My heartfelt thanks go to Jeremy, Alexia, and Joanne three talented leaders who contributed their stories to this article. Their names, and some details of their stories have been changed to preserve anonymity, but I know who they are, and they have my everlasting gratitude. And thank you to Betsy Schmidt from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for her work and for a lovely conversation.
A bit like Jenga
Organizing the succession of a founder, or long tenured CEO, can feel, at time, a little bit like playing Jenga [i]. You take a piece out of the tower, place it on the top. The tower grows in height, whilst becoming more fragile. Ultimately one last move makes it crash. It’s huge fun!
All Jenga players understand the equilibrium of the tower was never only compromised by the last piece removed. They know that the whole construction is fragilized by all the pieces moved beforehand, the last one merely a trigger of the tower’s impending collapse.
Equilibrium is thus not a question of just one piece of the tower, all pieces contribute to strengthening it in some measure. If only one piece breaks the whole thing down, then it was already on the brink of collapse anyway. It’s true of Jenga towers, it’s true of organisations.
And yet, when a CEO succession turns sour, suddenly, one commonly accepted view of things is that the CEO or founder was a bad piece, who either did not want to relinquish power, or did it in such a destructive manner that the whole organisation came crashing down. This phenomenon even has a name: founder’s syndrome [ii].
Do some CEOs (Or school principals or elected presidents) cling to power? Of course, yes. Do some leaders leave kicking, screaming and wreaking havoc in the process? Yes, as well. But were they the only ones in charge? Was no-one else playing a role in the organisation? Was it inevitable and entirely to blame on their sole temperament? I think not. Declaring someone is suffering from founder’s syndrome, and blaming a disastrous succession process on it, is equal to saying that the whole Jenga tower is no longer stable because of one bad piece and forgetting that many other pieces have been moved beforehand.
Founder’s syndrome is nothing it seems, but a handy shortcut, a pseudo-psychological condition attributed to one person by non-psychologists, conveniently sparing the rest of the organisation (The board, to start with [iii]) from scrutinizing what role they might have played in the tragedy. I won’t expand much more on Founder’s syndrome. I’ll only say that Elizabeth Schmidt, Professor of Practice at University of Massachusetts – Amherst, whom I was delighted to meet at the occasion of writing this article, convincingly argued against it, and we have her to thank for it. In her own words:
“The simplification, exaggeration, and blame that result from thinking in stereotypes can be harmful to the individuals and institutions involved” (Schmidt, 2017) [iv].
For more on this, read the (long) endnote [v].
A founder or CEO succession is always a delicate stage for an organisation, and things will sometimes go wrong. So how can we think this situation through, without simplification, exaggeration, or blame?
Jeremy was the CEO of a very successful air conditioning equipment distributor, that he cofounded in 1982 with his father. In 1997, two of his siblings joined the company as employees, in non-management roles, and shortly thereafter, his father retired, to remain on the board of the organisation as non-executive president. The business grew and flourished, but over time, leading the organisation became a burden for Jeremy.
Eager to set his succession in motion, he gave his family 3 years’ notice to ensure everyone would have time to position themselves. He proactively organized the process with an external counsel able to advise them on the various options on the table (One of the siblings taking over, hiring a CEO, selling the business). Jeremy met fierce opposition from all involved parties.
Nobody in the system wanted him to go out. Not his father, who since retirement enjoyed enormously his seat on the board and the occupation this represented. Not his two siblings who, having been brought in by their father with some convincing, had no desire to step in a leadership role, or seek other careers, and not his mother who saw him as a needless troublemaker.
This Jenga tower had the bars stuck together by family glue, and when all the bars are attached to one another, pulling one takes the whole tower down. Allegiances of all types (Family or else) within an organisation will in appearance strengthen the organisation. But these loyalties may over time evolve as rigidities, which then impede a smooth succession process. It took Jeremy two years to secure the necessary cooperation and mandate from his father and siblings to sell the business, which promptly found an acquirer.
To accomplish the transition, Jeremy also secured support for himself, working with a therapist over a long period of time, uncovering his emotional and affective stakes in the process, which were many [vi].
Reflecting on the journey, Jeremy says that things started moving ahead once he became able to visualize what his life would look like, after having left.
