Stephanie Lorenzo on Stepping Down as CEO of Project Futures

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Letting go is never easy.

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Stephanie Lorenzo is the founder and former CEO of PROJECT FUTURES, a charity that raises funds to combat human trafficking, slavery and exploitation by working with partners in Australia and abroad to support, educate and empower. She recently stepped down as CEO, and penned a very personal account of the difficulty laced with her decision, which we’ve republished below.

“It ain’t your baby.” These words hit me like a tonne of bricks.

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and if there was ever the most perfect book to read at the exact time in your life that you needed it, this was mine. This book is all about unleashing your creativity at any age, at any time and at any level, and letting go of the fears that surround you when you enter into a major state of change in your life.

As many of you know, I recently stepped down as CEO of PROJECT FUTURES, an organisation I started eight years ago because of a book that inspired and moved me. It was a very difficult decision to move on, release control and admit or realise that:

a) I wasn’t as stoked or exhilarated as I was eight years ago about it (stoked and motivated to a point where I literally forgot to pee at times because I was so engrossed in the work – not kidding);

b) I didn’t have the expertise or skill set to take the organisation to the level that I knew it had the capacity to go; and

c) Did I even want to?

In the months leading up to this decision, I sought advice from friends and family on whether I should stay or go. One very good friend and successful businessman told me that it takes very different personalities to start something and scale something – very rarely are these two people the same. My always optimistic, never-say-die attitude immediately thought, ‘Well, hello, I’m 100 per cent going to be that very rare case… right?!’ I soon realised that while I may have had the right to try to become that person, was that truly the best thing for the organisation?

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We had hit a $1 million a year milestone in revenue and this was so exciting. Through the right decisions and management of the team, we could take on more impact partners and scale up what we were doing, thus positively affecting more lives, supporting more people and empowering bigger communities. But was I the right person to do this? I went to my closest friends and mentors for advice, and let’s be honest, I went to them because I wanted them to convince me that I was, that I could be, that rare case that both starts and scales something. But the people that knew me best knew I was tired, I was out of ideas, I was struggling with many aspects of running a growing organisation and managing a team (many of you know patience is not one of my strongest traits!). I was taking on so much that, at any moment, I may have imploded and took the very thing I created down with me.

“All these thoughts and rollercoaster emotions are completely normal, and I think founders need to talk more openly about them, especially when you are struggling with that huge decision of succession.”

I started to look for other reasons as to why I should stay. I felt that I even had a right to stay on, ‘it was my baby’ after all, many people had told me that. I began to believe it, but here is one of the biggest differences in starting up a charity to starting up a business – you don’t own the charity, you never have and you never will. You started it, absolutely, and no-one can take that away from you, but you started it under rules that allow it to be managed for the good of the people you started it for – not for yourself. There are many points in this decision-making process where you feel that the only way forward is with you at the helm. Deep down, it is fear that keeps you thinking this way. You are scared of letting your greatest supporters down, that your personal legacy will be forgotten and all your hard work with it. You are scared of losing control.

All these thoughts and rollercoaster emotions are completely normal, and I think founders need to talk more openly about them, especially when you are struggling with that huge decision of succession. I remember googling “founder’s syndrome”. This term gets thrown around a lot in the startup/social sector world. Unfortunately, it has super negative connotations and invokes thoughts of crazy founders who are unwilling to listen to anyone; who are ego-driven, control freaks with emotional intelligence likened to that of a slug. There are many negative articles about founders who acted this way, which actually made me really sad.

“I’ve been reading a lot about what makes a good leader, and one trait that seems to be a constant is self-awareness.”

Founders are creators, they are influencers who have a charisma and passion that are one of the main drivers for setting something up. They excite people, they are authentic and trustworthy which is why their business, charity or campaign has gained traction. Yes, they are a little crazy, sometimes full-on, but they have a determination to, well, just do it. They run with things, aren’t afraid of taking risks and are forever asking for forgiveness, not permission. This is why they are good at starting something.

Scale takes a different skill, you are dealing with bigger budgets, bigger donors, a team of people, your risk is greater. You need to look at something and not make a rash decision to “just do it”. You need attention to detail and an understanding for process and structure. You need to be able guide and mentor your team, you need to listen and analyse before taking the right steps forward.

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Founders are attached emotionally to this thing they created, no matter how much you try to say you’re different; the more you deny it, the more you fit the stereotype. Most people now might say, well, why not have both? A CEO and GM who can work together to do that? And, yes, that’s a valid point and absolutely can work – I’ve seen it – but PROJECT FUTURES is a growing charity organisation that gets scrutinised for every cost, every new salary. So, yes, one day I see PROJECT FUTURES having both roles, but this is not that time.

