By Michael Hammer, former INTRAC Executive Director.

The civil society sector takes pride in being progressive. Part of its identity is its role as an active challenger of the status quo. Yet when it comes to diversity of identity, including gender diversity, at the top, we find that many of us are no better than other sectors, or that we even limp behind. In many cases founder transitions are the first opportunity to think about change not only in terms of a different person, but also in terms of gender and other elements of identity. This offers great potentials, including in terms of encouraging new leaders to emerge from previously marginalised sections in society, and for the development of new role models for society. This is a big responsibility for Boards, and the implications of a fresh look at diversity issues in governance is increasingly receiving attention in relation to NGOs and education facilities. The focus here is however primarily on constituency representation and credible external stakeholder engagement, including in relation to harder to engage communities. There is far less discussion of diversity practice in relation to leadership recruitment and especially founder transitions. Addressing these issues therefore requires a lot of groundwork by Boards well ahead of the start of the search for a new leader.

Founder's Syndrome Illustration 4. Arantxa Mandiola Lopez. CC By 4.0.Boards, prepare yourself!

The composition of the Board will significantly influence its own horizon of thinking about profile and the search. Especially for organisations that are socially well established and work in potentially quite uniform settings this can be a challenge. As long as nothing rocks the boat a relatively uniform profile of Board, CEO, and key stakeholders may appear to work well. Founder transitions however are situations of creative upheaval. They are opportunities to break the chain on inherited patterns of leadership styles and profiles. To be ready to contemplate change, the Board needs to prepare itself, by reflecting on its own diversity, and build up the range of perspectives it will need. It needs to do so early, possibly as far as two years in advance. This will also help with shaping and articulating a sound picture of the organisation as it is. Boards that have developed their own diversity find it easier to be clear about the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses, including in relation to diversity, and articulate the vision they need to build the profile for the future leader or leaders, and conduct a good search.

Reach out for support

In virtually all cases the selection group for a new CEO is made up of Board members. Boards that have reflected on their own diversity but either have started late or found it hard to realise it, may conclude that they will benefit from additional participation by others. Boards can use a variety of options: from associating external people to the selection panel who are able to bring some of the additionally needed perspectives, to the use of contact or reflection groups which bring further dimensions of diversity, and can feed back to the panel at various stages. Importantly, such input can be extremely beneficial right from profile development to final stage interviewing.

Nurturing diversity and leadership potential in the organisation early on

In addition to looking externally, many organisations can consciously encourage people already working for it. Yet it is too late to look for a leadership candidate from within who may be ‘different’ in their identity and outlook, if the organisation has never made a systematic attempt to foster talentinternally, or recruiting new people from diverse backgrounds into the ranks of the organisation and enable them to rise. NGOs need to break the frequent cycle of inaction on these issues, and encourage an environment which actively identifies and nurtures talent from diverse backgrounds (independent of the founder succession task), and as INTRAC’s experience show, support related leadership development. Talking candidly about issues of diversity both ahead and following leadership transition is key. It may make all the difference in terms of attracting the right candidates for leadership, and, by being transparent, also retaining them as they will know the challenges.

Creating conditions for a successful change

Imagine the situation in which an organisation clearly identifies the need for a shift in the way it works and presents itself. This would not be uncommon in a founder transition. A new leader or new leaders may be just the right symbol for a new start. Let’s assume that a male founder is followed by a woman in charge. She may be considerably younger, and have very different ideas about internal styles of working together, external priorities and related skills profiles. The new leader may be from a different cultural background. An uphill task is inevitable.

Boards may therefore particularly want to spend time thinking about the personality required to cope with adverse conditions. During the change process the new leader will need to deal with not only many ‘objective’ issues, but also with frictions arising from tacit factors linked to differences of identity. Boards may also want to think realistically about time required for change, based on previous honest assessments of the state of the organisation. The appointment of the new CEO may be a hinge point, but it is not the end of the transition.

The Board will need to think through how it can best support the new person coming in. Sometimes the energy expended by the board on the transition leaves them in a hurry to make it all work before they leave. There is proven value in quality coaching and mentoring support. Talking about support options with a new leader, based on candid appreciations of the challenge, may well prevent an early burn out.

As we have seen in previous blogs, sometimes Founders are not able to let go and that makes the transition difficult (though we can help).

We tend to blame only the Founder when a transition is bumpy, but as we will see in Rick James’ upcoming blog, a successful transition is “as much about the board stepping up and the staff growing up”.


Illustration by Arantxa Mandiola Lopez. CC BY 4.0.