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The cure for "Founders Syndrome"

Updated: May 6

"Help I'm stuck!" - Cat

The term “Founders Syndrome” should be banned. I keep hearing about this "non-profit leadership gap".

People have told me, "millennials aren't ready to take on leadership positions from baby boomers who may one day all leave their jobs at once". (Not an exact quote but you get the idea)

Maybe I'm biased or hang out with a lot of highly capable “millennials” but I think this assumption is partially not true. Part of the issue is that leaders never leave their positions. Another issue is people keep calling each other names and putting people they don’t understand into boxes. I am not your box or your syndrome.

I get it. I was there, and I felt stuck.

There are multiple factors at play. To start, we need to stop pointing fingers and start working together. 

Here's what I'm proposing...

Let's help non-profit Executive Directors get UNSTUCK.

Long-time leaders are sometimes hanging on to Executive Director and CEO jobs for dear life because they have to, not always because they want to. 

I want to be clear about something. There is no one to blame here. I find a lot of people write articles on "founders syndrome". I think the term should be banned. It sucks. There is an ecosystem at play here holding leaders back from leaving.

If I call you a name and say something is wrong with you, then you will likely become defensive. This is how it feels when someone brings up the term founders’ syndrome (at least when I hear it).

It undermines the complete experience of the leader and what drives leaders to get stuck. I also believe the “us” and “them” mentality is pushing the issue deeper and farther under the rug.

I've even read an article that was bold enough to call founders syndrome a "disease". Ultimately who loses? The organizations and the missions and people they serve. 

I'm proposing a different solution...

Let's stop blaming people and start understanding them. Why is this happening? I believe we need to work together and the last way we are going to do this is by calling each other names and throwing around blame. It takes more effort to listen and understand why long-time leaders and Founders hang on but it’s worth spending the time. A lot is at stake.

Here is a new approach I'm proposing to support better leadership transitions:

1. Boards: invest real money and time in leadership succession and support ED career planning. Help EDs get the support they need before they leave (even consider paying for therapy!)

2. Executive Directors: self-reflect, dig deep and plan your personal and organizational transitions far in advance to avoid crisis. Be accountable, be honest and let people know what you need.

3. Funders and Philanthropists: fund long-term succession initiatives to support CEOs and Founders to leave non-profits at the right time. 

4. Everyone: listen without judging. Empathy and understanding is key in helping leaders leave with grace. Sometimes people just want to be heard!

The ultimate impact? Organizations thrive and so do the people! (win + win = win!!!)

But we need to support and encourage this conversation. It's not just going to happen. Why the heck would I leave my job if I don't have anything to fall back on? I need to pay my bills and don't have a future job lined up. My organization is all I know. This is my baby. It is my identity.

These thoughts ran through my head before leaving Unity. I was stuck but I saw a bigger picture.. 

I was lucky to have amazing support from my board chair Adam Silver, the superstar board and our incredible staff. 

I am so thankful to have had an incredibly successful transition when I left Unity Charity after 15 years in March 2018. But it wasn't easy. It took time, self-reflection, a major ego check, empowering our team, an incredible board, the right recruiter (shout out to: Suzanne Clarke from Four Corners Group), an amazing new leader (shout out to: Rebecca Harrison) and fundraising on hyper drive to leave the organization with a great runway. 

Good succession is a process for the leader and the organization. 

It's not a band aid to rip off, it is a plant that outgrows its pot.

Why do we wait until a crisis to start planning succession? How many non-profit CEO transitions can you think of that ended in crisis? I can think of over a dozen. Why is this so common?! Something needs to change!

Let's work with boards, EDs, funders and community members to intervene, plan and support healthy transitions.

Anyone interested? Call me! I'm working on this right now.

This is a challenge! - Executive Directors: start the conversation even if you’re not planning to leave - Boards: support EDs through this process and listen - Funders: invest in succession and career planning for EDs!

The collateral damage of doing nothing is far greater than the cost of planning in advance. Let's work together to support successful transitions.

(end rant)

Exciting things are happening!

A few EPIC things:

1) FREE TALK: I'm speaking at a free event on Sept 6th for Social Venture Partners Toronto on "Disrupting Philanthropy". Click here to register. (already 100 people registered!)

2) FREE RESOURCES: If you are looking for free non-profit resources join my facebook group here: 

EPIC Free Non-Profit Resource Pool (already over 700 members from 99 cities and 28 countries)

3) ANNOUNCEMENT: Excited to announce that I've been accepted to the

4) OFFICE SPACE: Just got space at the BEST shared office space in the city! If you're interested to join

Start Well, email me and I'd be happy to give you a tour. It's awesome.

5) EVENT: EPIC Summer Social was a HUGE success! Next EPIC event to be announced soon!

hugs and high fives!

-mikey p (in the place to b.)

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