In other terms, for a long tenured CEO to be able to move on, they need to know where to. This seems obvious, but try finding yourself a new purpose in life, when for 30 years you saw yourself as The-CEO-of-The-Company…
Often, leaders or founders direct all their imagination in their activity. Their creative thinking underpins the strategy and journey of their organisation. Not being able to see themselves in a new life makes succession feel like death, fearsome, painful, final. Learning to imagine themselves outside of their usual framework, requires emotional support.
After a long and successful general management career in the film industry, Alexia had joined a young scale-up, specialized in shooting scientific documentaries for a clientele of streaming services. Alexia loved the realisation side of this new venture and had joined the company as expert on filmmaking. The company was very successful. It grew quickly and in a chaotic fashion. Alexia, simply by virtue of her experience and gravitas, found more and more of her time taken over by management tasks, finally accepting the role of CEO to help structure the company. After 8 years as CEO, it was time for her to move on. She took the time to surround herself with the right talent to take over her duties and let them develop and grow over eighteen months to ensure a smooth transition.
Shortly before the transition was to take place, tensions with staff and delivery difficulties reached a peak, linked both to economic circumstances and to the company’s development. These clouded the picture and rendered the process slower and harder. Alexia wanted to leave but could not quite yet. Her management team could take over but would not quite yet. They hired a coach to support the management team through this delicate stage.
A few months into the journey the team roleplayed [vii] Alexia’s move. Confronted to the reality of the situation, they found the words to say to one another what Alexia’s transition meant. As the experienced senior in a fast-developing team for nearly a decade, her presence had been a strong factor of stability and reassurance for a young management team.
They shared their apprehension of finding themselves left in charge of the organisation, their realisation of becoming the ones responsible and accountable, and their feeling somewhat unprepared for it. She found the words to express her confidence that they had what it takes, that she remained present, ready to support and advise them. And then she could step out of the team.
This Jenga tower was in fact stable and solid, only the one piece that wanted and needed to move was held in place by a diffuse apprehension shared by many for different reasons, hindering movement even when all protagonists were ready to proceed. Fears were verbalized, the new equilibrium envisaged and discussed, within one month, things had shifted.
Reflecting on her journey, Alexia shares how much of a relief it was to be freed of the burden and stress of responsibilities, how gratifying it was to see this new management team take charge and make their own experiences. She also was touched to see them come back to her for questions and advice. Serene, she could now go on doing things she was passionate about.
Alexia confirms how important imagination is. In a previous transition in her career, she had, like Jeremy, faced the anxiety of an empty life. She’d then written her ideas on a piece of paper, and recalls: “The new life was there, all that was needed was to let it appear, and I felt reassured for this transition and the future”.
Most Leaders invest a lot of affective energy in their work.
With succession approaching, pent-up emotions get potentialized by the impending denouement, and start acting like a door.
Verbalise and embrace them, and the door to change will open. Ignore them and stoically forge ahead none the less, the door will become an obstacle to change, and things will get messy.
In appearance the conversation between Alexander, the retiring President, and Joanne, the newly appointed General Manager, was courteous and routine, no shouting, no raised voices, no swear words. In reality, behind a mask of absolute control, the older man was seething, whilst Joanne, 15 years his junior, felt the floor opening beneath her feet.
No, the founder-President would not sign-off on the budget, no he would not help with this new project, no he would not hand these strategic client accounts over, and no he would no longer help, and did the new General Manager think he was an idiot?
Shortly thereafter, Joanne handed in her resignation, and a board meeting was convened for the following week to consider the situation. In the intervening days, the old president deployed a flurry of activities, incessantly lobbying board members, in turn cajoling, probing, calling in favours, and reminiscing old times, endlessly asserting the necessity for him to “stay close to the business” or to “keep an eye on operations” for the “stability and continued growth of the business”.
At first it seemed that some of the directors wanted to rebel. Joanne had been hired to take over the reins of the company as the Founder-President retired, and so far, she had only presented excellent results to a delighted board. Joanne found herself besieged by anxious callers asking her to reconsider, offering their support to overthrow the President. She refused flatly.
Joanne had no desire to forcefully remove the founder to take over his business, that was not the deal. If he did not want to hand it over, she would not have it. With nobody else to appoint anyway, the directors voted to secure the President’s position at the helm for a next period. And with that, the multi-million business with decades of growth and hundreds of employees, reluctantly set its clock back to times almost bygones, where old lions still roared, and no swansong echoed in the wilderness.
