About Face

A Guide to Founder Transition

Debora Ott

2002, 60 pages, including appendices and bibliography. Commissioned by the New York State Council on the Arts and published in cooperation with Bright Hill Press.

About Face is a monograph presenting case studies of founder transitions among eight community-based cultural organizations. Of the eight studies, the most detailed is that of just buffalo's transition process, the author's own organization. Ms. Ott was the founder and former director of just buffalo, a twenty-year old multi-cultural literary center in Buffalo, New York. This particular study includes information and insights of interest to any founder considering her or his own leave-taking. Ms. Ott discusses such topics as: knowing when to leave, finding the right consultant assistance, timing and positioning the announcement, the successor search, post-transition compensation, and saying good-bye. An essay by her successor is an informative addition.

About Face contains tips by Ms. Ott and guidelines from transition expert Susan Stevens. Ms. Stevens' ten-point set of guidelines, A Board Member's Guide to Founder Success, is excerpted from her article "Helping Founders Succeed," published in the GIA Reader in 1999. It is a must-read guide for any board dealing with leadership transition — founder or otherwise. In addition, Ms. Ott credits a number of other consultants and founders-in- transition for their insights and includes essays by two other ex-founding directors. A bibliography on leadership and transition is included, plus contact information for selected experts.

Of particular interest are the appendices, which include the tools and instruments that just buffalo developed for its transition process. There is a job announcement, interview questions, and “scorecard” for evaluating interviewees, for example. While these would need to be customized to meet individual organizations' needs, they are helpful models — not in the least for demonstrating the depth and scope of planning and due diligence required for successful leadership transitions.

Readers should note that artist-led performing arts organizations are not included in these profiles. Most cases document community-based and multi-cultural organizations, many of which are literary organizations or multi-arts cultural “centers.” Most seem to be organizations of color. To this point, Ms. Ott includes a section offering special considerations for organizations of color that raises some challenges particular to these institutions. Challenges include the lack of leadership training for minorities and ethnic leaders, boards that cannot provide substantial financial support, and the fact that many organizations of color are primarily identified with their founders rather than with their mission and purpose. I found this last point to be quite thought-provoking and would welcome an elaboration on it by Ms. Ott or others qualified to comment.

More and more organizations are “of an age” these days, having been founded in the boom of the 1960s and ‘70s that generated such remarkable entrepreneurship in the cultural sector. In my own community I can easily count a dozen groups still led by their founders or whose founders have left only recently. This monograph contains a rich range of individual and organizational experiences. Most founders will recognize themselves and their organizations in one or more of these scenarios.

Many of the case studies are models of “best practices,” however. They are successes in organizations with key strengths, such as founders of foresight and maturity, strong boards, and national recognition and support. No major failures, significant mis-steps, or cases of founders being reluctant to leave are presented. These might also offer valuable lessons. In fairness, this was not the purpose of Ms. Ott's monograph. Still, one would wish for some brave and generous founders to provide cautionary tales, as these, too can be as useful as the generally happy-ending stories presented in About Face.

Kathleen Cerveny, The Cleveland Foundation