Dear Prof PANL,

I work for an organization in which the founder is still very involved. It’s clear that this person has a strong influence over decisions and actions — and makes it almost impossible for anything creative and new to happen. How can we move forward as an organization without denying the founder’s vital contributions? What can we do?

–Feeling Stifled

Dear Feeling Stifled,

While I’m not a real doctor, I can offer you a diagnosis: Founder’s Syndrome. It seems to me that your founder doesn’t know how and when to let go. The main problem is that there’s no succession plan. Some founders can become micromanagers, politicize relationships with staff members (particularly with long-time staff), and can avoid adapting to changing times. The core problem with Founder’s Syndrome is the stifling of innovation and creativity within the organization. Don’t feel too special, though, non-founder-led organizations can exhibit the same pathology with long-term staff and board members. Don’t be too quick to push out founders! Research shows they’re more likely to review their missions and maintain a high level of board engagement, compared to than non-founder-led organizations.

What to do? Clarify the roles and responsibilities of board members and staff. This will draw a clear chain of command. In other words, good fences make good neighbours. Need inspiration? Here’s one of my favourite workbooks on writing board job descriptions.

You could also strategically involve the founder in a meaningful project where their skills and passion can be harnessed positively. We younglings tend to forget that people were here before us and that we’re directly benefiting from their hard labour. Recognize your founder’s contributions. This will allow you to jumpstart the delicate conversation on succession and transition. Ultimately, remember that the founder wants the organization to succeed beyond them.


Prof P.

Photo is courtesy of Clay Banks and Unsplash.

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Saturday, November 7, 2020 in ,
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