CEO Not (Necessarily) Required
An Early Look Into Fractured Atlas’s Shared Leadership Model
Those playing along at home will recall that Fractured Atlas recently embarked on a few new adventures. One of which is the creation of a four-person, non-hierarchical leadership team for the organization. (I recently shared a collection of research on the topic. If you can wait a bit longer, I’m publishing a subsequent post that distills the key findings from the hundreds of hours I spent reviewing material.)
At Fractured Atlas, we’re approaching our foray into shared leadership much like anything we attempt: as an iterative process that progresses through our R&D pipeline. This process began with deep conversations over several months between the senior leadership of our staff and board. These conversations allowed us space and time to question conventional and received wisdom, and explore questions like:
- What is the role of an organization’s leader?
- Why is an organization typically structured as a hierarchy with one person at the top?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of hierarchical structures?
- Is there a way to use this CEO transition as an opportunity to experiment with a leadership structure that might be more in line with our anti-racism, anti-bias, and anti-oppression work?
- Could we develop this while also experimenting with more organically self-forming teams? Perhaps an entirely geographically-disbursed organization?
- Can this be accomplished without creating a “first among equals” on the team, or accidentally making the Board Chair the de facto CEO of the organization?
- Can we be as innovative with our leadership and team structures as we aim to be when creating tools to help our amazing members?
The announcement that we were exploring a four-person, non-hierarchical leadership model at Fractured Atlas sparked quite a lot of interest. Some of that interest was admittedly accompanied by arched eyebrows and a skeptical “Oh, REEEEAALLLLY,” but almost universally people were curious to learn more about how the experience unfolded. What follows is a snapshot of where we are right now — an “interim report,” if you will — with an important caveat that where we are right now is constantly evolving.
How did we get here again?
- On March 1, 2017, when Fractured Atlas founder and Chief Executive Officer Adam Huttler began his “non-battical,” the four senior leaders of Fractured Atlas began operating as a four-person leadership team. Over the subsequent year, until Adam’s departure from Fractured Atlas on December 31, 2017, this group coordinated strategy and tactics for the four “departments” of Fractured Atlas: Programs, Engineering, External Relations, and Finance/People/Operations (FinPOps).
- At its October 2017 meeting, anticipating the departure of Adam Huttler as CEO of Fractured Atlas to become CEO of Exponential Creativity Ventures, the Board of Directors approved a one-year trial of a four-person, non-hierarchical leadership team to begin in January 2018. Titles for the four positions were equalized at the “C-level”, reinforcing the non-hierarchical nature of the team.
Why try this instead of launching a search for a new CEO?
- Fractured Atlas is in the middle of a multi-year strategic initiative, shaped by the members of the Leadership Team and Adam Huttler. It would very likely slow the momentum of this plan to conduct a search and introduce a new, single leader into the organization at this time.
- A non-hierarchical, shared leadership model helps advance the anti-racism and anti-oppression (ARAO) values Fractured Atlas is committed to. Hierarchical models imply that one person heads the organization and makes the ultimate decisions. A shared leadership model demonstrates a different, inclusive approach that is more in line with our stated ARAO values and fosters a diversity of voices, perspectives, and skills necessary for the organization to be healthy, well-informed, and successful.
- Using a shared leadership team model lessens the organization’s dependence on any one person, and strengthens strategic thinking and decision-making capacity across a broader range of staff members.
- Shared leadership models are nothing new and are commonplace in many arts organizations that have both an artistic and executive leader. There are examples of successful shared leadership models — as well as failed attempts — dating back thousands of years. The Leadership Team is studying a range of examples and is working to leverage learnings from those examples to construct the model that fits Fractured Atlas. I’ve been designated as the team’s point person on gathering and sharing relevant research and case studies (and recently spent my annual Think Week with a treasure trove of material on shared leadership, the role of the CEO, and global virtual teams). This is an ongoing conversation in the Leadership Team meetings.
- Experimenting with a shared leadership model demonstrates Fractured Atlas’s willingness to question conventional wisdom and embrace challenge when we think it will offer leadership to the sector and produce better results for those we serve. Through sharing about our experiment with a four-person leadership team, we expect to be able to help a host of teams and organizations operate more effectively and efficiently in service to their missions and the field.
What exactly is being shared?
Four people collaborate to fulfill what is commonly considered the CEO function of the organization, which includes overall strategic planning, fundraising, program development, and technical and organizational management.
How is the Leadership Team structured?
The shared leadership team includes Shawn Anderson (Chief Technology Officer) who oversees Software Engineering, Tim Cynova (Chief Operating Officer) who oversees Finance, People, and Operations (FinPOps); Lauren Ruffin (Chief External Relations Officer) who oversees Development, Marketing, and Outreach; and Pallavi Sharma (Chief Program Officer) who oversees the largest team delivering our core Programs and Services.
How often does the group meet and communicate?
- Important Note: Fractured Atlas’s four-person leadership team is entirely geographically disbursed. All four members live and work in different states: Lauren (New Mexico), Pallavi (New Jersey), Shawn (Colorado), and Tim (New York). This means they only see each other in 3D a handful of times each year. It requires them to be mindful of how they communicate and create alignment within the leadership team and the organization since they aren’t all sitting near each other in HQ on a daily basis.
