Three take-aways from reflecting on my experience

I was 29 when I co-founded Powerful Voices, and 40 when I left my post as Executive Director in 2006 – a formative 11 years for sure. I remember them fondly as the “blood, sweat and tears” years.  Prior to transitioning out, I spent about 9 months planning, coordinating, strategizing… agonizing if I’m being honest…about passing the baton to the next Executive Director.  I didn’t worry about whether the organization needed a new ED – I knew it was time for a new person to be the Executive Director. But I worried about many other things: building a financial cushion, retaining as many donors and funders as possible, passing along the minutia of everyday operations that lived mostly in my head, and worrying that no one in their right mind would be willing to take on the job as it had evolved under my leadership.

Since my transition out, Powerful Voices continues strong and I’m in year nine as a nonprofit consultant, often on issues of executive and founder transition.  With each executive transition project I work on, especially when it involves a founder leaving, I inevitably reflect on my experience: what went well, what didn’t, what have I learned, and how can I share all of this with my clients who are facing a founder transition.  While this article will not provide an exhaustive list of all the things to do and think about with founder transitions, three take-aways stand out for me, shared here with the hope they are helpful to those who are stewarding an organization through a founder transition.

Think Beyond Replacing One Person

Sure, when it comes to hiring a new ED, you are recruiting for one person to fill that position, but with founder transitions, it often requires backing up and looking at the entire organizational structure and making shifts to ensure the organization is set up for success.  That’s because the daily roles and responsibilities of founding EDs are often built around the specific qualities, characteristics, and quirks of that person, and don’t always translate well to a succeeding ED.

For example, one organization I worked with realized that their founding ED was really doing the equivalent of two fulltime jobs: that of ED and that of Program Director.  They knew it wasn’t feasible to hire a new ED into this situation, so in the year leading up to her retirement, they re-designed the organizational structure to include a new layer of management and created a realistic timeline for migrating over to that new structure. It required careful financial planning since it represents a significant increase in salary costs.

At Powerful Voices, well prior to my leaving we had hired a part-time Associate Director to take on significant executive leadership to allow me to also work a (technically) part-time schedule, allowing me more flexibility as I was starting a family.  But when it came to replacing me, we knew we needed to hire a fulltime executive. Given the small size of the organization, it didn’t make sense to retain an Associate Director, nor could we afford it, thereby eliminating that position.

In addition, organizations with departing founders often need to take a hard look at how the fundraising is happening, since founders frequently hold the vast majority of relationships with individual donors and institutional funders. Some organizations decide to invest in additional fundraising staff, or restructure the existing fundraising team’s roles and responsibilities, before or immediately after a founder transition.

When it is necessary to restructure or eliminate positions as part of a founder transition, it’s extra important to carefully attend to staff development, communications, and morale.  Staff can worry about how new positions will impact them and their role and about whether their job might be redesigned or eliminated – either of which can increase the chances of losing staff who want out of the uncertainty by finding another job elsewhere.  Much of this can be mitigated by listening to, responding to, and considering staff member’s ideas and concerns, and by maintaining extra good communications between the board and staff teams.

Invest Time in Transitioning Relationships

Beyond communicating well and often during an executive transition, when it comes to external stakeholders, it’s also essential to dedicate time and resources to the art of maintaining relationships through the transition. As mentioned above, it’s common for EDs, especially founders, to hold the vast majority of relationships with external stakeholders – not only donors and funders, but also program partners, sister agencies, and professional associations. A big mistake I see a lot of organizations make is treating these relationships as transferable by creating a list of key stakeholders, assigning them to other people in the organization, scheduling a meeting or conversation, and calling it good. Yes, you need a system and a task-master for keeping track of everyone, and an initial conversation is the place to start.  But doing the work of maintaining relationships through a transition requires building and nurturing relationships over time. It requires we get to know the person through genuine conversations where we actively listen, and build trust and commitment together by exploring shared goals, having shared experiences, making plans together, and following through on promises made. This takes time, and multiple connection points: hearing directly from the founder in person or over the phone, one or more meetings with the founder and board and/or staff members to discuss shared interests and goals for the future, personalized invitations to events and activities, and multiple opportunities to meet and get to know the new leader once they have arrived.

Don’t Ice Out the Founder During the Search

Founders have a bad reputation, especially when they are transitioning out: they may be accused of meddling and trying to control everything, of keeping the organization stuck in the past, or of being rigid and unable to let go of the reins. Like all generalizations, this one is sometimes true, but often it is not. Assuming or over-reacting to this possibility can lead Boards and Search Committees to ‘ice out’ their founders from the search process almost entirely – which I feel strongly is a mistake. Your founding ED has some of the best information about what it is a new ED will be stepping into, and search committees need that information to be able to do a great search. Not leveraging this insight, experience, and perspective can lead to making a bad hire as well as introduce unnecessary drama to the process and create lasting hard feelings. I’ve seen it and heard about it many times.

Happily, I wasn’t ‘iced out’ of the search process when I was leaving.  The search consultant Powerful Voices hired asked me directly how I’d like to be involved, and offered advice on how to contribute to the process in constructive ways. Getting clear on my role in the process was helpful to me and to everyone else working on the search.  I didn’t have a seat on the search committee – and felt it was important to draw that boundary. Search committees need to be able to candidly discuss the search, candidates, and the organization’s needs, and sometimes having the founder present can hamper that ability. In my case, I contributed in two main ways:  the first was to share what I knew about the day to day operations, joys, duties, and challenges of being the ED at Powerful Voices, based upon actually doing it every day.  I was able to share my sense of where the greatest opportunities lay in the year or two ahead, what I felt should be prioritized in terms of organizational development and capacity building, and any concerns I felt deserved executive leadership attention in the near term. I was able to provide a first-person account of the organizational culture from the perspective of the Executive Director.  This helped the search committee understand what a new ED would face, what to optimize for in the search for qualified candidates, and how to think about ‘fit’ when making a final hiring recommendation. The second way I contributed to the search process was to sit down one-on-one with each of the finalists. It wasn’t an interview per se, but it was an opportunity to ask and answer questions and afterwards to share my observations and assessment with the search committee, which they could consider alongside other evaluative input from the range of interviews and reference checks that had taken place.

There are so many moving parts when it comes to founder transitions – it can be taxing to any organization navigating through it. This article offers three things to not lose sight of:

• Dedicate time to thinking and planning carefully about necessary changes to the organizational structure before launching into a search – it will help ensure you find the right next leader who inherits an organization set up for success.

• Take a long view when it comes to relationship management – it will help retain key organizational relationships during and well after a transition.

• Intentionally include your founder in the executive search, in specific ways with clear boundaries – it will improve a search committee’s ability to make a great hiring decision.