When Founders Leave

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 25th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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News flash for anyone connected to a nonprofit led by a founder or much loved, long-serving executive director:  someday that person is going to leave.  Regardless of timing or circumstance, when it comes to replacing that iconic leader, the board is likely going to make one of the biggest mistakes possible.  One that is preventable.  

Let’s review the common mistakes boards make when hiring the next executive director.  The most egregious is not having created a succession plan long before it was time to even think about hiring the next executive director.  But there are three other common glaring failings by boards when they are hiring to replace a founder or that beloved veteran ED. 

The worst is not following the basic rule of departure:  when a person steps down from the position of executive director, s/he steps away—far away—from the nonprofit.  The former doesn’t stick around to show the new hire the ropes, doesn’t get a special assignment, doesn’t move onto the board.  The pay check stops, the person leaves.  Celebrate that person and her/his contributions; raise some dollars and say a big “Thank you!”  And then say goodbye.  The new hire needs the room, the space, the support, and, yes, the control, to set up shop on her/his own terms without the former hanging around, noting how things were done in the past, rolling eyes at change, and, by her/his mere presence, creating tension.

If you have any doubts about the downside of allowing the former to hang around, just ask anyone who tried being the new executive director while the former was still there.  Ask how it went, when s/he first started thinking about quitting, how long before s/he actually did quit or was let go?  Talk to the staff who weathered that situation, not knowing who was in charge, who was the boss, to whom to listen, take direction, report. 

If any doubts remain, talk to members of boards who lived through this experience. They will tell you they invested in the hiring process believing they were hiring the next permanent executive director only to find out they actually hired an interim, as the new hire didn’t stay or didn’t last.  The new hire didn’t stay because s/he couldn’t get traction while the former hung around; the knee jerk reaction of staff and board was to look to the former.  Frustrated by the inability to do what s/he thought s/he was hired to do, unable to put her/his mark on the organization, powerless to get a sufficient toehold with staff and board as the former is always there with the deference that goes along with that, that the new ED leaves. 

Or, the new leader charges forward with her/his plans, implementing changes, and staff and board, and the former, complain.  The new is judged not by the desired end goal of the change but for the perceived “insult” to the former.  Criticism is fueled not by objective judgment of whether the change is good or bad but because of the extra work that change demands.  Within six or 12 or 18 months, the new ED has left and it turns out the board had inadvertently hired an interim. 

Instead of having overlap between the two leaders, the sensible course is to have detailed documentation by the former laying everything out for the successor. There needs to be is a board-created plan for integrating and acculturating the new into the organization—a schedule of board member-chaperoned meetings with key donors, staff-chaperoned meeting with key partners, etc.  And, there should be the option to reach out the former ED at a previously agreed to rate and maximum number of hours that the former agreed to be available to the new, should the new ED desire such conversations.  Having the former and the new overlap is an irresponsible use of resources, a slight to the new and pandering to the former.

Perhaps the most shortsighted mistake that boards make is not hiring a professional interim executive director to succeed a founder or long-tenured leader.  As previously noted, in this situation, change is inevitable, and not just for change’s sake.  Inevitably, some pivoting is likely to be a necessity, as complacency, habit and/or comfort have set in, while innovation was either unwelcomed or long since left the building. 

Very likely systems will be lacking or be sorely in need of upgrades. Some relationships will need attention and some staff will need to go (for which some other staff will likely feel eternally grateful).  Some of this change may be applauded by some board and staff alike, while others resist it.  Some will rise to the challenge that change demands, while others will chafe at being asked to do more.  More often than not when the complaints rise to the board, or come from within the board, the first reaction isn’t to ask, “What is the real problem?,” but rather to look at the outsider and point the finger there. 

Sometimes, a board and staff chase away the new person by the repeated push back to new demands; sometimes, the board takes action and removes the source of the new demands.  A professional interim’s job is to come in, take the complaints and grumbling on the chin, and push the organization, board included, to be ready for the next phase of its life.  An interim should never be seen as a placeholder, but rather as an instrument for change, preparing the organization so that the permanent hire can walk in and immediately embark on leading the organization into its future. 

Yes, replacing a founder and beloved leader can be challenging and emotional.  But it is important that board members always remember:  their first loyalty should never be to the executive director, but rather to the mission of the organization.  In an executive transition, the goal is to ensure the ability to continue to deliver on mission promises, not protecting an executive director’s ego and feelings.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.