Following a Founder or Long-Timer Requires a Hard Head

Blue Avocado asked for potential interviewees who had followed a founder or a long-time executive. We didn’t expect 58 people to respond.

Following a Founder or Long-Timer Requires a Hard Head
12 mins read

New leaders should focus on where the organization is now, not what the founder did.

When Blue Avocado asked for potential interviewees who had followed a founder or a long-time executive, we didn’t expect 58 people to respond. We interviewed 18 executive directors who followed founders, and another 10 who followed long-time execs.

Last issue’s First Person Nonprofit and this article are also ramp-ups to the national survey of nonprofit leaders in similar positions.

If founding a nonprofit takes strong self-confidence and a soaring vision, following such a leader takes hard-headed management skills and just plain hard work, according to 28 “followers” — let’s call them “successors” because they succeeded long-timers. They work at organizations that range from 2 to 300 staff.

Here’s a story that combines several themes: “I replaced the founder of 35 years. Plus, she was my mother! I’ll have been in this job for 10 years come July, and nine of them have been a financial struggle. I’d be putting on this warrior clothing to go out and battle and find money and keep this vision solid. And then my mother would come in and say you’re doing it all wrong. You’re compromising all the things I worked for, for what, a dollar?”

Strong programs but weak management

Almost all successors came into organizations they saw as having strong programming but weak management.

Many of struggled with personnel problems as their predecessors had idiosyncratic salary schedules and often had made special arrangements for individuals:

“I’m following a founder — it’s been 7 months now — who was a charismatic and wonderful person who left the organization in terrible shape. There was not one part of the organization that didn’t need attention.”

“Some people had been there 15 or 20 years and never had an evaluation. Some people were paid way over what they should been paid and others weren’t getting enough; it was due to favoritism.”

“I did fire quite a few people. I had to take them to a coffee shop to do it because my office didn’t have a door. I realized I had subconsciously established a pattern of which coffee shop I took people to: one to talk and one to fire them in.”

In general, successors found that they were professionalizing organizations that had understandably developed around a strong founder:

“We started certain classes at 6:30 at night. I said why? I was told we start them at that time because the husband of the founder was done with his dinner by then.”

“The founder was a volunteer ED. I’m the first full time paid executive director. Definitely changed the budget.”

On the other hand:

“One advantage you have at the beginning is that there’s some appetite for risk-taking in a stable, staid organization. You can come in with a white hat for a brief period and say I know we’ve always done it this way, but … .”

Financial problems

In particular, many organizations were in financial straits. In some cases a founder or long-time executive was having less and less success in fundraising and left bogged down in helplessness and failure.

In other cases financial difficulties led to his or her being fired. And in too many cases, there was a looming problem or a house of cards teetering and ready to fall.

“When I took over 4 years ago we had close to $50,000 in liabilities. Grants were way down. Hadn’t applied for grants. I guess it was because she was ill and didn’t ask for help.”

“We were 90% funded by state contracts. Four months after I started our first budget cuts from the state came and we lost 250K and then another 500K.”

“In the two weeks before the final offer, the board chair said our biggest funder — 40% of the funding stream — was leaving. But by then I was falling in love with the organization and the clients they served. Later the board confessed that if they hadn’t found the right leader they were ready to shut down the nonprofit.”

“He could see the crash was coming so he got out before he had to deal with the consequences of that. It was ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul.'”

A board built for a different regime

Founders often seek board members who are friends and will stay out of the way. Over time, most long-time executives build boards that support and complement them. And successful executives — whether founders or not — build confidence in their boards who then step back.

Despite the fear that a post-founder board will micromanage, instead, successors found themselves disappointed in the level of engagement or even interest from the board:

“The board was acting as an advisory board rubber stamping staff decisions.”

“They had so much trust and faith in the former [executive], they had become overly deferential. They did not hold him accountable.”

“I expected the board to have higher expectations. They were just ticking along for 24 years.”

Over time, successors either found ways to work with the board or actively replaced them. They try hard to win the approval of the board. We appreciated this comment:

“You find yourself worrying more about what board needs than what the organization needs.”

Founders are different from non-founders, even if the non-founder has been there for decades

“Founders are giving up their babies. Non-founders put on their coats and leave.” So says Tim Wolfred, long-time head of CompassPoint’s executive transitions program, and our interviews bore that out:

“My [founder] predecessor came to staff meetings for six months. The first one she just came in and sat down. The second one I thought: maybe she needs some time. But eventually I had to take her to lunch and say this is really confusing for staff and I ‘d like you to stop. She was very, very hurt.”

