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Looking back: Growing Pains

Many of you followed with interest the joint series that Natalia and I published monthly about her promotion and our discussions about whether we should attempt a co-leadership model as part of our efforts to experiment with how to redistribute executive responsibility in ways that would be more personally sustainable for non-profit Executive Directors.  As the year closes, I have spent time looking back, and most important of all…learning! I thought I would share my reflections on our joint venture, and I hope that Natalia will add her thoughts now that she has had the time to settle into her new job in Los Angeles.

What Happened in 2014 and Lessons Learned


For those of you who may not have followed our earlier blogs, I thought it would be helpful to provide some context. In 2014, Natalia was promoted from her position as Communications Director to Managing Director in an attempt to create a new model that better distributes operations and program capacity that often both fall to the ED, creating a pretty unsustainable workload and expectations of an unusual combination of skill sets all wrapped up in one person. During the same period we decided to take advantage of the transitions of two of our long-term employees along with obtaining a number of big consulting opportunities to bring on 5 new, mostly junior staff, in a relatively short period of time. That is a lot of change to manage!

Culture In Every Thing:

I am going to be a bit of spoiler by leading with what was one of the biggest lessons for me as I think about our joint venture through 2014/2015, you need to lead with culture in everything you do.  When Natalia was promoted to Managing Director, I was excited because she was showing a flair for operational systems, an area that was not as exciting to me. I was happy to hand off operational systems, finances and human resources while I focused on program and development.  In her new role, Natalia was particularly interested in how to create better support and supervision systems for the new employees we had hired. She was a champion for professional development funds for new employees, helped develop work plans and supervision schedules with each staff member (including me) and began to work closely with CompassPoint to develop a performance management system. She wanted to have clear career paths and expectations about how to get to the next level, although providing advancement opportunities is a persistent problem for small non-profit organizations like ours.

This all sounds good, right?   What I was not paying attention to in the introduction of new systems was the need to pay attention to how to align these systems with our values of collective leadership and a network perspective.  Systems and structures are not values neutral and are often white-centered.  A s we bring the best of organizational learning to new contexts, we have to constantly ask how this may or may not align with our values and how we may have to adapt and recalibrate conventional “best practices” to our context, values and mission.  Culture and mission are what hold the whole so that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  As Natalia and I delegated our responsibilities as a leadership team, I was not holding the whole.  Let me give some examples and more specific lessons.

What is collective leadership?

One concern raised by staff was whether we were moving away from collective leadership into a model that not everyone had “signed on for.”  It’s a good question. Do supervision structures negate collective leadership? One important aspect of collective leadership is distributing leadership opportunity.  This means giving people significant authority over areas of work they are responsible for implementing. When you are giving new staff big responsibilities this means also providing the appropriate level of professional development and direction, in other words not leaving people to sink or swim.  This idea was elaborated in describing a positive example in an article, ‘Doing More with More: Putting Shared Leadership into Practice’, “leadership responsibilities became part of job descriptions, were discussed at regular supervisory meetings and performance reviews, and were integrated into trainings for newly promoted employees.”

Lessons about operationalizing collective leadership:

  • Continue learning about shared leadership:  We are trying to support new ways of leading and need to create plenty of planning time to constantly reflect and learn about how to practice shared leadership as the organization grows and becomes more complex.
  • Create conditions for success:  If you want to develop leadership throughout an organization you need to make sure that people receive the supports they need to lead successfully.  It takes time to build relationships and provide direction and your capacity for this should be considered when hiring.  I underestimated this and we are now committed to slower growth.

Who makes what decisions?

