Craig Dearden Phillips: Founders who leave can perfect the art of succession

We all hear the horror stories about succession in our sector, but seldom do we explore how the process could be better

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Founders of charities and social enterprises are normally amazing, exceptional people, but at some point there’s also a good chance they will look to move on to a new project. Some do this brilliantly. Others unintentionally do the opposite, and can damage the charity’s future impact.

Leaving founders tend to fall one of three types of "driver". 

The Backseat Driver Here the founder, having "left", seeks to retain influence by using their board connections or "consultancy" work to steer the new chief executive. Fuelled by a belief that they know what is best, the Backseat Driver lacks the emotional intelligence to understand the damage this can cause to their "baby". 

The Short-Distance Driver This type of founder is brilliant in the early years. But short of the skills needed to lead at scale, the Short-Distance Driver leaves an almighty mess for their successor. This founder lacks the insight to see the right moment to bring someone in for the next phase.

The Sunday Driver After a few years of hard times getting the charity moving, this founder gets too comfortable and the rot sets in. When the Sunday Driver eventually calls it a day, it’s often too late.

In all these cases, the question of succession is either dodged or botched. Does it have to be this way? Of course not. To find out how, I spoke to several founders who perfected the art of leaving well, and to some of their successors, who benefited from their informed choices. 

Among these were Poppy Jaman and Simon Blake, founder and new chief executive respectively, of Mental Health First Aid England. They shared their best advice on leaving an organisation well.

Prepare the ground Jaman consulted those around her about her intention to leave long before finally making the move. As a result, she commissioned help in areas, such as HR, that would need shoring-up as the organisation entered a period of transition

Get a coach Jaman said she benefited from coaching to help her understand her own needs and strengths, both in the lead-up to leaving and afterwards. Coaching, she said, makes it easier for founders to make decisions that are healthy for them and for others in the organisation

Know you have a natural shelf-life as a chief executive Simon Blake, Jaman’s successor as chief executive, made the point that all chief executives, including founders, have a limit on the time they will be able to add value to an organisation.

Advise, by all means, but don’t choose your successor Jaman stayed out of the formal part of choosing Blake as chief executive of Mental Health First. She did advise the board on who would make a good fit with the values of the organisation, but wasn’t on the recruitment panel.

Honour, trust and support your successor Jaman made an early decision to do all she could to make Blake’s early days as chief executive successful. This meant being available without being involved. As she neatly put it: "I am always on the other end of the phone, but I will not be the one to make the call."

We all hear the horror stories about succession in our sector, but seldom do we talk about it or explore how it could be better.

How about you have a conversation, right now? 

For an extended interview with Poppy Jaman and Simon Blake on how they modelled a great way to leave well, listen free to the Social Club podcast at http://socialclubuk.com.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chair of the Social Club Group

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