Founders, grace, and syndromes

Founders are some of my very favorite people. They see a need and swing into action. They dream big dreams, then make them come true.

They are masters of incarnation.

The same is true for what I call "virtual founders," like...

John, who took charge of a one-year-old nonprofit and grew it from a budget of $89,000 to $4 million in ten years.

Jenny, who took over a small nonprofit that was 20 years old, transformed its mission, quintupled the budget in five years, and gave the organization a new life.

I love people with this kind of ambition. I love that all different kinds of people become founders, young and old, shy and extroverted, experienced leaders and novices.

These are the people who create the nonprofits in which millions of people get to do the work they love.

So when I hear the phrase "founder's syndrome" tossed around casually, painting all founders with the brush of accusation, it makes me grumpy, because...

Without our founders, where would our sector be?

And because...

I know so many founders who are not syndromes and never will be.

I was talking the other day with Suzanne who wanted coaching because she planned to leave her nonprofit. When I asked her why she was leaving, she said...

I've been here five years and people are telling me that's the limit for founders. I'm supposed to move on so I don't get into doing the bad things founders are known for.

I asked her a few more questions and found out that...

She loves her work.

She's not burnt out.

She's just hitting her stride.

She's got big plans for the future of the organization.

She loves mentoring her staff and giving them opportunities to lead, so they love working with her.

She has a life outside of her job. She hasn't merged her identity with her work.

I couldn't find a single sign of syndrome. 

She's a founder, but she's leading with grace.

So why would we want her to leave? Why should her nonprofit lose her leadership? Why would we want her to go away and do something she doesn't love half as much? And all because of some rule someone invented and we don't even know who invented it and I'll bet he never met Suzanne.

And let's not forget all the founders who do beautiful leave taking...

Brooke chose Blake to succeed her as ED, then mentored him for eight months, got him up to speed, and left without any stickiness let alone drama. It's two years later and Blake still calls Brooke for advice. She loves mentoring him, but she never initiates calls. She waits till he asks for what he needs.

This is what I call Founder's Grace.

Here's my favorite example...

Margaret, a baby boomer, a white woman, the virtual founder of her organization where she was ED for two decades, spent several years mentoring N'Tanya, a young African American woman, to be her successor.

Meanwhile Margaret squirreled away money, so when she moved on, she left N'Tanya with two years of budget in the bank!

When we hear that word "founder" I want us to think of Margaret instead of a syndome.

I want us to honor the grace with which so many founders lead and then, when the time is right, leave.


The syndrome
With founder's grace as the context, now let's look at the question of the syndrome.

When people complain about founders, what are they complaining about? Sometimes it's just annoying behavior...

Tillie set a date to leave, then put it off. Then put it off again. Then put it off yet again, all the time swearing that she's really planning to go.

Sometimes it's mixed messages...

Tamara told her staff to start taking more responsibility so she could let go. But she withheld crucial information and gave unclear directions so people failed at their new responsibilities. Then she said, "See, that's why I can't leave. No one is ready to step up and do the work I do."

Sometimes it's hurtful behavior...

Terry turned over her nonprofit to a new ED, but remained on the Board and is a constant back-seat driver, second guessing and criticizing anything her successor does.

Sometimes, it gets really ugly...

Tim is so desperate to control everything and everybody that he engages in personal attacks and unfair firings, scaring his staff into submission.

At it's worst, syndrome behavior can traumatize people and literally destroy organizations.

But I want to add in a caution here. It's important to recognize bad behavior for what it is. And it's equally important not to see a syndrome where one doesn't exist. It matters that we know the facts before we reach for a label.

For example, Meredith had a hard time leaving her organization...

"After 20 years working in this nonprofit which I started and love with all my heart, I guess I might be going through a few feelings."

At the office, there were days when she was in tears. But she stayed conscious and self-aware. She did everything she needed to do to make the transition work for her staff and they rallied around her...

She wasn't hurting anybody, just having feelings.

It would have been so wrong for anyone to slap the syndrome label on her, and thankfully nobody did.


Where does this behavior come from?
I was a co-founder, along with my friend Kate, of our nonprofit, CAP. If at year five, our Board had said that Kate and I should turn the organization over to new blood, I would have been syndroming all over the place.

I was so merged with CAP that there was no way I would have let go.

In year five, though, I happened to be the president of the Board, along with all my other duties, so there was no chance of the Board making any such decision.

But seven years later, I was able to leave with some degree of grace. That was partly because I was exhausted. And partly because Norma, our program director, agreed to take over as ED. We knew she would love CAP as much as we had.

Most importantly, by then I had managed to de-merge from CAP, maybe 70%, maybe more, but at least enough to let go.

From my own experience, from talking with other founders, and from talking with people being hurt by founders, I believe that "founder's syndrome" is not a helpful phrase. I believe it's a misdiagnosis. There's something else we should focus on instead.


Savior behavior
I believe founders become trouble when they try to be...

Saviors instead of leaders.

The troublesome behaviors we complain about are all part of the sacrificial operating system, which I also call the salvation operating system.

If I could talk to a founder in the very moment when she decides she's going to launch a new organization, I'd say this...

Please know that if you stick with sustaining and premier from the start, you'll never be in danger of coming down with founder's syndrome. That's because the syndrome only exists in the world of salvation and sacrifice.

Let's dig into this.

In my worst moments of being merged with CAP, if I could have put my feelings into words here's what I would have said...

