Founder’s Syndrome: How Corporations Suffer — and Can Recover
© Copyright 1995 Carter
McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
Adapted from the Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision in Business
and Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision for Nonprofit Staff
Guide to Developing, Operating and Restoring Your Nonprofit Board.
This syndrome occurs when, rather than working toward its overall mission,
the organization operates primarily according to the personality of a prominent
person in the organization, for example, the founder, board chair/president,
chief executive, etc. The syndrome is primarily an organizational problem
— not primarily a problem of the person in the prominent position. This manual
happens to focus on the situation where the organization works according to
the personality of the founding chief executive. However, it could be in regard
to, for example, a Board Chair who came along after the founder had left —
the symptoms and actions to recover are essentially the same.
Table of Contents
Founders’ Syndrome: During Tenure of Founder
A Typical Problem in Small Organizations
Some Troublesome Traits Among Founders
Typical Traits of Well-Developed Leaders
Basic Principles in Developing Leadership
Actions Boards Must Take
Actions Founders Must Take
Actions Staff Might Take
Transitioning to a New Chief Executive
Founder’s Syndrome: When New Chief Executive Replaces Founder
Actions Boards Must Take
Actions New Chief Executive Must Take Before Taking the Job
Actions New Chief Executive Must Take After Taking the Job
What if Founder Left the Organization in a Mess?
Appendix A – Procedure for Transitioning to a New Chief Executive
Other Related Online Articles
I learned a great deal about Founders’ Syndrome while facilitating various
Leaders Circles meetings, starting in 1995. A Leaders Circle is a peer-based
development program that I developed in 1995, which includes five to seven members
who meet regularly to share coaching for ongoing support, problem solving and
networking. (Leaders Circles is a registered trademark of MAP for Nonprofits
in St. Paul, Minnesota.)
I used the phrase Founders’ Syndrome to describe the set of symptoms that I
noticed among struggling founders of organizations. I’m not sure where I got
the phrase, whether I noticed it in literature or it came to my mind. At the
time, it seemed like an appropriate phrase, but I’ve since come to regret using
it because it’s an organizational problem, not a personal problem.
I wish to thank Joan Wells, Executive Director of Resources and Counseling
for the Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. She suggested that the syndrome be the
focus of a workshop held by her organization. I developed and organized many
of the ideas for this booklet in preparation for the workshop. I also wish to
thank Joan for contributing the section “What New Chief Executives Must
Do Before Taking Job”, as well as contributing several other key insights
throughout this booklet. I also with to thank the editors of the Nonprofit
World who allowed me to continue to share portions of this booklet that
were also published in my article in their November-December 1998 issue.
This booklet may be freely distributed. The booklet should not be used for
commercial purposes, i.e., to generate profits without the express written consent
of the author. The booklet is available on the World Wide Web at https://managementhelp.org/misc/founders.htm
Founders’ Syndrome: During Tenure of Founder
A Typical Problem Among Small Organizations
· To continue to meet the needs of their customers,
organizations must evolve through a particular life-cycle change.
· This change is from typically entrepreneurial, seat-of-the-pants
growth to well-planned and managed development.
· However, this development cannot occur without first
establishing a stable administrative infrastructure.
· Developing this infrastructure often requires a change
in the nature of the founder’s leadership from that of a highly
reactive, individualistic style to a more proactive, consensus-oriented
· Many founders cannot make this transition. As a result,
the organization remains managed, not in a manner that provides
reliable services to customers, but according to the personality
of the founder.
· Often, the organization experiences the same problems
over and over again. For example, plans are not implemented. Money
keeps running out. Board and staff members quickly come and go.
The organization struggles from one crisis to another. No one
really seems to know what’s going on. People become afraid of
· Founders Syndrome is no one’s fault — no founder sets
out to damage their organization. Besides, the syndrome rarely
takes hold without numerous members of the Board and staff exhibiting
symptoms of the syndrome.
· Eventually, stakeholders confront the founder about the
organization’s recurring problems (if the organization is a nonprofit,
funders often will confront the chief executive or board). Often,
the founder becomes increasingly anxious and defensive, and soon
resorts to blaming Board members and staff (nonprofits also blame
funders). Without ongoing coaching and support, it’s likely that
the founder will be replaced, or even worse, the organization
· There are actions that founders and Board members can
take to avoid these tragic outcomes. Start simple, but start.
Some Troublesome Traits Among
Founders are dynamic, driven,
and decisive. They carry clear vision of what their organization
can be. They know their customer’s needs and are passionate about
meeting those needs. Often these traits are strong assets for
getting the new organization off the ground. However, other traits
of founders too often become major liabilities. For example, founders
· Are highly skeptical about planning, policies, and procedures.
They claim “they’re overhead and just bog me down”.
They often believe they’ve found a new way to get things done.
· Make reactive, crisis-driven decisions with little input
from others. React to most problems with the lament “if only
I had more money.”
· In the case of nonprofits, executive directors attend
mostly to fundraising and generating new ideas for services.
· Hand-pick their Board members and staff. See these people
as working for the founder as much as working for the organization’s
· Attract Board members through founder’s dynamic, often
charismatic personality — not through focus on organization’s
· Count on whomever seems most loyal and accessible, and
motivate by fear and guilt, often without realizing it.
· Hold occasional staff meetings to report crises and rally
· In the case of nonprofits, executive directors usually
see their Boards mostly as a source for fundraising, and work
to remove Board members who disagrees with founder.
