome is at its core a governance issue. Rather than focusing on the founder and whether s/he should stay or go, Schmidt insists that the governance emphasis should instead be on the mission. She adds, “Mission-centered governance will also make a difference if the transition from one leader to another is difficult...If all parties recognize that they have the mission in common, the emphasis switches from blaming individuals to reaching a common goal.”

4. Harness founder strengths and build supports around deficits. Linnell says that one of the key roles of a board of directors is to “Help founders and leaders to harness their strengths and identify and build support around their deficits. Give them guidance as to what signs to look for as an indication that the organization is beginning to move into another stage of development.” She suggests, for instance, that if a founder lacks strong managerial skills, a board can hire people to fill those gaps.

5. There’s no expiration date. Remember what Bennett 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.”

6. Deal directly. One founder adds, “I’d rather have that awkward conversation than have the board quietly making a plan behind my back.” Bennett says, “Often boards operate out of kindness, deciding to wait until a founder is ready to retire, but the organization may be plateauing or not pursuing new opportunities because it is too much for the founder in the last years of their career. Having an honest conversation about what’s best for the organization doesn’t discount all the wonderful work a founder has done. Ultimately the board has to act in the best interests of the organization.”

7. Offer care and support. As a sector, we ask a lot of employees, and particularly executive directors and most especially founders. Throughout their tenure, a board can treat the founder with care and offer support. Boards aware of an impending transition within their organization can care well for their founder by helping them access the personal support they need to disentangle from the organization while also recognizing their fundamental role in creating the organization. Garry suggests framing a transition by recognizing this extraordinary contribution as a legacy that will allow the organization to be sustainable beyond the founder’s tenure.

8. Bring in reinforcements. Garry advises boards to recruit board members who have “been down this road, seen the big potholes and watched the wheels come off the organizational bus.” This was exactly what happened in one Canadian organization — “Our board recognized that they needed to bring in a new chair to help our founder move on. Our past chair was a close friend of the founder and had also been there for 30 years. It took two years but our new board chair was able to build trust and to have frank conversations with our founder to help her recognize that it was time to move on.”

9. Move “bad” founders out quickly. Just as in anything, there are some founders or longtime leaders who are what Linnell calls “bad founders.” She defines this as founders who, “when all is said and done, put themselves before the organization”. In such cases, Linnell says, “move them out quickly — not over several years and not through a histrionic, damaging process of hand-wringing, accusation, and blaming.”

10. Honour the founder. Garthson says, “Respect founders when they leave. Honour and praise them. Find ways to keep them involved. They deserve that.”

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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