This nonprofit is my baby. It's my identity. I don't know who I'd be without it. So when people push me to let go of any part of it, it feels like a matter of life and death. All I want to do is to hold on with a death grip.

Of course I wasn't conscious of being merged. I just saw it as dedication. Once I did get conscious, I was able to start doing something to break the spell.

And here's something else that went hand in hand with merging. Apart from CAP, I didn't really have a life. I had friends, but I had so little time for them that I counted on my work community for pretty much everything.

On those rare occasions when I thought about the possibility of not having CAP at the center of my life, it scared me. It was like if I was not the co-founder of CAP anymore, I'd be a nobody.

And there's more. I was so dependent on my organization, that in my worst moments I wanted it to be dependent on me. Here are the words I couldn't find back then...

I want to prove every day how much they need me. I want to prove they can't get along without me.

At the same time I get so angry that people here are dependent on me and can't do things on their own. It wears me out to have to do so much myself.

This is pretty much a classic description of co-dependency, and we know that co-dependency is not good for anyone.

Let's look at another classic founder situation. Here's Terence looking back on years he now deeply regrets...

I hired very bright, effective people, but I screened them carefully in the job interview. I wanted them to operate under my shadow and never step out on their own.

And if they ever tried to do that, I made things unpleasant for them. I didn't care how good they were at their jobs, if they were independent in spirit, I drove them out of my organization.

When a founder becomes desperate to hang on to his savior role things can get really bad. Terence again...

Anyone who opposed me in any way instantly became the enemy. So I'd take even more control. I'd counterattack. I'd scare people back into submission. I didn't like doing this at the time, but I felt I had to, because I felt my very identity was at stake.

One of the best questions you can ask a founder is...

What do you want your legacy to be?


When you're gone from this organization do you want it to continue to thrive for years to come?

Do you want staff and Board to say, "We're so glad he's gone." Or do you want them to say, "We miss him."

Do you want to wreck your relationships with everyone on the way out? Or would you like it if people want to stay connected to you? Would you like it if they care about what happens to you?

When you're old and gray, do you want to look back at your nonprofit and just feel pain? Or do you want to feel your heart swell with warmth and fond memories?

Do you want to be able to tell your grandchildren about your work and have them hear delight in your voice instead of bitterness and regret?

Some troublesome founders, when they consider their legacy, wake up and change their behavior. They see how they've gone down the dead end street of savior behavior and they decide to do whatever it takes to come back to what's deepest in their hearts.

But there are a few founders who are quite different. They're at the extreme end of the spectrum. You ask them about their legacy and they won't talk about it. They take a secret delight in their organization foundering, even dying, when they go. It makes them feel all that much more like a savior...

"See! Without me, they're nothing."

I think of this as a kind of suicide. The founder is committing the suicide of this nonprofit that they gave birth to. And they're doing it out of a desperate desire to be a savior on whom all things depend.

So sad and so unnecessary.

One more thing. Some founders who get deep into savior behavior, start believing it's okay to make decisions based on their own personal whims and impulses. They feel entitled. Or their egos get inflated.

They start believing that they are above mission discipline. That they have a special dispensation. And that's trouble, both for them personally and for the organization.

On the page about the sustainable operating system I talk a lot about the value of mission discipline. It's the key to organizational health. It's good for everyone, including founders, too, because it holds them accountable to being their best. It prevents them from getting into destructive self-indulgence.

Again, what's sad is that good people can end up doing bad things because they get caught up in being a savior instead of being a leader, because they're using the wrong operating system.


Talking with founders
When founders are in trouble, when they're acting out, they usually can't hear criticism. Instead they need us to take a stand for them. A stronger stand than they are taking for themselves.

Following are two conversations I've written up to illustrate the advocacy themes I've found helpful.

First we'll start with Kira who has asked for coaching. She's hurting and ready to change, so the conversation is gentle.

Rich:  Hi, Kira.

Kira:  Hi, Rich

Rich:  Where do you want to start?

Kira:  Oh, with the bad stuff. It's so embarrassing.

Rich:  Embarrassing?

Kira:  Yeh. I feel like things have gotten completely out of control. I'm getting so angry. I know it's not fair to my staff, but in the moment I feel so righteous.

Rich:  And it's upsetting because...

Kira:  Because I don't want to be like this. This morning I was wishing I had never started this organization.

Rich:  How do you want to be?

Kira:  I want to be the person I thought I was. But I'm so far away from that.

Rich:  Tell me what's in your heart.

Kira:  I had such good intentions when I started this nonprofit. I saw at-risk kids going down the tubes and thought I could stop that. And I have, we have. It's taken so much, it's been such a hard journey. But I have, we have, saved so many kids.

Rich:  At what cost?

Kira:  I've given up a lot.

Rich:  Like?

Kira:  Like a personal life.

Rich:  Meaning?

Kira:  I'm here seven days a week. I have friends in name only. I keep missing things like their birthday parties. I miss the fun we used to have. I haven't been out on a date in two years. I don't ever have time to go out and meet anybody. In the next few years, I want to start a family, but at this rate it's not going to happen. I try not to think about that, because whenever I do it really hurts.

Rich:  What else hurts?

Kira:  I had a dream last night that this place was an iron anchor around my neck dragging me under the water. I kept fighting to the surface and it took every ounce of my strength, but I couldn't stay up there.

