Stave off founderitis by focusing on the fundamentals
Lingering just below the surface of many of the conversations I’ve had with news folks about succession planning over the last several months has been the phenomenon known as founder’s syndrome. A few people even named it outright as something they were keenly aware of and wanted to avoid. They cited it both as an obstacle to planning for leadership transition, as well as something they hope succession planning could help alleviate.
What is founder’s syndrome (or founderitis)? I’ve looked high and low for a solid definition and come up with two that seem to get at the heart of the concept. The first is from Wikipedia, which I normally use as a starting point only to find more authoritative information or an expert. But in this case, the Wikipedia definition is cited by countless nonprofit and other experts and is quite comprehensive, so I’ll use it:
Founder’s syndrome (also founderitis) is the difficulty faced by organizations, and in particular young companies such as start-ups, where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the organization, leading to a wide range of problems. The syndrome occurs in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations or companies.
The other definition comes from Carter McNamara, an expert in organizational development and leadership and the creator of the Free Management Library, a digital resource that curates information about professional and organizational development:
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.
One important part of both definitions is that the syndrome is experienced by the organization, not by founders themselves. It relates to the phase of development that an organization is experiencing and often comes at a time of “growing pains” as an organization is in its adolescent stage and begins to emerge as a more mature, established organization.
This matrix is a useful resource that names the life cycles of nonprofit organizations, which can apply to small for-profit organizations as well. I’d recommend that independent news organizations review it, consider where they are in their life cycle and spend time examining the transitions, obstacles and opportunities sections.
The dangers of founder’s syndrome for an organization are many and varied. The behaviors associated with it can create a toxic monoculture that does not allow for the organization to adapt to future challenges and opportunities. Taken to the extreme, it can ultimately lead to the organization shuttering when the founder leaves. Writing about founder’s syndrome in the tech industry, the chief innovation officer of Open Systems Technologies spelled out the conundrum of founder’s syndrome this way: “Perhaps the most ironic aspect of founder’s syndrome is that many of the traits that make a founder (and business) successful early on (risk taking, operating on the fly, saying ‘yes’ to anything, individualism, etc.) end up becoming liabilities as the organization matures.”
What are the symptoms of founder’s syndrome?
As with any syndrome, it’s helpful to know what the symptoms or signs of it are, to begin to diagnose it — and then do something about it. Although no blood test for founder’s syndrome exists, organizations can ask themselves these questions to start to understand if they are experiencing its symptoms:
On decision making:
- Is the founder at the center of the organization’s decision making?
- Are decisions made quickly with little input from others?
- Does it feel that many decisions are made in an urgent, crisis mode, without enough emphasis put on planning?
On operations and infrastructure:
- Would you describe the work of the organization as top-down?
- Is the founder involved in all high-profile projects with little to no delegation to or ownership by staff?
- Does the organization lack a clear and transparent structure and organizational chart about the roles and responsibilities of all staff, including the founder?
- Are organizational staff meetings primarily a place to update the founder, as an audience of one (as opposed to sharing broadly with staff and teams)?
- Does the founder eschew process or structure and prefer to act on their own, expecting others to follow suit?
- Is the founder the primary fundraiser for the organization?
- Do funders have relationships with other people in the organization?
On the intangibles:
- Does the founder routinely use language like “my staff” or “my organization”? Does the founder say “I” more than “we”?
- Does the founder seem to put an outsized amount of value on people who seem loyal to them and who mostly agree with or say “yes” to them?
- Do stakeholders, employees, donors and/or board members say they can’t imagine the organization without the founder?
- Do the communities and audiences that the organization serves primarily identify the organization with the founder?
On the makeup and role of the board (this is mostly for nonprofits but could relate to for-profits with governing bodies):
- Are board members recruited by the founder (as opposed to by the board itself)?
- Is the board filled with the founder’s friends?
- Does the board see its role as primarily supporting the founder (as opposed to the organization)?
