Stepping down was the most difficult but most important decision I have ever made in my working career in the non-profit sector. After founding Unity Charity over 15 years ago as a high school class project, I thought this would be my job for life. Since I founded Unity, it has grown from a volunteer group in my basement to an organization that has impacted the lives of over 200,000 youth, with 15 full time staff and over 70 paid emerging artist educators. Unity uses hip hop to improve young people’s lives with the goal of creating healthier communities and building youth resilience in underserved communities across Canada. Since Unity’s inception, we have shown steady growth each year. Unity marries all of my passions in life: Hip Hop (as a breakdancer), mental health (from personal experiences in my life) and community development (a passion of mine). I created my dream job.
Why would I EVER leave something so perfect? Sometimes founders of organizations leave when things aren’t going well. I decided to do the complete opposite. Unity has never been stronger. Our impact is growing, our staff, board of directors and volunteers are rock solid, our partnerships are deep and diversified, our artists are super heroes, our evaluations are robust, and our funders are engaged. If there ever was a good time for me to move on and plant my feet somewhere else, I believe now is that time. We have a clear co-created vision, strategy and theory of change as the organization’s foundation and compass moving forward. My departure creates space for a new leader to steer this great platform in the direction that the community commands.
Through deep and honest self-reflection, I realized I’m not adding new value. I have given all I can give. Things were becoming too predictable. Just because it was easy, did not mean it was right. I also realized that I have so many things that I want to contribute to the world outside of my work at Unity. I don’t even know what I’m fully capable of.
Transitioning as a Founder is a lonely topic. I felt like I couldn’t talk to ANYONE about succession because the people I trust most are key stakeholders in Unity and I didn’t want to instill doubt. We need to have real conversations about succession so that we can understand all the challenges that come along with it.
The hardest part was not giving into the temptation to stay. It was far more comfortable to stay given that everything was going so well. My job is fun and I love waking up in the morning. It is easy to comfortably ride out my dream and I’m only 31. On the flip side, if I leave Unity, I’m left with nothing. It is a major risk for me personally. I can see why founders are often afraid to leave and step into the unknown. If this was a business, I would likely be selling my business for a lot of money right now, but it’s not. I’ve literally just unemployed myself, albeit I am unemployed with lots of great stories to tell.
So why did I do it and why am I celebrating? I began to realize that what it took to build Unity from the ground up is not what is needed to sustain it. Unity could live on without me, I just had to build up the courage to actually make the decision to leave. This organization can continue without me and I can contribute to new spaces. I see a good transition as a way to amplify the impact I create in my lifetime.
I had to come to terms with several things throughout this process. First and most important, it’s not about me, it is about impact and the cause. Although this may seem obvious, I see too many leaders who don’t know when to step back and let others step forward. Secondly, I’ve come to see that when I trust people with a responsibility, they almost always rise to the occasion. Giving people trust, encouragement and credit for their work has been the key to uncovering some of Unity’s best leaders. Finally, I’ve accepted that my baby has grown up and I need to let it go so that it can spread its wings. Unity is in good hands without me. Trust and empowerment is incredibly powerful if put in the hands of the right people.
Through this process I found that these types of transitions are very difficult because there are so many opposing dynamics that remain invisible. For example, to do this well I needed to respect the board and search committee’s process while voicing my real concerns. This was a difficult dance, but I learned quickly. Also, I don’t want to cast a big and ugly founder shadow over the next Executive Director. The best way for me to do this is to not stick around. Good succession for me is about modeling healthy relationships, trust and truly letting go.
NOTE TO READER: This article is in no way meant to oversimplify the complexities of succession and Founder transitions. If you haven’t experienced a transition like this personally (especially as a founder), please be mindful of how you bring it up. Poor planning, however, is often the demise of many great organizations. Succession is completely different depending on the context and circumstances. It is easier said than done, so please be patient, understanding, empathetic and learn from others’ mistakes and from their successes. I think we need to have more conversations on this topic and share our stories of success to inspire other leaders to let go and build successful futures for themselves. If anyone ever wants to talk about succession or transitions, I encourage you to message me at firstname.lastname@example.org