And then yesterday I was yelling at Karen. She didn't deserve it. I know that. I was just over some terrible edge in my own mind. I had given her a grant report to write and it wasn't up to my standards and I had no patience left.

An hour later when I went into the staff room to get a cup of coffee, she was over in the corner talking with Johnny and she was quietly sobbing. She wouldn't look at me and I couldn't look at her. I couldn't think of anything to say. Oh, God, it just killed me to think that I did that to her. I suddenly felt so helpless and lost.

Rich:  What's your heart say about that?

Kira:  It says, "Wake up! That's not who you are. Remember how you got into this work to help people? And now you're hurting people."

I've become the bad guy to everyone around here and I don't know how to stop it.

Rich:  When people try to be saviors instead of leaders, they can actually forget who they are. And then they find themselves doing things they never imagined.

Kira:  That's true for me.

Rich:  So who are you really? If you took a stand for yourself what would you say?

Kira:  I really don't want to hurt people. I won't let that be me. All my life I've been known for my caring and kindness. But now this nonprofit has gotten so big and the pressures so intense that I'm drowning. And I'm pulling everyone down with me. It makes my stomach churn.

Rich:  Let your heart keep talking...

Kira:  If I can't fix this, then I'll just shut this place down. No, I can't do that. I'll get out.

Rich:  That's how serious you are about it?

Kira:  Yes...I think I really am. That's such a radical thing for me to say given how much I love this place. But if I have to make that choice I will. I know I have to make amends. But how do I stop this behavior first? What's wrong with me?

Rich:  It's not just you. You're using an operating system that has hurt a lot of people before you. It's not a mystery. There is a way out of this. And you're taking the first step now. You're saying no.

Kira:  I am, and I really, really want to stick with it. I want to still be saying no tomorrow and the day after and keep on saying it.

Rich:  What matters right now is that you get what you need. What do you know about what you need?

Kira:  I never ask myself that question. It scares me.

Rich:  Take a breath and stay with the fear. Are you willing to push through? Maybe just come up with two or three answers and that will be enough for today.

Kira:  Okay. I do need to push through.

Rich:  Right there you just named a genuine need. What about another one?

Kira:  I need help. My job is too hard. I need to let my staff take on things even if they don't do them like I would. I need to give them a chance to develop themselves. Stop being a control freak. I do know they're ready. Actually more than ready.

So tomorrow I'm going to meet with my department heads one by one and make a new deal with each of them. I'm going to give them real responsibility. I'm going to tell them they really are running their departments now, and I won't interfere unless they ask for help.

Rich:  What will that be like?

Kira:  Freaky. But I have to do it. I can see that. And I'll make it a sacred promise to myself so I won't go back on it.

Let's see, what else do I need?

Rich:  You mentioned something about your personal life.

Kira:  Oh, that. Yes, I could use one of those.

Rich:  What could you do?

Kira:  I'm going to call up my three best friends. I hope they're still willing to be my friends. And I'm going to apologize to them and tell them I miss them and want to be back with them. Carrie's birthday party is Thursday night. I'm going to go no matter what work I have to leave unfinished in the office.

Rich:  What will that give you?

Kira:  I guess it'll be a good way to call the question about my work. Either I fix things here or I get out. Either I learn how to run a big organization not holding on to everything myself or else.

Rich:  What would it be like for you to go find a new job?

Kira:  Unimaginable. Really. Suddenly I'm feeling how I've put all my eggs in this one basket. All I am is the founder of this nonprofit. I used to think that was a pretty grand thing, but now it feels small and shrunken. There's more to me than that. There has to be.

Rich:  Has there been more to you in the past?

Kira:  I remember that I used to love to go out dancing. And I did watercolors. I took classes. A lot of my friends told me I was really good. One of them wanted to help me set up a show. I miss having that kind of fun.

Rich:  What if you took the weekend off to reconnect with those loves?

Kira:  We have a grant due!

Rich:  And?

Kira:  Tomorrow I'll give the grant to Elsie. She wants to do more. She's bright. I could do it better, but what if she could learn to do it better than me?

Rich:  Then what?

Kira:  Well, that's exactly what I need. I think I want to demonstrate to my staff that I'm changing, and then when I know I'm solidly on this new path, I want to apologize for hurting them.

Rich:  And what would it mean to hold yourself with compassion while you're apologizing?

Kira:  I guess if I really believe this is not me, the hurtful tyrant, if I truly believe that, then it's like I've gone lost and I want to come back home.

Rich:  And you know you're not the only one to have done this, don't you? Our sector is set up for leaders to go lost. There's such a burden on you. Such impossible expectations.

Kira:  It's still bad stuff I've done.

Rich:  Yes, but given the pain you're going through right now dealing with it, what's the gift you have to give?

Kira:  Oh. Well. I guess I'm learning a very serious life lesson right now. If I can transform my leadership, I'll certainly be able to talk to young leaders about not making the mistakes I've made.

Rich:  And...

Kira:  What if we could transform our organization? That would be a gift to everyone. Me included. What you said about changing the operating system, what if we could do that? And I mean we. It would be a way to redeem these last two unhappy years.

Suddenly I can see a bit of sunshine behind the clouds.

Rich:  So what's your game plan?

Kira:  Okay, I'm going to change my life and, at the same time, me and my staff are going to change this nonprofit. I'm going to take that stand. I'm going to make that promise to myself. Hold me accountable to it.

Rich:  I'd love to.

