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Succession is often a challenging experience for both the outgoing leader and those left to pick up the reins, as Claire Antrobus and Sandeep Mahal have been finding out.

Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman, founder Directors of East Street Arts, Leeds. They stand in the doorway to a house, both smiling.
Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman, Founders and Directors of East Street Arts, Leeds.

Many of us have been gripped by the TV series Succession. The story follows the handover of a media company from its brutish founder to his ambitious and damaged children. Fortunately, not all leadership transitions are so dramatic, but the departure of a founder is potentially a dangerous moment. 

Painful, destabilising and costly disputes can occur, leading to a loss of staff, litigation, damage to the organisation’s reputation and even threatening its very existence. Even when the handover goes to plan, succession is often a challenging experience for the outgoing leader. 

As with Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Manchester United, a long successful leadership can be followed by a period of decline, with those appointed in their wake often not staying in post long. We might conclude a founder always leaves big shoes to fill, but research suggests succession can be successful if the transition is well-planned and managed.

The founder is the organisation

Last year when the Office for Leadership Transition was asked to support East Street Arts’ plan for the departure of one of its co-founders, we were surprised to discover a lack of information about this subject. 

So, we interviewed more than 20 people with experience of succession planning - as founders, their successors or their Chairs. We were surprised at the consistency of their advice and decided to make their wisdom available more widely through two free guides – one aimed at trustees, the other at founders.

Founders, or those who’ve successfully led an organisation for many years, often have a deep and complex relationship with their organisation. They are likely to have worked far beyond their contracted hours and indeed they may have been without a salary during the early years. 

Founders often invite friends to join their boards and colleagues of many years become friends. Personal and professional boundaries can become blurred, complicating the un-coupling of the individual from the organisation. 

Having invested deeply, a founder’s identity is often wrapped up in their organisational role – in terms of how they see themselves and how others may see the organisation. Metaphors of the founder as parent (with the organisation being their baby) are often encountered, and stakeholders are apt to say things like: “I couldn’t imagine this organisation without the founder” or “The founder is the organisation”. 

A wider leadership team 

A founder’s board often defers to them, enabling the founder to retain more control in the short-term but leaving the board feeling ill-equipped to manage without the founder. Founders are rarely formally managed, another doubled-edge sword as, while they experience less accountability, they also lack support from the board and can feel overwhelmed by responsibility which – legally – resides with the board.

The key advice to founders and the board alike is to be ready for succession at any time. While some founders take years to plan their exit, others need to make a sharper exit due to unforeseen circumstances. 

This means organisations need to ensure the CEO role is part of a wider, capable and empowered leadership team rather than allowing them to be too heavily dependent on one person. Similarly, the board needs to fulfil its leadership responsibility. By owning the mission and values it can select and support a new CEO when the time arises.

Managing the risks

Once a leader has decided to depart, the board takes the lead on succession planning. The outgoing leader should not be expected, or allowed, to recruit their successor. External independent support can help ensure recruitment is fair, inclusive and effective. Particularly as the role will have evolved to suit an individual and is often unrealistic in scope which could deter potential applicants. 

New leadership can build on success and reimagine the future, but an incoming leader will require space to lead in their own style. The board needs to be clear about the vision and values, but open to new ways of imagining how that can be achieved. Trustees will also need to support the incoming leader who may encounter stakeholder resistance when they initiate change. 

External stakeholders, as well as staff, are likely to be unsettled by a change of leader so it’s important the Chair keeps them informed about the process and does not leave this to the founder. Having a section of the board meeting without staff, where succession can be regularly discussed, is essential for managing risks around the process.

An opportunity to reimagine

Letting go can be incredibly hard for the founder, so providing support for them is essential, a role usually fulfilled by the Chair. Outgoing leaders may also benefit from an external mentor or coach to support them to think through their next steps and how they want to approach handover. Founders we interviewed varied enormously in how they wanted to mark their departure: some enjoyed the recognition of a party, others wanted to slip away quietly, so it’s important to check their preferences. 

Once agreed, leaving dates are best stuck to, however tempting it can be to extend them. There is never a perfect moment to go. Handovers are best kept short – no longer than two weeks. And those we interviewed were adamant that a clean break is important. 

Succession is an opportunity to reimagine an organisation for its next phase, but leading the transition requires care for the people involved, and clarity about boundaries, the organisation’s needs and purpose. 

As one interviewee advised: “Boards needs to be careful to respect the founder without tying the hands of the new Director and harking back to how things used to be done. They need to be clear about the values – the things that can’t change, any non-negotiables – but then make sure the incoming leader has authority to change things.”

It’s a difficult balance to strike and it can be a challenging time for the Chair who is responsible for leading this transition. We hope the two guides we’ve written will be helpful for those Trustees and leaders preparing for this change.

Dr Claire Antrobus is a leadership coach and consultant.
Sandeep Mahal is Director of Sector Change at people make it work and a Leadership Associate at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

claireantrobus.com | www.peoplemakeitwork.com/
@claireant | @culturepeopleuk | @readwithsandy

Link to Author(s): 
Claire Antrobus in a white woman with short, brown hair and green eyes. She is wearing a grey turtleneck.