“At first he [a non-founder] gave me advice and I just said well, I’m going to do something else. Now he barbecues for the staff barbecue; that’s all he does.”

“The founder always described this organization as ‘my baby.’ She knew that I have two adopted children and it gave her comfort that I understood what she was talking about in giving her baby to me.”

Managing the predecessor

Although departing executives often feel that they are being helpful by staying involved, their successors struggle to manage them while trying to honor their past:

“They were coming off a big campaign and the ED said she didn’t want to go back to doing regular ED work. So she stayed with a different title about strategic initiatives and stayed reporting to the board.

The board did this to keep her community connections like the Chamber, but effectively that meant I couldn’t step into any of those connections.”

“My predecessor was showing up every other day to use our copy machine. At the beginning everyone was excited to see him because they really like him. But one manager told him that she had work to do and couldn’t talk. It was hard.”

“When I shut down a legacy program I was really grateful that my predecessor did not fan the flames. I reached out to him advance. It was very emotional for both staff and volunteers and donors. It was really helpful that he did not step in.”

“My predecessor is now one of my funders — she moved to a foundation that’s been a long-time funder. So I now have regular phone calls and she’s wearing two hats — as founder and as funder. We got off to a rocky start… for 2.5 hours [in our first conversation] she told me I wasn’t the right choice for the position. I’ve been working my way out of that deficit since then.”

“Every two to three months I reach out for coffee with the former executive. I give her an update. She feels that I’m respecting the relationship and that I want to learn from her.”

Advice for yourself when you were taking the job?

We asked interviewees to go back in time and give advice to themselves at the moment they were deciding whether to take their current jobs:

“I should have asked: how engaged was the board? They seemed extremely engaged during the interviews. But it turned out they had all approved the budget without knowing what was in it.”

“It wouldn’t have stopped me from taking the job, but I would have asked directly: do you have outcomes and performance indicators? Is the board engaged in fund development? I made assumptions and didn’t questions.”

“In my current position [the second time following a founder] I asked to be reviewed after the first 90 days. A check-in, I can see what the demands of the job are, a good time for me to set out my goals and discuss them.”

“I should have asked if there are any employees who aren’t performing and are being protected by the ED who probably have to be fired.”

“The board said we are in great financial health. Why did I not dig deeper?”

“I’m in the 12th percentile for pay. I would have asked them to pay me at the 50th percentile.”

Closing comments

Successors work hard, and many of them stay for many years. They typically focus on management and infrastructure, more rarely on programmatic adaptation. They also recognize that every organization has issues to work on:

“A lot of this stuff isn’t founder’s stuff. It’s the cyclical nature of how an organization makes progress, gets stuck, makes progress again and gets stuck again. Rather than focusing on what the founder did or didn’t do, you have to think about where in this cycle the organization is now.”

Our thanks to Jenn Brandon, John Britz, Marie Cubillas, Jeffrey Dollinger, Cassandra Flipper, Valerie Golik, Peter Hainley, Jenny Hansell, Rutheanne Hill, Chris Hoene, Susan Hughes, Emily Hopkins, Susan Joy, Marie Lipetz, Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, Nishant Mehta, Dotty Metcalf, Sarah Milligan-Toffler, Chandra Montgomery Nicol, Tess Reynolds, Pam Rodriguez, L Carol Scott, Sue Sherbrook, Trudy Soucoup, Anne Viricel, MK Wegman, Barbara Wertheimer, Cheryl Zoll, and Cathy of Oregon. You made so many insightful and compelling comments that we weren’t able to include here. Your thoughts will be part of the larger national study on this issue as well.

About the Author

Jan is a former editor of Blue Avocado, former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and has sat in on dozens of budget discussions as a board member of several nonprofits. With Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman, she co-authored Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, which looks at nonprofit business models.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

6 thoughts on “Following a Founder or Long-Timer Requires a Hard Head

  1. I was hired as ED 14 years ago and literally took on the titanic. I had to save the organization from its own chaos of 3 terrible ED's who the board mistakenly hired with little or no experience. Those previous directors had followed in the foot steps of a very strong director who did wonders with the agency. I feel proud of what I have accomplished, but worry because I am planning on retiring in 9 months. I want to let my board know in advance of my 66th birthday, but have been warned by many friends to not do that. I could be fired, replaced, ignored, etc. I'd like to do advance planning for agency because I do see it as "my baby" that I will be turning over to someone new. Your article pointed out dangers on all sides. Not an easy situation to deal with on any levels. I'm withholding my name for my sake. Thanks for the article!