Kira:  It'll be like giving them real ownership for the first time. They're bright people. They're talented. That's something I forget. I've forgotten who I am and I've forgotten who they are, too.

I want to let go of my founder persona and welcome them in. You know, that founder thing is getting old. That's the past. I need a future.

You know, I'm going to take that word "founder" off my business card and off our website. I really need a new identity.

Rich:  So how do you want to acknowledge yourself right now for the journey you've taken in this conversation?

Kira:  I still feel the burden of my bad behavior, but I guess I feel good about facing it as much as I have today. I know there's more ahead, but this is a start, wouldn't you say?

Rich:  I would. And what's your heart say?

Kira:  It says, "Thank you for remembering."


Now let's take a look at a tougher situation.

Rich:  Hey, Kent, thanks for taking the time to go on a walk with me.

Kent:  Not a problem. I needed to get out of that place for an hour anyway. What a bunch of numskulls I have working for me.

Rich:  Congratulations on the event. Lonnie was at the front desk when I came in. She said you broke the hundred thousand mark.

Kent:  We did. The grand total was $100,000 plus 50 cents. But it still counts. And thanks for all your help. I really appreciate how you show up for me.

Rich:  Well, that's what I wanted to talk with you about.

Kent:  Meaning?

Rich:  I'm not going to be volunteering anymore.

Kent:  Is something wrong? Do you need more time for your business? Did the doctor give you bad news? How can I help?

Rich:  See, this is one reason we've stayed friends all these years. I love how you're always ready to jump in and help.

Kent:  Yeh, but what's this about?

Rich: You know I spent two full days in the office last week working with the staff to prepare the event.

Kent:  Yeh.

Rich:  And they were leaking.

Kent:  What does that mean?

Rich:  You know how it is when people are unhappy or stressed? They can hide it for an hour or two, but not for eight hours. It didn't matter that they know I'm your friend, they were leaking. There were comments I overheard.

Kent:  And just exactly what did they leak?

Rich:  How much you scare them. How much they dislike you.

Kent:  Well, hell, I'm the boss. That happens.

Rich:  And then every time you came into the workroom, it was like the scene froze. I could see people stiffen. And you had an "or-else" attitude.

Kent:  Well, these days you have to crack the whip. Young people weren't taught the work ethic like we were.

Rich:  And there's more.

Kent:  Well, knock yourself out.

Rich:  When I was coming back from the men's room, I heard you in your office and your voice was loud and angry. So I stood outside your door and listened.

Kent:  Eavesdropping?

Rich:  Exactly. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. You were hammering those two program directors. You didn't even give them a chance to defend themselves. You just hammered. You tossed around terms like lazy, incompetent, careless, and idiot. And those are good people.

Kent:  If you want me to apologize to them, it's not going to happen.

Rich:  No, screw them. I don't care about them right now. I care about you.

Kent:  Then why are you walking out on me?

Rich:  Because I can't take it. I've known you since college. I know your good heart. The guy who I heard in your office last week was not you. I refuse to believe that's you.

Kent:  You don't know the pressures I'm under. That kind of thing is just what it takes to keep people in line. I have to keep lighting fires under them or nothing gets done right.

Rich:  I want your staff to look up to you like I do.

Kent:  Well maybe they secretly do.

Rich:  From what I witnessed last week, don't count on it. They know you do big things. They know you're a big deal in the community. But I overheard one of them say "street angel, house devil."

Kent:  About me?

Rich:  Yes. You know what that means? You look great out in the public spotlight, but back in the office you're a terror. That's when my heart sank. And it was Noelle who said it, and she's a sweetheart. You have to go pretty far to get her not to like you.

Kent:  So? This kind of thing just goes with the territory.

Rich:  I don't want that to be true. Not for you.

Kent:  Well, it is.

Rich:  You can change that. I've watched you do the most challenging things. I know you've got it in you to fix this. You do.

Kent:  I don't know if I care to.

Rich:  Well, here's what's in my heart right now. You've been talking about maybe it's time to move on. You've built this giant organization that turns out a tremendous number of service units. It's really amazing. You've saved so many teens from destruction. But it's been at such a cost.

Kent:  Yeh, well, sure. I've had to put in long hours. But I don't mind. It's been worth it.

Rich:  I'm not talking about your hours, I'm talking about your soul. What's your legacy going to be? The service units? The kids whose lives you've changed? That's good stuff.

But then there's this staff that's scared of you and even hates you. And there's the fact that you go around acting like a petty tyrant and I can tell you that's not who you are. It's just not.

Kent:  Some friend. Invite me for a walk then clobber me with all this crazy stuff.

Rich:  Yeh, I am your friend. I'm telling you what I'm seeing. I'm telling you facts about your life and the people around you. And I trust in your good heart. It doesn't matter to me whether you get this today or tomorrow or next year. I know this is not you. And I'm standing by you till you get it. I just can't be around your staff anymore, it's too painful.

Kent:  Why don't I just fire you as my friend?

Rich:  You can do that, but it won't change one little bit of what's true. Tell me this, aren't there moments when you want things to be different? Aren't there moments when you feel lonely back there in that office?

Kent:  Jeez, don't bring that up. Of course I feel lonely. I miss the early days when were were all in it together. But this is what it means to be the big boss. This is just how it is when you're running a nonprofit. You of all people should know that after your experience with CAP.

Rich:  What I know from my nonprofit experience is that the pressures can make you forget who you are.

