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Fighting Founder’s Syndrome

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Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Senior Associate Dean of the Yale School of Management, did a great piece in the Washington Post this weekend on Facebook’s challenges with a Founder/CEO.  He points out that good governance practices often go out the window, and directors kow-tow to the mystical leader, when a founder is at the helm of a company. Public and private companies are not alone in having leadership challenges—or what I call “founder’s syndrome.”

Many nonprofits have also been created by visionary leaders, and have the same challenges Facebook may–like boards of directors who aren’t willing to stand up to the founder, or even at some point look for new leadership.

There are ways to avoid this dynamic.

A Diverse Board.  Facebook’s board is all-male.  Don’t make the same mistake. A diverse board, though, is not just gender or race diverse. It should be age-diverse and made up not only of donors, but of people from the communities the organization serves. It should also include several individuals from related institutions (perhaps in other states), who can lend relevant expertise.

Free-Thinking Leadership. Board leaders are often hand-picked by the Executive, so that they get along well together. This is great. But more important is leaders who can speak their mind to the Executive and be sure all ideas and options are on the table.

Financial Compliance. It’s not uncommon for nonprofits still being led by their founders to have some squishy numbers in the books. An Audit Committee—separate from the Finance Committee—should oversee an annual audit process that follows current accounting standards.  Independent Sector offers a checklist for accountability that includes these standards.

Mission-Driven Decisionmaking. At the end of the day, every board and leadership decision should meet this simple litmus test “Does this further our mission?”  It sounds easy, but sometimes Founder-led organizations can get sidetracked with pet projects of the founder, or conversely, projects the founder doesn’t find particularly interesting but need to be done to move the mission forward.

Succession Planning. Every business owner needs to do it. So do nonprofit organization founders. It’s a conversation that needs to be had with the board, with real plans and timelines drawn up on paper so everyone knows what role the founder will play and how the organization will continue to succeed after he or she retires.  Consider planning for an Interim Executive for 18 months after the founder leaves. No one can match the zeal and history of the founder, and a leader who is experienced in helping organizations make transitions can be just the right person to bridge to your next visionary.

 

Tips for Rebranding a Nonprofit

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Solid branding is just as critical for nonprofits as it is in the corporate world.  A brand that is not aligned with organizational goals, principles, and donor investments, is in serious trouble. And because a re-brand can take time and dollars away from key mission, it scares people .  Nonprofits can also find re-branding daunting because it can be a deeply emotional process for donors, long-time volunteers and staff.  Here are some reasons to do a re-brand and ways to make it a productive, even exciting process.

Why Re-Brand?

1.  Your name/logo/tagline no longer reflect your true mission.

2.  No one knows what your mission is when they hear your name.

3.  You are expanding your mission and want to ensure all your external materials reflect this.

4.  You have gone from being a collection of local or regional organizations to being a national one and need a new, unified identity.

Reasons NOT to Re-Brand a Nonprofit

1. You have multiple and divergent missions that not everyone can agree on (not a re-brand issue, but a good reason to embark on a strategic planning process).

2. You’ve really messed something up (you need crisis PR and brand attention, but not necessarily a re-brand).

3. Your logo style and color is dated (this may be true, but may not be reason enough to give up the brand capital associated with it).

Okay, let’s assume you’ve gone through all the due diligence and decided it’s really time for a change. What’s involved?

A Strategic Plan for Your Brand

Branding is always an act of imagination. The question to ask if you want to re-brand is “will this help propel our mission to where we envision ourselves 10-15 years from now?”  Or, in the lingo of corporate brands, “does it help us deliver on our brand promise?”  And just as you have a multi-year road map for your organizational work, you need a strategy for your re-brand.   Here are three things to focus on in a re-brand and questions for your board and staff to consider.

1. Programs and Services.  Are they consistent with our mission/vision?

2.  Governance Structure.  Do our bylaws, board governance, and staff-board  and staff-volunteer relationships effectively support our programs and services? Do we offer a consistency of vision and goal-setting across all parts of the organization?

3.  External Signifiers. Do our name/logo/tag line/communications channels help people understand our mission, vision and value to our community?

So many organizations start a re-branding with the externals and then fail at the re-brand because the internals are still not quite in sync.