· Have a very difficult time letting go of the strategies
that worked to quickly grow the organization, despite evidence
that the organization can no longer absorb this rapid growth without
· Ultimately, Founders Syndrome sets in because the organization
becomes dependent, not on the systems and structures of the organization,
but on the unique style of the leader — whether the leader is
consistently decisive or consistently indecisive.
Typical Traits of Well-Developed
Leaders of lasting, well-developed
organizations have experienced numerous changes, and managed to
develop their organizations and themselves along the way. Developed
· Appreciate plans and budgets as guidelines, and realize
these ultimately make their organizations more responsive to the
needs of their customers.
· Make proactive decisions based on mission and affordability.
· Make staffing decisions based on responsibilities, training,
· Value Board and staff members for their strong expertise
· Sustain strong credibility among customers and service
Basic Principles in Developing
Eventually, most founders
realize they must change the way they operate. Many go on to develop
their leadership style to the next level. First, they realize
they must change from within. They:
· Understand that the recurring problems are not their
fault — they’re doing the best they can.
· Are willing to ask for and accept help.
· Communicate often and honestly (this is sometimes difficult
for crisis-driven, “heroic” leaders).
· Engage in stress management, especially forms not related
to their jobs.
· Are patient with themselves, their Boards, and staff.
· Regularly take time to reflect and learn, particularly
about their value in service to others.
Actions Boards Must Take
· Making this change in leadership style is
often confusing, lonely, and stressful for the founder. The Board
can be the founder’s greatest help.
1. Understand and take full responsibility for the role of
Board member. Insist on focused Board training to review the
roles and responsibilities of a governing Board. Undertake a yearly
self-evaluation of the Board to ensure it is operating effectively.
2. Once a year, conduct a key risk management exercise:
pretend the founder suddenly left the organization. Who will/can
quickly step in? Are you sure? What activities are the staff really
doing to carry out programs? In the case of nonprofits, what grants
does the organization have to perform against and when report
them? What is the cash flow situation? What stakeholders must
be contacted? Where are the files/records?
3. Know what’s going on in the organization or how to quickly
come up to speed. Ensure job descriptions are up-to-date.
Have staff complete weekly or biweekly written status reports.
Ensure yearly written performance reviews are completed. Ensure
regular staff meetings are held and actions are written. Is a
staff member being cultivated as an assistant chief executive?
Is this needed?
4. Strategic planning is one of the best ways to engage the
Board and take stock of the organization. Conduct regular
and realistic strategic planning with the Board and staff. Focus
on the top three or four issues facing the organization. Although
most organizations scope plans to the coming three years, focus
careful planning on the next 12 months. Establish clear goals,
strategies, objectives, and timelines.
5. Develop highly participative finance committees (in the
case of nonprofits, develop a fundraising committee, too).
Too often, Boards are extremely reluctant to face the founder
by getting involved in finances. However, troubles with a chief
executive’s performance are often revealed in financial problems.
If a chief executive struggles or leaves, finances are usually
the first to become major problems. Therefore, closely review
regular cash flow, income and balance statements.
6. Don’t be part of the problem! Don’t take on
the traits of the crisis-driven founder and staff, or worse yet,
just “numb out.” Meet consistently and make decisions
based on mission, planning, and affordability, not on urgency.
Avoid the notion of any quick fixes, such as hiring an associate
director with “people skills.” This doesn’t address
the problem and may make things even worse.
7. Help Board members and staff to keep up their hopes.
Regularly communicate with each other (through appropriate channels).
Remind each other that the recurring problems are the result of
the organization’s success and that current changes are to best
serve the needs of its customers. Note that staff members’ morale
will improve as they perceive stability, security, and progress.
8. Support the founder with ongoing coaching and affirmation.
The founder will change to the extent that he or she feels safe,
understands the reasons for change, and accepts help along the
way. Consider a Board Personnel Committee to provide ongoing coaching
to the founder (but not to replace his or her responsibilities
and accountabilities). Include at least one or two experienced
organizational leaders on this committee. Note that the founder
is not changing roles, but priorities.
9. Carefully monitor implementation and deviations from plans.
Don’t hold the founder to always doing what’s in the plan or budget
— but do hold him or her to always explaining deviations and
how they can be afforded.
10. Implement development and evaluation plans for the founder.
Include his or her input. Be consistent with the founder’s accountability
to implementing the plans or explaining deviations from them.
Evaluate the founder according to meeting strategic objectives
and to his or her job description.
11. Consider policies to carefully solicit feedback from staff
to Board. Consider having staff representatives on Board committees.
Consider a 360-degree evaluation process for the chief executive,
wherein staff provide feedback about the chief executive’s performance.
Establish a grievance procedure where staff can approach Board
about concerns if they can prove they have tried to work with
the chief executive to resolve these issues.
12. Closely monitor key indicators of successful change.
Ensure ongoing communications between Board members and the founder,
sound financial management, implementation of plans and policies,
and stable turnover of staff. Perhaps the most useful indicator
is continued positive feedback from customers.
13. If problems recur, take action. If, after attempting
to follow the above suggestions, the same major problems recur
over the next six to nine months, then take major actions regarding
the founder’s position in the organization. If the founder’s leaving
would cause the organization to fold, then the Board has not been
doing its job all along. The Board should be strongly involved
in strategic planning, financial management, (in the case of nonprofits,
fundraising), authorizing policies, reviewing programs, evaluating
the chief executive, etc.
Actions Founders Must Take
· The major actions below are intended to help
the organization become more stable and proactive. Each organization
follows the practices according to its own needs and nature. They
are not developed overnight and are never done perfectly. Start
simple, but start!
