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Lessons about Founder’s and Long-Term Executive Transitions

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Lessons about Founder’s and Long-Term Executive Transitions

The sample of case studies highlight some of the most important themes concerning founder transitions.  Below, we discuss in more detail seven themes that are apparent in these cases and in our larger research.  While the way in which each theme interacts with the specifics of an organization’s transition differs, these themes are woven into each founder transition experience.

Legacy: Honoring what has gone before

The case studies of founder transitions, the literature on successions and the literature from interim pastor’s experience all highlight the importance of celebrating the gifts and successes of the founder who is leaving.  As one succeeding executive pointed out, “I honor what the founder has done.”  Founders, themselves, acknowledged the importance that receiving honor for their accomplishments had for them.  One said, “It was wonderful to know that so many people cared about me.  This love and care allowed me to feel like I could go out and do other things.”  Through being honored, founders feel less need to protect what they had created because they knew that others understood and valued it.  Another founder said, “I actually identified the legacy that I wanted to leave the organization with and set out to ensure all the pieces were in place.”  This definition helped the founder feel good about what s/he had accomplished and good about moving on.

The importance of honoring the founder was also clear in instances where they were not honored or did not feel engaged enough.  As one founder said, “Once the search began, I felt discarded, like an old shoe.”  In another case, a board member confessed that not enough was done to “nurture and feed” the founder.  “I was so exhausted I just didn’t have time to call the founder.  I wish I had.”  It might have prevented some of the discomfort that still exists today.

Unfortunately, legacy has not been well defined in literature and is not often discussed. However, in these cases*, honoring “the legacy” whether so named or not, was a vital part of caring for the founder and smoothing the way for transition.

Board Development

As was apparent in several of these cases, the board of directors had to become a much more engaged and sometimes broader body in order to manage the transition.  This development of the institution of the board of directors and coalescing of the people currently on the board is often a critical spark that allows the transition to flourish.

Board growth and change can be particularly difficult during a founder transition, because the board is often in the habit of deferring to the founder.  As John Carver wrote in Nonprofit World, “We are fortunate that there are souls so insightful or so driven that they stimulate others of us to new levels of commitment. These leaders swim against the tide of apathy and common judgment long enough for those of us less foresighted to catch up. By the time incorporation occurs, the founder has already invested tears and sweat often times in a lonely vigil to which the organization's board members may be respectful latecomers.”  This dynamic can make it hard for the board to take on the responsibility that it must take on during a transition.

Perhaps because of this dynamic, the growth and change in the board often takes place without the founder.  In at least one case, the founder specifically curbed his tendency to offer opinions or guide the process.  This founder’s willingness to step back was important to the board’s ability to grow into the space that was left.

Organization lifecycle

Literature and the experiences of transition consultants has long suggested that where an organization is in its life cycle will impact the issues that it will need to address during transitions.  This insight holds true in the cases of founder transitions.  In several of the cases, the organizations were well established, had over ten staff members, and had excellent reputations.  These organizations were ready to make a transition to a different kind of leadership and in these cases the next executive that was hired was a manager.  In one case, the new executive had experience following founders or long time leaders. In another case, the new executive had significant experience as a number two at different organizations.  Both of these new executives describe themselves as managers and highlighted their skills in administration, people who “get things done” and “follow through.”  All of these successors identified the difference in their styles from their predecessors and one even explicitly related the differences to the growth and change of the organization.

In other cases the organizations had been close to shutting down when a new executive came in.  While not founders, these new executives did have close connections to the founders and their passions.  These executives might be better characterized as entrepreneurs.  These executives have different traits and skills than the managers and are more closely matched to organizations that were at pivotal stages in their lives.  In one case, this executive was able to grow the organization (not included as a full case here); in the other, it is too soon to tell what the outcome will be, but the new executive has stabilized the organization.

Letting go

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of founder transitions is the emotional process of letting go.  In business literature, writers acknowledge these emotional forces, and, claim that, when left unacknowledged, they can wreak havoc on the succession process.  As one business writer said, “For the incumbent leader, succession is a time to confront the passage of time, the end of a career, and even mortality itself.”  None of this is easy, especially for motivated, successful people.

In the case studies, the founders noted how hard it was to let go, “It is like giving up one of your children for adoption.”  Another one described it this way, “It is like leaving home.  I learned a lot about endings during this process.  Most of my life had been about beginnings, exciting beginnings; during this time, I learned about the importance of endings and of ending well.”

