By Rick James, Principal Consultant at INTRAC.
Founder transition is always risky and rocky. It is like a heart transplant. And just like a heart transplant, the rest of the body has to be healthy enough to survive such a major operation. The senior management team in particular has to be strong enough to carry the organisation through these times of uncertainty. Also like a heart transplant there is a real risk that the rest of the body will reject the new organ. Sometimes founder transition is as much about followers adapting than the incoming leader.
As INTRAC’s former chair says:
“The key challenge of founder succession is paradoxically not the founder and their departure but the followers and how they are able to be open to change, celebrate the past but take on their responsibilities as ‘new adults’ in a world without the founder”.
Expect culture change
The first thing to expect is that the new person is unlikely to fit neatly in the existing organisational culture. Any founder will have had a huge influence on the culture of the organisation that has emerged. The way things are done in the organisation is usually a close reflection of the way the founder does things or likes them done.
Any newcomer will disturb this prevailing culture. It is normal for it to feel like a square peg in a round hole. Even if someone is promoted from within they may behave differently to what is expected. For example they may be more of a ‘second-line manager’ type shifting the emphasis from a visionary culture to a more management-oriented one. Furthermore, if it is an internal appointment, there is a risk that staff will not rate them as highly as someone new and different. As the Malawian proverb says: ‘It is the stranger who brings the sharper blade’.
Let go of dependencies
Not only have staff become comfortable in the existing organisational culture, some often have become quite dependent on the founder leader themselves. Many will have been recruited by the founder and will have fierce personal loyalty towards them. This can become quite an unhealthy co-dependent relationship. In such cases the staff will feel deeply distressed and insecure by the departure of the founder and will not be willing to accept anyone new. Letting go may be as much an issue for remaining staff as for the departing founder.
We have seen NGOs in a ‘patronage’ society where founder leaders were entrapped by followers who stoically refused to let them go. We heard stories of founders having to literally escape and run away. This may be far more dramatic than the norm but it’s illustrative of the fact that we must not only avoid demonising the founder but also address the need for followers to rise to the challenges of their own development.
Choose to trust
Any successor to the founder will have to earn trust quickly in order to overcome some of these restraining forces. Trust involves an element of choice. Staff have to choose to believe the best of the incoming director and give them the benefit of the doubt. They may need to hold each other to account in this or be challenged by the board to accept the natural discomfort of a new situation.
If staff find that the new situation is really intolerable McNamara advises: “In toxic situations get clear perspective by writing down concerns”. They may decide that the best course of action is to leave and find another job. But if they decide to stay and sort it out it may involve staff working out ways of managing their own stress levels and also finding ways of helping the new Director adjust to the organisation. This often requires giving courageous feedback.
But if after that the Director still refuses to listen and change, it may even be appropriate, after considerable self-reflection, to approach the board directly. The board will then have to discern whether the lack of fit is mostly the fault of the staff or the incoming director. Usually it will be a bit of both, but where does the balance lie?
In some cases, the successor to the founder does not work out. As we saw in Proactively Managing Healthy Founder Transition blog, a successor to a founder frequently does not remain for more than two years. There is value in having an interim person who acts as a decompression chamber between the old and the new.
This blog series has focused on the challenging, but normal process of transitioning from a founder leader. We have seen that we must take it incredibly seriously. We should start to deal with it early – before it becomes a major issue. We need to normalise a meaningful conversation about succession and not treat it as a taboo. We should avoid the temptation to demonise an individual founder for a normal organisational issue. The founder may need outside help in being able to let go and move on. The staff will need to adjust to the inevitable change in culture and priorities. The board will find that succession needs more of their time and attention than they anticipated – it is probably the biggest responsibility they will ever face.
Founder transition poses a massive organisational risk. But there is no need for founders’ syndrome to become fatal. We just need to give it the time, skills and resources that it needs. If carefully and proactively managed, there is every hope that the organisation and the founder can mature to their next stage of life.