By Rick James, Principal Consultant at INTRAC.

We need to know about what stops founders from letting go as the previous blog pointed out. But if you just focus on the negatives of letting go of the past, you may not get far. It may be more productive to focus on the future – exploring some of the potentially positive elements of moving on.

Founder's Syndrome Illustration 3. Arantxa Mandiola Lopez. CC By 4.0.Focus on the next chapter

When founders have nowhere else to go, they tend to stay on too long. Most social entrepreneurs have no great wish to walk off into the sunset and a safe retirement. They have the same passion to change the world as before, even if their energy is less. They may well have unmet dreams.

It may be valuable to help a founder focus on the next chapter of their lives. The longer they stay on, the shorter the next chapter will be. The longer they stay, the more the future options will narrow. The next chapter needs quality time, what is it to be?

Find outside support

To answer such a question, particularly when in the midst of a full-time CEO role often requires outside help. While board members may have constructive conversations, they are often too closely involved. Many founders have found external coaching to be a real support in helping them to focus on what’s next.  Good coaches can create a safe space to ask the right questions.

A clean break?

Many founders wish to stay on in some capacity. After all they have so much wisdom and institutional memory. The organisation may be quite dependent on their networks for raising funds. They may have been instrumental in establishing the governance. Many would even like a seat on the board. But presence in governance, effectively overseeing the new Director, is almost always detrimental. Even if the leader stays on in a more limited capacity, with the best will in the world, it is easy to subconsciously sabotage just by being around.

The prevailing wisdom from management experience and literature is that a graceful exit with ‘little or no on-going relationship’ is the best option. They advocate a genuine step away at least for six to 12 months minimum. This avoids confusing lines of authority, however informal. It is vital to give enough space (authority, decision-making and financial) to the new leader. If not, then, given how difficult it is anyway to follow a charismatic founder, who would take it on? If they are a good leader they should recognise a poisoned chalice.

A legacy symbol?

Some organisations have created memorial buildings, scholarships, projects to honour the contribution of the founders. Seeing a visible and tangible contribution gives founders an important sense of leaving an on-going legacy. They are still part of the scenery, but not interfering too much. This assurance of legacy helps many founders let go and move on. To address the loss of status and role, some outgoing leaders are given an honorific title and even PR ‘Presidential’ figurehead role.

Limited on-going involvement?

Sometimes a clean break is not the best option. There are exceptions to the general rule. Provided the board do not feel coerced and provided the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, then there may be value in limited on-going involvement (see Mark Leach’s Table for Two).

There may be some small, intermediate steps which will make transition more palatable. For example in INTRAC it was appropriate to offer the founder the opportunity to step down and sideways into leading a special project. He also has the opportunity to do consultancy work for us. In this way he was able to mitigate some of the financial risks. Some have found it appropriate to give the outgoing leader a sabbatical with a proportion of their salary covered for a time; in other NGOs the ex-leader gets a consultancy retainer.

We must, however, recognise that every situation is different as is every NGO. For example it may be counter-productive to use the same yardstick when looking at succession in a small niche NGO in London and in the only NGO in a remote Ugandan community. In London there may be any number of future options both for the founder and the board, whereas in Uganda, where does the leader go? It’s their home village.

It’s hard to have a healthy founder transition without the leader letting go of their own volition. But it is more than just about the individual. Healthy founder transition requires changes amongst the board and staff too as we shall see in the next blog.


Illustration by Arantxa Mandiola Lopez. CC BY 4.0. Inspired by Banksy’s “Girl with heart balloon”.