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surviving founders with Susanna Kislenko

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Working in small nonprofits, we build such close relationships with our colleagues. Many of these relationships turn into lifelong friendships. But sometimes, there are also relationships that involve toxic dynamic and power play.

This week's topic may be uncomfortable for some, but it's necessary. We connected with researcher Susanna Kislenko to talk about founders' syndrome and how that manifests in the nonprofit sector.

Founders’ syndrome is when founders or leaders garner and maintain so much control of their organizations that it leads to a wide array of problems.

To all of you out there who have dealt with or are still actively working with problematic founders or leaders, we see you and we're here to support you.

Myths Susanna wants us to leave behind:

  1. If you work harder, you can help resolve your founders’ or managers’ founders’ syndrome. There are many personal factors that contribute to someone having founders’ syndrome. Changes have to come from within, and sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you try to help.

  2. Your board and funders can do nothing about founders’ syndrome: Key stakeholders’ ongoing engagement with the organization and awareness of problems in management is an important first step for bringing about changes.

Susanna’s tips on surviving founders’ syndromes

For employers

  1. Recognizing that founders’ syndrome can be difficult to detect. Because we care about the causes we work for so much, we build up cognitive dissonance that prevents us from detecting and acknowledging patterns of founders’ syndromes.

  2. Assess whether your organization has these problematic signs: often, a combination of lack of transparency from management, no succession planning, and lack of space for feedback from employers are common traits that suggest an org might be suffering from founders’ syndrome.

  3. Give yourself permission to walk away. Founders’ syndrome can be extremely tricky to resolve and if it is having a toxic influence in your life, allow yourself to prioritize your wellbeing. Walking away from a problematic workplace is not quitting.

For Founders and Leaders

  1. Recognize that an organization is a system, and all parts must move towards the same direction in order for it to move forward.

  2. Give your employers to voice out their opinion and constructive criticism.

  3. Love your organization like your baby, and nurture it with the mindset that it can flourish without your presence.

My favourite quotes from today’s episode

Post your favourite quote on our social!

“Founders’ syndrome is founders not wanting to let go of control of their organizations. The way that often plays out is holding on at all costs and not having succession plans. This has huge ripple effects. When the person leading the organization is no longer the right leader, that person often actually keeps its organizations small, both literally and figuratively.”

“You can parent your company, just the same way that you can parent a child in many different ways. You can be the person who has your baby until they're 85, always micromanaging them and always being in their lives. Or, you could parent with the idea that I'm not always going to be there and I don't necessarily need to be there, and how do I empower my child to stand on their own?”

Resources from this Episode

The Good Partnership


The Small Nonprofit is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano