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Elissa Sloan Perry, Susan Misra

Originally published as Management Assistance Group and edited in April 2019 to reflect our new name, Change Elemental. Read more about our story here.

In August of 2015 we became CoDirectors of Change Elemental (then MAG). This was a new experiment in shared leadership for Change Elemental. We decided to share our reflections on this experiment as we go each year in hopes that it will contribute to our collective learning on shared leadership. (Here are our reflections from Year One and Year Two.)

We are three-plus years into our CoDirectorship. Change Elemental is strong and we are strong. And there are many places we are still growing and learning. In the summer of 2015, when we assumed the roles of CoDirectors, we were clear about our intention to shift the culture of Change Elemental to one of shared leadership – not just a structure of sharing power between two people at the top. We were clear that this is an experiment for staff, for our board, and in some ways for the field.

At the onset, we committed to doing a bigger reflection process at the three-year mark and with the support of our coach, staff, and board, we have completed that process! What follows are some highlights of the process as well as some learnings that have emerged so far…

Two overlapping survey processes were conducted (one by our board chair and one by our coach) over the summer to learn about our leadership individually and as a CoDirector team. Both included several open-ended questions and ranking-by-scale questions. Then in the summer of 2018 we spent a day with our incredible coach, Belma Gonzalez, in person. The major conclusion is that Change Elemental is strong and we are strong!

MAG’s culture has shifted to one of greater shared leadership, deeper alignment with our values and the five elements needed to advance justice, and one with a slower burnout rate than prior to 2015. We are also financially healthy and grateful to have ample work that is aligned with our values and strategic priorities. While thrilled with this news and excited by the prospects they shape for the future, we also acknowledge that even with two of us sharing the positional leadership role, some things are falling through the cracks or not being held at the level of importance they should be. Also, what Change Elemental needs from its positional leaders has evolved and expanded as we have grown and moved deeper into a team approach to our work.

How do we engage people in holding the whole without tending to everything?

One of our reflections as CoDirectors is that “holding the whole” is a set of leadership functions that is above and beyond traditional responsibilities like fundraising or managing human resources. This function is about weaving together various people and ideas and mending areas that fray so that the fabric is stronger. It takes time to do this with a leaderful ecosystem stance because we are building the capacity of staff, board, and partners to hold the whole together and co-creating a shared leadership culture.

We’ve learned that this is more than understanding and informing the big picture. It is more than delegating and having clear roles and decision-making (e.g., DARCII). It includes cultivating a shared sense of responsibility for the whole, developing peripheral vision so you can have some attention to the larger context while not doing it all, and developing mutual accountability and support so that we can help each other grow individually and collectively.

What does it mean for us to align our structure and practices with our networked culture?

One of our successes as CoDirectors is catalyzing transformation in what Change Elemental is. We now operate in partnership with many others to advance love, dignity, and justice through a range of programs, conversations, and practices that include and go far beyond consulting. We have more opportunities to apply, experiment with, and learn about the critical elements of transformation toward justice – and this is changing how we be in the world.

Moving forward, we want to develop structures, practices, and partnerships that align with the being that is emerging.   

To that end, we invited our board to think about power and governance in the context of complex systems change. We got excited about mycelium – fungi that interconnect the roots and catalyze growth among many trees. The staff and board are working together to engage our organization’s mycelium in rethinking governance given our networked culture. This began with an invitation to participate, which over 75 people responded to. [We’ll share more about this work over the coming year.]  

What does it mean for us to be an accomplice for liberation?  

Over the last three years, we have been more intentional about our equity journey and the values and beliefs we have about what it will take to achieve love, dignity, and justice for the planet and all who inhabit it. In many ways, this journey has been the greatest source of joy for us as CoDirectors. We have seen how embracing multiple ways of knowing has brought out talents and wisdom of program and administrative staff.  We have seen how creating space for inner work has opened up room for people to have courageous conversations and to be vulnerable in bringing their whole person to work. We have seen how holding a deep commitment to equity and liberation has changed how Change Elemental staff show up with others (clients and partners) and what we see as meaningful contributions to social transformation.

Being open to future possibilities

As a result, and with the simultaneously humbling and bolstering reflection from our full team that we were the “right” two people to lead Change Elemental from where it was to where it is now, we have begun to ask the following questions:

What shifts in structure, in culture, and in priorities, are needed now for the next five years at Change Elemental?

What is our vision for Change Elemental stepping farther into living and amplifying the five elements needed for a thriving justice ecosystem?

How do we broaden leadership among staff, board, and governing partners?

We are committed to our roles, our team, and our vision of a thriving and just ecosystem where people and planet experience love, dignity, and justice. This grounding enables us to proactively dive into these questions about the future of Change Elemental and remain open to all of the possibilities. We are embarking on a year-long process of engaging the leadership of board, staff, and learning partners in exploring these questions. We are excited about what may emerge! So stay tuned for future learnings and reflections.

Our CoDirector Guiding Principles

  • To continue to be honest and transparent with each other.
  • Ask rather than make assumptions. 
  • Listen and be willing to adjust.
  • Honor strengths and growth potential in each other.
  • It is okay to have a good closing if it isn’t working for one or both of us – and to seek support along the way.
  • Remain deeply committed to each other’s success.
  • When we disagree or if there is lack of accountability, pause and have constructive conversation with each other. If needed, talk with board chair. If needed, bring in a coach to facilitate or mediate.

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