The Susan G. Komen foundation is finally replacing its CEO.
Almost a year after it first announced that co-founder Nancy Brinker would be stepping aside as CEO following a Planned Parenthood funding controversy, the breast cancer nonprofit has named Judith Salerno, currently the executive director and chief operating officer of the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, to the role. She will take over the job on Sept. 9.
Salerno is a Harvard Medical School graduate who has also held leadership roles at the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. She has been described as a “nationally known health policy and research expert” who will lend additional research and policy leadership to an organization that became embroiled in a political controversy last year over its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, a move it later reversed.
Salerno’s job won’t be easy. Komen recently announced that it plans to cancel half of its three-day walk fundraisers in 2014 amid declining participation rates in those events. Registration rates are down 10 to 15 percent, The Washington Post reported in its story Monday evening, and a number of senior leaders have left the nonprofit. The recent controversy over the $684,717 in salary Brinker made in fiscal 2012 could also add to the scrutiny.
But Salerno will also be stepping in for a founder — a challenge for any successor. In the Post’s story, Lena Sun cites an anonymous source who said Brinker initially did not want to give up her role as CEO, causing Salerno to take herself out of consideration at one point. (A Komen spokeswoman responded in the story that “I don’t know any of that intrigue,” and said that Brinker would be reporting to Salerno.) Those who read Lea Goldman’s story in New York magazine last August will recall a similar claim: According to that publication, Komen approached a retired Navy admiral who once ran the Red Cross for the job, but the executive reportedly pulled out of contention after no guarantees about Brinker’s involvement were made.
Even if Brinker had been a model of crisis leadership during the Planned Parenthood fiasco, her successor was going to have her work cut out for her. That’s the case anytime someone takes over for a founder. In many cases, founders have a hard time handing over the reins to something that has been such an all-consuming part of their lives. And even when they’re happy to let go, they are a special breed of leader who, by and large, have their identities intertwined with the organizations they’ve spawned.
Brinker founded Komen, of course, for highly personal reasons. The nonprofit is named after her sister, who died of breast cancer. Brinker has become part of the Komen “brand” — her photo appears all over the Komen Web site. And her glowing bio reveals how closely she is tied to the role. Brinker, the bio states, “is regarded as the leader of the global breast cancer movement,” “broke the silence around breast cancer,” and is “the undisputed leader of the ongoing international movement to end breast cancer.”
All of those things may be true. But they also reveal the extent to which Komen is not just a job for Brinker, or even a start-up company she launched. She sees it as her life’s work.
Salerno and Brinker may work together well, and each may find ways to contribute her own strengths to the leadership of the organization. On the Komen blog, Salerno wrote that “I look forward to meeting that challenge with the help and advice of one of this movement’s truly great leaders, Nancy Brinker.” Surely, the mission they share is a good one: Advocating for breast cancer research and screenings and moving past the Planned Parenthood controversy. As long as it’s clear who is running the show, it shouldn’t be hard to always put that first.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.