Kent:  Well, I still know I'm Kent.

Rich:  Yeh, you know your name, but what's it like when you try to have a conversation with your heart?

Kent:  That's a luxury I can't afford anymore.

Rich:  That's why I feel so sad. That's why I'm standing by you.

Kent:  Why me? Why not my staff since you're so concerned about them?

Rich:  Because I believe in you. Because I think you're starving.

Kent:  Starving?! Come on! Look at this belly.

Rich:  I remember when you started this work. I was there when you gave those speeches and rallied people. What you talked about then was love. Again and again. You were eloquent. And it was so obvious you really meant it. When was the last time you spoke that word?

Kent:  Can't remember.

Rich:  That's why I'm going to stand by you. I'm going to make this official: From now on I don't give a damn about your organization. If your staff don't like it there they can quit. All I care about is you. I think you've got the moxie to fix this. And if you don't want to fix it, I believe you have the smarts to get out and go start a new life where you can remember who you are.

Kent:  You don't care about the staff? That's not like you.

Rich:  Yes, I do care about them, but not right now. I'm putting that on hold. There are only three possibilities that could make things better for them. Either they walk, or you get out, or you get back to being the person you were when you started this organization.

Kent:  That feels cold.

Rich:  I know.

Kent:  But that's how it is, right? That's what you were going to say next?

Rich:  Yes. But take a second look at that third option. I think there's a lot of warmth in that one.

Kent:  Let's stop talking about this now. Maybe over the weekend I'll give it some thought.

Rich:  Okay.


Being there for founders
Sometimes it's not the founders who need to make the big change, but the people around them.

Founders are people who give a lot, often too much, and it's easy to forget that they have needs, too. If you're working with a founder who is cranky and out of sorts but otherwise leads with grace, try meeting her needs. See what kind of change that makes.

Here are two key needs:

1.  The need to be heard.
Imagine this: People honor you for the results you get, but not one person has ever asked you what it takes to get those results. Everyone knows all about you as the founder of your organization. But they don't know you. They don't know the behind-the-scenes story. They don't know about your leadership journey. Wouldn't that make you feel lonely?

Many of the founders I've coached love connecting with people, and so being "lonely at the top" is very hard on them.

Of course there's an issue of safety for founders. They're not going to blurt out their story to just anyone who asks. They need to know that you're really on their side, that you care about them, that you will respect whatever they tell you, that it won't become part of the gossip mill.

But I have found it so very sweet when a founder takes me into her confidence. To get to know that very personal side of a remarkable leader is something I cherish. And it makes a world of difference for the founder.

2.  The need for people to meet her where she is.
Imagine that you're a super capable founder, and because of that the people who work with you feel like they can coast. They count on you to fill in whatever they miss. They get into the mindset that because you work so hard, they can kick back.

Wouldn't that upset you? And make you feel even more lonely at the top.

But now imagine the your staff comes to you and asks: "What do you need from us that would make it easier to lead us?"

And what if they really meant it? What if they took what you said to heart? What if you saw them step up, carry their weight, and give their best just like you do?

Wouldn't that make you happy again? Maybe even thrilled.

And how sweet for the staff who step up. They get to grow and develop, they get to become super capable, too.

Again, I want to emphasize how important it is to make an accurate diagnosis. Being cranky for a good reason is not the same thing as having a syndrome.

I've written up the following conversation to illustrate what it might be like to have a need-based talk with a founder who you suspect might be hurting rather than syndroming. Here I'm imagining that I'm a friend of Erin's.

Rich:  Hi, Erin

Erin:  Hi, Rich

Rich:  I'm so glad you had time for lunch.

Erin:  Yes, I'm making changes. There was a time when I wouldn't ever have taken a break during a work day.

Rich:  I know. I remember when you used to say no to lunch all the time.

Erin:  I felt I had to. There was so much work and not nearly enough of us to do it.

Rich:  You know that's a nice segue into what I wanted to ask you.

Erin:  What's that?

Rich:  I know so much about your accomplishments: that you started the Teen Action Program from nothing, that you've grown it into a giant, and that you keep it going year after year getting amazing results.

But I realized I've never asked you for the behind-the-scenes story. If you're willing to talk about this, I'd love to hear what it's been like for you personally to be the founder of TAP. I'd love to hear what it takes and who you have to be to lead the organization. I'd like to know that side of you if that's okay.

Erin:  Wow, there's a lot to that. And apart from my partner and my sister, no one else, till now, has ever asked me about my personal story of leading. So I don't have a ready answer.

Rich:  That's okay, we can take our time. I really would love to hear whatever you'd like to tell. And it's okay to start with whatever comes to mind. You don't have to do a presentation.

Erin:  Well, what comes to mind first is that I'm at a turning point right now. Things are changing.

Rich:  How so?

Erin:  I'm moving into a new phase of my leadership. Maybe I should tell you what triggered it.

Rich:  Cool.

Erin:  And can this be entirely confidential between us?

Rich:  Absolutely. I promise you that.

Erin:  Well, Michael, my former development director told me something just before he left that woke me up.

Rich:  What was it?

Erin:  He gave me the final grant he wrote for us, and I had so many things going on that I didn't know if I could review it in time. He said, "Oh, don't worry about it, it's good enough."

