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Christopher Mackie Post by Christopher Mackie

By Christopher Mackie on February 27th, 2020

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Thoughts on Co-Leadership: Why Did We Do It? and How are We Doing?

Big Ideas | How We Work | People Operations | Shared Leadership | Board of Directors

This is the second of four posts. Each tackles a piece of the elephant that is the recent Fractured Atlas move to a four-person “Chiefs Executive.”

The opinions expressed in these posts are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other Board member, the Fractured Atlas organization, or its staff.

If you missed the first post, check it out here.

No Desperate Times Nor Desperate Measures

Before looking at the “report card” that I teased in post #1 in this series, it’s important to be clear that our new model is not a desperate move. We were doing very well under a single CEO model when our founding CEO decided it was time to step down.

We considered seriously the usual path of replacing one CEO with another. We chose our present path instead, as a tactic to get something better than any single, new CEO could provide. We also wanted to retain some extraordinary talent in our C-suite that would otherwise likely have moved on.

Our decision was attended by the usual bundles of hopes, fears, and blessings. The chief hope, of course, is that the new leadership approach will enable us to thrive even more as the world gets ever more complex. The chief fear is that we’ll become so cumbersome or so preoccupied internally with this new model that we’ll miss something vital to our continued ability to pursue our mission. The chief blessing is that we can do this work in a context that, while continually challenging, isn’t dire.

I wouldn’t want to undertake the same effort in a nonprofit heading toward, much less on the brink of, insolvency or mission-irrelevance. Whatever this model is, it is not a good gamble for resurrection for NGOs with their backs to any wall.

That said, where are we on the Board objectives I outlined in the first post? To recap, they are:

  1. Ensure that nothing needed by the rest of the organization or its mission is lost in the transition or its aftermath;

  2. Help the leaders to clarify their individual responsibilities, establish the communications channels and flows needed to support each of them in performing their separate tasks, and assess their performance;

  3. Work with the leaders to support the development of authoritative, collaborative decision processes that are “better enough” to justify the increased collaboration costs;

  4. Adjust the Board’s information and other resource “contracts,” internally, externally, and between us and the co-leaders;

  5. Perform intensive contingency and sustainability planning relating to turnover in the four positions; and

  6. Last, but first and foremost, protect the mission.

I would say items 1 and 2 are going well-enough—due largely to the efforts of the co-leaders with an occasional assist from some Board members. This is primarily a series of posts about Board duties and responsibilities, but it’s worth spending some time here to talk about why these Board responsibilities were relatively easy to carry out—and why they might not always be so for organizations wanting to emulate our experiment. That has to do with the distinctive qualities of our four co-leaders, who began this odyssey as our senior leadership team (SLT) under the former CEO.

Building on a Solid Foundation

All four co-leaders had been on-staff for some time when this experiment began, so they were well-into their learning curves. They put that experience to good use in making sure that the organization’s work didn’t suffer while the new networks of resources, authority, and responsibility “contracts” were worked out.

I doubt we would have been as successful undertaking the same change if even one of the four had been brand-new to the organization. That may prove to be one of the biggest limitations on the reproducibility of our experience: how many nonprofits have SLTs that will be unanimously willing to participate in an innovation like this?

It is also clear that personalities matter. Our co-leaders were an effective SLT before we even considered this option. Individually, they’re people of well-above-average cognitive, social, and emotional skills, good communication skills, and collaborative personal ethics. They want to excel but they don’t have the driven, interpersonal competitiveness that, the business literature tells us, destroys most dual-CEO arrangements.

As far as I can discern, they want the new-model jobs they are building for themselves: they’re not secretly pining for “the” traditional CEO job. Equally important, they all know how to make difficult decisions and, as part of that, they’re willing and able to consult extensively, do their best to gain consensus before deciding, and defer to colleagues when those colleagues are better informed or positioned to make the call. They’re not immune to human tendencies to use groups to dodge responsibility, but they’re mature and they respond well when those types of behaviors are called-out.

These may be reasonably common traits among people in organizations but they’re certainly not universal. I’ve worked with many able executives in many hierarchical organizations who, in my view, lacked the social and emotional skills necessary to master this new model. We were lucky in having four who had the skills to thrive in the single-CEO environment they entered and also to transition and thrive in the co-leadership environment they are co-creating.

Shared Leadership is NOT Hierarchical Leadership Times Four

This is a lesson that organizations considering emulating our model need to consider. The problem isn’t that organizations lack people with the needed configuration of talents and (multiple) intelligences. Rather, it’s that hierarchical organizations tend to promote people optimized for leadership in hierarchical organizations. By the time they reach the SLT, those individuals are the cream of the hierarchical crop: the people most optimized for leading hierarchies.

Unsurprisingly, their qualities may not be the qualities most useful in a co-leader model. An organization wanting to make this shift may need to get lucky, as we did, or it may need to conduct a multi-year preparatory effort to groom the right kinds of leaders to rise to the SLT and only then lead the organization into the new arrangement.

For those wanting more detail, there’s a great deal of discussion of how this played out in the many posts by our co-leaders.

I’ve taken this space talking about the co-leaders to build a case that,

if our co-leaders had not been self-selected and self-prepared for these roles, and if they had not developed the needed chemistry on their own, there was not much our Board could have done to make them ready, willing, and able to succeed.

Perhaps someone who was a reasonably close fit already could have been coached the rest of the way into the fusion. But we’re an arts organization, and like some in the performing arts, I tend to believe that one can’t coach chemistry except at the edges. It gels, or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t after a good-faith trial, it’s time to call casting and try again. Unfortunately, for this type of performance, a call to casting may not be a viable option.

