A little over one year ago, Elissa Perry and Susan Misra started a new journey together. After careful consideration of how to approach MAG’s leadership transition and gathering feedback from the staff, the board agreed to name us CoDirectors of Management Assistance Group. Over the last year we’ve been building a shared leadership culture with our partners, staff, and board.
In our reflections, we’ve identified five key lessons that have made this model effective for us:
- We have developed a shared identity as leaders and commitment to each other’s success.
- Shared leadership goes beyond us.
- Power & privilege affect our ability to lead.
- There are fundamental mindsets, habits, and practices that are necessary for shared leadership to work well.
- Becoming a learning organization helped us to increase adaptability and accountability.
We have developed a shared identity as leaders and commitment to each other’s success.
We have known each other for over eight years. We spoke with many other co-leaders when we started, and learned that they similarly had long-standing, trusting relationships. Because we already knew about each other’s dreams, strengths, and weaknesses, we could have direct conversations about our differentiated roles and how we wanted to work together – while trusting that the other person had our best interest at heart. We also continually surface and address differences of opinion, challenges, and doubts that are often considered unmentionable. In this way, we can rapidly adapt together.
Early on, one of those challenges was around how we communicate externally. As CoDirectors, did we use “I” or “we?” Elissa wanted to convey internally and externally that we share leadership, and leaned towards “we.” Susan wanted to be clear about who was responsible for decisions or statements, and leaned towards “I.” We had a conversation about how it felt to each other when we heard “I” or “we” and what each of us felt was respectful. We decided to develop a joint identity, which meant not only communicating “we” but also making sure that we really do understand each other’s work, agree on what we were saying, and are clear that we say “I” when we mean “I”.
We believe that the fundamental reason for our success is that we are committed to helping each other grow and realize each of our dreams. Elissa wanted to learn how to manage long-view budget forecasting and Susan wanted to learn how build authentic partnerships, for example, and we have helped each other to do these things. We also talk about what gives us joy and energy “outside work” and how MAG’s strategies can build on this. For example, we have found overlaps to link our MAG work and personal work around racial equity and liberation as well as arts and culture.
When we work with our clients on shared leadership, some of the greatest challenges are that people aren’t flexible and clear around roles or transparent about emotions or opinions. They get tired of what they are doing or yearn to achieve something else in their lives. For us, this is not just a job and no one is trapped in a role. It about fulfilling our life’s purpose. So we can openly talk about staying, exiting, and changing while simultaneously holding what MAG needs in terms of leadership.
Shared leadership goes beyond us.
MAG has a purpose that existed before us and will continue after us: to bring about a future where the planet and all who inhabit it experience love, dignity, and justice. So how have we, as CoDirectors, begun to build an institution where everyone can share and contribute to this purpose?
We have taken time to engage our partners, board, staff, and funders in defining how we achieve our strategic directions. We’ve redesigned and expanded our meetings with board and staff to focus on generative questions and innovation through which we have adjusted our values, purpose, strategic directions, alignment of strategies with the purpose, and all aspects of our work. We’ve also cultivated more partnerships where we contribute to shared learning and strategic thinking. Finally, we’ve had rounds of conversations with clients, funders, and partners to shape our programs.
In a shared leadership culture, staff engagement and deep listening is important but insufficient; people’s agency also needs to increase. Through our actions – making changes in response to feedback and letting people know what we did with their feedback – we demonstrate how each person can have influence. Once people have influence and a shared sense of ownership, they are willing to draw on their unique talents and contribute to doing the work. We have created ways to recognize and encourage this – from designating “energizers” to drawing on holocracy methods to creating experimentation groups where people can try out new things. As more board and staff get involved and lead large chunks of work, they use the same networked approaches to engage others in decision-making.
Sometimes we work with clients who are overwhelmed by this ripple effect of networked ways of working – the number of people to include, the volume of work, or feeling stuck in processes going around in circles. Shared leadership takes more time, and we have learned that it is worth it because the quality, depth, and reach of impact is so vast. At the same time, sometimes it is more effective to have less people involved than more. As codirectors, we are mindful of when we need to simplify processes and decisions. We have learned to name when we – rather than a larger group – make the decision or when it is time to move to action.
Power & privilege affect our ability to lead.
We are both queer women of color with master’s degrees who are trying to engage stakeholders in emergent, relational, and learning processes that are not driven by capitalist norms of efficiency, productivity, and consumption. Our socioeconomic class background gives us advantages like having a wide range of contacts, knowing how to network with people, and being able to articulate in ways they will understand, among others. At the same time, systemic racism, misogyny, and homophobia constrain us. Sometimes when we speak, it isn’t heard until a white heterosexual man repeats what we’ve said. It is also more difficult to find significant capital investment because sometimes funders unconsciously set their giving range lower than it would be if approached by a white-led organization. Moreover, sometimes people express doubt because of who we are and/or because our suggested processes are so unfamiliar. They may interpret our stance as both learners and experts as a weakness. They may want more proof of concept rather than taking a risk on a new venture. They may use normative standards of value that privilege quantity over more relevant markers of success. This system of power and privilege is the water that we swim in, and it takes more time, strategic thinking, and intentionality to survive, thrive, and lead in these conditions.
