Navigating Founder Transitions

Dec 2, 2020 | La Piana

In this interview, Makiyah Moody, Senior Manager at La Piana Consulting, and Sara Garlick Lundberg, Partner, Nonprofit Practice at DHR International, discuss her insights related to proactive transition planning and the adventures that ensue with founder transitions.

Strong leadership is critical for strong organizations, yet organizations often give short shrift to purposeful executive transitions. Why do you think that is?

First, Board members need more training. Many join boards with an incomplete understanding of their responsibilities – from fundraising to governance and financial oversight. First-time board members would all benefit from training to understand the scope of their responsibilities as well as the time required – particularly outside of meetings – to be a meaningful contributor. Part of a board’s role is to be ready for transition – whether it’s a longtime CEO announcing a plan to retire, or a sudden event that leads to a need. A board needs to be ready for all possibilities, and very few are.

Second, nonprofit board members are volunteers, and are often individuals with busy lives. Being a strong board member requires an investment of time, and thoughtfully planning for and supporting an organization through an executive transition is an even more significant commitment. It’s one reason that hiring a consultant is key – a consultant can guide the board in agreeing to an overarching approach, setting a timeline, developing a communications strategy and hiring a search firm.

This sounds expensive, but I promise you that it’s less expensive than a transition gone wrong. I’ve seen organizations lose years trying to reverse course or undo a string of poorly thought through decisions.

Being ready for a transition, lack of time, focus and training – those barriers do not seem insurmountable with purposeful and proactive planning. What is the typical process when you are beginning a search for an organization?

Timing is everything. Organizations that come to us with a four or five-month window are behind the game – a 9-18-month window is ideal though we can make shorter timeframes work. Short timelines mean less time to engage key stakeholders and transition relationships, less time to thoughtfully communicate to the community and, of course, market the role to talented leaders.

The most effective transitions I’ve seen have been gradual and deliberate and selectively engage stakeholders from across a spectrum – select funders, the board, senior staff and a thoughtful search consultant. These transitions take place over the course of one to three years.

Before we tee up a search, we invest time in getting to know the board, outgoing leadership and staff. Transitions are often a source of anxiety and one of the most critical pieces of work in the early stages of a search is to get everyone to see executive transition as an opportunity, as a time for expansive thinking. It’s a time to think boldly about what can be. Only then can we begin to identify what type/s of leader can help the organization to evolve, to think about potential.

As the social sector evolves, I imagine your practices evolve as well. What surprises you about the evolution of founder transitions specifically?

The first thing I tell clients is that the qualities that make one successful as a founder are the qualities that make it hard for them to let go. Most founders give everything to their cause and their relationship with the organization is as personal as it is professional. When it’s time to transition, they are usually exhausted because they have put everything into their work.

Founder exhaustion isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that extracting the person can be a multi-layered and possibly intense process. Many refer to ‘founders’ syndrome’ but I don’t think this term is fair. When working with a founder, a board must just be intentional and slowly peel back the layers to help their leader process all aspects of transition.

Few believe how complex it can be. In some cases, founders just won’t let go. A founder may convince themself, and often their boards, that no one can or will manage things as they do. It’s likely true. But in these cases, it’s often even more likely that the organization – especially its staff – is in dire need of change. Again, the transition needs to be intentional and thoughtfully planned.

The transition also needs to be clean. I don’t recommend founders staying on as consultants, advisors or board members. The new leader needs the freedom and autonomy, and this won’t happen as long as a founder is present. A mentor of mine once said the best gift to give an outgoing CEO/founder is … a suitcase.

Dealing with the social, emotional, and psychological elements of a founder transition specifically makes me want to channel Brené Brown. In your years of helping nonprofits search for, attract, and nurture innovative, diverse leadership for their organizations, what advice would you offer a prospective candidate who is putting their hat in the ring to succeed a founder?

I would make sure that the board has developed a clear and discernable multi-stage plan to offboard the founder. Ask for a timeline and milestones. If these questions can’t be answered, you can thoughtfully share your hesitation with the committee and step back.

Do not, I repeat, do not walk into a situation where a founder has agreed to stay on as a consultant or board advisor, even if it’s to support your transition. If there is overlap, it shouldn’t be long. A thoughtful founder will know that it’s their time to go, offer to be available for questions, then extract themselves fully and completely. If you’re feeling uneasy, or unsure of when or how the founder will leave, again, ask the selection committee for more details.

In a similar vein, what kind of guidance do you offer to the search committee as the process gets underway? I imagine there are instances when a founder says, “Yes, yes. I am ready to go,” and then changes their mind as the process unfolds.

I often say that the more the founder says they are ready, the more exhausted they are, the less capable they are of actually transitioning. They have given all they have to birthing the organization, which makes extracting themselves a very personal endeavor (for themselves and those around them.)

As a board member, you need to work with your founder to unpeel the layers of transition, identify a timeline and hold them to it. A founder may try to backtrack – inserting themselves in the search process or negotiating a consulting arrangement for continued engagement – but an organization needs to hold its ground and keep the transition on course.

What advice would you like to leave readers with about founder transitions?

For board members: if you have or can create time, take it. Slow the process down and hire someone with experience advising organizations through founder transitions. Working with an advisor will help you to avoid painful and often costly mistakes that lessen your organization’s ability to deliver on its mission. I advise on founder transitions as part of our pre-search consulting service and while it can delay the start of the search (just slightly) for your next CEO, putting in the time pays dividends in the long term.

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