ACEVO Guest Blog – Life after a founder decides to move on – recruiting a successor

Philippa Fabry - Director of Not for Profit Practice, Peridot Partners
Philippa Fabry – Director of Not for Profit Practice, Peridot Partners

I read with interest the article ‘The perils of founder’s syndrome’ in last week’s Third Sector highlighting some of the recent acrimony and controversy surrounding recent founders’ departures from ShelterBox, Beat Bullying et al. The article was also quite clear to outline some of the more positive examples of founder-led charities, but it made me reflect on the hold many founders have on their organisations and the impact this can have on how the charity prepares and thinks about the recruitment of their successor when that time comes.

We have supported a number of charities at this time. It can be an emotionally charged event and sometimes met with fear and trepidation; largely driven by the fact the founder and charity are more often than not inextricably linked, and succession planning is sometimes difficult to put in place with a strong founder at the helm. Whilst those organisations who are clear about their strategy and the skills they’re going to need for the future (often very different from that of the founder), will be able to focus on what comes next, often the natural inclination is to revert to a similar type of individual as the founder; I guess we’re only human and it’s sometimes difficult to let go especially if one person’s dynamism, energy and charisma is considered integral to the organisation’s success.

As the organisation grows and matures it’s not all about the founder any more

This is where working with an external recruitment partner can really help to ensure the charity can fully and objectively focus on the ‘what comes next’ and maintains a firm and clear line of sight on attracting new skills to build on the charity’s achievements so far. As the organisation grows and matures it’s not all about the founder any more, it’s about shared responsibility and authority, and collective decision making – at least it should be to ensure a healthy and sustainable organisation and one that can welcome and enable a successor transition into the new leadership role. Given this, preparation around the job brief should be informed from views taken across the organisation so everyone can share and input into the formation of the brief.

Our role has been to challenge assumptions that you might need ‘more of the same’ and encourage the organisation to move out of its comfort zone and think more expansively about skills and experience that don’t exactly morph that of the founder but concentrate on the organisation’s needs. At times we’ve also been able to remind the organisation that whilst the founder has been a driving force, the organisation surrounding this individual has the strength and capacity to deliver beyond their departure and give them the confidence it will be ok. However, as the founder’s imminent departure looms self doubt creeps in. Furthermore when a founder is leaving on good terms there will be a huge amount of affection and to some degree a bit of ‘hero-worship’ occurring. Sometimes it’s difficult to let go and so any recruitment process needs to get everyone signed up to giving someone else a chance. It must also build in robust selection which can enable a panel to feel reassured candidates will honour and respect the founder’s legacy but equally draw out qualities and experience which will be new, provide difference and challenge.

The prospect of taking over from a founder can be a daunting one and so in any recruitment process you need to send out clear messages to the market that you’re ready to move on and there is space for someone new. Potential candidates need to be reassured by this, but you also want to make sure you’re attracting robust and self confident individuals who can establish their own credibility and set a new path (in doing so most likely challenging some of the ‘way things have always been done’), whilst being sensitive to what’s gone before. Its often the case that the founder’s drive and dynamism will have fostered a particular set of values that have created the organisations’ distinctiveness so it goes without saying you want to ensure you’re attracting individuals who share these.

Last but not least the founder themselves will most likely be going through a period of mourning so whilst I don’t advocate they’re closely involved in their successor’s recruitment ensure they play a part in being involved in briefings with the recruitment partner to ensure their perspective and views are factored in.

Philippa Fabry – Director – Not for Profit Practice, Peridot Partners

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