Assessing a Four Person Non-Hierarchical Leadership Team
How does a Board of Directors (re)craft its annual assessment of the CEO when that role is filled by a four-person, shared, non-hierarchical leadership team? This was precisely the challenge the Fractured Atlas Board faced in early 2019. Below, in detail, we describe the process we crafted to answer this question.
Fractured Atlas has officially been operating with a shared, non-hierarchical leadership team since January 2018. Functionally, we’ve been doing it for about a year longer than that. In advance of Fractured Atlas founder Adam Huttler leaving the organization to become CEO of Exponential Creativity Ventures, staff and board leadership engaged in lengthy conversations about what succession plans might look like. Ultimately, we decided that instead of replacing the CEO “one-for-one,” we would explore a four-person, shared, non-hierarchical leadership team structure. There were multiple reasons why we landed on this model. Here’s more about that decision and how the whole thing works.
The Annual Assessment
One of the core responsibilities for a Board of Directors is to assess the performance of its chief executive. Performance appraisal is an area of HR that even those who do it daily find more art than science. Introduce a volunteer board, who might not possess this specific expertise, further complicate things in that they only engage episodically with its CEO, and you potentially have all the ingredients for potential disaster. Now call it non-hierarchical *shared* leadership among four staff members, and things get quite a bit more complicated. (And to make things more complicated for ourselves at Fractured Atlas, we specifically designed this team structure in a way to avoid a “first among equals” power imbalance.)
With all of this complexity and potential pitfalls at play, it’s one of the reasons why we love our Fractured Atlas board. They, like the staff, relish opportunities to venture into uncharted waters and wrestle with difficult, unusual scenarios. They bring a great deal of wisdom, and perspective, and humility to the table that enables staff and board leadership to truly work in partnership. Because of this, the staff leadership team doesn’t constantly feel like we need to “manage” the board. We’re not spinning information in just the right way to keep the board engaged but, you know, not *too* engaged. It was with this relationship that we set out to design a new shared leadership team assessment.
While we have effectively been operating as a shared leadership team for more than two years now, the *official* one-year anniversary rolled around earlier this year. And with it, the need to assess how well this atypical leadership arrangement was working for us. This prompt lead to multiple conversations between staff and board leadership, and caused us to question the basic premise and purpose of a performance evaluation: how might we can construct one that best suits our needs? What does an assessment for this kind of CEO arrangement look like? Even more fundamental, what’s the purpose and value of a leadership assessment? What’s the value of an annual assessment to the individual staff members? To this team? To the board, other staff, and the organization? How does this track to us fulfilling (or not fulfilling) our organization’s mission and purpose?
We surfaced several key criteria from these discussions:
- We wanted to collect voices from around the organization.
- We wanted to assess the four people collectively as the CEO function.
- We wanted to lay the groundwork for future assessments.
Each of the four individuals on the leadership team oversee an aspect of Fractured Atlas, and they operate as the CEO of sorts for their department (i.e., Programs, Engineering, External Relations, and FinPOps (Finance, People, Operations)). We wanted this assessment structured in a way to evaluate the group as a whole. How well is this group functioning as the CEO of Fractured Atlas? Not the individuals. The leadership team makes decisions of consequence as one entity. It’s not Shawn making this big decision and Lauren making that one. We didn’t want the assessment to be about how well is Tim doing in his job, or Lauren, or Pallavi or Shawn, and then we roll it all up into a team. We wanted it to evaluate the “CEO” as this leadership team configuration. We know from research and experience, that a team can all be comprised of individual “B-level players" but function as an "A-level team.” That’s what should matter to the organization. Similarly there are plenty of examples in life where a collection of A-level players barely manage to function as a C-level team. [Insert your highly-compensated heartbreaking hometown sports team here.]
We settled on a three-pronged approach:
- (Part 1) A modified 360-degree review collecting information from board members and from staff who had direct knowledge from working with the leadership team. Ultimately, six staff members and all of our board members were interviewed for roughly 60-minutes each over Zoom video. (For this part, we partnered with the terrific Kelly Kienzle of Open Circle Coaching.)
- (Part 2) A way for the leadership team to assess its own team performance. (For this part, we used Patrick Lencioni’s Team Assessment framework.)
