Not long ago, I read on a social media platform about a nonprofit candidate who would become the CEO of an organization where the founder would remain. I have written about this in the past, but this particular situation caught my attention because of what the board allowed to happen. I thought it was interesting and a recipe for trouble.
The candidate to become the new executive would replace the founding executive, who would move to a paid part-time position within the charity. There were a couple of red flags that I saw in the post that was being made.
- The board told the candidate that he would have authority, but he was not allowed to let the founder go if he did not work. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound authoritative to me if you’re not allowed to fire someone if they don’t fit in well.
- The founder’s part-time paid role had yet to be determined. That seemed like a significant problem in the making due to the lack of clarity. I was wondering, who would be creating the job description for the new founder role? Would the new executive have any authority over him, or was it simply responsibility without power?
- The candidate was informed that although he could delegate responsibilities to the founder, once the position was created, the board was not sure whether the founder would serve. Well, there are a lot of problems with that fact. So it seemed like the board was telling the candidate that while he was responsible for the proper management of the organization as it pertains to the founder’s (paid) position, all bets were off.
- Finally, the board informed the candidate that they expected him to be a leader and find out how to work effectively with the founder. That is really fascinating! In effect, the board creates a situation where the founder is paid to play a role within the organization and not do the work, if he wishes, but the onus falls on the new executive to “make it work.” .
If you were reading that post as I did, what would you have advised the candidate?
I’ll tell you what I would tell you.
Go as fast as you can, as far as you can.
I have written in the past about founder syndrome, which is when power (implicit or explicit) revolves around the founder and his cult of personality and influence. As I have noted in the past, “the environment becomes dysfunctional with the board of directors failing to fulfill its governance responsibility and staff are not allowed to object or debate. Ideas and initiatives stagnate if the founder does not support them. Essentially, the founder becomes the ruler of his fiefdom, and the interest of the organization becomes secondary. “
However, what I want to tell you here is that the situation described above is a recipe for trouble, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
When the founder remains within the organization, the successor’s job becomes infinitely more difficult because he or she is navigating a political landmine, and that is not fair to the organization. In the scenario where the founder and executive now becomes a part-time employee, the chances of alliances by some board members and staff who are still loyal to the founder increase exponentially. And all it creates is confusion and, frankly, a problem for the organization that is not conducive to the good governance and functioning of the nonprofit organization.
If you are a board member of a nonprofit organization and the time has come to move on to a new leader, do the organization a favor – don’t let the founder stay on staff. Consider giving the founder an emeritus role on the board, but don’t create a situation that will weaken the collective energy of the organization due to the political toxicity that could develop. And, if you are a founder, if I can do it, you can do it. When the time comes when you need to step aside, do so. It doesn’t mean that you can’t create something else or discover other ways to do what you love. Take your energy and what you have learned and channel it in a positive way.