Why is Nancy Brinker still CEO of the Susan G. Komen foundation?

(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)
(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

The Susan G. Komen foundation announced Monday that in 2014 the breast cancer charity would be cancelling seven of its three-day walks, or half of its annual multi-day events. The organization said the cancellations were a result of economic uncertainty and competition from other charities. The move also comes more than a year after the the charity was embroiled in an epic brouhaha over its decision—and then reversal—about its funding of Planned Parenthood.

As surprising as the cancellations is the fact that, more than a year after the controversy, co-founder Nancy Brinker is still listed on Komen's Web site as its CEO. Ten months have lapsed since the organization said in a press release that Brinker "plans to move to a new management role focusing on revenue creation, strategy and global growth as chair of the Komen Board Executive Committee when the search for a new senior executive has been completed." That nearly year-old announcement, called a "pseudo-exit" by New York magazine, came at the same time as the departure of Komen President Liz Thompson and two board members.

Back in August, Brinker, under whom the handling of the controversy became a case study in how not to manage a crisis, said the leadership shift had nothing to do with the Planned Parenthood firestorm. If so, I wrote at the time, the shake-up was unusual for several reasons. If in fact the changes had nothing to do with the controversy, why rush to announce the change before a new CEO (or at least a new president) had been found? Wouldn't it create uncertainty at the top to have no president and a CEO who apparently wasn't long for the role?

In early May, Komen spokesperson Andrea Rader spoke to the Dallas Morning News. The piece noted that Brinker was still in the role and that she had received a 64-percent pay raise, yet Rader said that the board is "conducting an active search for new senior leadership. Once that person is named and on board, Nancy plans to step down as CEO and assume a new role focusing on development and global vision.” Rader said the pay raise was set in 2010, before the Planned Parenthood flap erupted.

In an interview Thursday, Rader told me that "the board is doing a very thorough executive search" and "continued to have strong candidates." She said the reason Komen decided to share the news about Brinker last August was because "we knew that a lot of people would have questions about what Nancy’s role would be" and to "show the continuity of leadership once a new role is established." She said she did not know whether Brinker would report to the new CEO or directly to the board: "Some of that may be worked out as we bring the person on board."

Perhaps it really does take almost a year to find someone to step in to lead an organization that has been at the center of a political controversy and is experiencing declining participation rates. Still, it may be that much harder to find and attract incoming CEO candidates when they know the founder will be sticking around in a yet-to-be-well-defined role.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Komen’s Nancy Brinker: Well-paid, yes. But most trusted?

Komen leader’s latest apology about Planned Parenthood fiasco goes only halfway

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Lillian Cunningham · June 6, 2013