By Rick James, Principal Consultant at INTRAC.

Too often we blame Founder’s Syndrome on the founder alone not letting go. But healthy leadership transition is about much more than one individual. It’s as much about the board stepping up and the staff growing up.

As those entrusted with holding the leadership to account, the major responsibility for founder transition lies with the board (whether they felt they signed up for this or not).

Putting succession onto the agenda

Few founders have the courage, vision, clear sense of identity and humility to leave something they created, without an element of being pushed. Boards often have to put succession firmly onto the agenda. It rarely comes from the founder themselves. Boards have the responsibility and often need to initiate the uncomfortable conversations.

As we saw in an earlier blog, ‘What stops founders letting go?’, succession is an acutely sensitive subject, which is closely tied into their sense of self. So it is up to the board to make succession a normal part of board discussions with every founder. Boards should ask the difficult questions and create space for meaningful discussion with the founder. Succession should also be normal agenda item of board-only discussions

Founder's Syndrome Illustration 5. Arantxa Mandiola Lopez. CC by 4.0.Providing constructive support

Although the board is mandated to hold the founder to account, this is often quite difficult. Not only do they have a huge respect for someone who has created something successful from nothing, but also the board members may well have been selected by the founder. They tend to be his or her friends. In some cases, even family. This means they often do not have the necessary critical distance to manage the situation. Boards need to be supportive of a founder, but not uncritical. They are there to provide
a necessary countervailing power to the executive leadership.

As Maryll Kleibrink says in her feature ‘Diagnosis: Founderitis’: “Board members play an important role in building morale in the NGO, supporting the founder with coaching and affirmation to ensure that he or she feels safe and valued and understands the reason for needed changes”.

Stepping into more responsibility

Times of leadership transition require the board to engage more intensively than usual. They cannot afford to be hands-off, but have to step into greater responsibility. This requires extra time and effort, particularly from the board chair. Continuity of the board chair is critical during transition. Few board members relish being around at times of leadership transition. Many never expected that by agreeing to serve, it would involve much more than a few meetings and offering advice. The board cannot opt for an easy life and put off the inevitable. As John Adair says: “Better to take change by the hand and lead it where you want it to go, than wait until it grabs you by the throat and drags you off in any direction.

Clarifying future role of outgoing founder

If an NGO does take the risk of allowing the founder to remain, other key issues that need to be clearly negotiated before transition include:

  1. What are day-to-day responsibilities? What are the deliverables? How substantive are roles? Is this primarily an internal or external role?
  2. What authority is the founder letting go of? (control over budget)
  3. Who does the founder report to? When does this shift? Will anyone report to them? How will conflicts be resolved?
  4. What is their new title?
  5. What will they be paid and do they have control over a budget?
  6. Will they be given office space?
  7. What is their role in search for a successor?
  8. What support will they have in making the shift?

Performing as a board

The ease or pain of leadership transition will be greatly affected by the quality and performance of the board. It is therefore important to make sure the board is performing to the best of its abilities when transition is at hand. An assessment of the board performance can help identifying areas for strengthening. At times of change the board must be active in decision-making, not a rubber stamp. In particular, they need to have the independence and strength to be able to hold the Chief Executive to account. The moment they become a board member, then there needs to be a healthy distance between the board member and the leader. Furthermore they need to have a clear view of the finances of the organisation. An active, competent and engaged Finance and Fundraising sub-committee of the board can greatly assist.

Creating a transition task force and roadmap

The board will need to mandate a team to oversee and manage the leadership transition. This needs clear planning, with timeframes, milestones, budgets and responsibilities assigned.

We will go on to explore these nuts and bolts in the next blog.

Illustration by Arantxa Mandiola Lopez. CC BY 4.0.