Baillie Aaron: Five ways to leave your organisation well

The founder and chief executive of Spark Inside explains how she is managing her exit from the charity, which provides coaching in prisons

Baillie Aaron

I founded Spark Inside eight years ago to deliver coaching programmes in prisons. Since then the charity’s initiatives have transformed the lives of more than 1,000 people. I am immensely proud of our impact and our accomplishments.

When I announced that I’d be stepping down, after the initial shock there was one common question: "How are you feeling?"

With six months left to go in the role, my honest answer is "fantastic!"

To ensure I can leave well, here are five practical steps I have put in place.

1 Think about succession from day one

From the moment I started Spark Inside, I was honest with myself, colleagues and my board that my time here was limited. As a serial entrepreneur, my strengths lie in visioning and building, not in refining and scaling.

Early on, I received some sage advice: "When you are 100 per cent sure it is time to leave, it will be too late."

Two years before my exit, I felt early warning signs that my responsibilities were changing beyond my skillset. I started to think about when and, importantly, how I wanted to leave so that I could strengthen the organisation to a point where I could depart on a high.

2 The founder is not the charity

I think the term "founder syndrome" should be scrapped, but it is far too easy for founders to become one with our organisations.

To avoid a merged identity, I made every effort to ensure Spark Inside did not revolve around me but rather around the charity’s collective mission and vision.

I gradually transitioned activities I’ve traditionally led on, such as speaking engagements and donor relationships, so that they were owned by or shared with other team or board members. Not only will this help make the transition to the new chief executive far smoother, but it also enables team leadership development.

3 You don’t have to do it alone – leaving is more fun together

A key part of my succession planning strategy was to publicly announce my departure far in advance of my leaving date.

This enabled me to consult and collaborate with our team, partners and supporters to understand what they wanted from the next chief executive. Together we have designed a more holistic role description and received lots of interest in the position, which is open for applications until 30 September.

Safeguarding relationships is critical. Over many months, I have met, called or emailed stakeholders ranging from funders to suppliers. It was labour-intensive, but the feedback I received was of gratitude for the respectful, considerate way in which my impending departure news was conveyed. I also received offers to help with the transition.

4 Prepare for a rocky ride, but hope for a smooth one

I knew there was no way to predict how my transition would feel for me.

Before I told anyone else, I wrote myself a private note explaining the reasons why I was leaving and why I was confident it was the right decision.

I prepared myself a self-care treasure chest filled with notes: "call a friend", "meditate", "dance". I have this placed in a visible location in my home, so I can open it whenever I’m feeling like I need a boost.

I make an effort to write in my journal regularly and schedule coaching sessions to ensure I am in tune with my personal needs.

At times, the ride has been bumpy, and these personal safety blankets have really helped.

5 Think about legacy

I’m obviously biased, but I’m not the only person to say there is something unique about Spark Inside’s culture. To ensure its sustainability, I want to capture the special ingredient that make the organisation different.

A key part of my legacy will therefore be analysing and formally recording our very own "cultural recipe": the principles, values and practices that have characterised Spark Inside’s ethos under my leadership,  to be preserved and passed on to the board and new chief executive.

I’m also leaving behind an exceptionally strong, dedicated and talented team. There’s a mantra: "Only hire people you’d want to work for." Whoever comes in to lead this organisation will be very fortunate.

Baillie Aaron is the founder and outgoing chief executive of Spark Inside. She plans to open a consultancy to increase the charity sector’s impact through addressing glass ceilings and tackling inefficiencies

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