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Do You Have Founder’s Syndrome?

Do You Have Founder’s Syndrome?

By Jeffrey Wilcox

When an individual and an organization are unable to maintain separate identities or they’re unable to plan separate futures, that’s “Founder’s Syndrome.” This ailment can be found among organization founders, long-time employees who feel an ownership of the mission, and even board members, if they serve without term limits.

As the generation that founded many of the great social causes prepares to retire, the syndrome promises to hold a number of challenges for the leadership that will be left behind. It’s natural for founders to become invested in organizations that hold meaning for them. It’s managing this process that is the leadership challenge.

The first step toward freedom from Founder’s Syndrome is to admit that Founder’s Syndrome behaviors exist in your organization. The second step is to establish habits that will help to
minimize the effects of the syndrome over time:

  • Conduct an annual performance review of the executive and the board. This assures that there are regular conversations about a shared plan to serve the cause and facilitates establishing a fair division of labor among all of the organization’s leaders.
  • Establish term limits for the board of directors and its officers. This assures that a rotation of diverse leadership contributes to the growth of the cause.
  • Adopt and regularly review a succession planning policy, along with a detailed inventory of vital organizational information. This assures that the interests of the organization are always served first above any single individual.
  • Conduct an annual executive compensation review. This is essential to assure that the executive position is paid at a market rate and that the compensation package is both contemporary and competitive. One of the challenges of Founder’s Syndrome is assuring that the cost of replacing an executive in today’s market can be covered by the organization. Including a sabbatical in the executive compensation package helps prepare the organization and the leader to carry on without each other.
  • Complete an annual analysis of the decision-making infrastructure of the organization. When decisions are reliant on only a few, you can bet there’s trouble ahead.
  • Provide ample resources for leadership development, aimed at both the board and staff. The best organizations build into their cultures formal and experiential learning opportunities that demonstrate a belief that each person has the potential to lead the cause one day.

Don’t take Founder’s Syndrome lightly. Its effect is long-lasting on the cause and on the person who has cultivated it. Both deserve more than just a little respect and care in planning their respective evolutions.

About the Author
Jeffrey R. Wilcox, CFRE, is president and chief executive officer of Third Sector Company, a nonprofit leadership succession and interim management firm in Seattle and Southern California. He is a partner and member of the resource development committee for Social Venture Partners Seattle, on the board of AFP Washington, and chairs the Board Development Task Force for the Executive Advisory Board of the Seattle Pacific University School of Business, Government and Economics. Jeff can be reached at jwilcox@thirdsectorcompany.com or www.thirdsectorcompany.com

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