“the fear of letting go and losing control was so much more than the action of actually letting go.”

As I continued to read as many things as I could about founder’s syndrome, convincing myself that I was totally not one of those founders. Let’s remember that these negative attributes linked to founders syndrome are within everyone; no-one is immune. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, but they are also incomplete. They lack complexity, they drill down to the simple and label groups with it. But humans are not simple, they are complex and should be treated as such. It dawned on me that there was really only one thing to keep in check in order to forgo this unfortunate stereotype. That is, your ego.

Ego is another term that has a negative connotation. We don’t like that guy ’cause he has such a big ego, or that boss who thinks he’s above everyone else. Ego refers to a person’s sense of self-esteem, self-worth or self-importance. So the bigger and more important someone thinks of themselves, the bigger their ego. Now ego is part of everyone, so it’s not about destroying or getting rid of it, but the real value is in how you control the emotions that come when your ego is challenged.

Having an ego is necessary, it stops you from being taken advantage of, gives you confidence in knowing your worth and gives us females that sass to strut through a club door in your favourite pair of high heels and get your groove on! Ego is an important part of all of us, but it has a side that needs to be put in its place from time to time (some people more than others) and you need self-awareness to be able to do that.

I’ve been reading a lot about what makes a good leader, and one trait that seems to be a constant is self-awareness. Being self-aware allows you to keep your ego in check. It allows you to remember things that can be easily forgotten, especially when you get noticed or praised for something you have done; founders, of course, get this a lot. So self-awareness helps you realise some fundamentals that your ego can carry you away with:

You are where you are only through the help of others;
You are no more important than someone else;
You are a tiny dot in this wondrous universe; and
That universe doesn’t revolve around you.

Life is one big impermeable journey and the more you realise that, the more you will embrace and accept change, new experiences and the unknown. My ego was keeping my fear right where it wanted it to be. You need to know when to say goodbye to your pride and ego at that given point to help you make the right decision. For me, it was time to allow PROJECT FUTURES to go on its next journey. I was able to admit to myself that just because I started it, doesn’t mean I will always have the right answer for it, or be the best person to lead it forward.

Surprisingly, once I made that decision, it wasn’t so scary at all. It was like the storm had suddenly died down and the sunlight was popping through the clouds. It was a huge weight lifted, and guess what? My greatest fears around it didn’t turn to reality; your greatest supporters will support you, and did for me – so much that I will be forever grateful for their trust and love; the thought that people will forget your legacy, well, people don’t think about you day-in, day-out, you think about you, they worry about them – this made me laugh out loud when someone gently reminded me of that! It’s OK to admit you think these things, but you’ve got to remember you are that tiny dot; what you do does matter, but you do it because it’s right, not because you’ll get remembered or praised for it.

Lastly, that fear of losing control. If you want your organisation to succeed, you need to be prepared, you need to remain as supportive as you can of the team you hired and the incoming CEO; you need to remain positive, open and focused. And you need to relinquish control of certain things in the lead up to your end date to make the process as easy as it can be.

Two things that I found hard to relinquish control of throughout the succession process, but through good advice and checking my ego, was glad I did were:

I decided not to be part of the recruitment process for the new CEO. I gave complete control to our Board of Directors to use their expertise and skills to do that. After all, they are there for a reason. I kept the lines of communication open and said if they wanted my opinion or advice, I was absolutely there to give it, but I let them do the job that they are supposed to do.

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I was offered a position on our Board of Directors that could be taken up the moment my last day as CEO came, and I decided to give myself six months completely away from PROJECT FUTURES so that the new CEO could take control and lead without feeling they needed to ask for permission or check in with me. I wanted to give them the real chance of taking ownership, being in full control.

These two examples were so tough to admit and even do, but I learnt a valuable lesson – the fear of letting go and losing control was so much more than the action of actually letting go.

So, now you might be thinking, well, what if you’re wrong? What if you do all this and it doesn’t go the way you think it will? That same friend and mentor who gave me that advice about starting up and scaling up also told me that a good leader doesn’t always make the right decisions, they make the most decisions and then use their intuition, intelligence and drive to deal with whatever the outcome. That’s what I intend to do, and now that I have met with the new CEO of PROJECT FUTURES, the wonderful Clare Pearson, I feel I don’t have to depend on the universe and karma for a good outcome. I feel so confident in her ability and that of our team to lead PROJECT FUTURES into its next stage of evolution, whatever that may be, and you can be sure I will be cheering it on all the way.

“Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have ever written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way. I am who I am today precisely because of what I have made and what it has made me into.” – Liz Gilbert, Big Magic

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.

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