Founders and Long-Term Leaders: Departure is Such Sweet Sorrow!

In our work around leadership transitions, we continually observe a number of negative outcomes that appear to occur when a founder/long-term leader seeks to maintain disproportionate power and influence. Indications of the resulting organizational dysfunction may include:

  • over time, the organization becomes overly identified with the founder/leader;
  • no succession plan exists;
  • the founder/leader is at the center of all decision-making;
  • the organization becomes reactive, rather than proactive, and there is little input from staff or board into decisions;
  • staff loyalty, rather than ideas and expertise, ensures the founder/leader is surrounded by cheerleaders rather than challengers;
  • limited or lack of professional development of existing staff leadership re-enforces and solidifies the founder/leader’s power;
  • the board is often selected by the founder/leader, and their role is often relegated to “support” the leader/founder, rather than to lead the organization;
  • the board may be a “rubber stamp” and unable to probe basic financial or programmatic questions.

As a consequence, the succession planning occurs when the founder/leader decides to retire or leave the organization. The mad scramble to manage the leadership change and address succession is often done with a sense of panic and urgency. As staff have not been developed professionally, there is no internal succession. Ideally, the board would create an interim leadership plan, allowing time to identify organizational and leadership challenges with a focus on the future. This, however, is often not the model embraced by founder-led boards, as they rush to fill the leadership vacuum. Many organizations do not survive and thrive following the departure of the founder/leader.

This is not easy work, and does require receptivity and candid conversations between the founder/leader and the board in addressing succession planning in the context of strategic planning. We continually find that the factors that contribute to a vibrant leadership transition include:

√ Willingness on the part of the organization to address succession issues honestly and transparently prior to the impending departure;

√ Interest in retaining outside expertise to help the board manage the more challenging aspects of transition and change.

Are you and your board ready for the sweet sorrow of change?

When Leaders Leave was created by Priscilla Rosenwald and Lesley Mallow Wendell as a forum for addressing nonprofit leadership transition issues. Their book, “When Leaders Leave,” is due out in May, 2013.