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Founders Please Resist the Temptation to Return

Enclosed is an article published in Harvard Business Review Italia by Dr. Joseph Santora and Dr. Gil Bozer, lecturer in the Managing Human Resource Department, Sapir College. This article serves as a memo to departing founders who often face with the almost irresistible urge to return to their organizations in various roles. Through a real-life example of a founder return to save a failing organization, the authors offer advice to founders who entertain the idea of returning to the organization in any capacity.

Founders Please Resist the Temptation to Return: Learn How to Deal with the Urge

Joseph C. Santora & Gil Bozer

Departing organizational founders often ask themselves many reflexive questions.  For example, can the organization succeed without me?  Has the best successor been chosen as my replacement?  Is it possible for me return to the organization,  if it  needs my help? Did I make a strategic mistake to leave the organization?  Despite these thought-provoking questions, founders who contemplate a return to the organizations for any reason whatsoever run the serious risk of creating a chaotic organizational nightmare.  For sure, there are several excellent illustrations of founders who have returned to the organization to retake the reins. For example, the late Steve Jobs is a classic case of a visionary leader who was forced to leave his own company who later returned to Apple and was remarkably successful at the company.

Despite such an example, it is our contention that a departing founder cannot return home and expect that everything has remained the way she left it.  In fact, once a founder leaves, she should not return for any reason: returning home may be good for a soldier or even for an expatriate, but it is not a viable option for a founder.

To substantiate our point, we briefly chronicle a case of a former client who, after a five-year hiatus, returned to the organization he founded and assumed the full-time role as chief operating officer (COO) to fill a newly vacant position. Both the incumbent CEO and the founder thought this was as an excellent solution to an existing problem at the organization.  The founder was given the charge to "clean up" the personnel and financial troubles the organization had been experiencing since his departure.  After about six months as COO, the founder considered his return to the organization a critical mistake. The CEO took credit for any turnaround successes the founder had made and blamed the founder for any organizational problems. Organizational insiders and external stakeholders were incensed at what they witnessed. As a result several external stakeholders even openly discussed the possibility of discontinuing their relationship with the organization. The founder contemplated leaving the organization again. The founder decided to temporarily remain at the organization only after staff, several influential board members, and some external stakeholders urged her to help the struggling organization.  But, the CEO created several managerial constraints that prevented the founder for accomplishing strategic organizational objectives, and the founder left the organization permanently six months later.

How Founders Should Deal with the Urge
This abbreviated case offers advice for founders who entertain the idea of returning to the organization in any capacity.  Following are four ways suggesting how a founders should deal with the urge to return.  They should:

  1. Not return to the organizations. Their best work may have been done during the start up or growth stage of the organizational life cycle and it may be impossible to make a meaningful contribution to the new organization.                                              
  2. Understand the events and internal/external circumstances that may conspire against a successful return. Too many personal and professional issues may cloud their return.
  3. Be aware of the very delicate conditions of their return may impose on organizational leadership and staff including organizational politics.
  4. Recognize that the organizations may have significantly changed and may be now operating under a different leadership and strategic model which may negate the leadership talents and strategic focus the founder originally brought with him or her.

Founders should seriously consider the concerns raised here before considering a return to the organization. The challenge is to what extent a founder is able to pass the baton to a successor. This passing of control to some extent is analogous to acknowledging one’s own mortality, giving up ultimate control and power.  Perhaps one possible option for a returning founder is to create a competitive organization to deliver goods and services for customers.

About the Authors
Dr. Joseph C. Santora
Distinguished Visiting Professor of Management, Ecole des Ponts Business School, Paris.Expertise in leadership, change, and executive succession and transition. Has taught executives worldwide and as consulted with more than two dozen organizations in the US and Europe. Serves on nine editorial boards and is the founder and editor of International Leadership Journal.
He can be contacted at jcsantora1@gmail.com 

Dr. Gil Bozer
Faculty at Sapir College, Israel. Teaches executive coaching, management and leadership. Has presented at many international conferences and published in a variety of academic and practitioner journals. Co-leads global research at the Association for Coaching and is an associate editor of the International Leadership Journal and editorial board member of the Development & Learning in Organization: An International Journal.|
He can be contacted at gilbotzer@gmail.com

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