The Founder’s Dilemma

By Fred Nelson

Recently I listened to a conservationist tell the story of how he had founded a very successful conservation organization, only to be eventually fired by the board he had himself built up over the years. What had occurred was that his organization had established a strong track record of achievement and impact, and resulting growth in its funding, staff, and board. As the founder, he had realized that the organization needed new leadership and management skills, so he recruited someone with stronger experience than him to help lead the organization. But his board had subsequently decided that with more sophisticated management skills and experience this new person was better placed to be the CEO, and eventually they pushed the founder aside.

At first, this story might come off as an unjust tale of betrayal.  Yet, as organizations grow, their staffing and leadership needs to change and evolve, and this means founders may need to step away, change their roles, or, ultimately be pushed aside by an empowered board. So in reality this is a tale with a happy ending – it’s a marker of success for an organizational founder. If a founder really wants their organization to succeed, their goal should be to make themselves redundant by building a talented and diverse team that evolves beyond a dependence on a single individual, and a board that can assume strategic leadership of the organization.

When founders can’t let go…

In conservation, relatively few founders and leaders view their role in this light. In our field, there is a tendency for founders to view organizations as an extension of themselves. This is understandable when an individual builds their life and career around creating an organization, often enduring many personal sacrifices and hardships along the way. And indeed any successful organization tends to be built largely on the vision, passion, talent, and creativity of its founder.

Moreover, many founders’ careers and livelihoods are bound with the organizations that they build. For many founders, there is no clear next step in their careers beyond their organization, nor a way to make a living outside the context of the organization they have created.

The founder’s dilemma is thus that the same people who create such influential organizations are the same individuals who can constrain and limit the growth and development of their organization. If an organization is successful, it is likely to grow. The skills involved in managing a more mature and larger organization, and to cope with the process of growth, are very different from the more risk-taking, visionary skills required to establish and lead an organization through its earlier stages.

A common result of these tensions and trade-offs is that organizations become stuck in a state of suspended development, with a founder who is too personally wedded to their organization to really build it into something that can exist independently of themselves. Such organizations may hit a ceiling in terms of their growth and impact, because the founder lacks the skills to grow and manage a larger organization. This is the ‘founder trap’, whereby the very gifts that enabled a founder to create a special organization prevent them from guiding it to a new stage of growth and development.

Avoiding the ‘Founder Trap’

To avoid this, a founder must be aware of these tensions and explicitly lead the organization in a way that fosters its growth. This means not only accepting, but explicitly striving towards, a changed role for themselves as the founder.  Critical goals in this process include the following:

  • Building a great team: Recruiting and developing a team of talented staff with diverse skills will provide space for new leadership and organizational growth. Founders who want to maintain their own role as the ‘boss,’ may not recruit the talented staff needed in fear of being replaced.
  • Emphasize management: Recognizing the need for adding management capacity for a growing organization, and realizing that many founders are not great managers, is critical. Most young and growing organizations, especially in conservation where business and organizational training is weak, lack sufficient management capacity and wait too long to invest in this critical function.
  • Create a great board: Founders need to focus on building a board with leadership capabilities that can assume full ownership and governance of the organization, and exercise effective oversight of themselves, the CEO/founder. For the founder, this means not only building a board that can challenge them and hold them accountable, but ultimately redirect or replace them if needed.

Organizational leadership is similar to being a parent; the goal is to facilitate learning and development such that your direct control is eventually no longer needed.

My own changing role

At Maliasili Initiatives, we are working to manage these evolutionary processes carefully and consciously within our own organization. Two years ago, as the founder/CEO, I managed our small team, provided support to our partners, and was extensively involved in our service work on a week-to-week basis. Over the past 12 months, as we have more than doubled our team in response to growing demand for our services, much of the team and partner management has been handed over to a Portfolio Director. And recognizing we needed even more support, we recently hired a full-time Chief Operating Officer (COO) to lead management of the expanding team and overall growth of the organization, effectively sharing leadership (strategy, communications and fundraising, partnership development) and management responsibilities within the leadership team.

As the founder of the organisation, I consider it my top priority to build and empower a talented team that results in my own role either shifting as it has recently, or perhaps even becoming redundant as new leadership matures. If one day the board turns to me and says, “Fred, it’s time for you to move on,” I will consider it mission accomplished.

LeadershipNikita Lodhia