There are fundamental mindsets, structures, and processes that are necessary to nurture a shared leadership culture.
Eight years ago, we wrote, with our colleague Mike Allison, Doing More With More: Putting Shared Leadership into Practice, which reflected on how community organizing and policy advocacy groups were building their leadership bench and capacity to flex across a spectrum of leadership – from more directive/technical to more collective/adaptive. We noted that shared leadership requires trust and flexibility to shift across the spectrum when needed; commitment and time from senior leadership; and basic management and accountability practices. Putting shared leadership into practice meant changing mindsets, structures, processes and practices, and culture.
Over the last year, we’ve had a chance to implement this framework and it worked!
Here are some tips on what MAG has needed to develop a shared leadership culture.
Stepping into CoDirectorship was scary. Would our weaknesses or mistakes cause harm to MAG? Could we stick with it through the steep learning curve? Even when things started to hum along, we waited in anticipation that things would fall apart.
But things keep getting better. We know that we complement each other. We know we can rely on each other’s support. Our knowing is grounded in experience, and this has shifted our mindset so that we can fully step into our leadership role of holding the whole of MAG.
It has also been critical to extend this shared leadership mindset across staff, board, and partners. It gave us the confidence that we – along with a larger MAG team – are moving towards our shared vision in alignment with our values.
We put in place three structures to support shared leadership at MAG.
First, we clarified expectations. We worked with the board to craft a detailed job description that shows where each of us is “first among equals” and clarifies that each of us are also responsible for supporting the work of the other person. We continually manage these roles, explicitly talking about who should do what based on our responsibilities and capacity. Together we hold the vision and understanding of how the whole moves toward that vision.
Second, we developed a new meeting structure to support strategic thinking, learning, and implementation of our newly refined model. At the board level we created a Keep It Moving Committee, a Learning Committee, and Resource Generation Committee. At the staff level, we implemented weekly CoDirector meetings, bi-weekly Strategic Thinking meetings with senior staff, and monthly half-day staff meetings. In addition to these meetings, which are virtual, we invest in monthly, in-person, all day CoDirector meetings and biannual two-day staff retreats.
Finally, we invested in executive coaching for six months. Gayle Williams, our coach and former Interim Executive Director, supported each of us individually and joined our CoDirector meetings once each month. These conversations helped us to step back to see the big picture, supported our individual growth and well-being, and kept us moving forward in a timely manner together.
Processes, Habits & Practices
MAG has a track record of aligning management systems with social justice values, and we inherited this legacy from other incredible leaders that came before us: Karl Mathiasen, Susan Gross, Inca Mohamed, and Robin Katcher. Thus, we only needed to make a few enhancements to put this system in service to shared leadership.
We strengthened our decision-making processes. We used DARCII to clarify how staff and board could contribute to different types of decisions. We created a simple decision-making tree to guide staff on when they could make a decision on their own or needed to get others’ input. Finally, we are explicit about where we are on the leadership spectrum – from the CoDirectors making the decision to having board and/or staff making a decision together.
We have begun shifting our communications processes. We, as leaders, have strong communication skills, self-awareness, and attention to power dynamics, which are needed to build a shared leadership culture. We also slow down to surface and address differences of opinion, leveraging these opportunities to build communication skills and the team. Also, beyond having more meetings for information-sharing and discussion, staff are exploring new technologies to support communications.
We are also working on enhancing accountability processes. We have developed a set of benchmarks to monitor MAG’s success, a set of learning questions to reflect on regularly, and a new performance review system for more frequent feedback. We also discuss lack of follow-through during staff and board meetings to understand the root of it and come to solutions.
Culture & Relationships
While this whole blog is about the shift to a shared leadership culture, we want to recognize the role that Gayle Williams played as our Interim Executive Director. Gayle provided her outside perspective on MAG’s culture and worked with board and staff to lay the foundation for us to develop a leaderful learning organization.
When Susan first stepped into this role, she thought it would be more efficient and save time. But our experience has been that going beyond two people to a network – a real shared leadership culture – takes more time. This is partly because the leaders cannot divide and delegate everything; you have to have overlap in the work. But it is also because when you operate in a networked way, the volume of relationships and work increases. However, we’ve learned it is entirely worth it because, while it takes more time, it is enabling us to get much closer to realizing the full potential of MAG and each person that is part of this culture. In this shared leadership culture we are truly much more than the sum of our parts.
In addition to these lessons about shared leadership, becoming a learning organization that is committed to practicing what we preach has helped MAG increase our adaptability and accountability. It is a critical way that we, as CoDirectors, balance our commitment to interdependence with our commitment to following through on our mission. It is also a way that we broaden beyond two individuals in positional leadership to a wider range of co-creators: board, staff, clients, funders, and partners. See more about how we’ve built a learning organization that is also a community of practice in our next blog.
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.
- Maintain friendship.
- Honor strengths and growth potential in each other.
- 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.
- 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.