June 5, 2023

Trust, Love, and Exploration – 1 Year of Shared Leadership

Trust, Love, and Exploration – 1 Year of Shared Leadership

By: Allie Yee, Amy Powers, and Kim Lepin

Shared leadership has been a big topic in the nonprofit sector, and at APANO and APANO Communities United Fund (CUF). The sector is experimenting with different models of shared executive leadership — two people, three people, even four people.

At APANO and APANO CUF, we brought on a permanent, three-person Co-Executive Director team in February of 2022. A year in, we took some time to reflect on how our model is developing and what we’re learning in a virtual conversation moderated by long-time APANO friend, Kathleen Holt. We addressed some questions together and wanted to share a summary of our conversation. To see the full recording, please find it here.

To preface this, we’d like to note that these reflections are from the Co-EDs’ own perspectives only. We acknowledge there are many others who shape and experience this leadership model, including our board, staff, community members, and partners. We know folks have their own perspectives on how the model is working, and we are eager to dive more deeply into those views as we assess the Co-ED model in the next few months.

How did the shared leadership model come about? 

A three-person Co-Executive Director team was not necessarily the model we set out to create when we began our leadership transition in 2020. It emerged as we went through the steps of looking for new leadership and considering the needs and capacity of our growing and complex organizations. Before deciding on a three-person permanent team, we also explored a single-ED model, working alongside an empowered director team.

One of the key themes driving our move towards shared leadership was sustainability. We were going through this transition during the pandemic and the multiple crises that followed. There were many concerns that the extensive demands we place on executive leadership were unsustainable for one person to meet. Another big theme driving our thinking was our values and how the model would promote transparency and accountability while aligning with the social justice work we continue to do in the community.

What were the internal organizational processes and cultural shifts you had to go through to adopt this new shared leadership model? 

Allie was on staff during the transition prior to coming into the Co-ED role and shared that the process felt very organic. It was taken one step at a time, enabling the organizations to be mindful and intentional. The shift took place over a two-year period, operating first under an interim two-person Co-Executive Director team in 2020. We moved to an interim three-person team in 2021 and a permanent, three-person team in 2022.

The process was managed by a Transition Committee made up of board and staff members and was guided by a consultant team of Kathy Kneip and Allison Lugo Knapp. The Committee met with many partners locally and nationally to learn about different models and tools. These learnings were shared with staff through lunch and learns and other forums. Capacity was built by the interim Co-Executive Director teams, introducing certain tools like a decision making matrix and dividing supervision of staff amongst the Co-EDs. We needed to get very clear with staff and board about roles and responsibilities. We defined what the board does, what the staff does, and clarified job descriptions so people better understood their own positions and duties.

What are the aspects of leadership that are shared, and how are they shared? 

Our model is set up with each Co-ED having a certain portion of the work that we oversee, as reflected in our titles — Co-ED of Programs; Co-ED of Culture and Communications; and Co-ED of Finance, Operations, and Development. There is also work shared across the team.

A vital aspect of shared leadership for us is the ability to trust one another to lead on our bodies of work and lean on one another for support when needed. On a day-to-day basis, that can look like shifting capacity as things come up and having conversations with one another to get support, coverage, information, or guidance on various aspects of the work.

Shared leadership for our team is also about sharing our joy, our learning, our appreciation, and this overall experience. We continue to work together in supporting our staff and communities through relationship and trust building. This strong basis of trust makes room for deep appreciation, hard conversations, laughter, and tears, and has been one of the most important and meaningful aspects of shared leadership for our team.

What tools do you use to support shared leadership? 

One of the tools we use is a decision-making matrix. This was a tool we borrowed and adapted from our friends at JOIN and was drafted during the interim co-leadership period. This tool has been a big help, outlining who makes decisions where and when, and how decision making cascades across the organization.

Another tool we often use is the MOCHA model which we learned from the Management Center. This model identifies the Manager, Owner, Consultant, Helper, and Approver involved in a project to clarify roles. For example, Kim and Allie supervise our Human Resources Manager together, but Amy and the Finance Team are often consulted when making certain decisions.

While there is some structure to the model, there is also a lot that we are figuring out together as situations arise. This continues to build out the process and can help us to identify things that need to be clarified. In those situations, it’s critical that we lean on the trust we have built so we can have open, honest communication with one another.

How is the model working? What has gone well? 

We want to share appreciation to the hiring committee who brought us together and put in a lot of work and intentionality to form this team. The three of us have worked really hard to build positive relationships with one another. Early on, we did a StrengthsFinder assessment and identified how our strengths differ and complement and we balance each other. As cheesy as the saying is, teamwork really does make the dream work.

We truly care deeply about each other. We check in regularly and we can count on each other. We remind each other to take care of ourselves and celebrate the big and small wins. As we think about how this model looks and feels, it comes down to love. Not only is the work we do in community rooted in love, but also the work that we do together. Our time together is centered around and all about love. This experience has been about creating a place of belonging where we care deeply for each other and the whole organization.

An important component during our onboarding into these new roles was the support we received from the board and other external partners. We each participated individually in coaching for the first six months, and Kim and Amy participated in a shared leadership cohort led by AORTA. Allie also participated in a Co-ED cohort with National CAPACD. All of these resources showcase how the sector is building more infrastructure to support alternative leadership models, and we would recommend folks utilize them as they come into their new structures.

What are some of the challenges? 

There can be a lot of heaviness in our work. We have very big goals in our programs — we are literally trying to change the world, and that is not a small task. Things can be stressful and overwhelming, but having a Co-ED team and passionate, brilliant colleagues and partners is a huge help. We have a lot of gratitude for being part of this Co-ED team and the larger APANO and APANO CUF teams.

Another challenge is that each of our capacities’ have filled up quickly. This is probably relevant to any leadership or ED position, but we are asking ourselves: What is our role, as Co-EDs, in creating a container for our collective work? How do we envision it and create it together? This can be challenging, but is also an exciting aspect of our roles.

A related challenge is navigating who needs to be looped in where and to what degree. It’s not sustainable for all three of us to be in all the spaces together, so where is it just two of us or one? At the same time, how do we stay connected to each other’s work and other parts of the organization we’re not involved with day to day? It can be a challenge to find the capacity and right balance for that.

What does shared leadership look like beyond the Co-ED team in other parts of the organization? 

This is something that we’re exploring and thinking through. We are now a year in and feel like we’ve gained our footing within our team and established some ways to share leadership among the three of us. Though the Co-ED team does sit at the top of the organizational hierarchy, much like a traditional one-person-ED model, we do not work in a silo. While we are working on sharing leadership and power within our team, how we share it beyond the three of us is a critical area for more work and clarification.

The decision-making matrix is an initial tool to help us facilitate this and will be utilized as we further expand decision making. We have a very consultative culture around decisions. Using the MOCHA model to be clear about who, beyond the Co-EDs, are involved in a decision and what role they’re playing can be helpful, particularly in group decisions. Another tool that APANO has used and has become part of our culture is fist-to-five consensus voting, which is used in different spaces and different groups. It can be used as a temperature check and oftentimes as a decision-making tool.

Some of the decision points that include others beyond the Co-EDs include decisions around programming, applying for funding, building budgets, and hiring people. For example, in hiring, we have a hiring committee that runs the process and makes the final recommendation for hiring which is approved by HR and the Co-EDs. It’s definitely an area we want to dive deeper on. We hope to gather feedback from staff and others regarding feelings of empowerment or hindrance in this model.

The nonprofit structure has typically been one ED managed by a board. How have your boards of directors adapted to this new model

In the nonprofit structure, one of the key roles of a board is to supervise and support the ED. With three ED’s, that is more work for the board to take on. Boards should not take on this model lightly without considering how they are going to commit to supporting a Co-ED team.

For us, our board chairs led the hiring process for the permanent team as well as the supervision process, including an annual evaluation that includes feedback from staff members and peers. The Co-EDs and board chairs meet monthly, and each Co-ED has one board member that we check-in with directly. The board has been enthusiastic and supportive of this model, and it has definitely involved more work from them to support a Co-ED team.

How do you balance the power dynamics in this shared-leadership model? How do the intersections of your work play out?

Within the team, there is a strong basis of trust and respect that we have for each other, the experience and perspectives we each bring, and the work we do with the teams and areas we directly supervise. Transparency and understanding are really important, and we try to take a seeking stance in order to understand each other, understand context, name the type of conversation we’re having, and lead with curiosity to resolve issues.

In our first year, we have been able to make consensus-based decisions among the three of us. The conversation may not have started at consensus, but we have been able to get there together. This requires time and patience from us and from those impacted by decisions to slow things down so that we can listen to each other, gather information, and explore different options. But it is a three-person team, so if we are not able to come to a consensus, there may be other decision-making methods, like a majority vote, which may have different impacts on our team and power dynamics.

What advice would you give to others considering shared leadership at their organizations? 

Lean into your discomforts. You’re not going to know what you don’t know. Be open to learning along the way. Resist the urge for perfection, and resist the expectation that it will be perfect right away. Create an environment with your teams and staff to lean into those discomforts and have conversations together.

Pace yourself and your team, and be patient. Shared leadership and shared decision making takes time. Building trust and relationships takes time.

Importantly, be explicit about your values and your priorities. Throughout the hiring process and as we onboarded as a team, we talked about our values and priorities around supporting our staff, and that was a very clear, aligned value that has grounded us in our work together.

Thank you to all who were able to tune in for this live conversation! We look forward to continuing it and welcome you to join us in dialogue.

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This programming message brought to you by APANO Communities United Fund, a 501(c)3 Non-profit organization.