1. Accept a mentor outside the organization and an advocate
within. Founder’s syndrome comes from doing what’s natural
for you. Changing your leadership approach may be rather unnatural.
Seek and accept help.
2. Ensure a customer-driven organization. Always focus
on customers. Regularly ask customers what they need and how the
organization can meet their needs. Establish straightforward and
realistic means to evaluate services. Start with basic questionnaires
to gather customers’ impressions. Interview some customers to
get their “story”.
3. Set direction through planning. Support the Board to
carry out strategic planning. Ensure staff input as well. Conduct
regular staff meetings to hear staff input. Cultivate strong finance
(and in the case of nonprofits, fundraising committees), and help
them to fully understand the organization’s finances and fundraising
4. Organize resources to meet goals. Develop job descriptions
with staff input to ensure mutual understanding of responsibilities.
Develop staff-driven procedures for routine, but critical tasks.
5. Motivate leadership and staff to meet goals. Delegate
to staff members by helping them understand the purpose of tasks.
Get their input as to how the tasks can be completed. Give them
the authority to complete the tasks. In regular staff meetings,
celebrate successes! Bring in customers to tell staff how the
organization helped meet their needs. Conduct regular performance
reviews with staff to ensure organizational and staff needs are
being met. In regular staff meetings, share status information
and conduct day-to-day planning.
6. Guide resources to meet goals. Share management challenges
with the Board and ask for policies to guide management. Work
from the strategic plan and develop an associated budget to earmark
7. Think transition! Help the Board to regularly undertake
contingency planning, including thinking about what the organization
will do if/when you’re gone. Have the Board pretend that, for
some unknown reason, you were suddenly gone. What would they do?
Actions Staff Might Take
· Staff can play a major role in helping the
organization to recover. However, staff may be in somewhat of
a high-risk situation because the founder (who often values loyalty
at least as much as effectiveness) may perceive staff actions
as hurting the organization, rather than helping it. Therefore,
staff are advised to proceed with caution.
· The syndrome can be quite stressful for staff. They can
lose perspective amidst the continued confusion and anxiety in
the workplace. If they’ve been in the organization long enough,
they, too, become part of the problem. Therefore, it’s important
for staff to get perspective on the nature and extent of the problem.
· Work hard to identify an external mentor and an internal
staff advocate. Bounce ideas off of someone else who’s judgment
you highly revere.
1. Get clear perspective on your concerns by privately writing
down what you perceive to be major problems in the organization.
Privately record your concerns. In order to minimize your own
biases, record only what you have seen with your eyeballs. Record
only those problems which seem to be persistent and/or which various
people have tried to resolve but have been unsuccessful.
2. Match your recorded list of problems with those listed in
the section “Some Troublesome Traits Among Founders.”
How many of the symptoms match those recorded in your list?
Consider sharing your list and results with someone whom you trust.
Do they agree with your approach and results? It’s up to you to
conclude if the organization has the syndrome or not. Whether
the organization has the syndrome or not, if there are enough
other persistent problems, you may still want to take action.
3. Assess if you want to stay in the organization and help
it recover. This requires that you carefully reflect on why
you’re in the organization, what you can do to help the organization
recover, the likelihood of it recovering and how well you manage
your own stress.
4. If you elect to stay in the organization and try help it
to recover, use the organization’s structure. That is, communicate
your suggestions with peers and your immediate supervisor, whether
that’s the founder or not. Give them a chance to address your
concerns. Promptly go to the Board only if symptoms of the problem
result in discrimination or harassment of you and your personnel
policies include a grievance procedure for you to go directly
contact the Board. You might consider a letter to the Board if
you resign, but this may burn bridges for you.
5. Provide various suggestions from those listed in the sections
“Actions Board Must Take” and “Actions Founders
Must Take”. Don’t provide all of the suggestions at once.
Always associate your suggestions with description of how they
can constructively advance the mission of the organization. Don’t
personalize your descriptions of concerns by blaming them on someone.
Make your suggestions in writing, e.g., in status reports, in
memos. Date the suggestions so can keep perspective on whether
the suggestions are acted on or not. Tactfully share copies of
6. Monitor whether the organization is recovering or not. Have
you given the organization time to address concerns? Has the organization
made substantial changes and the symptoms have decreased? Or,
do you see the same symptoms over and over again?
7. Update your resume and consider looking for another job.
Keeping your own health and happiness is the best thing you can
do for yourself and the community. You’ll become ill if you stick
around in the organization. Your leaving may actually contribute
to the organization’s recovering if other staff realize why you
compelling to write a blistering letter to all members of the
board and various staff, explaining each and every problem in
the organization. This may temporarily relieve you of your frustration,
but it may also hurt your credibility with key members of the
organization’s community. If you communicate your concerns and
reasons for leaving, be respectful and tactful.
· It may be that the
founder’s greatest gift is converting a dream to reality by inspiring
others with the ability to keep the dream real (and they will
have their dreams, too!).
· In that case, the best thing for him or her may be to
leave the organization once that dream is real, when the dream
evolves an organization that others should take forward.
· However, no great leader leaves without ensuring their
organization survives their leaving.
· A sound transition plan, mutually developed with Board
and staff, ensures the organization is passed on to capable hands.
· Hopefully, the founder stays and goes on to see the organization
become a stable and well-respected organization — an organization
with a resilient and far-sighted leader who embraces change and,
most importantly, knows how to manage it.