Also, we believe strongly as a Board that our job is governance, not management. If we’d had to interfere too deeply with the co-leaders to get this effort started, we would have compromised one of our most important values, taking us so deeply across the line into management that it would be difficult to come back. For these reasons, and more, it’s fortunate that our co-leaders are the people they are, individually and collectively.

Accountability in Action

Item 3—working out the “internal” decision-making and information-sharing arrangements within and among the four co-leaders—is a work in progress. As with the first two items, this work is mostly up to the co-leaders. They are in the best positions to work out these details, and these are primarily management decisions.

One of the biggest challenges they face is localizing authority for each decision. If I had to make one generalization about this aspect of the experiment so far, it would be that the biggest risk to a four-CEO model is that it can become a “no-CEO” model, where accountability and responsibility get shared to the point that they’re lost. The co-leaders have done a good job of making sure important things don’t just fall through cracks, and now they’re working on some of the “last mile” accountability issues.

This will be the Board’s primary focus during the next phase of the experiment: now that the basics of collaboration are mostly worked out, ensuring that co-leaders remain meaningfully accountable to each other and us on all important matters is becoming Job 1.

Our Board mostly stays out of these internal processes but we stay alert for signs of well-understood collaboration pathologies such as distorted consensus, a.k.a. “groupthink.”

We also rely on the co-leaders, and our interactions with them coupled with our own organizational experience and expertise, to catch less well-known or well-understood problems before they threaten success. So far, everything we’ve found has been resolved through a little discussion and some heightened awareness.

As the co-leaders explore new “contracts” with each other, the staff, and our Board, collaboration costs are a key issue: the co-leaders are clearly energized by their innovative working arrangements and, equally clearly, frequently exhausted by them. The jury is still out on how much of that exhaustion is growing pains and how much is endemic to the new arrangements but, so far, no one has burned out.

The Culture (and Cost) of Shared Leadership

One of the most fascinating aspects of the change has been the emergence of a new leadership culture among the four that creates tensions at times. Any CEO has his/her own “take” on the work and may find him/herself at odds with the Board about it. With four CEOs, the individuals develop their own shared views, values, and shorthand to work together—and sometimes forget until we meet, in ways single CEOs generally do not, that the Board’s culture, views, and values are not identical.

It’s the “big nation” problem writ small: larger nations tend to be less aware of and sensitive to international issues because their domestic politics demand more attention. So it is with “larger” co-CEOs. Either we’re going to need to learn to live with this, or we’re going to need to invest quite a large amount of effort in aligning the two cultures.

It’s my sense that the Board is doing a reasonable job of monitoring the evolving arrangements to make sure they remain viable. Certainly, it has been a topic of discussion at every Board meeting since the experiment began. As a Board, we are doing our part, too, by working to ensure that our own interactions with the team (as we figure out how to govern this new, quadricephalic entity) don’t contribute to burnout.

I believe that this is a solvable problem: if the current collaboration arrangements prove too burdensome, our co-leaders have the knowledge and wisdom to develop less-taxing arrangements. That’s important, as we’ll discuss in post #4, because collaboration costs are one of the most serious threats to the success of this experiment.

I am also confident that, once the team settles on arrangements that minimize the collaboration costs, those arrangements will be reproducible by other organizations as well. In fact, I expect this to be an important lesson for outsiders from the model even if we decide at some point to abandon the experiment. Most of what we are learning also will apply to forming high-performance SLTs even in traditional, hierarchical organizations.

Constant Vigilance and Mindful Agility

Item 6—protecting the mission—is doing well, so far, but will require constant vigilance, just as it does in any nonprofit. It’s difficult to say anything about this without devoting thousands of words to it. Suffice it to say that both the Board and the co-leaders have been able to sustain clear attention to the mission even in the face of all the novelty that the new model keeps throwing at us. We’ve even used the experiment as an opportunity to refresh and recommit to the mission.

In my opinion, our Board was already unusually strong at mission-governance before we began the experiment. A Board that struggles to keep the mission in focus, or perhaps even to agree on what it is, could easily lose its way while attempting to supervise the introduction of an innovation this profound. And while we did use the experiment to refresh our mission, I doubt that will turn out to be a best-practice: it would have been easier and potentially better to refresh the mission first.

That leaves items 4 and 5 (adapt the Board, and conduct strategic-level contingency/sustainability planning) which, I would argue, are primarily the Board’s responsibility more than management’s, though we consult intensively with the co-leaders. We are necessarily lagging our co-leaders in implementing changes in these areas, because there’s been a limit on how much we can adjust or plan until the leadership arrangements reached a stable form. They’re stable these days, and so our work is beginning in earnest.

Because of the delayed start, it’s too early to issue a report-card on those two vital items. I’ll say more in post #4, co-written with our Chair, Russell Willis Taylor.

Before getting there, post #3 tackles three questions we Board members find ourselves asking often as the Board goes through this process; namely,

(1) what does success for this experiment look like?

(2) how will we know it when we see it? and

(3) how can we maximize the chances of achieving it?

For more thoughts from the Fractured Atlas Board of Directors (and to read the other pieces in this series), click here.


More posts by Christopher Mackie

About Christopher Mackie

Christopher J. Mackie is founder and CEO of fiveDlearning, Inc., a multinational firm that promotes the rule of law in emerging and developing economies by developing human and institutional capabilities. Prior to founding 5DL, Chris was a program officer at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a researcher, teacher, and administrator at Princeton University, and an entrepreneur (5DL is his fifth startup). He holds a PhD in International and Public Affairs and a Masters in Public Policy from Princeton, a Masters in Education from the University of Michigan, and an A.B. in International Studies (Islamic Studies) from the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill. Chris has been known to quote one of his former teachers, Ted Sizer, that “education is the only game for grown-ups.”