- (Part 3) A way to capture an explicit professional development component for each of us. For example, in evaluating the four-person team as a single entity, we were omitting individual feedback that would be useful to each person’s professional growth. (For this part, we engaged in a confidential meeting for only the four team members. More on the structure below.)
Part 1: The Modified 360
For the initial assessment of the shared team, we felt it was important for people to weigh in who had direct knowledge of the group and their activities. We wanted people who worked with the team, saw the interactions firsthand, engaged with them in challenging conversations, and who knew the members for longer than just a few months. (In future years, we aspire to simply pull names out of a hat to pick people.)
The objective of conducting these team input interviews was to receive input from colleagues regarding the leadership team model’s areas of strengths, as well as how the model could be improved. Kelly conducted live, confidential interviews to gather suggestions for improvement that would enhance both individual performance and the performance of the team overall. Interviewee input was used to help assess both the effectiveness of this leadership model as well as the leadership team itself.
Her guidance to interviewees included:
- Interviews of 60 minutes will be conducted with team members, direct and non-direct reports, and board members. Interviews will be conducted via Zoom video.
- All information collected during these interviews will be held confidentially. No direct quotes will be taken and no names will be attributed to any comments.
- A minimum of 3 interviewees expressing the same sentiment on a given issue is required to ensure confidentiality and to identify common themes in the feedback.
- These common themes will be collected into a Summary Report that will be shared directly with the leadership team, the Board Chair (Russell Willis Taylor) and possibly other Board members.
In advance of the interviews, Kelly worked with the staff and board leadership to craft the following prompts that would be used to guide her conversations:
- What are three words you would use to describe the effectiveness of this leadership model?
- For what would you hesitate to rely on the leadership team?
- What are the greatest collective strengths of the leadership team (not of the individuals)?
- What would you prioritize as the leadership team's greatest opportunities for development?
- How could the leadership team foster a better working relationship with you personally or the organization as a whole?
- To establish a baseline for the performance of this model: “How effective is this 4-person model in leading the organization as compared to the single CEO model when Adam Huttler was leading Fractured Atlas?”
Following these interviews, Kelly processed the information and compiled it into a 31-page document. That document was delivered to the full board, and discussed during a 90-minute Zoom meeting with the leadership team, Kelly, and board chair.
Part 2: The Team Assessment
The first part of the process collected external perceptions on the leadership team. We now needed a way for the four members of the team to assess our group performance. For this we turned to Patrick Lencioni and his infamous business fable The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Lencioni has developed a 38-question assessment that team members complete to rate the group on his five dimensions: Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, Results. Each question is rated on a 1-to-5 scale of Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Usually, Always. You tally the individual scores at the end and, voila, there’s a numerical value for each component that maps to how well the team feels its doing. The idea is that teams take this on a regular basis (quarterly, semi-annually, etc.) to track how each component is tracking over time. (We complete this assessment on a semi-annual basis.)
Following this assessment, the leadership team met to discuss our reactions. What were the questions and components where we were all in agreement? What questions and components saw the most variety in answers? Why might that be? How might we approach our work in ways that address some of the more challenging aspects we need to improve in our working relationship?
Part 3: Individual Effectiveness
We felt like the first two parts of the assessments gave us great information about how we were working together as a team. However, we were missing a piece of *individual* feedback that typically occurs during one’s annual assessment: (1) here’s where you’re awesome, and (2) here’s where you can be even awesomer. Because of how we structured this overall assessment to focus on the team entity, we were missing an individual professional development aspect. For this component we again turned to Patrick Lencioni.
Each of the four of us answered the two questions below for each of the other three team members. And while we could have reflected on how we’d answers these questions for ourselves, we didn’t include that this time around.
- What is [Lauren/Pallavi/Shawn/Tim's] single most important behavioral quality that contributes to the strength of the team? (That is, their strength.)
- What is [Lauren/Pallavi/Shawn/Tim’s] single most important behavioral quality that detracts from the strength of the team? (That is, their weakness or problematic behavior.)
This part of the process was entirely confidential to just the four members of the leadership team. We’ve cultivated a great deal of trust and understanding between us that enables our team to delve into challenging topics. We felt like if someone else joined this meeting (also done entirely on Zoom video), or if the information was shared outside of that circle, we’d potentially “pulling punches” rather than being open and honest, particularly when it came to the things we each needed to work on improving.
