Practice Management

Have founderitis? Learn to let go

It's hard, but you have to let your successor make decisions and step up into the leadership role

Oct 27, 2015 @ 11:55 am

By Joni Youngwirth

The average age of advisers is well into the 50s, leading to an industrywide search for the next generation of advisers who will lead the firms of the future. Finding the right next-gen adviser is just part of the challenge. For those of you who are tenured advisers, it means learning to let go while helping your successor step into a leadership role.

As you may know, this transition isn't always seamless. You may, in fact, be experiencing founder's syndrome (aka “founderitis”): You've built your organization from its creation to its existing state, and now you can't let go. Sound familiar?


Why shouldn't it be hard to let go of something you've probably spent years building? After all, just think of the wisdom you've gained over the course of your career. You have:

• Brought on each new client, building strong relationships over the years.

• Experienced every market turn over decades and worried about how your business would survive (more than a few times).

• Witnessed vast changes in technology — the ones that didn't work and the ones that revolutionized this industry.

• Observed some employees make positive improvements to your firm — and watched others go because it just wasn't a good fit.

• Made decisions ranging from moving or modernizing your office space, to determining the most appropriate fee structure for the services you provide.

Wouldn't it be terrible to waste that wisdom? Remember, to the next-gen adviser, you know it all. If you let founderitis interfere — calling all the shots, making all the decisions, and/or shooting down new ideas — you risk losing the individual you've chosen to be your firm's next leader. How can you avoid this “crash-and-burn” scenario? Let's examine some simple ways to ease this transition.


As a founder, your wisdom is valid. But exhibiting too much (or too little) control can be harmful. Both founders and next-gens should be aware of each other's perspective.

Attitude: The business is not your baby. Granted, you have created and nurtured your firm to reach its current level. But if you want your business to continue to prosper, you must treat it as a legitimate business. This includes ensuring that there is solid, long-term leadership in place.

Decision making: Are you still making all the decisions three to five years into your transition? This is a red flag for founderitis. Even if you don't expect to exit for a decade, the transition in decision making is something that should evolve over time.

Teaching moments: As you start exiting your practice, step back and observe how the next-gen adviser handles specific situations and offer guidance when needed.

Beta testing: Create “beta tests” in which you're not available for stretches of time (e.g., a week and then perhaps a month at a time), and communicate to your staff that the next-gen adviser will be making decisions during your absence. Otherwise, the clients' strong loyalty to you can interfere with the transition.

Vision and values: Making the vision and values of your firm crystal clear is the most fundamental component of a successful transition — and the most easily overlooked. When you take the time to instill your values in your successor, it increases the chances that his or her thinking will reflect similar values.


“FOMO” (or fear of missing out) is the acronym used to describe people so addicted to social media that they must constantly check Facebook and Twitter. It also can be used to describe advisers who are addicted to their practices. FOMO creates anxiety in the founder who hasn't figured out how to replace the benefits he or she gets from work with something else.

Whether those benefits include a feeling of status, a sense of purpose or having the structure of going to the office, if you can let go of being the sole voice of your firm, you will have a more sustainable legacy.

Joni Youngwirth is managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network.


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