Transitioning to a New Chief
· A great deal of struggle and stress may be
alleviated for the new chief executive if the Board effectively
handles the transition to the new chief executive.
· The following key Board activities will particularly
help the new chief executive to get started in an effective fashion.
· More detailed suggestions are included in Appendix
A, “Procedure for Transitioning to a New Chief Executive”.
1. Ensure the Board has a strong idea of what it wants in a
new chief executive. Be wary of the strong tendency to define
the new chief executive in terms of what the founder was or wasn’t.
Instead, hire a new chief executive based on the organization’s
current needs, e.g., financial skills, personnel/supervisory skills,
(and in the case of nonprofits, fundraising skills), planning
skills, program skills, etc. Rank the skills in priority order
and update the chief executive job description accordingly. Design
the job ad from the job description and reference the description
when developing interview questions as well.
2. Before the new chief executive begins employment, send them
a letter welcoming them to the organization, verifying their
starting date, providing them a copy of the employee policies
and procedures manual, and providing a copy of the strategic plan
and financials. (This can be included in the offer letter.)
3. The Board should send a letter to key stakeholders. The
letter would announce the new chief executive, when he or she
is starting, something about their background and why it’s useful,
etc., and asking them to call the Board chair if they have any
questions or concerns.
4. Meet with the chief executive to brief them up to speed
on strategic information. Review the organization chart, last
year’s annual report, the strategic plan, this year’s budget,
and the employee’s policies and procedure manual if they did not
get one already). In the same meeting, explain the performance
review procedure and provide them a copy of the performance review
the new chief executive begins employment (or before if possible),
introduce them in a staff meeting dedicated to introducing the
new chief executive.
organization is small enough, have all staff attend and introduce
themselves. If the organization is larger, invite all managers
to the meeting and, along with the new chief executive, have each
manager introduce themselves.
6. Invite the new chief executive to a social event with Board
members. This can greatly help to establish a comfortable
rapport for the new chief executive.
7. Ensure the new chief executive receives necessary materials
and is familiar with the facilities. Ensure an assistant gives
them keys, gets them to sign any needed benefit and tax forms.
Review the layout of offices, bathrooms, storage areas, kitchen
use, copy and fax systems, computer configuration and procedures,
telephone usage and any special billing procedures for use of
8. Schedule any needed training, e.g., computer training,
including use of passwords, overview of software and documentation,
location and use of peripherals, and where to go to get questions
9. Review any policies and/or procedures about use of facilities.
10. Assign a Board member to them as their “buddy”
who remains available to answer any questions over the next four
11. Have someone take them to lunch on their first day of work
and invite other staff members along.
12. During the first six weeks, have one-on-one meetings (face-to-face
or over the telephone) with the new chief executive, to discuss
the new employee’s transition into the organization, hear any
pending issues or needs, and establish a working relationship
with the new chief executive.
Founder’s Syndrome: When New Chief Executive Replaces Founder
Symptoms Depend On Nature of Founder
a) Highly entrepreneurial in nature; quick to do things
without planning; value loyalty; very high energy (this situation
is basically what we talked about earlier in this packet)
b) Or, highly administrative; highly valued paperwork
and extensive planning and detail (this situation is less difficult
for the new chief executive to overcome because Board and staff
focus on organizational structures and processes rather than the
c) Or, synergistic; accomplished a good balance between
entrepreneurial and administrative natures
Also Depends on Nature of the Founder’s
Exit, Including They:
a) Wanted to go on to do different
things (usually they leave the organization in very good condition
for a successor)
b) Or, were overcome with some large organizational problem
and wanted to just get out (often the new chief executive
is received very well, almost as if a hero; however, the new chief
executive must resolve the problems which caused the original
chief executive to leave)
c) Or, were fired by the Board (much depends on if the
staff had strong issues with the chief executive or not; if the
staff disagreed with the Board’s decision to fire the chief executive,
the new chief executive has a major challenge to earn staff loyalty
and earn credibility)
d) Or, died or became very ill (the new chief executive
may not be taken seriously; the Board must be clear to recognize
the accomplishments of the founder, including some ritual or benchmark
activity, and then support transition to a new chief executive.)
· These can occur alone or in combination.
1. Board members seem detached from the organization, are burned
out from trying to change the founder and/or firing him or her,
and just want the new chief executive to make everything better
now (they treat the new chief executive as a quick fix).
2. Or, Board members micro-manage the new chief executive because
Board members feel burned or lied to by the founder, are highly
critical to any new actions for fear of making a major mistake,
and ultimately don’t trust the new chief executive.
3. Or, Board members find themselves continually comparing the
new chief executive’s plans and activities to what the founder
did, rather than to the organization’s mission and established
plans. New chief executive is working to founder’s “ghost”.
4. Staff seem reluctant to implement the new chief executive.’s
ideas; they respond with “Jack (the previous chief executive.)
didn’t do it that way”.
5. Or, staff are eager to do everything the new chief executive
says without any staff input, with the hope that the new chief
executive will make everything better.
6. Or, the new chief executive initiates new ideas and plans in
the name of the founder. “It’s what he or she would have
7. Or, the new chief executive keeps commenting to the effect
“I don’t want to hear about (the founder) anymore. Now we’re
doing things my way.”
8. There’s a lot of blaming, etc., of the previous chief executive,
or, if the founder was fired, there may be the staff’s blaming
of the Board.
9. Board members and/or staff continually suggest that the founder
be consulted about the new chief executive’s ideas or plans.