I suddenly realized that that had been his attitude all along: good enough. So I would always come along after him and re-work the grants so they would be excellent. I appreciate the basic work he did, but his attitude was actually not okay with me. And I realized that the times I got impatient with him and said things I wish I hadn't, it was because I was resenting his attitude.

I give 100% and truth be told, I really want staff who give 100%, too. I want staff who are reaching for great and won't settle for good enough.

And this is not about long hours or people driving themselves down burnout street. I don't want that for me and I don't want it for them. I'm asking for passion.

Rich:  So then what?

Erin:  Now we have Ryland as our DD and I hired him because of his attitude. There were two people with more experience who looked better on paper, but Ryland had the drive for superlative performance I was looking for.

The grant proposals he gives me now are stellar. I make very few changes, sometimes none. I would feel comfortable not looking at them at all. I can't tell you how much it's changed my mood to have total confidence in my DD.

Rich:  Was your mood a problem before?

Erin: Yes, it was. I was getting upset and angry around work and I didn't understand why. I really like the people I work with, but something was not right. And one day when Davy was pissed at me he said, "You've got that founder's syndrome. Just admit it."

Rich:  Ouch.

Erin:  Ouch and not true. But that comment threw me. I spent several evenings thinking about things and I realized something. TAP is a success because I've always reached beyond good to great. Again, I want to be very clear. I don't think great means we work sacrificially. Quite the opposite. There's an odd way in which great is actually easier than good. And so much more satisfying.

Rich:  What does all this mean, then?

Erin:  I'm turning a page at TAP. From now on when we interview people for openings, I'm going to be screening for a commitment to great. If we're asking our teens to go for greatness, then we need ask that of ourselves.

Rich:  That makes sense. I feel jazzed just picturing that.

Erin:  And the other thing I'm going to do is focus my time much more on developing the staff we've got. I want to find out how many of them have a yearning for great and I want to call that forth.

Rich:  How many people do you think that is?

Erin:  I don't know and I'm not worried about that right now. I think I'm going to be pleasantly surprised. I believe this new plan is going to make TAP stronger and for the staff who stay and help build this new culture, I think they're going to have a whole lot more fun.

Rich:  Cool. So that's one of the things you get to do as founder, set new directions?

Erin:  No, that's me as the leader, as the ED. It's interesting. I love that I'm the founder of TAP. That means a lot to me. I'm attached to that title. But it's like a plaque hanging on the wall. It's a piece of history and I like living in the moment. I've left it behind.

Now I think of it like this. This morning, when we all got to the office, it's like me and my staff are co-founders together of TAP for this day. And tomorrow, we'll be co-founders, or co-creators of TAP for that day.

It means a lot to start an organization from scratch. But it means a lot more to keep an organization going at a high level of success and that's not something one person does alone, and one thing about me, I love being part of a team.

Rich:  So what was it like in the early years when you were identified with being the founder?

Erin:  Like sweet and sour meets extreme sports.

Rich:  What?!

Erin:  It was a wild ride. My heart was in my throat so many days. There were so many times I was looking into the abyss thinking I was about to lose everything I had worked so hard for. We had so many close calls. Times when grants that fell through at the last moment. Times when the cash flow was so bad that we had to hold back paychecks, once for a full month.

And then there was the first time I had to lay someone off. She had two little children and her husband had just lost his job. That was hell. There was no doubt she had to be laid off. It was her program and the grant wasn't renewed. I managed to help her find a new job, but still those were some awful, awful days.

Rich:  What about the sweet side of the journey?

Erin:  I grew up so shy that it was just astounding to me to find myself suddenly leading a staff of twenty, negotiating with schools, going to funders and insisting on their support. Gutsy things I would never have imagined myself doing.

And gathering this team around me has been so rewarding. They're such good people. I'm going to be asking more of them, but I really like my staff, even Davy, though we do have our days.

When I was a teenager, I imagined that I would spend my whole life in the shadows. But now here I am in the spotlight and I've learned how to handle it, even enjoy it. I'm making a difference that's many times beyond what I could have ever done alone.

Rich:  So is it easier now?

Erin:  That's a very interesting question. It's both many times easier and many times harder.

Rich:  How's that?

Erin:  I've mastered so many of the elements of leadership. There are so many things that used to be super challenging that I can now do without even thinking about them.

But at the same time, there's now so much more at stake and that means I have to pay 100% attention all the time.

And there's so much more possibility ahead of us, simply because we have been so successful.

Rich:  And that's harder?

Erin:  Well, "harder" is not the right word. "Challenging" is better and it's a mixed blessing. I want the challenges, I really want them. I want to make the possibilities come true. At the same time they take my breath away.

Rich:  Wow. You know I've always been a fan of yours, but listening to you now, I admire you a hundred times more. Your work is impressive, but it's even more impressive now that I'm hearing a bit about what it's like to be you.

I'm so glad we had the chance to have this talk. I'm glad to know something more about the personal Erin who's behind the founder Erin.

Erin:  Well that brings up the other thing about the turning point. First, I realized that I need top performing staff. It just simply makes me crazy if people are casual about this work.

But I've also realized that I need to stop being lonely at the top. This conversation with you is coming at just the right time. I'm thankful for your questions.

Rich:  I've got more.

Erin:  Well, I'd be glad to answer them. Talking like this boosts my mood. And I want to teach my staff some key things about how to support me as a leader.

Rich:  I think that's a very important thing for leaders to do.

Erin:  You don't think it's an ego thing?