- Does the board rubber stamp what the founder wants or proposes?
- Does the board have foundational knowledge of the activities of the organization, especially about its finances, fundraising and programs (without asking the founder)?
- Does the board interact with anyone on the staff besides the founder?
- Does the board have active committees with roles around finance, governance and programs?
Important note: Not all organizations that experience founder’s syndrome are startups with original founders. Organizations with long-time executives, especially those who have rebooted or remade an organization, can also exhibit similar symptoms.
The following sources were instructive to me about the symptoms of founder’s syndrome and are worth a deeper dive: Founder’s syndrome: How corporations suffer — and can recover, More symptoms of founder’s syndrome, How to diagnose & conquer nonprofit founder’s syndrome and What is nonprofit founder’s syndrome?
What can be done to avoid founder’s syndrome?
Suffering from founder’s syndrome is not inevitable, and it can be reversed without the founder needing to leave to make that happen (though removal is one remedy and should not be off the table in extreme cases).
What boards and organizations can do
Governing boards can do a lot to stave off founder’s syndrome by working on their own governance and building up the skill sets they need to fulfill their roles. Boards can then begin to recruit new members who are motivated by the organization’s mission, have skills that fill gaps on the board and are not personally tied to the founder.
A number of organizations provide training for members of boards to understand better their roles and responsibilities, especially as it relates to managing a founder. People serving on journalism boards of newer organizations might not have the necessary knowledge or experience, and this kind of training could be especially helpful for them.
Boards can also help a founder see the need for equipping the staff to take more ownership over the work — and thereby reducing the founder’s control — by framing their advice as helping stave off the founder’s burnout or exhaustion. Delegating and training up the staff can be part of key professional development goals for a founder.
Coutanya M. Coombs, who examined founder’s syndrome at nonprofit organizations founded by women for her doctoral dissertation, emphasized that boards need to be bold in asking questions about operations and the business of the organization.
“They have to have the difficult conversations,” Dr. Coombs said. “It has to be included in their retreats, in their long-term goals and planning.”
She added that they need to broach the idea of emergency succession planning with founders and work together to prepare those plans.
Steve Edwards, managing director at Koya Partners and the former chief content officer at Chicago Public Media, said that having those conversations without the immediacy of an actual emergency or a specific departure time in mind is crucial.
“Often, it’s creating the space to just open up a dialogue without the pressure of a timeframe that can make all the difference in the world,” Edwards said. “That too rarely happens, but the best organizations know how to do that proactively and are able to deepen trust as a result.”
What founders can do
Although founder’s syndrome affects primarily organizations, founders themselves have an outsized role to play in limiting the symptoms and effects of it.
Dr. Coombs stressed that founders have to focus on sustainability of the organization if they want it to survive after they leave. Doing the hard work of creating internal structures and processes that they are not at the center of is necessary. Putting the mission and the community’s needs ahead of their egos — although potentially challenging — can help stave off founder’s syndrome and set up the organization for longer term success.
But she said not to discount the human and personal part of being a founder.
“It’s hard for the founder himself or herself to think of the organization without them,” Dr. Coombs said.
In “Founder’s syndrome? Who me?” Hildy Gottlieb, the founder of the nation’s first diaper bank and a social change strategist, suggests founders need help from others, such as a professional coach who can help them understand how to separate their personal identity from the organization they created. Founders can employ this kind of help even if their departure from the organization is not imminent.
“This is especially important for those of you who don’t believe you have founder’s syndrome, but have heard it whispered about you,” Gottlieb wrote.
A special thanks to Vera Elwood, head of the Journalism Library at the University of Missouri, for her assistance in researching the origin of the term “founder’s syndrome.” To quote her, “My hunch is that this term started circulating casually and, by the time it entered professional/scholarly use, no one was able to claim they had created the word. This would be similar to terms like ‘side hustle’ or ‘gig economy.’”
This article was originally published by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Amy is a member of the RJI Fellows Class of 2022-2023.