Jenny James Taylor: Surviving your own succession

When are founders losers? When it comes to a poorly handled transition that ignores governance and rides roughshod over legacy and emotions, writes our guest columnist

JennyJames Taylor
JennyJames Taylor

Success without a successor is failure. So said Peter Drucker, the non-profit guru who founded the Drucker Institute in the US.

Kris Hallenga, the charismatic founder of the cancer prevention charity CoppaFeel!, did it right, blazing a trail for the model handover. Yet for how many other founders of non-profit organisations is the succession itself the failure?

Hallenga created a fun, fresh look for her "boob-arium", and early on in the process she recruited someone with not only the skills but also the right DNA.

Fully supported by her board all the way through, she found someone to take over from her who was groomed for the role while on staff long enough to internalise the vision.

Yet not everyone manages it when tight resources and workload afford little room for manoeuvre. As a founder who ran a pioneering charity for 12 years, from inception to succession, the handover left me reeling. I no longer had any authority, and I had no one to turn to. I was like a ghost in my own machine – nothing worked any more. My struggle was over, but so – it felt somewhat melodramatically – was my life. It was not the joyous sharing of vision and experience that I’d envisaged.

Eight months later, I see one never quite gets over the changes that succession means. And nothing whatsoever had prepared me. Left with a sense of bereavement, one can only recognise the finality of it and move on.

But the pain I experienced was far from unique. Another senior leader who had co-founded a charity says, five years after handing over, that she still cannot bear to think about the process in which her successor was chosen.

Based in the UK, with offices abroad, it had a budget of half a million and a high-profile patron. She realised too late that she was no longer going to be listened to.

She shared with me how, despite having had "an incredibly positive" relationship with the trustees and chair, her views about the succession were not wanted. She was told that, despite being the founder of the charity, she should now back off. It was none of her business. Within 12 months the UK office – for good reasons or bad – had closed.

But what about the successor’s point of view? It is, after all, a daunting time when you're building authority and know-how as an unknown outsider. But it need not be like that. One charity leader who has weathered the storms of succession is Stephen Carrick-Davies, who spent five years as deputy chief executive at Childnet International before taking over from the founder as chief executive in 2003. It’s a much better arrangement. Fourteen years later he has just taken over from another founder, this time of the international development charity the Mondo Foundation.

Carrick-Davies believes good governance, especially having a strong chair with enough time on his hands, was crucial.

"Change and grief can be very complex – and I certainly experienced that," says Carrick-Davies. "Founders feel as if they are giving up the 'baby' they brought to life and nurtured."

This can give rise to the dreaded "founders’ syndrome", when the chief executive refuses to budge when it’s time. But with honesty and a shared commitment to a good transition, it is possible to hold on to the spirit and history of the organisation, at the same time bringing in new energy, leadership and vision.

"Transitions from a founder to a successor may present unique challenges, but it is not appropriate to label these problems like some psychological illness, when they are prevalent throughout the business world," writes Elizabeth Schmidt at the US publication Nonprofit Quarterly.  

In my own case, despite my eagerness to step down and organise a proper handover – I had, after all, initiated the process three years before – I quickly became labelled when I raised genuine concerns.

"Never be surprised at how unimportant you become the day you step down," says Carrick-Davies.

Succession is a group process, never a one-off event. As another US leader, Anne M Mulcahy, former chair and chief executive of the Xerox Corporation, says: "One of the things we often miss in succession planning is that it should [have] lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it’s almost a non-event when it happens."

In the end, the success of any transition comes down to how both organisation and individuals want to live out their values. Back to Carrick-Davies, who puts it bluntly when talking about avoiding "successor syndrome": "It takes more grace than I can tell to play the second fiddle well."

He adds: "The incomer, founder and board need lots of emotional intelligence, patience and humility to ensure that the charity has a legacy and remains sustainable and effective. In the end, this is what matters."

Jenny James Taylor is a journalist and consultant

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