Sharing the Hard Decisions: How Co-Leaders Can Do More Together

Written by: Frances Kunreuther

Date: April 16, 2015

Editor’s Note: This piece is the fifth in a series featuring leadership development experts on the value they’ve found in NCRP’s new report, Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership: A (Missed?) Philanthropic Opportunity. For past posts, click here.

NCRP’s new report, Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership, is an important addition to the philanthropic sector, making the case for why social change funders should invest in leadership development.

At the Building Movement Project, we have written about generational shifts, what makes a good workplace across generations and the challenges facing new social justice leaders. We also have explored the differences between the leadership styles pioneered by the Baby Boom generation – adding extensive input to a traditional structure – and the desire for collaborative leadership by GenX and Millennials. One issue that we heard from the post-boomer generations was their wariness toward taking on the “I do it all” leadership role. They shied away from applying for executive director positions after witnessing leaders who devoted their life to their job. Instead they talked about ideas such as distributed leadership, shared leadership and leaderful organizations. As the NCRP report states:

“The work of grassroots leaders for social justice can be the wood for their fire. It fuels their passion for the cause, but it also can hamper their efforts if it becomes overwhelming in scope or in the emotional toll it takes. Their work is often unbounded, demanding, even unmanageable. Nonprofit executives are expected to be many things to their stretched-thin staffs: HR manager, confidante, strategic mastermind, motivator, negotiator, etc. It can be difficult for leaders to navigate effectively among all these roles and to strike a balance between their work and their life outside work.”

A few years ago, we were looking for a new senior staffer when our team of advisors and I started to rethink the position. At Building Movement we have a small core staff, and it seemed to make more sense to have a less hierarchical structure. The idea of a co-director quickly took hold; a person who would be a peer, someone just as invested in the work with an eye to the future. Now I co-direct the Project with Sean Thomas-Breitfeld.

The co-director model is just one way people can share leadership; and it is working for us. Here are some of the lessons we have learned:

Knowing the Work: Sean joined our team of advisors three years before he became co-director. He had worked closely with the staff and was on monthly team calls. He knew our work, budget, successes and challenges; and I knew him. We already shared values and respected each other as colleagues.

Complementary Contributions: It turns out, Sean and I have very complementary experiences and work styles. His background is in organizing, training and advocacy. Mine is more in administration, service delivery and research. We do well when we think together, but we can also work independently. Together, we can do more and we can do it better.

Lines of Reporting: To have a successful co-directorship, or any shared leadership style, it must be clear about who staff members should ask for what. The fact that we have a small staff works in our favor here, but we also assign supervision so that staff knows who they report to. This structure also helps staff build their own leadership capacity.

Getting Support: Before Sean started as co-director, we met with a coach who helped us articulate our expectations and goals. She comes back around every six months, either to check in or help us solve a sticky problem. It’s also been a big help that Sean and I both completed similar leadership training programs. Being intentional and communicative about our goals is essential to achieving them.

Checking In: We have a weekly check-in meeting with core staff, but it’s hard to find time for just the two of us to talk. We have learned to grab time, walking to get coffee, late at night when we both find ourselves in the office catching up, on the phone. These are really important and must happen often enough to keep us on track.

We would love to know how others experience sharing leadership. For groups looking to transition to this model, it means taking a big leap of faith, especially for the board and staff. There is a lot to learn about sharing leadership and how to support leaders interested in moving in this direction. NCRP’s report shows that there isn’t just one way to support good leadership, but underscores the importance of developing leaders in a way that works for every organization, and providing funding for this process. It invites further discussion of the different strategies available and provides resources to help those who want to explore leadership development.

For the Building Movement Project, it turned out that making the change to shared leadership was less of a big deal than we thought – but has made a big difference.

Frances Kunreuther is co-director at Building Movement Project. Follow her on Twitter at @fkunreuther and join the #CultivateNonprofitLeadership conversation.