    1. I have been with my organization for over 10 years and plan to retire in approximately two years, although this is not formal public knowledge. I have casually begun stating that I won’t be here forever and probably will be retiring within the next few years. As a matter of good management, we have worked on our governance and organizational structure this past year (to ensure proper oversight and organizational support for the ED position), are in the process of looking at succession planning and preparing for strategic planning next year. That will put the organization in a stable position for my transition. I do not believe it is healthy to give too much notice (I think a year is too long), but my Board will have the foundations in place so that they will be prepared when I give 6 – 8 months notice and I will leave with the confidence that I have done my due diligence to ensure as smooth a transition as possible and the future viability of my organization.

  2. Thank you for this. I’m six months into my role as ED in an organization where the charismatic-and-visionary founder is still actively volunteering most days of the week. I’m happy to say some of the challenges in the article don’t apply here, but the ones that do–about focusing on infrastructure rather than programming–were very insightful. I look forward to the book on this topic. 😉

  3. Thank you for this. I’m six months into my role as ED in an organization where the charismatic-and-visionary founder is still actively volunteering most days of the week. I’m happy to say some of the challenges in the article don’t apply here, but the ones that do–about focusing on infrastructure rather than programming–were very insightful. I look forward to the book on this topic. 😉

  4. I have been the CEO for 34 years and so am on the other side of this discussion. My successor will be faced with the challenges of following a very long time CEO. While he or she may face problems, I believe management won’t be among them. We have very sound finance, HR, fundraising and other systems that have been put in place by a top-notch COO over decades. My question for this discussion is what happens if an internal candidate becomes CEO? What are the different dynamics than when a person comes in from the outside to surprises? And, by the way, when I retire, after a very short transition period, I promise I will only weigh in when asked, and even then, I will stay out of the way.

    1. I recently became the CEO following a wonderful predecessor who had been at the organization for 17 years and accomplished much. I was part of the senior management team for 11 years and in the last 2 was the COO. It is a struggle to move from the CEO’s right hand person to being the CEO.The months just before my predecessor’s retirement when I had been named as the new CEO were very difficult. It definitely takes a while for staff and board members to see you in your new role. Once the past CEO is not there anymore, things get easier. The great thing was that I already knew for the most part the problems that needed to be resolved or had in mind improvements that would make the organization better. I found that it was extremely important for the staff to have time to adjust to the idea of the change and say their goodbyes. I have been the CEO for 8 months and the past CEO has been completely retired for 5 months and I feel comfortable with staff and the board and that it is time for my leadership and vision. I do stay in touch with the past CEO but for the most part he wishes us well from afar.

  5. You've just taken over an agency from a long time, well liked ED/CEO:

    Get all you can from the guy before he/she leaves. If they are worthy of

    their reputation, they will tell you everything, including where the buggers are. Now he/she is gone. Use what he/she shared but forget about him/her. It is your show now and all distractions must be systematically dismissed.

    Even if you are not a charismatic leader type, you must get to know your new community fast….join, mingle, get involved, establish raport! Your new community must like (yes, i said like) and trust you.  And they must understand and value your mission and game plan.

    Equally important you must do the same with your staff. you'll need to place equal importance on this and you will be working 14 hour days for a while, get used to it. the staff must like you and trust you as well. they must also be YOUR employee. If some don't fit in with / buy into your vision,they have to go, so be it. Do NOT BLINK. You must mold the team into one that will be with you in the mission. you cannot have outlyers who are not telling the same story in your community about the mission or worse, talking trash inside and outside the agency and sabotaging the hard work of everybody else.

    And the board of directors, god bless them. Just another thing you must deal with if you want to accomplish what you want to accomplish.  

    They must trust you and it's nice if they like you, but it's not necessary as long as they respect you for real reasons (this would come from your obvious commitment, work ethic and wisdom and this is where the community at large liking you will be important). Get a strategic plan in place you both can live with and impress them with progress and transparency in reporting to them. Jump at the chance to tell them what went wrong and how you and your staff have come up with a comprehensive plan to correct it. Complete transparency does not however mean you have to create a black hole where all your energy goes providing minute details about every little move you make.

    Do this, be lucky and you'll have about a 50/50 chance of making it five years.

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