Is Shared Leadership a Real Thing?

Uncategorized Jul 25, 2018

I have to be honest, I have been thinking about writing this article for a long time. In the Spring, an organization approached me about doing some work on an organization managing through change. Without a clearly defined succession plan in place they were considering a number of ways to get through a leadership crisis and they were curious about my thoughts on shared leadership. In this case, shared leadership meant that two current leaders within the organization would redistribute the duties of the former CEO.

Not knowing much about this topic, I started researching this type of model. Realizing quickly that all the data in the world wasn’t going to really help me understand this concept, I decided to interview some of my nonprofit colleagues.

My first interview was with a dynamic duo of women from Berks Connections/Pretrial Services (BCPS). They arrived wearing matching outfits…and I don’t mean agency tee-shirts. They call this “twinning” and it made a clear statement about their partnership. Nikki and Peggy serve as the Co-Executive Directors for BCPS. In many cases, including this one, the model of shared executive leadership happens organically. In 2012 the Executive Director of BCPS announced their resignation with about 3 weeks notice. At this time, Nikki and Peggy were respectively working as leaders in their own functional areas AND (let me say this again…) AND  having worked together since 2001, they had a strong well established working relationship built on mutual trust and respect. They got to work developing the plan to carry the agency through this looming leadership transition – immediately both came to the conclusion that a shared leadership model made perfect sense.  They offered to take on the challenge of Co-Executive Director’s because they shared a vision of building a “Life Improvement Culture” and had a clear understanding of each other’s respective roles based on their individual strengths. The dynamic duo has worked successfully together as Co-Executive Directors since 2012 and have taken their organization to new levels of excellence.

Another colleague and trusted advisor Dr. Bill Vogler from Pinebrook Family Answers also agreed to meet with me for a conversation around shared executive leadership. His story was a bit different.

The shared leadership story for Bill was the result of the merger of two entities. As we know, more and more organizations are looking at mergers as a way to better utilize resources and impact communities. Both of these entities brought their unique programming structure to the newly formed organization AND two established leaders.

In this situation, it is often assumed by a Board that the two respective leaders can co-lead the newly formed organization. And they can…AND key stakeholders need to understand a few key factors that Bill and I identified:

●      What are the skill sets of the two leaders and who can they best be utilized in the new organization?  How are the leaders expected to use their gifts in service to the organization? Has the Board clearly defined expectations of both leaders?

●      What is the role of the Board during the transition? Are they meeting on a regular basis with both leaders so that they can support the challenges that the leaders and organizations are facing during a time of change?

●      How can the new leaders proactively build familiarity, comfort, and trust

●      What external resources is the Board utilizing to support the transition? Bringing in a consultant during this time can be extremely beneficial and Pinebrook utilized a consultant during the early stages of the merger. I came in to work with the new senior leadership team on a separate occasion.

●      Is there are clearly articulated shared vision and mission of the new organization? If this is in place, it is far easier for the leaders to lead.

So, do I personally recommend organizations attempt this model? Well, I suppose this is part of the reason it has taken me so long to write this blog. For shared leadership to work, it has to be about intentionally building a relationship of familiarity, comfort and trust between all stakeholders. This is much more than grabbing coffee or a few phone calls. It means doing the heavy lifting around relationships that creates genuine understanding. It has to be about well-articulated expectations of Board members who have thought carefully about what they need to move the organization forward. It needs to be about continuous communication. There needs to be flexibility of thought.  There needs to be a strong commitment to courageous conversations and time to celebrate positive milestones. Most importantly, there needs to be a shared committed to organizational vision and mission.

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