10. Founder keeps calling staff or Board members to see “how
Actions Boards Must Take
· The Board may have had to hire a new chief
executive because it had to fire the original founder. However,
the Board is often part of the overall problem that caused the
founder’s firing. Therefore, the Board’s actions in helping a
new chief executive are similar to those when trying to help the
actions below are intended to help the organization retain focus
and direction, and become more stable and proactive.
and take full responsibility for the role of Board member.
You’re there to set policy and guide strategic
direction according to the mission and plans of the organization,
not according to personalities of the leadership.
2. Don’t be part of the new chief executive’s problem!
Don’t continually reflect on what the founder would have done.
Work together with the new chief executive to find a solution
that fits both the nature of the Board and the new chief executive.
Meet consistently and make decisions based on mission, planning,
and affordability, not on urgency. Avoid the notion of any quick
fixes, such as firing the new chief executive to find someone
else more like the founder. Quickly going from one chief executive
to another reeks havoc on the organization, including damaging
its credibility with stakeholders.
3. Carefully monitor implementation and deviations from plans.
Don’t hold the new chief executive to always doing what’s in the
plan or budget — but to always explaining deviations and how
they can be afforded.
4. Support the new chief executive with ongoing coaching
and affirmation. Like the founder, the new chief executive
will change to the extent that he or she feels safe, understands
the reasons for change, and accepts help along the way. Establish
a Board Personnel Committee to provide ongoing coaching to the
new chief executive (but not to replace his or her responsibilities
and accountabilities). Include at least one or two experienced
organizational leaders on this committee.
5. Implement development and evaluation plans for the new chief
executive. Include his or her input. Be consistent with the
new chief executive’s accountability to implementing the plans
or explaining deviations from them. Evaluate the new chief executive
according to meeting strategic objectives and to his or her job
7. Carefully consider policies to carefully solicit feedback
from staff to Board. Consider having staff representatives
on Board committees. Consider a 360-degree evaluation process
for the chief executive, wherein staff provide feedback about
chief executive’s performance. Get outside advice when you conduct
360-degree evaluations for the first time. Establish a grievance
procedure where staff can approach Board about concerns if they
can prove they have tried to work with the chief executive to
resolve these issues.
8. Closely monitor key indicators of successful change.
Ensure ongoing communications between Board members and the new
chief executive, sound financial management, implementation of
plans and policies, and stable turnover of staff. Perhaps the
most useful indicator is continued positive feedback from customers.
Actions New Chief Executive
Must Take Before Taking the Job
Develop your own approaches
to personal support and stress management.
mentors and friends whom you can regularly talk to. What do you
count on regularly to relieve stress, e.g., mediation? exercise?
journaling? Engage in stress management — consistently.
2. Accept a mentor outside the organization and an advocate
within. This is likely to be a major transition in the organization
and your life. You’re likely to experience stress and loneliness.
Seek and accept help.
3. Review the organization’s finances in detail. The
most prominent long-term symptom of Founders’ Syndrome is financial
problems, including inconsistent reports, continued deficits,
Board disengagement, problems surfaced during audits, (and in
the case of nonprofits, expressed concerns from Funders), etc.
Look at past financial reports, including cash flows, income statements
and balance sheets. Review any audit reports. Are Board members
actively engaged and really aware of the finances?
4. Get the Board’s expectations of you in writing. See
the job description. Review the strategic plan. Did the Board
update the job description as reference during its interviews
for a new chief executive. Are there any other separate documents
that record expectations on the chief executive. What process
does the Board use to evaluate the chief executive role?
5. Record and discuss your expectations of the Board. Don’t
assume that all Board members realize the roles and responsibilities
of a governing Board. Share your documented expectations, including
with reference to roles of a governing Board. Expect a yearly
written performance review. Emphasize strategic planning. Consider
sharing this booklet with them.
6. Ask Board members “What role does the outgoing founder
have with the organization? It’s very difficult for a new
chief executive to be effective if the founder is still around
in some capacity. If the founder is still associated with the
organization, the founder’s new role should be clearly defined
and of a substantially reduced role.
Actions New Chief Executive
Must Take After Taking the Job
1. Acknowledge that the
Board may either be highly skeptical of your credibility, or be
giving you complete latitude to “save” the organization.
Be patient with them. Set your priorities accordingly to establish
your credibility, or set realistic expectations between you and
2. During the first three months, ensure you have in writing,
the Board’s expectations of you, including its priorities
for the coming year. Count on reference to your job description,
strategic plan and any chief executive development plan.
3. Fully understand the role of the governing Board and support
the Board to carry out its role, particularly the finance
(and in the case of nonprofits, fundraising) committees.
4. Carefully review the Board’s operational policies and the
personnel policies. Ensure your activities are in accordance
with these policies.
5. Fully and accurately communicate with all
Board members through, e.g., in Executive Committee meetings
(depending on the nature of the Board), Director’s Report, memos
to Board members about status of transition to new chief executive,
meetings with Board Chair, reports of status on objectives and
strategic plan, minutes from staff meetings, etc.
6. Suggest the start (or update) of strategic planning soon
to get a chance for ongoing dialogues to share your ideas with
Board and staff, and to include your input to any new vision.
7. Set high and clear expectations to staff and communicate
these to them. Include their input. Be consistent about not
accepting poor behavior.
8. Schedule staff meetings and 1-on-1 meetings every two weeks
for first two months; then always do staff meetings and 1-on-1’s
9. Invite staff to a party at the your house. Don’t conduct
any business at this meeting, rather use the meeting to get to
know each other.
10. Don’t ever bad mouth the previous chief executive
or the Board.