- In the year of Adam’s non-battical, the Leadership Team refined their decision-making processes, which now include: Weekly “tactical” sessions where the group reviews weekly activities and metrics, and resolves tactical obstacles and issues; Monthly strategy meetings where critical issues affecting long-term success are discussed, analyzed, brainstormed and/or decided; Quarterly two-day offsites to review strategy, competitive landscape, industry trends, and team and organizational development; Ongoing Flowdock exchanges, Zoom calls, and emails; a monthly meeting with the Finance team to review budget and financial management reports; and other team meetings where Leadership Team members attend as appropriate (e.g., product development meetings between Engineering and Programs will include Shawn and Pallavi but not Lauren and Tim).
- In addition, the Leadership Team spends an entire week in March, during the annual All Hands staff retreat, working in person with each other and the various organizational teams.
- The Leadership Team meets by video with the Board’s Executive Committee on a monthly basis and on a quarterly basis with the full Board of Directors (January, April, July, and October).
How does the Leadership Team set strategy and create plans?
- The Leadership Team sets overarching strategy and creates plans to execute that strategy through their monthly Strategy meetings and the annual budget process.
- The overarching strategy is then made more concrete and practical through the development of quarterly, organization-wide Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) creating transparency and alignment with every team and individual staff member.
- The OKRs are monitored closely on a monthly basis. As external conditions shift or barriers to implementing the OKRs emerge, the Leadership Team discusses these developments in their Strategy and tactical meetings and determines necessary adjustments.
What if the Leadership Team deadlocks on a decision?
- A shared leadership team doesn’t mean that the group votes on every decision, or requires consensus on every matter. Each member functions as the CEO of their department, possesses a deep domain expertise over the related content, and is responsible for seeing that their operations support the agreed upon vision and strategy of Fractured Atlas. Where functions overlap, or where group agreement is necessary for success, more discussion is necessary and joint agreement is desired.
- The Leadership Team operates to take everyone’s concerns into account, and ensure that all team members feel heard and understood. However, one of the hallmarks of high performing teams is an ability to engage in healthy conflict and resolve differences productively.
- When managing conflict, the Leadership Team distinguishes between decisions of significance that impact the entire organization and ones that are more tactical. The Leadership Team practices “Disagree & Commit” for both varieties of decisions, but allows different amounts of time and weighting of votes depending on the decision’s nature. If, after healthy discussion and an appropriate time period for reflection, there are still differences of opinion about a matter, the “Disagree & Commit” principle is invoked.
- In the event that the group can’t reach agreement on a decision of significance that impacts the entire organization, the team will present this matter to the Chair, who will decide with the Leadership Team if this is an issue to discuss with the Board’s Executive Committee.
How is the Leadership Team evaluated?
- The annual self-assessment process for all staff at Fractured Atlas takes place during July and August. In the past, the Fractured Atlas CEO completed his self-assessment relative to explicit OKR goals and organizational strategy, the Chair of the Board canvassed Board members for input, and the Chair and the CEO discussed performance and future goals.
- Informed by our ongoing research on shared leadership models, the Leadership Team is discussing the best approach to assessment in the shared model. Questions being considered include: How to best assess individual members relative to their own goals — is this limited to each person assessing themselves, or are the other members of the Leadership Team offering input? How should we assess Leadership Team members’ contributions to the Leadership Team? Are non-Leadership Team members of the Fractured Atlas staff involved in assessing the Leadership Team through a 360-degree review process? How should the Board participate in the assessment process?
What if a member of the Leadership Team needs to be reprimanded or terminated?
- One of the key traits of high-performing, non-hierarchical teams is the ability for team members, and their coworkers across the organization, to hold each other accountable for their responsibilities and commitments. At Fractured Atlas, the transparent OKR process means that everyone in the organization knows every other staff member’s quarterly priorities, and how well each is doing in achieving those goals.
- Holding each other accountable starts first with the members of the Leadership Team working to surface and address any concerns among themselves. If concerns can’t be resolved, then it will be brought to the attention of the Chair and, if necessary, to the Board’s Executive Committee to determine an appropriate action.
What happens when someone inevitably leaves the Leadership Team?
- When a member of the Leadership Team leaves the organization, the remaining members of the Leadership Team will assess the role, determine if anything in the job description needs to be adjusted before launching a search, seek input from the Executive Committee, set out a plan and process, and then search for a replacement.
- Given the importance of the members of the Leadership Team, and that the Board of Directors officially hires and fires members of the Leadership Team, it is likely that one or more Board members will be involved in interviewing and making final recommendations about the replacement.
- Once the person is hired, the hard work of rebuilding the team with the new configuration begins. (More on this when further research is distilled.)
Who do Board members contact for questions, concerns, and to share their thoughts?
- For matters specific to Programs, Engineering, External Relations, or People/Operations/Finance (FinPOps), Board members email the respective lead.
- For matters relevant to the entire leadership team, or if it’s unclear who is best to field the inquiry, Board members email the leadership team’s group email. All four members of the leadership team receive emails to that address, and the appropriate member responds.
- For meta-level or highly sensitive issues, Board members contact the Board Chair who can discuss it individually with a specific team member or as a group by adding a discussion item to the Executive Committee’s monthly meeting agenda.
This article isn’t meant to make you think that we have it all figured out — far from it — or that we didn’t approach this with concerns. We have our concerns, and discussed many in great detail, but think they are worth the risk. Healthy concerns are a part of innovation but they shouldn’t stifle innovation. If we waited on the sidelines until all of the concerns were resolved, we’d never risk and learn.
Risk aversion is a regret premium. A fee paid to avoid regret.
Intrigued by People Operations at Fractured Atlas and want to ask us questions? Feel free to connect with us during our free HR office hours.
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.