In pop music, on the silver screen, and in muppets and cartoons, dynamic duos abound Sonny and Cher, Batman and Robin, Bert & Ernie, Scooby-Doo and Shaggy.
But in the world of nonprofit Executive Directors, co-leadership is rare. Many nonprofits rely on the narrative of a singular leader.
In fact, when the idea of co-leadership was presented to us, Andie and Kerry, we were both skeptical. We didn’t know each other well, and our first few meetings felt a bit like a tough blind date: the sense that we were each carefully evaluating the other.
Both of us were passionate about the organization we were being recruited to lead. As the former Operations Director and Deputy Director respectively, we knew a thing or two about the nuts and bolts of managing Farming Hope, but we were unclear about our own collaboration. Thankfully our predecessor Jamie Stark, Farming Hope’s visionary co-founder and first Executive Director, foresaw the benefits. Indeed, co-leadership is on the rise, and for good reason.
Over time, we came to learn that our backgrounds perfectly complement each other: Andie has a strong background in food service operations, and Kerry has a strong background in education and nonprofits. Our skills and our strengths overlap and diverge, and we have learned how to be keen advisors to each other.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of our co-leadership, so, although we are often mutually camera-shy, we thought we would take the opportunity to share our learnings. We have had a number of difficult decisions to navigate and challenges to overcome, and over time we have both become believers in co-leadership and even evangelists among our peers at other organizations. Here are some of the benefits as we see it:
- Better decisions / Better sleep – Both of us have experience as solo leaders in the past, and we are acutely aware of a single person’s fallibility. Two brains are often better than one when it comes to thinking through complex problems with a diversity of perspectives. In addition, worrying about making the right decision can keep a leader up at night. We sleep more soundly knowing that we stress-tested all of our hard decisions off each other.
- Deeper Dives – A leader can try to be a Jack or Jane of all trades, but having a co-leader allows for each person to dive deep into their area of expertise. It is impossible to be an expert in everything, so co-leading allows us to further develop complementary skills.
- Cultivating Collaboration – Decentralized decision-making and empowers all employees to take initiative, and it helps organizations to be healthy places to work with a thriving culture of collaboration. Modeling joint decision-making and power-sharing in leadership helps employees at all levels of the organization embrace working together. This collaboration requires both transparency and accountability, which up-levels our game on all fronts.
- Rest and Resilience – Co-leadership allows each of us to take a break from work when we need it. Unplugging during vacation has never been this easy for an ED! And even when we are both in town there are days when one person is feeling down or discouraged and we are able to lift each other up. There is less isolation and it leads to a more sustainable future for all.
Are you convinced already? We have had many folks who are ready to take the plunge into co-leadership approach us for advice, so here are our words of wisdom:
- Clearly Define Roles – Having clearly defined roles so that the team knows who owns which pieces of the organizational pie. For example, Kerry oversees our Apprenticeship Program and our HR, while Andie oversees our Food Security programs and Finance. This clarity helps us work efficiently and effectively.
- Understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses – The strengths are the easier half of this equation, gently understanding each other’s vulnerabilities and struggles is equally as important. We use this knowledge to know when to lean on each other, when to defer, and when to assert. We worked with a leadership coach who helped us to better understand what each of us brings to the table and we highly recommend coaching to co-leaders.
- Have each other’s backs – Spending time together and witnessing each other’s deep commitment and conviction about Farming Hope has helped us to foster confidence and trust in each other. But of course there will be times when either or both of us makes mistakes. Forgiving each other’s faults and generous in having each other’s backs is essential to bringing out the best in each other.
One thing missing from our leadership? A super couple moniker, like “Benifer”, “Billary,” or “Brangelina!” The top candidates: “K-Andie” or “SobreRo” -portmanteaus of our first names and last names respectively. We may keep iterating on this one…stay tuned!