11. If mention of the founder comes up, redirect discussion
back to the organization’s policies, procedures and/or the issue
12. Ensure you have ongoing written performance evaluations.
What if Founder Left Organization
in a Mess?
· Occasionally, the transition does not go smoothly.
This situation might occur if, e.g., the founder left the organization
in a mess, was quickly fired, or had to leave suddenly for medical
· This situation is greatly alleviated if the Board
has been doing its work all along!
· Still, when transitioning to a new chief executive, there
may be major problems that the organization is not aware of. The
new chief executive and members of the Board should conduct the
following activities as soon as possible:
1. The new chief executive should share any and all concerns
with Board members as soon as possible. Suggest an action
plan with full, written reports to the Board. Ensure Board committees
are highly involved in assessing the situation and responding
2. In the case of nonprofits, consider applying for an emergency
grant to fund any necessary activities to take stock of
the organization. You may also need funds to cover any shortfalls
because, when an chief executive suddenly leaves, the chief executive
often has stopped carrying out necessary fundraising. Also, funds
are often needed to hire a new chief executive.
3. Strongly consider bringing in an outside financial consultant
to review and verify the financials, including to ensure
that all income and expenses are known, financial statements are
up-to-date and accurate, and to suggest necessary financial activities
to manage finances. You may need to rely on an outside financial
consultant for bookkeeping, financial reporting and analysis.
Consider using the consultant who conducted your last audit, if
applicable. Involve the finance committee. Provide a written report
to the Board.
>4. Promptly establish the cash flow position.
How much cash exists and how far will it carry the organization,
considering all known expenses? Involve the finance committee.
Provide a written report to the Board.
5. Review all files and documentation. Is the organization
involved in any lawsuits? Are there any letters of concern from
key stakeholders? Have these been addressed? Are all personnel
6. In the case of nonprofits, review all current grants.
Is the organization performing to promised outcomes in those grants?
Are reports being provided to funders on a timely basis? Involve
the fundraising committee.
7. Contact all key stakeholders. Strongly consider meeting
face-to-face with all major funders, and sending letters to other
funders as well. Tactfully explain the situation and ask for their
patience. Indicate what you are doing to address the situation,
and indicate when you will be getting back to them. Involve Board
members in making these contacts.
8. Nonprofits should resume ongoing fundraising as soon as
possible. It often takes several months to receive funds after
initial application. The organization cannot afford to wait until
the new chief executive comes in to start fundraising. Ensure
the fundraising committee is strongly involved.
9. Shore up hope among staff members. Staff members will
likely know almost as much as you do about the status of the organization.
Tactfully communicate with them. Tell them about potential concerns.
Tell them what you’re doing. Remind them of any successes of the
organization. Have one or more Board members attend staff meetings
until things are settled. Staff members will be greatly relieved
if they see the new chief executive and Board highly involved
in helping the organization.
10. Coordinate Board involvement through use of committees,
and the Executive Committee should track actions and their completion.
The Executive Committee and new chief executive should meet
on a weekly basis and track actions to their completion. Concurrently,
Board members must try retain the perspective of a governing Board
— this can be a major challenge to not get stuck in micro-management!
Appendix A –
Procedure for Transitioning to a New Chief Executive
This procedure can be used to guide
an organization through the transition to a new chief executive.
The procedure addresses most of the major considerations during
the transition, but there will certainly be unique items that
will come. The procedure should be carefully reviewed by the relevant
board members and current chief executive to ensure it is complete
for their needs. (Note that this list is very useful as a risk
management mechanism, e.g., for contingency planning, for review
by an organization even if the chief executive is not leaving.)
If the current chief executive is being fired, this procedure
should be modified accordingly. This document contains the following
Current Chief Executive’s
Notification to Board
Between Board and Staff
the New Chief Executive
Orienting the New
Current Chief Executive’s Notification to Board
1. Typically, the chief
executive will notify the board chair or other board member.
The chair should immediately notify the rest
of the board members in the next board meeting.
2. Attempt to negotiate a four-week-notice period from the
chief executive. It’s not unlikely that there will be
a period without a new chief executive. This procedure will help
guide through that period.
1. The board members should be apprised as soon
as possible. Occasionally,
members believe that transitions should be handled so cautiously
that even some board members should not hear about the transition.
This is the wrong approach. Each board member is legally responsible
for the leadership of the organization, and deserves to know about
all matters when they occur.
2. Discuss how to handle public relations. The community
will soon hear the chief executive is leaving. Agree on how this
message will be conveyed to the community. If the transition is
expected to take over a month (they often do), consider sending
a letter to the major stakeholders (advisors, suppliers, “peer”
organizations, funders if in the case of a nonprofit, etc.) notifying
them of the transition and assuring them that transition planning
is being carried out thoroughly. Ask them to contact the board
chair if they have any concerns or questions.
3. Note that applicants to the chief executive role deserve
complete confidentiality. Make every effort not to expose
applicants’ names to the public or staff. If certain staff are
selected to interview the candidates, they should be coached to
not reveal candidate names to the rest of staff. This confidentiality
is not a matter of secrecy to be manipulate, rather it is a matter
of protecting candidates who may not want their names out in public
as looking for a new job. Of course, this matter of confidentiality
is ultimately up to the board, but if confidentiality is not assured,
it is very likely that the number of candidates will be quite
1. Appoint an ad hoc
transition board committee to focus on this transition –
This committee will manage the transition and make recommendations
to the entire board regarding any matters with the transition.
