Founders of organizations are typically charismatic and driven individuals who inspire others to get involved. As a result of their commitment, a fledgling idea turns into a full-fledged reality. Then the day comes when the founder announces it’s time for them to move on…

In some ways, this type of executive director transition involves the same considerations as any other ED’s departure; however, there are some unique elements to the departure of a founding ED. “It’s far more emotional for a founder,” says Bruce Meyers, CEC, CHRP and director of leadership services at Centrepoint in Calgary. “The founder built the organization. They’ve seen the organization evolve from a couple of volunteers and themselves. They’ve seen it evolve to where it is today. Bottom line, there’s more of an emotional attachment.”

That’s exactly how Suzie Addison-Toor describes her experience of leaving, after 10 years, the organization she founded – Addus, an organization that empowers and supports adults with developmental disabilities. Addison-Toor built the organization from the ground up and took it to the point where the organization needed a leader with the next level of organizational skills. “If I was very, very honest, when you’re in a founding situation, when you are deciding to leave, it’s very emotional and you feel very guilty,” she recalls. “Sometimes you feel like you’re going to rock the boat. I certainly felt that. It’s not true. These people don’t 100% depend on you. There will be another leader who is just as great and will serve the organization in different ways. You know that in your head but you don’t know it in your heart.”

How to have the awkward conversation about the founding ED’s departure

Although Addus was in the process of developing recruitment policies and succession processes for board members, there had been no discussion and certainly nothing in writing to guide a succession process for the ED. Now that Addison-Toor is an executive transition practitioner with her own consulting company, Engage Consulting, she knows there is a better way to handle the initial awkward discussion about the founding ED moving on. She encourages clients to have things written as policy and to evaluate the ED annually. “During the annual, formal evaluation process, ask: ‘How are you feeling in your role?’, ‘What is your long-term career goal?’, ‘How can we help you get there?’ That way the conversation is not emotional, it’s policy-directed, it’s best practice.”

This way, when the decision to leave is made, there are steps that help with the emotional separation. Explains Addison-Toor, “The ED will often assume they are part of the hiring search. I did and it’s wrong. I screened all the resumes and gave my top six picks. This made sense to me but you’re investing too much and the ED needs to move away emotionally and administratively. The very first separation for the ED happens at that moment. The board needs to work with the managers. The founding ED needs to be consulted but they shouldn’t be part of the search.”

The organization’s uniqueness = the founder’s uniqueness

Julie Brown was the board chair of Addus during Addison-Toor’s transition. Ironically, when Addison-Toor ran the idea of leaving past Brown, Brown was actually about to announce that she was thinking of moving on. However, Brown stayed on for another two and a half years to ensure a successful transition. “My first thought was of the program participants and families when Suzie told me of her intentions. They had such loyalty to Suzie and I wanted to minimize their anxiety as much as possible.”

At this point in Addus’ history they had just gone through a rebranding process and spent a lot of time understanding what made them unique and how they came to be that way. “Of course, that all came back to Suzie, our founder,” remarked Brown. “So, moving forward with a new ED we needed to capture and articulate that uniqueness. We felt that the best way to understand our uniqueness, our culture, was to experience it first-hand.” That’s why Addus chose a very comprehensive hiring process that involved not just the typical interviewing and short-listing of candidates but also having the short-listed candidates visit a program site, interact with staff and program participants, and answer direct questions from the staff. When they got down to three candidates, each went out for dinner with the interview team.

Filling the shoes of the founding ED

Then there’s the perspective of the incoming executive director. What’s it like to fill the shoes of the founding ED? Michelle Baldwin knows because in October 2006 she took over the role of ED at Pillar Nonprofit Network in London, Ontario after the founding ED moved on. Being a board member prior to taking on the ED role is not always recommended, says Baldwin, but in her case it worked well. It meant she had a shared vision with the founding ED and knew where the organization came from and where it needed to head next. It helped that Baldwin came on board at a time when the organization had decided on a new and very different focus, allowing people to be more open to Baldwin way of doing things differently. Baldwin considers herself fortunate that the board of directors was very supportive of her new ideas and was not caught up in the way things used to be done under the previous ED. “However,” admits Baldwin, “you need to be realistic. There will be some opposition. There will be some people who have a hard time with change.” Although Pillar did not have any other staff when Baldwin took over as ED, she did find herself focusing on the volunteers and making sure they felt that their hard work was valued. The key was to take things slowly, to keep people engaged enough so they would stick it out, and to be honest and transparent.

To make the transition go smoothly, it’s best to put succession planning on the agenda early. In Meyers’ experience, founding ED’s feel concerned about starting the conversation because they don’t want to be rushed out. At the same time, the board feels concerned about having the conversation because they don’t want the ED to feel unwanted and leave early. “It’s the elephant in the room, for sure,” says Meyers. “We approach it as good management practice at the board level, at the operational level. What are the consequences of not being ready? What are the consequences of not managing internal talent and preparing them for leadership? In some cases, the consequences can be pretty dire.”

Points to Ponder

1. Raise the bar on management responsibility. Founders are used to doing everything because in the early days of the organization they had to. This makes it important to deliberately develop internal talent.

2. Be ready. Have policies in place before the ED considers considering leaving.

3. Work out the “post” role for the founding ED. Both the board and the outgoing ED need to determine the last day of work and what the relationship after that date will be. There are lots of different variations – speaker for fundraising, advocates – but they should not be on the board or be involved with decision-making or with staff.

4. Be prepared that board members and staff may become disengaged because the founding ED was their main reason for participation in the first place.

5. Founding EDs are often concerned with their legacy and may need more time to implement plans to help define that legacy.

Louise Chatterton Luchuk is a freelance writer and consultant who combines her love of writing with experience at the local, provincial and national levels of volunteer-involving organizations. For more information, visit