Natalia was attempting to address the need for stronger supervision and guidance channels so it is important to probe more deeply to understand why these supports were not experienced in the way intended.  An important dimension of shared or collective leadership is how decisions get made.  This question has implications for how power is exercised in an organization.  In traditional organizations decision-making is often hierarchical so its not surprising that these concerns came up as we began to create new structures.  I have to admit that at the time I thought resistance was a reaction to supervision and accountability, a blind spot (given my own power and privilege) about how resistance was related to issues of voice and power.  Figuring out when to tap the full wisdom of the team (a labor and time intensive proposition that has to be exercised selectively) is not easy, and figuring out who should make which decisions is also tough.  For example, not everyone is equally qualified or responsible for different decisions. For example, the communications director has more expertise that should receive more weight in a decision about messaging, or the ED or managing director has ultimate responsibility for balancing the budget and may need final say over budget decisions.  It is also easy to get distracted by issues of decision-making authority instead of paying more attention to engagement and input that creates a lot of room for discussion, and hopefully, consensus on the really important issues.


  • Use team wisdom to innovate: In response to concerns, we turned to expert consultants to develop a decision-making chart instead of starting with the wisdom of the entire staff in dealing with what is a charged and complicated issue (a learning community ethos). 
  • Rely more on discussion than structures: In the end, a decision chart should really be a guide or last resort and not replace good discussion and airing of any issues that arouse staff energy and passions.


We have also had the opportunity to revisit what transparency means.  When we were a well-established team, we openly shared our budget and salaries and made decisions together about how to balance our budget and whether to take pay cuts or lay someone off.  We also did group peer reviews.  Both practices require responsibility and training that not everyone may want to take on, something we did not give sufficient attention to in early experiments.  As we started doing supervision meetings privately there were concerns about transparency symbolized by closed-door conversations.  Transparency requires balancing individual and collective desires and needs, and its complicated and may need to be continuously adapted.


  • Have a team discussion about the kinds of information and decisions that everyone would like to have full access to.
  • Make room for people to opt out of discussions they do not want to be part of (e.g. a layoff decision).
  • Use collaborative technology so that the team can easily access, monitor or raise questions about the budget, board reports, job descriptions, etc.
  • Acknowledge mistakes.

Balancing relationships, process and the work:

As I thought about the events of the past year and a half, I thought about a presentation from June Holley on Gibbs Triangle applied to the importance of trust and relationships in networks.  Of course, this holds true for organizations as well.  As an organization that with a rapid growth went from a group of 4 people who had worked together for the good part of a decade to an organization of 7 with 5 new people; we did not have an existing base of trust as represented in the graphic below of Gibbs Triangle.



When a strong foundation of trust does not exist, as you can see in the diagram below, the triangle (proxy for organization) becomes unstable and then you need more controls to prop it up; such as expertise or systems or charts instead of communication. This is one way of understanding how a supervision and performance review system based on best practices in one context may feel helpful and designed to support your success when relationships are strong.  When you have not had time to build relationships the same process might be experienced as micromanagement, not trusting or worse yet, scary. When your triangle gets inverted and you are not anchoring in relationship, trust and communication, you may create a negative feedback loop where trust is eroded by the structures. 


Overall Lessons:

  1. Start with values and cultures:  Talk as a team about your values and the culture you are building and how they are infused into your processes and systems.
  2. Build relationships:  Make time for relationships.
  3. Be explicit about racial equity:  We had staff use great materials to organize a session on anti-racism.  This is an admirable initiative, and its important to tap the expertise of an outside, neutral facilitator to moderate power dynamics and create a safe container.  This year, since we are a small team, we have decided to go to sessions together instead of bringing someone to us.
  4. Processes:  We invested in consultants to help with structures.  To develop relationships it’s also important to invest in process training on things such as how to provide constructive feedback to each other, reflective listening and having difficult conversations.


What we did right: 

Of course, in the process of paying attention to all that we learned from the challenges, it is important not to lose sight of what we did right as we continue to move forward.

  • Provide opportunities to promote from within
  • Allocate resources for professional development (We allocated over $10,000 in 2014)
  • Create clear goals and work plans
  • Provide opportunities for people of color
  • Experiment
  • Reflect