This committee role could be assumed by the current Executive
Committee or a Personnel Committee. Committee members should commit
to availability over the next four to eight weeks.
2. This transition planning procedure should promptly be
reviewed and updated to constitute the transition planning
3. As soon the transition plan is complete, the staff should
promptly be notified of the transition. A board member
should attend the staff meeting where notification is given and
the staff should be assured that the transition is being planned
and carried out. The plan might be reviewed in the staff meeting.
A copy of the transition plan should be shared with all staff
4. In the case of a nonprofit, identify funding for the
transition. For example, are any funds needed for a national
search, to move the new candidate, for training the new candidate,
will any consultants be needed, etc.?
5. Update the chief executive job description. The
description will be referenced to write the ad for the position,
during interviewing and for ongoing guidance to new chief executive,
and ensuring adequate compensation. When updating the job description,
consider: current overall responsibilities, strategic planning
goals for the year and the nature of current major issues that
need to be addressed. Identify the most important criteria for
selecting the new person and then rank the criteria (this ranking
comes in handy when comparing candidates). The board should update
the job description among themselves. The current chief executive
should update the description at the same time, but independently.
The board and chief executive should share their comments to the
job description and discuss differences to come to consensus.
Write a final version of the job description.
6. Get ads out as soon as possible. The board should
decide if they are going to do a local and/or national search.
7. Hiring the new chief executive. (See the section,
“Hiring to Fill the New Role” later on in this document.)
1. Establish an interim
staff structure. Consider appointing an acting chief executive
from among the top reports to the current chief executive. If
this course is followed, ensure the job description is well understand
by the acting chief executive and the acting arrangement is documented
in a letter between the acting chief executive and the board.
Send a memo throughout the staff, indicating this interim appointment
and how the acting chief executive will work with the staff until
a permanent chief executive is identified. (Be very careful with
this type of temporary arrangement as it can set lull board members
into believing the transition is complete, which it is not.)
2. Update the administrative calendar for the organization.
Ask the chief executive to make a schedule of all major recurring
activities during the year (e.g., performance reviews, special
events, staff meetings, one-on-one meetings, lease/contract expiration
dates, when paychecks come out, etc.)
3. Get a list of key stakeholders. Have the chief
executive make a list of all community key stakeholders whom the
new chief executive should know about, e.g., funders if the organization
is a nonprofit, advisors (legal, accounting, real estate), “peer”
4. Review chief executive’s office facilities. Ask
the chief executive to document the status of his/her office,
e.g., ensure there are labels on all documents and drawers. Appropriate
staff and at least two board member should meet with the chief
executive to review where he/she keeps their files and major documents.
Staff should retain a key to the office and appropriate board
members should retain keys to the desk drawers and file cabinets.
5. Review personnel status. Two or more board members
should meet with the chief executive to review personnel files,
e.g., are there any current personnel issues or pending major
actions? If so, it may be best to wait until the transition to
the new chief executive if this is expected to occur during the
next month or so.
6. The current chief executive should complete performance
reviews on all personnel before he/she leaves. This ensures
that the chief executive’s important feedback to personnel is
collected before he/she goes, gives personnel a fair opportunity
to reflect their past performance to the new chief executive,
and gives the new chief executive the input he/she deserves about
each employee to ensure effective supervision.
Coordination Between Board and Staff
1. Emergency contacts for
the staff. Staff should be given names and phone numbers
of at least two board members whom can be contacted if needed.
These two members should brief the entire board on the nature
of any emergency calls from staff, if calls were made.
2. Board and staff meetings. Depending on the size
of the organization, have weekly meetings of full staff (if small)
or all managers (if large) during the transition until a new chief
executive is hired. Have a board member attend the meetings. Have
a staff member (acting chief executive, or the current top reports,
or rotate among top reports) attend portions of the board meetings.
3. Coming up to speed on chief executive’s current activities
in the organization. Have the current chief executive
ask all staff members to update a “todo” list of their
current major activities over the past month, planned activities
over the coming two months and any major issues they’re having
now. These todo lists will serve to coordinate work details during
the transition and help update the new chief executive come up
4. Authorization lists. Decide who will issue paychecks
and sign off on them during the transition. Often, the board treasurer
and/or secretary will conduct this sign-off role.
5. A board member should meet with the current chief executive
once a week before he/she goes. Review status of work
activities, any current issues, etc.
the New Chief Executive
1. Advertise the position
– Post ads in classified sections of local major newspapers. In
the ads, include the job title, general responsibilities, minimum
skills and/or education required, whom they should send a resume
to if they are interested and by when. Mention the role to customers.
Send cover letters and job descriptions to professional organizations.
Be sure to mention the role to all staff to see if they have any
2. Note that current employees should be able to apply for
the job. Considerations in hiring them for the new role
will have to include the impact on the organization if the employee
leaves behind a critical and unfilled role in the organization.
3. Screen resumes – Often, a board committee will
screen the first round of candidates, including review of resumes
and first round interviews. When screening resumes, note the candidate’s
career objective — or the lack of it. If not specified, the candidate
may not have considered what they want to do in the future, which
may impact their commitment to your new role. Note if they stayed
at jobs long or did they leave quickly. Are there holes in their
work history? Note their education and training. Is it appropriate
for the new role? Consider what capabilities and skills are evidenced
in their past and current work activities. Interview all candidates
that meet the minimum qualifications. (At this point, be sure
that you’re not excluding candidates because of unfair biases.)