Rich:  Not at all. I think the idea of solo leadership is nuts. I want leaders to be known by their staff. I want to believe that there are lots of staff who would be eager to support leaders they respect if only they knew what to do.

Erin:  That's my hypothesis and I'm going to test it out in the coming months.It'll be good for me and I think it will be good for my staff, too. Some of them have what it takes to move into top levels of leadership. I want to bring them backstage with me so they will know what it takes to lead. I want to help prepare them for their future.

Rich:  So then, this founder's syndrome thing...

Erin:  It doesn't apply to me. It doesn't take much these days to make me happy—staff who put their whole heart into the work, and me stepping out from behind my title more so I can be more a part of the team. That's all I need, but I do need what I need.


Rich:  Yes?

Erin:  Get out your calendar. Let's schedule our next lunch, okay?

Rich:  Yes! I'd like that.


The sector syndrome
In a minute I'm going to have some more recommendations about how to talk with distressed founders who are causing trouble. But there's one more thing to look at first.

The problem with founders is really a problem with our sector. It's a problem with the default culture of our sector. We pressure our founders to be saviors and that leads to trouble without fail. There's no way to be a savior without also suffering the savior syndrome.

By contrast, there is definitely a way to be a founder without ever suffering the founder's syndrome.

It's not really fair to ask founders to provide us with the upside of savior behavior and then blame them when we get hit with the unhappy part of that very same behavior.

If we're asking founders to save us from the downside of of savior behavior, we're really asking them to do even more savior behavior. Which is no kind of solution.

The syndrome is something for all of us to fix together. If we change our underlying nonprofit culture, then we will automatically prevent the majority of savior troubles and the majority of founder's syndrome.

And I believe it matters that we do this.

Not long ago, Ruby told me...

I was at a conference, on a break, hanging out with some people I didn't know and I introduced myself as the founder of my nonprofit. Instantly I felt a chill in the air. I saw them shrink back ever so slightly. I felt suspect. So I've decided not to introduce myself as a founder anymore. I'll just say I'm the ED.

I've witnessed that reaction myself. I've seen founders introduce themselves with a touch of apology in their voice or maybe an apologetic joke: "I'm the founder of my nonprofit. Yes, I'm one of those dreaded beings."

If, in our sector we develop a blanket prejudice against founders, we're painting ourselves into a very bad corner. We need our founders. We need to encourage aspiring founders. We need to honor those who lead with grace. And help those who don't and show them a better way.


Being an advocate and ally for founders
Let's say you work for a distressed founder and you're thinking about intervening. Before you initiate a conversation with her, I urge you to do two things.

First, assess the founder.
Think about your relationship with her. Is it strong enough so that she will hang in there with you through a hard conversation? Do you see any openings? Does this founder talk about having doubts, being upset, missing the old days? Does she ever apologize for things she does?

I think it's a great thing if you want to try to step in and help. But it's not so great if you only end up being punished or fired.

Second, do what you need to do so you can be a genuine advocate for the founder.
What do I mean by that? Counterattack almost never works. It rarely helps people open up, it closes them down. There are those rare occasions, mostly in the movies, where a blast of criticism wakes someone up and they change. But in general, in real life, it's a losing strategy.

And if you're being attacked by a founder, if you feel hurt and angry and judgmental, all of which is completely understandable, then you probably aren't ready to have conversation without getting triggered.

Before you can help a founder get clear, I believe you need to get clear yourself by working through your feelings with people who can support you. I would want you to give yourself that gift before trying to have a conversation that will likely be quite challenging.

To take a stand as an advocate for the founder, to be on her side so strongly that she can feel it in her bones that you are fighting for her, not against her, means that you need to find a way to be bigger than the problem and outside the distress.

This doesn't mean that you don't have feelings, but that you can also step beyond them. Or that you can use them in service of healing.

If you feel pulled to retribution or revenge, again understandable feelings, then of course it's not time for an advocacy conversation.

And if you're not ready for that conversation, you might want to see if there is a friend of the founder who's willing to go talk with her on your behalf. Or is there a Board member who could do it? Often founders keep friends and Board members from knowing what's really going on inside their organization. But sometimes there is such a person who can talk with the founder and is open to doing that for you once they know what's happening.

If you assess your founder and assess yourself, and you see readiness, then how do you approach a conversation?

First know that these are challenging and complex conversations. There can be tears, there can be anger. This is another reason why it's important to be emotionally clear yourself first, so you don't get tangled, dragged down, or hurt if things get messy.

If the founder, out of defensiveness, tries to throw you off balance, keep remembering who you are. You get to keep grounding the conversation by saying, "This is what's in my heart..."

The conversation is essentially one of calling the founder back to her core values, her essential caring. If she has no access to those, then you probably won't have a successful outcome.

Advocacy means that we don't judge or punish this founder. We claim her. We want her to come back home to herself.

I want you to take my warnings seriously, but I also want you to be prepared to be surprised, too...

Sometimes these conversations turn out to be surprisingly easy and so very sweet.

There are lots of founders who are hurting behind their troublesome behavior and hurting badly. They want someone to help them break the spell. And...

The stronger you are in your advocacy for them, the deeper the conversation can go.

If they feel you really mean it when you say you are there for them, that gives them the safety to say things to you they wouldn't say to anyone else in the world.


What if you can't find an opening right now?
We're headed into some sad territory now. There are definitely founders who have no access to their own pain or the pain of the people around them. There's nothing they feel they want to change. And there's no way they are going to have a conversation with you.

