WWYNPD?: Founder's Syndrome
Did you have one of those wristbands? They were popular. They came in different colors with "WWJD?" embedded on the surface. Perhaps you had a t-shirt with the same letters: "WWJD?" There were all types of paraphernalia: pens, hats, key chains. It seemed as if for a moment in recent history everyone was obsessed with finding an answer to the situational question "What would Jesus do?"
I never caught on to the wave of frenzy over the WWJD? gizmos and gadgets. But the concept - the idea that asking myself what someone else would do in a situation I was facing could help me make a better decision - is one I have bought into for years.
And so I submit this post as the first in a series: WWYNPD - What would young nonprofit professionals do? And for this inaugural post, I wonder how we have been able to address Founder's Syndrome.
Ahh, Founder's Syndrome. I must admit that until very recently, I only gave myself 2 options for dealing with Founder's Syndrome: I thought I could either leave and be appreciated for my awesomeness elsewhere OR I could wait quietly for the inevitable death of an aging population and then assume power. Either way, soon enough it would be my turn at the helm. I just had to bide my time and wait it out. Then it hit me: There has got to be a better way!
So how do we deal with this? Founder's Syndrome can lead to job dissatisfaction, low morale and employee burn out.
I've done a scan for case studies sharing successful methods for addressing and dealing with Founder's Syndrome in a nonprofit context from the perspective of staff who have experienced a transition of leadership. I haven't found too much, and so I am submitting these 3 Tips for Young Nonprofit Professionals who are affected by Founder's Syndrome.
1. Assess yourself. Rapper Ice Cube had a popular song with the lyrics "Check yourself before you wreck yourself." If only rap lyrics today shared such sage wisdom as they did a decade or so ago. Basically the lesson is to take an inventory of the role you are playing in your own destruction. The best way to approach any situation is with self-awareness. Along with that self-check, take into consideration your role and the dynamics of power in your organization. Here is a really tough question for some YNPs to answer: Is it Founder's Syndrome or am I over-eager to be promoted and recognized as a young professional in this organization?
2. Ask around. Chances are, young professionals were not with the organization when the founder was; however, there might be a co-worker, funder, program participant or board member who was. Ask how the organization has changed. Ask how the leadership has changed. Find out how change happens. Ask what could be improved. Find out more about the organization than the story told in annual reports and brochures. Conducting an informal 360-degree assessment of the organization and the founder will help uncover the capacity for change within the organization.
3. Be the change/solution. Some mid-level managers and organizational leaders express concern about the pressures of being an executive director. They are valid concerns! On the flip side, some founders see their potential predecessors as unable to do the work the way they did. They built it up. They know (or think they know) how it should be managed, and they do not see anyone else putting in the time and energy that they do. Help them by being a part of a new model of leadership. Engage in co-lead projects and find out interest in work groups. Most of all, ask for the founder's help when necessary. Be the change that you would like to see in your organization. It will empower you, encourage your colleagues and impress the founder.
A lot of the stress around Founder's Syndrome comes from emotions and feelings that we do not express or process appropriately. I would also suggest that YNPs who feel under-appreciated and unrewarded at their jobs look for leadership positions OUTSIDE the workplace. It might make you feel better, which will improve your overall quality of life, and it will improve your workday. It will also help you better understand some of the stress that your founder or CEO is facing on a daily basis. Make this the year you take on a project in your community or take on a leadership role in your local YNPN Chapter or on the YNPN National Board. (Shameless plug for forthcoming National Board applications. They are coming this summer and will be due in the fall!)
Lest I forget the young empowered Executive Directors who have big founders' shoes to fill. Just because the founder is no longer in office (or a longtime ED or CEO, for that matter), does not mean the symptoms of the syndrome vanish. WWYNPD when they have leadership under the shadow of former leaders? Also there are YNPs among us who are founders of organizations themselves.
How do cure Founder's Syndrome once and for all?
I think an answer to that question will be answered in our lifetime, so WWYNPD?