The founders also noted some of the things that helped them through the process.  Many of the founders had close advisers and friends; a couple even had formal mentors and spiritual support.  They talked to these advisers, they planned with them, and in some cases they cried with them.  Those who didn’t have close support talked about the loneliness and lack of support from a community that they considered their peers.

One founder said of his/her departure, “It really helped to have something to go to.  There were things that I really wanted to do.”  In a couple cases the process of letting go was made easier because they were both proud of where the organization was, and running the organization had become less fun and harder in recent years.  One founder put it this way, “Every day I ask myself ‘what has been life-giving and what has not?  There can be things that are difficult but still life-giving.  Things at work weren’t as life-giving as they once were and, as I realized this, it became clearer that it was time to go.”

In some cases, the founders simply had a hard time letting go.  They may not have set clear expectations about when they were leaving or they may have felt upset by changes in the organization after the transition had happened.  Further, some founders may not be retiring but moving on to other work in the same field.  While it is always important to establish boundaries and expectations about the on-going relationship between the organization and the founder, in these cases it is particularly important.

Learning to let go may be one of the hardest things a founder has to do.  Those who have been through it say, “There is life afterward.”

Identifying/Defining Costs in Transitions

Little definitive work has been done on the overall impact of transitions on organizations and the costs of transitions.  In our case studies, board members identified the following impacts:

  • “It was hard on staff morale.”

  • “We weren’t able to go after new grants”

  • “Some funders were really upset.”

  • “Staff really stepped up to the plate and took on leadership that they hadn’t taken before.”

  • “The committee was pretty tired and was ready to close the organization.”

  • “Some funders held up funds because they didn’t think the organization was stable.”

  • “We (the board) found that we weren’t meeting requirements of our grants and we didn’t have the relationship with funders to communicate with them…he (the founder) had relationships with them.”

In terms of direct costs, the board members estimated the following costs: $20,000 to $50,000 for hiring a search firm or consulting assistance and between 520 and 860 volunteer hours.

In one case, the costs were that the organization lost its entire budget, its entire staff and was on the verge of shutting down.

Succeeding Ms. (or Mr.) Wonderful: the successors experience

In the words of one successor, “It is a roller coaster ride.”  It is clearly an experience filled with the highs of learning and moving an organization forward and the lows of making mistakes and realizing how much one has to learn.  Part of the ride is the huge amount of work.  Most of the successors noted the long hours.  In one case the successor said, “I know I can’t keep up this pace.”  In another case the successor said, “I was very careful to regulate the number of hours I worked.  You could work all the time especially during the transition.”

Part of moving an organization forward for successors is learning about the organization and staff and balancing the tension between learning about the organization’s past and “the way things have always been done” and setting a new path.  It can be difficult to initiate change in systems and infrastructure; it can even be tricky deciding when it is the appropriate time to initiate changes.  Further, most successors are being judged by the initial actions and may need to have early successes to help establish credibility.  These tensions can be difficult enough in any transition, but when staff and board are mourning the loss of popular founder, they can be almost impossible.  Many of the successors in the case studies recognized these tensions and were conscious of the way they handled them.

Finally, successors note that it is often both a wonderful gift to have the founding executive available for questions and support and a burden to appropriately use and build this relationship.  Because of the tension between the past and the future, this relationship can be contentious and supportive, sometimes at the same time.  Successful successors are able to both honor the founder and chart a new course.

Transitions are a process, and a long process at that

Finally, each of the actors in a transition—the board, the founder, the successor and the staff—should recognize the time that transitions require.  As our cases highlight, it is at least a year after a new executive is in place before the uncertainty surrounding the change wears off.  Literature from the for-profit experience would suggest that it may be closer to two years before the new executive has consolidated their learning, made initial changes and begins to see an impact from those changes.

As William Bridges pointed out, transitions are about the emotional and other impacts associated with a change.  The ripple impact of the change in executives may take years to be fully realized.  Several of the case studies suggest that planning and deliberateness during the initial stages of transition may help bolster the patience and perseverance necessary for a successful long-term transition.


*Legacy is a more salient issue for founders and long-term executives (whose identity and emotions are usually closely tied to the organization) than for other executives.

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We Wrote the Books on Nonprofit Leadership Transition

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The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide: Proven Paths for Leaders and Organizations      
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Chief Executive Transitions:
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