Brand Identity Touchstones

Another element to success is checking in with key constituencies.  I’m not recommending crowd-sourcing your new logo. But when considering changing any key aspect of your branding—colors, logo and/or tag line—consider these useful perspectives:

1.        Current customers/clients/donors.  Organizations that already have deep roots into social networks can use them for feedback. But it’s also good to use old-fashioned focus groups, with a trained professional to run them. However realize that all of these sources are subjective and subject to change from a variety of external pressures you can’t necessarily control.

2.       Prospective customers/clients/donors.  This one is always a bit harder to pinpoint, but a firm specializing in both quantitative and qualitative survey data can help you hone in on key sub-markets and assess the resonance of your new branding with them.

3.       Vendors.  I know, on first blush this seems odd. But as one of the people who often has to deal with people’s new logos (for multimedia/video production), I’m often struck by how they don’t work across multiple mediums.  Check in with your essential communications vendors–from printers to video producers to webmasters–and be sure that you are considering the fonts and colors that work best in their media.

As you craft your new brand vision, always come back to mission. Consider how your donors, volunteers, policymakers and the public will remain confident that you will provide the value they expect and deserve.

Invite Dissent: Promote Business and Nonprofit Change

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To much fanfare and hand-wringing, Virginia’s governor has just declared April to be Confederate History Month. One of the great battles of our Civil War has been on my mind, since I just returned from a family trip to Gettysburg. We’d been several times before, but this time we had a private guide who truly brought the scale and devastation of those terrible three days to life. We walked the battle lines of the Wheat field and saw where men fell in lines at the Peach Orchard.  We imagined the cannon firing into the town, scattering frightened civilians.  We climbed Little Round Top and peered over the edge, imagining a sea of Confederate soldiers charging. And we saw the deadly conclusion in Pickett’s Charge.  And as we moved back and forth from Confederate to Union perspectives, I was reminded of my own divided history:   A Yankee through and through, having been raised in New York and Maryland, I have plenty of Confederates in the family, with ancestors who fought and died at Antietum, and southern  relatives–including a Confederate historian–who remain skeptical about northern ways.

Hidden or Banished Differences May Slow  Success

There are many legacies of our divided history, but one is clear: Americans remain separated politically, socially, economically and even spiritually. So why should my readers care? Because we often hide our differences, or operate in communities of the like-minded, thus subverting the real benefits of diverse perspectives and ideas.

For example, how many boards do you serve on where the leadership is predominantly of one political persuasion? What would happen if these leaders didn’t all support the same candidates and agree on the same issues (even if your organization isn’t political in nature)? And what about in business–do the leaders in your company represent diverse views and personal histories? Do they come from varied economic backgrounds? Or did they all attend the same schools and join the same country clubs?  Does your organization push for cross-cultural literacy and encourage leadership development among people of varied cultural backgrounds?  Do you promote gender parity initiatives that mentor and support women through childbearing years, when many fall off the leadership ladder?

Find Your Perspective Gap

Many times firms and organizations feel they are doing plenty to promote diversity, but if they asked for feedback from the people most affected, they might learn a different truth. For instance, according to a recent Bain & Company study, when it comes to gender disparity in leadership, men and women view the workplace very differently. Men think women are treated equally, whereas women don’t see it that way. Why the gap? I’ll let you read the report to see what the Bain folks think, but I have witnessed the “perspective gap” taking many solid nonprofits and businesses off their path of success.

What do I mean by “perspective gap”? I mean asking your staff or board members how they feel about having a different opinion or background from the rest of the group.  Are they encouraged to have a different perspective? Or is it less complicated to remain silent? In his recent book about the amazing technological success of Israel, Startup Nation, Dan Senor attributes Israel’s success, among other reasons, to a culture of people being willing to challenge their superiors, and those superiors being willing to listen.  He gives examples of how this has promoted a faster route to innovation and change.

OK, Amy, where is this going and what does it have to do with Confederate History Month?

Invite Opposition

Here goes. My suggestion is to create your own version of a controversial celebratory month within your company or nonprofit organization.  Let’s call it Contrary Opinion Month.  Invite everyone to make a suggestion that appears to be contrary to company tradition, policy or social custom. If you are a law firm, encourage your newest young associates to speak up at your next committee meeting! If you are a nonprofit, don’t let a unanimous vote obscure hidden dissent in the ranks–bring it on and into the light! If you are a big business, find out what that guy in the mailroom thinks about your new [fill in the blank] policy!

I’m truly curious to hear what happens, so if you have a good story, please email me at amy[at]amydelouise[dot]com.