By Rick James, Principal Consultant at INTRAC.

Healthy leadership transition from a founder is never easy. It requires careful and proactive management. It benefits from:

  1. A transition team and roadmap for the process
  2. Staff adjustments (as well as from the board and the departing director)
  3. Identifying the appropriate successor
  4. Managing the handover process
  5. Regularly monitoring with post-succession check-ups

A transition team and roadmap

The board will need to mandate a team to oversee and manage the leadership transition. It helps to create a roadmap with clear planning, with timeframes, milestones, budgets and responsibilities assigned. Answering questions, such as those in the text box below can assist greatly. A clear initial plan will make it easier to regularly appraise, review and adjust in the light of reality.

Transition planning

  • Who will be responsible for the process? The Board? A sub-committee? How should staff be involved, if at all?
  • Do we agree where we are heading? What are the outstanding issues?
  • Once we are agreed, how will we get there? How do we prepare the way?
  • What will help? Hinder?
  • What will need to shift?
  • By when?
  • How will we track progress?
  • How much will this cost? How will we fund it?

Founder's Syndrome Illustration 6. Arantxa Mandiola. CC BY 4.0Staff adjustments

Transition will require the board, staff and the outgoing founder to make significant adjustments. As we have seen from pervious blogs, the founder has to let go and the board has to step up. But in addition the staff themselves will need to prepare themselves for changes.

Senior or second-line management will have extra responsibilities during transition. A lack of trust in senior management may have been one of the factors inhibiting the founder moving on. So top team development is a critical element of planning for any succession. Great leaders preparing the way for their departure, making themselves dispensable by delegating more and more. Such preventative measures minimise the disruption and risk in leadership transition.

Founder transition creates uncertainty. For some staff this is a relief, but for others, particularly those close to the founder, they may feel insecure about the future of the organisation and indeed their own future. If they have an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with the founder, this might manifest itself in them trying to persuade the leader not to leave. It might prevent them trusting any new appointment. Staff may need support in dealing with the anxiety of transition and the grief of losing a close working relationship.

At times of transition there are high anxiety levels amongst staff. The changes will often mean they are taking on extra responsibilities at a time of greater uncertainty. It is a pressurised and intense time. Sawyer suggests that at such times there is a need for ‘deliberate over-communication’ (2008). He estimates that you need to communicate 3 – 7 times as much with staff during major transitions than normally.

Identifying an appropriate successor

Finding the right successor is obviously vital. Boards are often tempted to do the recruitment themselves in order to save money. But as this is such an important appointment, it may be worth seeking professional help from recruitment specialists if available. To find the right leader requires time, insight, skill and a wide network of connections. It is much more than putting an advert in a newspaper.

It is worth having a transition and search committee. These people will need to put in the time and energy into developing an updated person specification and identifying appropriate characteristics. It is important to ask questions about what will we lose by the departure of the founder. But also to question what we are looking for in the future. It is essential to define what sort of leadership role is needed. Sometimes boards try and replace a charismatic founder with another visionary, when what may be needed is someone who is stronger on the management and systems side. Some literature points to the value of hiring an interim director for the first two or so years post-founder:

An Interim Director?

The track record of leaders taking over from founders is not great. Many leave within a short period of time. Partly it is because the organisation has been created in the image of the founder and old attachments need time and space to dissolve. The successor takes over ‘on the rebound’. It is a thankless task to take over from a charismatic leader. Tim Wolfred says that: ‘The failure to provide for an interim breathing period is one primary reason that so many ED’s who succeed founders survive less than two years.’ (2008)

It will also be important to clearly define the role of the outgoing leader in the recruitment. While it may be good to solicit their input and ideas, experience shows that it may not be good to have them as part of the recruitment team. There is a much stronger case, however, for having a staff representative on this team.

Managing the actual handover

There are a number of key elements in the actual change of personnel that need actively managing. First it is important to appreciate and connect with the departing leader. Symbolic occasions need careful planning to ensure the best possible ending is crafted.

There is also a need to connect well with the incoming leader. Induction and handover is essential so it should not be rushed. Networks of contacts and relationships need to be passed on. But it is also possible to drag it out too long. My own organisation had a six-month overlap which felt excessive. As part of the welcoming of the new Director it is valuable to get staff to articulate what it is they are looking for from a leader. This could be done through one-to-one interviews or in writing as “Letters to a new leader from staff – my hopes for you”.

Regular monitoring with post-transition check-ups

But just because the new person is in place, does not mean the board can step back and relax. It is not the time to step away. Just as with a heart transplant, once the operation is done, there are months of medical support needed to make sure the new heart functions well and is not rejected. The board need to be in regular touch with the new Director and also with the staff to actively monitor how things are going and step in when things are not going as hoped.

Leadership succession is incredibly difficult. There are no secrets to guarantee success. But there are some useful principles which will increase the chances of a healthy transition, avoiding or at least surviving founder syndrome.


Illustration by Arantxa Mandiola Lopez. CC BY 4.0.