Weh and Phearom

Founder’s syndrome or founderitis

Nov 4, 2014

“Oh, so you’re the founder?” the young blonde woman asked coquettishly, as she batted her eyelids and flicked her hair back suggestively.

While only 10% of the above sentence is factual, it’s true that we often view founders of organisations with awe. Everyone remembers the Steve Jobs, the Richard Bransons, the Somaly Mams. We identify with organisations through the person who represents them. This is no surprise, considering that many organisations take on the personality of their founder.

And yet, founder’s syndrome, or founderitis, can be a huge problem if left unchecked. Romanticising the role of founders is hugely dangerous, as supporters tend to gather around the person, not the cause. If a founder falls from grace, people are suddenly less inclined to support their cause, no matter how worthwhile it is.

People were drawn by the founder’s personality, not the cause itself.

I recently launched OIC Cambodia. OIC aims to bring speech therapy to Cambodia, for the more than 600,000 people who cannot communicate or swallow properly. The absence of speech therapy is the biggest health service gap for people in Cambodia.

As a founder, how do I hope to avoid founderitis? Here are five ways:

1) Starting a project, not an NGO

Cambodia has over 3,500 NGOs. That’s about one for every 10,000 people. Put another way, it has the second highest per-capita number of NGOs, behind Rwanda.

In the field OIC works in, there are at least 11 small Cambodian organisations doing elements of the same work. One of the things I hear our co-founder Brendan Rigby say most often (second to “You are the wind beneath my wings”) is, “Don’t start your own NGO.”

OIC Cambodia is a project, not an NGO. This means we did not establish an organisation; rather we work with existing partner NGOs, to build upon what they do best. They don’t need another foreigner to come in and start something from scratch.

2) Working with people who disagree with me

“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader.

The easiest thing in the world when starting something is to hire people who agree with everything you say. The more counterintuitive thing, but something far better in the long run, is to hire people who disagree.

The first person to join OIC was Allison Smith, who was charged with the difficult task of telling the story of OIC. Allison’s the best person I know to translate a complicated program into something people can understand, without dumbing it down. She is also someone who’s unafraid to disagree. As irritating as this can be at times, it’s hugely vital to making sure our work is headed in the right direction.

3) Working with people who are better than me

Steve Jobs has a saying that A players hire A players; B players hire C players and C players hire D players.

I am not a speech therapist. Therefore, the first person who joined me to volunteer at OIC was Dr. Chyrisse Heine, a dual speech pathologist and audiologist with over 20 years of experience. Chyrisse is, in every sense of the word, an A player (I’d give her an A+++ if possible). An invaluable person to have on the team? Yep. Better than me? Absolutely.\

4) Knowing when to get out

Starting OIC has been far and away the most difficult thing I have done, professionally, in my life. Here is an issue that affects 1 in 25 Cambodian people. Thousands of children are unable to go to school because they can’t communicate. Thousands of people are dying because they don’t receive treatment for their swallowing disorders. The enormity of the challenge has taught me a lot about myself.

It takes a certain type of person to look at that situation and decide to do something about it. I’ve realised that it feeds a part of my personality that likes to fight for the underdog. But the kind of person who wants to start something isn’t necessarily the person who should continue it.

If the day comes when OIC’s work would be better off without me, then I will step aside.

5) Making it about the work, not about me

The incredibly wise Daniela Papi coined the term “NGegOs” to describe egos that are masquerading as NGOs. The danger, she says, in focusing on the individual is that we tend to immediately trust individuals who work for social good (whereas we distrust those who work in corporations). When the sh*t hits the fan, as it has done on numerous occasions, often the good work of the organisation falls to pieces.

The reality is that, while people and organisations are fallible, a cause doesn’t have to be.

These are five ways in which I hope to avoid contracting that most deadly of diseases, founderitis. Certain causes gain support through the mysticism and dynamism of the founder. This is an effective avenue through which to attract followers, but it isn’t sustainable. OIC Cambodia needs to be about what we are trying to achieve, not about me.

First Published in WhyDev.