Starting a social change organization is often hard for the same reasons that make it feel easy. For instance, if you’re an entrepreneur, working for yourself is much more fun than doing what someone else says. But working for yourself has at least one very serious side effect that must be managed: Often without the entrepreneur’s awareness, the success of the organization can become inextricably tied to self-image. This does more than create sleepless nights; it is the beginning of Founder’s Syndrome.
Founder’s Syndrome (which Wikipedia tells me can be referred to by a much cooler name: founderitis) is a cancer to organizational sustainability. One person cannot usually run an organization alone, but that’s not the point. The takeaway is that even if a founder is talented enough to do so, she will be more effective with a high-quality team. Social entrepreneurship is more like football, not a track event. Football teams have stars, and the founder should probably be a pretty good quarterback, but you’re supposed to play with teammates for a reason. This is to say nothing of what would happen if the founder were to disappear! So Founder’s Syndrome is something to avoid, but as usual, there’s no silver bullet. What follows are some things that I (sometimes remember to) do to mitigate its effects.
First, separate self-image from the organization. There are a lot of ways to do this, and often it involves simply not working for a portion of your waking hours. Methods I can endorse include mini-golf, NHL hockey games, and (entire seasons of) How I Met Your Mother. I try, with varying degrees of success, to just STOP working for about ninety minutes in the middle of my day to make sure that my decisions are clear-headed. Many of my best ideas happen not when I am knee deep in metrics spreadsheets, but when I’m halfway through a chicken finger sub. All of that said, it’s a challenge. You will invariably get an email or five during your “no work” time and you will feel compelled to answer on your phone. (You will also, hilariously, try to do so surreptitiously, as if someone else is monitoring break time.) But remember that often, the more successfully you are able to rest, the most successfully you will be able to work.
In addition to personal preservation, avoiding Founder’s Syndrome involves serious and deliberate succession planning. Organizations necessarily have founders, and the kind of people who start organizations are often forces of nature whose statures can easily overshadow the work of hundreds of others necessary to get an organization off the ground. But the founder should not be the only entrepreneur within the organization, and no one but the founder herself can ensure that this is the case. It is often a matter of knowing when and how to get out of the way, which can be as simple as letting others talk or effusively praising the abilities of a staff member. Jeff Haden writes an extremely insightful article in Inc. Magazine in which he tells the story of his time as a high school wrestler.
“I went out for wrestling in ninth grade and was nervous, scared, intimidated–pick any fearful adjective. It fit. A week or so into practices I heard the coach talking to one of the seniors. “That kid there,” he said, referring to me, “will be a state champion by the time he’s a senior.”
He was wrong. It turned out I wasn’t. But I immediately felt more confident, more self-assured, and incredibly motivated. Those feelings lasted for a long time.
Finally, and this should go without saying: The quality of the team matters. The CLI Team is absolutely extraordinary and that’s a much bigger reason for our success than anything I’ve done. Whether or not you can pay people, treat every volunteer posting, Board appointment, and hire like a life or death decision. For the organization, it often is.
Even for the most vigilant and selfless founder, it will be difficult to avoid Founder’s Syndrome. Nevertheless, you can mitigate its effects and set up your organization for long-term success.