Always Looking for Your Next Step
You’re six years in. You’ve poured everything you have into starting and growing your organization, but now you find yourself restless for your own growth, or a new adventure. Perhaps, more importantly, you realize that your enterprise requires new leadership. Mark Hanis, a 2006 Echoing Green Fellow, says that you should start planning for your departure almost as soon as you begin. Why? Because you never know when you might get hit by that proverbial bus. More likely, someone close to you passed away, your child got sick, your partner has to start traveling more for work and you’re needed at home more, or you get sick. What happens to your organization, to your business? Do you have a plan?
Mark’s story is fairly unique—he is the founder of a now large organization, Genocide Intervention Network, that merged with another organization, Save Darfur, to create an even bigger force in the human rights ecosystem. The merger didn’t come about overnight—it was a thoughtful process that involved outside consultants who specialize in strategic partnerships, a lot of planning, and a lot of communication. It began with an effort to build strategic partnerships and create stronger dialogue amongst the big players in human rights. Over time, Mark and his board at Genocide Intervention Network, along with the leadership at Save Darfur concluded that a merger of the two organizations could create an incredibly powerful voice for human rights around the world.
Mark found himself to be in a position to lead the newly formed United to End Genocide, but chose to take a different path. He had spent nearly seven years building his social enterprise and this just felt like the right time to bring in new leadership that could be even more entrepreneurial and risk-taking. But, Mark was the “genocide guy”—his identity was deeply intertwined with his work. It’s something we often hear from social entrepreneurs—“I founded an organization and now everyone thinks that’s all I can do.” By taking your time and being honest with yourself, your team and your board, the transition can be easier.
You may face some pushback from your staff, maybe some apprehension from donors and investors who will question the stability of the organization, and you will find yourself in some highs and lows throughout the process. For Mark, it was a day-to-day effort to consciously unwind himself from the organization—and to figure out what and how he could continue to contribute.
Emma Clippinger, a 2009 Fellow, started Gardens for Health International in college after she interned with the Clinton Foundation. After six years of growing and running the organization, she has a desire to pursue her own growth and develop her expertise in food security. She also began the process of transitioning out of her role as Executive Director well over a year ago. It began with very frank conversations with her co-founder and a very serious look at what GHI needed in its leadership to continue to find success.
While the search for a new executive director continues, Emma is slowly unwinding herself from the organization and passing on as much institutional knowledge as possible to her team. And they’re doing really well—on a recent trip to Rwanda, GHI’s local team handled all of the logistics for visitors and presentations about their impact. But that doesn’t make leaving any easier—as Emma told us, announcing her plans to her friends and family and sharing the job description for the new ED required several weeks of preparation, and then some contemplative moments (and a glass of wine) before she could hit send. It did, however, allow for more conversations about work-life balance and an opportunity to remember that she is a person apart from GHI.
So, what’s it really like to transition out of your organization?
- It's really, really hard. Don’t expect it not to be. You’ve poured a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and time into your organization. Emma found even the simple act of pressing send on the job description was wrenching.
- You will think that everyone else is questioning your loyalty. That can’t be easy. Why would you want to leave? Is something wrong? Don’t let this overwhelm you.
- To find a new leader, you must remove your ego and find your humility. You are looking for leadership to take your organization to the next level—what this person brings is not a reflection of what you couldn’t.
- Plan, plan, plan. To give new leadership as much of a running head start as possible, plan for it. Make sure you have enough funding to give someone new some time to settle in. And find ways to build culture and support amongst your team. This isn’t just a transition for you.
It’s important to remember that both Mark and Emma are fairly young; neither is married or has children, so their circumstances certainly afford them some options that may not be open to those in other situations. So, you need to assess your own —can I afford to take this leap and try something else? Can I work with my team so that we can work towards that moment when I can walk away?
And then what? Mark travelled, spent time with family, and checked a few items off of his bucket list, but he’s still working on his next move. Emma knows that she will be in law school for the next three years. You may not know your next steps. That’s okay. Your journey to connect your passion and purpose will have twists and turns, but knowing when and how to leave your organization are critical to its success—and your own.
So, what is your next step? Big or small, what is your next move to continuing your journey for social change?
*Image courtesy of Gardens for Health International
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