Four reflections for a successful CEO transition.
By Laura Brown | CEO at PEAS
PEAS is a not-for-profit that has established one of the leading secondary school networks in Africa. It is also an organisation that recently faced the challenges and opportunities of leadership transition.
CEO John Rendel founded PEAS in 2006 and I took over the reins in 2018. By the time he left, PEAS was educating more than 16,000 students across 32 schools in Uganda and Zambia. And the PEAS team had grown from one to 1,000 people. John has the trademarks of a successful social entrepreneur: inspiring; risk-taking; values-driven. But after 10 plus years of propelling PEAS forward, John was conscious of ‘founder’s syndrome’ and ready for a new challenge. When three things aligned – solid funding, external evidence of impact, and a strong senior leadership team – he announced his departure with an 18-month lead-time.
It is now nearly two years after John’s departure and we can say that the leadership transition has been successful. PEAS’ impact is growing, energy is high, and the funding position is better than ever. It’s hard to determine precisely what led to a smooth transition, but the following factors have definitely been helpful.
First, it has been essential to maintain the ‘founder’s mentality’. For the better part of 2017 we had no idea who would replace John. Given the reasonable likelihood that the new leader would be hired externally, John and the wider executive team (including myself) prioritised entrenching the founder’s mentality across the team. This mentality was so important to John that I don’t think he would have exited if he wasn’t confident that it was fully embedded.
In practical terms, this meant ensuring that there was a cadre of leaders at PEAS who cared about the organisation as much as the founder did. These leaders would safeguard the organisation from mission-drift and go above and beyond to ensure PEAS’ success. Years of strong team retention certainly helped preserve this founder’s mentality. And over John’s last 12 months at PEAS, we also invested a huge amount of time in high-quality conversations about values, purpose, PEAS’ vision of a healthy education ecosystem, and the role of profit in education.
AUTONOMY & ACCOUNTABILITY
Second, the PEAS custom of autonomy and accountability has served us well through the transition period. Whereas some school networks are highly standardised, PEAS has always encouraged school autonomy within a clear set of principles and values. One of PEAS’ big beliefs about education is that teachers and school leaders are the spark for change. This enthusiasm for fostering leadership applies both at the classroom level and at the head office.
PEAS staff have always been accustomed to high levels of autonomy and accountability. And in the year preceding his departure, John gave the senior team even more space than usual to step up and make important decisions. This required a delicate balance on his part, as a departing founder can limit their successors in a number of ways, be it through the nature of their presence or their absence. John was present when needed and absent when appropriate, which gave us the space to establish our leadership, while still benefiting from his expertise.
People are often surprised to hear that John is not on the PEAS board and has no formal role within the organisation. But this was quite deliberate. John wanted me to have full autonomy and accountability for the next phase in our development and we felt that a board role for him had the potential to be disempowering. This way, I can take decisions without him looking over my shoulder but in the knowledge that I can call on him whenever I need his advice.
Third, we hit the accelerator pedal immediately post-transition. In many respects a notice period of 18 months for the founder’s exit gave the organisation good time to prepare and to run a thorough recruitment process. However, in some respects it did feel quite long. Staff and partners were in ‘let’s wait and see’ mode which inevitably reduced momentum and risked the retention of key people and funders. So it was important when I took over that we quickly generated a sense of progress.
When I stepped up into the CEO role I had already worked at PEAS for eight years so I didn’t need a lengthy induction period. I led a quick strategy refresh process and we got straight to work. Within 12 months we pressed go on a major project to transform our Ugandan school network in part through introducing technology at the individual school network. Additionally, we have started delivering our school management best practices in government schools, and have earned our first income through education consultancy. Pace Able Foundation and others are assisting us with technology integration, and we look forward to partnering with our funders more broadly in this manner going forward.
Lastly, we used the leadership transition as an opportunity to reach out to new partners, to re-engage lapsed partners, and to strengthen relationships with existing ones. One of my biggest fears as the incoming CEO was that PEAS’ funders would exit with its founder. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The vast majority of PEAS’ existing funding partners stuck with us through the leadership transition and many have increased their support.
It was relatively straightforward maintaining institutional partners where relationships rely more on process than personal connections. It was also relatively straightforward to retain partners where I had an existing relationship. In fact, most of them made considerable efforts to support me. It was more difficult for the partners with whom I didn’t have a relationship already.
Typically, these were those partners who had been drawn to PEAS because of the founder himself and the appeal of supporting an individual social entrepreneur to change the world. It was up to me (not a founder and not a conventional social entrepreneur) to convince this group that my leadership style, skills, and vision were the right ones for PEAS at the point at which I took over the organisation. In these interactions I have been authentic and honest about the fact that – while I share the founder’s vision and values – I’m cut from a different cloth. And for the most part, people have seen the advantage of having a different look and feel for ‘second-generation leadership.’
I hope, however, that the above reflections will be either useful or interesting to any partners and peer organisations with a founder exit on the horizon.