In Kelly’s 31-page document she highlighted a number of themes from her conversations. Each of the seventeen items below had a page of supporting comments. Some of these findings support our earlier understanding of shared leadership models from research; some we came to discover once we were actually doing the thing; and still others were new themes to contemplate and explore in the coming year.
- The model represents and encourages diversity
- The model reflects our values and mission
- The model is effective and efficient
- The model enables us to be bold
- The model generates collaboration
- Responsibility is shared and that’s good
- Responsibility is shared and that’s difficult – Staff’s concerns
- Responsibility is shared and that’s difficult – Board’s concerns
- Seeking an answer from 4 people is frustrating and slow (but maybe the quality of the answer is better)
- Create more transparency in decision-making
- Make it easier to approach leaders
- This model is exhausting for the leaders
- This model is better than single CEO model
- This model is potentially better if we address vulnerabilities
- Re-imagine how Leadership and Board work together
- Establish how the Board will evaluate the leadership
- Need to understand why/how these individuals are so successful together
After she delivered her report, the Leadership Team met via Zoom video with both Kelly and Russell Willis Taylor. We discussed the themes and comments, sought clarification in a few areas, and then chatted about what future work to support this topic might look like.
Reflections from an Outside, Independent Party
At the end of her report, Kelly collated a list of recommendations (expressed by the interviewees) on what has made this model effective. She suggested that they might be of interest to other organizations considering a shared leadership model. A number of these align solidly with our previous research into the “how” of creating high-performing shared leadership configurations.
The leadership team must have:
- Trust [Kelly’s Note: Understanding how this trust was created on this team is a key question that this entire process sought to answer. This model’s success appears to be fundamentally tied to the trust that exists between these four leaders and/or their individual capacities for trust. The question is whether that trust is a necessary prerequisite or invaluable end-product of using this model. Most likely, it is a fortunate combination of both.]
- Collegiality and mutual respect
- Comfort with complexity
- A leadership assessment of each participant for key leadership qualities
- An organization-over-individual ethos
- Deep self-awareness
- An understanding and acceptance of the flaws of one another
- A representation of the organization’s values in the leadership model, while still maintaining equitable recruitment practices
- A representation of strong expertise in each relevant content area of an organization
- A representation of the fundamental skills of leadership: idea generation, aligning people and execution
- Complete buy-in from all participants impacted by the model
- A stronger board leadership, and especially Board Chair, than is otherwise required
- A norm of non-crisis scenarios, as effective crisis response would be more difficult under this model.
Where to from here
The 2019 assessment process officially closed with a letter from the Board Chair to the Leadership Team. It memorialized this moment, went into the personnel file, and then we moved on. From the annual assessment, and our continued staff/board work, we identified two items specifically mentioned in the assessment to include in future conversations:
- How might the Board assist the Leadership Team with the ongoing capacity challenges that they face as leaders of a very lean organization?
- How must the Board’s role change in light of the new leadership arrangements to make sure that it contributes real value to Fractured Atlas?
Time will tell how we modify the 2020 assessment process. As with everything at Fractured Atlas, we’re continually iterating and adjusting to best align what we do with what we need. Stay tuned for that recap piece next year.
[This piece was co-written by Russell Willis Taylor, Chair of the Fractured Atlas Board, and Tim Cynova, Chief Operating Officer at Fractured Atlas]
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About Tim Cynova
Tim wears a multitude of hats, all in service of creating anti-racist workplaces where people can thrive. He currently is co-CEO of Fractured Atlas (an entirely virtual organization with staff spread across multiple states and countries) and a Principal of the consulting group Work. Shouldn't. Suck. He serves on the faculty of Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and The New School teaching courses in People-Centric Organizational Design; he's a trained mediator, and a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Earlier in his career, Tim was the Executive Director of The Parsons Dance Company and of High 5 Tickets to the Arts in New York City, had a memorable stint with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was a one-time classical trombonist, musicologist, and for five years in his youth he delivered newspapers for the Evansville, Indiana Courier-Press. Also, during a particularly slow summer, he bicycled 3,902 miles across the United States.