I had a long talk with Evan, the founder and charismatic director of a scrappy national organization. It had a great reputation across the country. But back at the office it was different.

Evan was a petty tyrant. He bullied people. He scared them on purpose. He tore down their self-esteem.

How did I know this? He told me. He described in detail what he did. And then he told me about his childhood, and as he talked he was sobbing his way through the most painful stories.

I asked more questions, I gave him my best advocacy in hopes of a breakthrough, but it didn't come.

Intellectually he had such a clear diagnosis of how his childhood was driving him to be someone who he did not want to be. But he was scared to death about actually changing things. Such a great guy, but frozen inside his painful personal history.

He didn't ask for coaching and I didn't think coaching was what he needed, so I gave him the number of a compassionate and effective therapist I happened to know with an office in Evan's town. But I don't know if he ever followed up.

Here's another example, from Edward...

I was pretty happy when Thea first hired me because she was brilliant and the go-to person in her field. I was looking forward to settling in and staying for the long term.

One day when I went into her office to get something signed, she said, "Think of me as the President." I was confused. The President of the Board? Why would I think of her like that?

Then I remembered that she had once held a high position in the federal government and realized she meant the President of the United States. Talk about an inflated ego.

At the same time she acted out her fantasy of grandeur, she'd have full-blown tantrums. One morning when she was getting ready to go give a speech, I put her handouts in an ordinary cardboard box. When she saw that, she burst into tears, shouting at me through her sobs with the voice of a little girl, "I wanted a box with haaaaandles!"

In less than sixty seconds, I found her a box with handles and transferred the handouts and the storm began to subside. I stood there wondering why such a powerful professional woman didn't just ask for what she wanted. Then I realized it was a strategy for keeping everyone off balance and in fear of the next explosion or meltdown.

She hired very talented, eager, young people right out of college and she did what she could to destroy their spirit so she could control them. I remember one young woman who was often in tears by the end of the day.

There was no talking with Thea. I tried once and learned my lesson quick.

And what was the response of the staff? We walked. When I started in September there were nine staff. By the time I put in my resignation two months later, there were only two staff who had not left or turned in their resignation letters.

Did this shake things up? Not at all. The Board members were all handpicked by Thea and were entirely in her shadow. Not one of them would dare to contradict her.

The same for her OD consultant. I was the only one dumb enough to actually go see him for an exit interview. When I told him what was happening in the organization, hoping he might be able to help Thea, who was after all his client, he called it a personality conflict and spent the final ten minutes berating me.

The last night I was in the office working late, I snooped through the personnel files and saw that there had been four people in my position within the past year. One of them had written a searing resignation letter. Such bitter eloquence. So I called her up and told her I could have written the very same letter myself.

She was still in pain. She cried as we talked. She said she was so glad that I called, that it helped her understand that what happened was not her fault.

Before I walked out of the office that night, I stood for a few moments in the dark, saying a blessing for Thea and mourning that this person with such a good heart was compulsively doing such bad things. And I realized that compared to her, I was the lucky one. I could get out. But she couldn't.

If you were working for a founder like Evan or Thea and asked me what I thought you should do, all I'd be able to say is...

Save yourself. Get out. You have gifts to give. You are called to make a difference in the world. Go work someplace where you can make that difference and grow and develop instead of getting dragged down into hurt and despair.

If a founder or any leader is hurting you, what comes first is that you take care of yourself. If that means getting out, that can be a smart and honorable solution.

I'm always very happy when I can talk in a loving way with a distressed founder and she can get her breakthrough and come back home to her good heart.

But that is by no means always possible. I think it's important to not let yourself be held hostage by the work...

"I know it's hurting me to work here. A lot. I've forgotten the last time I felt really happy. My relationship is suffering. But we're saving lives. How can I walk away from that?"

I understand this kind of dedication. But there's something even more important—that you sustain. That you not be traumatized or get your spirit broken.

I know of someone who spent 27 years working for a founder who used fear and personal attacks as his main management tools. Imagine. What would that do to your life? Eight hours a day for 27 years. How much of yourself would you lose in that time?

So for your own sake, please don't suffer tyrants.


I think it matters that none of us enable founders who are acting like tyrants instead of leaders.

Tyrant being the other side of the savior coin.

Are there times when it's justified to organize to oust a founder from the organization they've built? Yes, there are. But this is not something to do lightly. If you are considering organizing against a founder, I have some serious cautions for you that you can find by clicking here.


I don't want to end this page on a down note, so let me just say again that the tragedies associated with founders are unnecessary. They don't have to happen. They really don't. We know how to prevent them.

What does it take?

Building organizations based on mission discipline instead of sacrifice.

Committing ourselves to being leaders instead of saviors.

Understanding that when we try to save people we will end up hurting them and hurting ourselves.

When we consciously choose the sustainable and premier operating systems we are preventing a world of pain.

And let me finish by saying this to founders and aspiring founders. Starting an organization and leading it to success is one of the most challenging things you could ever do. But along with the challenges come the rewards...

You get to create something from nothing. Something that matters.

You get to ignite the passion of others and give them a chance to do the work they most want to do.

You get to magnify, many times over, the difference you're making for a mission that you love.


Please don't let anything—not the drive to be a savior, not your childhood issues, not the sacrificial nonprofit culture—steal from you the joy of being a founder.


© 2008 Rich Snowdon