Thinking back to this episode, Joanne recalls the fear that she initially felt realising she was the object of a vicious attack, when everything seemed to be going so well. But in hindsight, she felt also sadness and pity for Alexander.
If there was no Elizabeth Schmidt in this world, I might have concluded on an acute case of founder’s syndrome. But I can no longer see things that way. Had anyone paid attention to Alexander’s needs? Had he ever been able to imagine himself in a new life before that new life got organized by others around him? Did he have the time to say the love he felt for his business, his colleagues? Did the organisation and the board take the time to consider the allegiances and loyalties that could derail the succession process?
Joanne and I, discussing her experience, concluded that he most certainly did not have any of these chances. Alexander was not a better or worse leader than anyone.
Succession is tough, for everyone.
No CEO, president, mayor, or leader of any kind can for very long entertain the illusion that their tenure will last forever. For one they are mortal, like everyone else, and I do not imagine that founders would somehow be less aware, or less accepting of their own finitude than other people. I think however that death is an existential question for every human, and that the end of anything is like the end of all things.
Love has no off switch. There exists no button that a leader can press to stop loving their life in a second. There is no love switch that would dispense them (and their organisation) from the arduous journey of imagining their new life purpose.
They will need to share with their teams and family what this transition inspires them, how they feel about it. And for all that to happen, requires more than official minutes at a board meeting.
It needs intimacy and patience, what it does not need is judgment.
[i] Jenga is a game that starts with a tower made of identical wooden bars stacked three by three. In turn, each player must remove a bar from the tower and place it on the top. The player or team whose move crashes the whole construction loses the game.
[ii] Founder syndrome is abundantly reported and described in various articles, such as this one: anonymously published in the Guardian on April 12th 2017, ‘Founder Syndrome’: the strong personality crippling my charity.
[iii] Is it not profoundly unfair to blame a CEO for being stubborn and directorial at the end of their career, if for all these years, their management style has been poorly or not at all challenged? Was it not the role of the board to ensure that management works in a manner conducive to the organisation’s purpose? At the very least, succession or managerial difficulties may have as much to do with governance effectiveness than with the leader’s own character.
[v] Founder’s syndrome is at best a convenient myth, at worst an unfair destruction of someone’s reputation at a moment of their career where they are likely to be particularly vulnerable. Calling it a syndrome suggests that it is an existing psychological condition, and that being the successful founder of something exposes you to it. It suggests that it has been adequately studied by specialists of human behaviour (Like the Borderline Personality Disorder for example). It has not. It is not a documented psychological condition as opposed to for example the Stockholm Syndrome. What it is though, is the archetypal characterization of what usually is a very complex situation. If we are to believe Elizabeth Schmidt, there exists one factual study of it, by Stephen R. Block and Steven A. Rosenberg, published in 2002, and which seems to lend some credence to the theory. This semblance of corroboration is however not convincingly supported by the data collected by the study itself, underlines Elizabeth Schmidt. Finally, when examined closely, there are so many gaping holes in the theory of the founder’s syndrome as a coherent psychological condition that it suddenly appears as nothing more than a frivolous thesis. It gathers a wide range of symptoms such as an exalted feeling of the founder’s own importance, the inability to delegate, and tendency to make all decisions, to choose staff based on loyalty rather than talent, hoarding power and confusing themselves and their organisation. It also supposes that all people affected by it are in denial. There is a wide, if not scientifically accurate, consensus on this description, supported by online articles with only the appearance of propriety, but no serious study to support it.
[vi] Family businesses make for very complex emotional constructs. In such contexts, any decision related to the business, may become entangled with family issues, and be used for example as a token in a family negotiation, or as outlet for private tensions, all at the detriment of the business’s real purpose.
[vii] In the context of coaching, roleplay means enacting a situation with the participants, for them to gain insight in what is at stake for them emotionally. Roleplay is comparable in some way to the psychodrama invented by Jacob L. Moreno as a therapeutic method. No specific stage props are needed to perform roleplay. Participants will, with the right framework of psychological security and confidentiality, readily incarnate emotions linked to the enacted situation. When the protagonists are put in motion, if movements in the group are explored as real corporal movements and not only discussed in abstract, the meaning of the unfolding scene can be co-constructed with them step by step, making it a very rich, insightful, ultimately transformative experience.