4. Interview candidates – Send the job description
to candidates before they come to the interview meeting. While
interviewing candidates, always apply the same questions to all
candidates to ensure fairness. All questions should be in regard
to performing the duties of the job. Ask about their compensation
needs and expected or needed benefits. Attempt to ask open-ended
questions, i.e., avoid “yes-no” questions. Talk for
at most 25% of the time — the rest of the time, listen. Don’t
rely on your memory — ask permission from the interviewee to
take notes. Find out when they can start if offered the job. Consider
having multiple people at the interview; although this can be
intimidating to the interviewee, this practice can ensure them
a much more objective and fair presentation. (If staff participate
in the interviews, ensure they realize they are advisory in capacity.
Board members have the legal responsibility to select the new
chief executive.) Have the same people as interviewers in all
of the interviews. Consider asking some challenging, open-ended
questions, such as Why do you want the job?, What skills do you
bring to this job?, What concerns do you have about filling this
role?, What was your biggest challenge in a past job and how did
you meet it? Do you have a preliminary vision for (the nature
of your agency’s services)? Describe your ideal (board, fundraising
if the organization is a nonprofit, budgeting, personnel management,
program management) process. Don’t ask questions about race, nationality,
age, gender, disabilities (current or previous), marital status,
spouses, children and their care, criminal records or credit records.
Have all interviewers share/record their impressions of the candidate
right after the interview meeting. Explain to the candidate that
you’ll be getting back to them soon and always do this. Ask if
you can get and check any references. Always check references
and share them with the interviewers. Be sure to tell candidates
of any relevant personnel policies terms, such as probationary
periods. (The best way to deal with a poor performer is not to
hire him or her in the first place. It is often wise to have a
probationary period of, e.g., six months, wherein if the employee
does not meet the responsibilities of the position, you can terminate
the employee.) If practical, look into the applicant’s background
to ascertain if they have a criminal record.
5. Select the candidate – Usually, a board transition
committee recommends the top two or three candidates to the entire
board for discussion and selection. This may require another round
of interviews, this time including more/other board members. Usually,
this is not as easy as one would like because two or three candidates
come in close. Have a highly focused meeting with all interviewers.
(Again, note that staff members can provide input to the selection
of the new chief executive, but should not be involved in voting.)
Have each interviewer suggest their favorite candidate. If there
is disagreement, focus discussion to identify the one or two areas
in which interviewers disagree about the candidates. Then have
each interviewer explain their impressions. At this point, interviewers
usually come to consensus and agree on one candidate.
6. If there does not seem to be a most suitable candidate
– Consider if the job requirements are too stringent or are an
odd mix. Or, consider hiring the candidate who came in closest
and plan for dedicated training to bring their skills to the needed
levels. Or, re-advertise the position. Consider getting advice
from a human resources professional (at this point, your need
for them is quite specific, so they might provide services on
a pro bono basis). Or, consider hiring a consultant on a short-term
basis, but only as a last resort as this may be quite expensive.
7. If everyone turns down the job – The best strategy
is to ask the candidates why they turned the job down. Usually,
you’ll hear the same concerns, e.g., the pay is too low or the
benefits incomplete, the organization seems confused about what
it wants from the role, the interview process seemed hostile or
contentious, etc. Reconvene the interviewers and consider what
you heard from the candidates. Recognize what went wrong and correct
the problem. Call back your favorite candidates, admit the mistake
and what you did, and why you’d like to make an offer to them
8. Offer letter – If they accept an offer, always
follow-up with an offer letter, specifying the compensation, benefits,
and starting date and reference an attached job description. Ask
them to sign a copy of the offer letter and return it to you.
9. Start a personnel file – Include in the file,
the signed offer letter, tax withholding forms, the job description
and any benefits forms.
the New Chief Executive
Develop an orientation procedure and consider the following activities for
inclusion on the list. The following activities should be conducted by the board,
1. Before the new chief executive begins employment, send them a letter welcoming
them to the organization, verifying their starting date and providing them
a copy of the employee policies and procedures manual. (This can be included
in the offer letter.)
2. At this point, the board may send a letter to stakeholders. The letter
would announce the new person, when they are starting, something about their
background, etc., and asking them to call the board chair if they have any questions
3. Meet with the chief executive to brief them on strategic information.
Review the organization chart, last year’s final report, the strategic plan,
this year’s budget, and the employee’s policies and procedure manual if they
did not get one already). In the same meeting, explain the performance review
procedure and provide them a copy of the performance review document.
4. When the new chief executive begins employment (or before if possible),
introduce them in a meeting dedicated to introducing the new chief executive.
If the organization is small enough, have all staff attend and introduce themselves.
If the organization is larger, invite all managers to the meeting and have each
manager introduce themselves.
5. Ensure the new chief executive receives necessary materials and is familiar
with the facilities. Ensure an assistant gives them keys, gets them to sign
any needed benefit and tax forms. Review the layout of offices, bathrooms, storage
areas, kitchen use, copy and fax systems, computer configuration and procedures,
telephone usage and any special billing procedures for use of office systems.
6. Schedule any needed training, e.g., computer training, including use
of passwords, overview of software and documentation, location and use of peripherals,
and where to go to get questions answered.
7. Review any policies and/or procedures about use of facilities.
8. Assign a board member to them as their “buddy” who remains
available to answer any questions over the next four weeks.
9. Have someone take them to lunch on their first day of work and invite
other staff members along.
10. During the first six weeks, have one-on-one meetings (face-to-face or
over the telephone) with the new chief executive, to discuss the new employee’s
transition into the organization, hear any pending issues or needs, and establish
a working relationship with the new chief executive.
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