Founder’s Syndrome: Developing a Transition Plan and Exit Strategy for the Founder

Eventually, it will be time for the Founder to exit stage right from his or her organization. Often this is the same time that an organization shifts from the seat-of-the-pants growth to well-planned and managed development. As a Founder, it is hard to imagine your organization operating day-to-day without you. It is quite possible that the entire organization will shatter when not under your very watchful eye. However, I can assure you this reality is seldom true. Determining this timing is difficult and creating a plan will be a challenge if you are not prepared.

My colleague, Emily Davis, did a great blog post on this very topic: A Founder’s Time to Leave

Founders constantly refer to “cloning” themselves. How often have you heard: “We could grow from a local presence to a national presence if I just knew how to clone myself.” This statement says that only the Founder can grow the organization. It is not on the Founder’s radar to consider bringing on additional staff members or replacing him or herself with another savvy leader who can grow the organization. Below are some resources on how to create a successful exit plan. Charitable Solutions offers great ideas for first steps to making the transition:

The 4 Components of a successful Transition

  1. Planning
    1. Organizational Assessment
    2. Work with Board to determine the type of executive to fill current and future needs of organization
  2. Search
    1. What are the key words that will get the attention of the type of person you want?
    2. Where do you advertise?
    3. Do you look for candidates locally or nationally?
  3. Interim Management
    1. Keep the organization functioning
    2. Manage staff
    3. Keep Board and search moving forward
    4. Conduct an Organizational Assessment to share with incoming Executive
  4. Orientation
    1. As a peer, share the Organizational Assessment: strengths, opportunities, staff and Board analysis, basic operations

Carter McNamara MBA, PhD, offers great advice on Founder’s Syndrome. Here is an excerpt:

A Typical Problem Among Small Organizations

  • To continue to meet the needs of their customers, organizations must evolve through a particular life-cycle change.
  • This change is from typically entrepreneurial, seat-of-the-pants growth to well-planned and managed development.
  • However, this development cannot occur without first establishing a stable administrative infrastructure.
  • Developing this infrastructure often requires a change in the nature of the founder’s leadership from that of a highly reactive, individualistic style to a more proactive, consensus-oriented style.
  • Many founders cannot make this transition. As a result, the organization remains managed, not in a manner that provides reliable services to customers, but according to the personality of the founder.
  • Often, the organization experiences the same problems over and over again. For example, plans are not implemented. Money keeps running out. Board and staff members quickly come and go. The organization struggles from one crisis to another. No one really seems to know what’s going on. People become afraid of the founder.
  • Founders Syndrome is no one’s fault — no founder sets out to damage their organization. Besides, the syndrome rarely takes hold without numerous members of the Board and staff exhibiting symptoms of the syndrome.
  • Eventually, stakeholders confront the founder about the organization’s recurring problems (if the organization is a nonprofit, funders often will confront the chief executive or board). Often, the founder becomes increasingly anxious and defensive, and soon resorts to blaming Board members and staff (nonprofits also blame funders). Without ongoing coaching and support, it’s likely that the founder will be replaced, or even worse, the organization will fold.
  • There are actions that founders and Board members can take to avoid these tragic outcomes. Start simple, but start.

For the full article and extensive information: http://www.managementhelp.org/misc/founders.htm

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One thought on “Founder’s Syndrome: Developing a Transition Plan and Exit Strategy for the Founder

  1. This is far more typical that most think. It also occurs with founding board members. I have encountered several boards that were shackled by the fear to leave. I have found that it may be helpful to an “exit plan”. In the case of my founding board, we moved them to “emeriti” status and asked them basically “consult” with our new board (this put them in sort of a mentoring role for our new members and allowed them to pass on their insitutional memory/history). We also had them form a executive nominating committee that looked at the insitutions future, as well as the composition of the future board. Our thought was that we wanted to make sure they were still in our “friends” category since many of them were major funders! It kept them engaged and active but gave them a graceful exit!

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