Succession Planning for Founder-led organisations

By David Newby (Copyright 2020)

Background to founder-led organisations

Leadership succession for founders is always challenging. Much has been written on “founder syndrome” but it is often evidenced in the ability of the founders to meet critical needs, overcome major obstacles or generate the interest or resources needed to keep the NPO a going concern. Founders are the pioneers who have poured their life and soul into organisations often at great personal sacrifice. They are driven by a deep passion to bring about a particular change in society and lead from the front. 

The challenge occurs when founders find it difficult to distribute or delegate leadership or to hand over the running of the organization to another competent person at the right time. Some founders hand over but then remain on the Board or within the organization and make it difficult for new leaders to lead. According to Funding for Good ( Key symptoms of founder syndrome are 

  • Micro management
  • An exclusive relationship with donors
  • Overseeing multiple projects even when there are others are more suited for the job
  • Committing the organization to new initiatives and partnerships without consulting the staff or the board
  • The inability to adapt to changes within the organization
  • Insisting on being the first point of contact for organizational issues even if others are responsible for the issue
  • Representing their views on issues as the standpoint of the organization
  • Encouraging political alliances rather than seeking consensus through established decision making channels
  • Ignoring the protocols and policies of the organization or of best practice

Managing the transition from founder leadership to a new generation of leadership is often difficult especially when the handover takes place because of a crisis (e.g. a conflict). Founders who want to leave a legacy and who want a smooth transition need to be assisted by their Boards to develop a succession strategy well in advance of when the succession is to take place. Attention should be paid to:

  • Restructuring of the organization to accommodate a shared leadership approach 
  • A gradual shedding of roles and delegating these to competent people and resisting the temptation to micro manage
  • Early engagement with the Board so that a change management strategy can be developed to manage the transition. This often requires a process of 1-2 years
  • Adopting a coaching style of leadership that focuses on developing people 

Suggested template for a process to ensure a well-managed transition in a founder-led NPO

Activity or processDates or process comments
Founder realizes that it is time to begin the process to hand over the organization to new leadership ORBoard recognizes that it is time for the founder to hand over the organization to new leadership
Founder works through the issues of “letting go” with a coach or trusted person ORBoard begins the conversation with the Founder and offers the support of a coach to assist the process
The Board and the Founder agree on a date when a new leader will take over. This can be anything between 6 and 24 months ahead. Although circumstances may affect the date (it might need to be shortened or extended) it is usually best to set a date and then keep to it
The Board agree on a change management or transition process such as the one that follows below
Staff and funders are informed of the decisions that have been made regarding the transition. Thereafter other stakeholders are informed
In the months after the announcement, facilitated conversations are held with managers and with the wider staff to help them process the changes that are going to take place. This is often best done by an outside facilitator who creates a safe space for them to understand and express the intra and inter personal dynamics of change processes
The Board begins the process to find a successor including the following steps:Develop a Job Profile. This is not the same as a job description. A job profile describes things such as: The purpose of the positionThe competencies that the person requiresThe qualities that the person requiresThe qualifications that the person requiresThe experience that the person requiresThe key deliverables of the postThe key activities related to each deliverableWhen drawing up a Job Profile for a leader of an organization it is important not to just cut and paste from previous Job Descriptions or Job Profiles. The kind of  questions that should be asked are:What is the vision of the organization now and how is it different from when the founder started the organization?What are the most likely challenges the new leader will face (external and internal challenges)At what stage of development is the organization? E.g. do we need a safe pair of hands to ensure that the legacy is built on or do we need an innovator and motivator who will bring new energy to an organization in decline?The Board draws up a timeline that includes the following (we start at the end and work backwards)The new leader begins work (a handover period takes place in the first 2 weeks. This should include 1 or 2 days in the office with the founder but thereafter any further meetings with the founder to take place away from the office at the request of the new leader as needed)The new leader is given background reading in preparation for the handover. Informal discussions take place about the role and the handover. Contracting is finalized.Once terms have been agreed the appointment of the new leader is announced by the Board to staff, funders and key stakeholdersThe Board approves the appointment of the new leader and an offer is made to the successful candidateThe Selection Committee makes their recommendations to the BoardThe Selection Committee conducts final interviews with the top 2 or 3 candidates using the agreed scoring system. The additional feedback is included in the decision making process. The candidates are then placed in order of preference. Only those who the committee are convinced can do the job are included in the final list.The references of the top candidates are contacted and their feedback is captured. Additional information on the candidates is sourced and added to the feedbackThe Selection Committee selects their top 2 or 3 candidates using the agreed scoring systemThe Selection Committee conducts interviews with the short listed candidates using the agreed scoring systemInterviews are scheduled with the short listed candidatesThe Selection Committee draws up a list of suitable candidates from those who have applied using an agreed scoring system. This list should be limited to 4-6 people who the committee believe could do the job based on their CVs and application lettersThe post is advertised using appropriate media and channels of communicationAn advertisement for the job is drawn up by the Selection Committee and circulated to the Board for approvalThe Board appoints a Selection Committee to conduct the selection process. This committee should comprise Board members but may also include a staff member if this is felt appropriate. The founder should not be part of the selection committee but should be consulted by the selection committee throughout the process
All of the above takes place AFTER the staff and stakeholders have been informed of the transition that is to take place.