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Russell Willis Taylor Post by Russell Willis Taylor

By Russell Willis Taylor on July 15th, 2020

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Thoughts on Co-Leadership: What Still Needs Doing?

Shared Leadership | Board of Directors

This is the final 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 other posts, check them out here: part one; part two; part three.

This post is jointly authored (by Russell Willis Taylor and Christopher Mackie) and will lay out how we are addressing the challenges for the governing board in adapting and improving our performance in this new environment.

Assessment and Reflection

In the preceding three posts, Chris has laid out some of the issues around our period of big change and described how we are (slowly) moving from a single-CEO, compliance model to a multi-CEO, collaborative model in the style of our governing responsibilities. The change has given us the chance to reflect on and address where the Board adds value, provides continuity and supports a stretched staff with volunteer efforts.

At the heart of our present work is this question: How does our Board ensure continuity of governance and mission-attainment during and after a transition to a collaborative governance model? As we reflect individually and together, the Board is trying to be vigilant about keeping all communication channels open on this while making sure that the leadership and staff feel that they are being heard, as well.

We’re working under some important design constraints. For one, our new leadership model is intended to be an intentional manifestation of our values around diversity and elevating different voices. We need to incorporate more input from, and delegate more authority to, the leadership and the staff while fulfilling our fiduciary obligations and the other responsibilities of our public trust.

For another, we are dealing with a founder transition. It’s normal during such a transition for a board to need to step up, but what does it mean to do so collaboratively in a sustainable way while protecting diversity of input and distribution of authority? At a minimum, it requires a high degree of trust from the leadership team that we are not “meddling” in operational issues that are more appropriately left with them. That’s one of many points of current reflection.

It seems to the two of us that all these diverse threads point in the same direction: the Fractured Atlas Board is now required to be more of a working board than ever before. The list of how we transition to a more actively working board can be daunting, but the board is deeply committed to the work of Fractured Atlas and its mission.

Begin at the Beginning

Where to start? Here are a few thoughts regarding the needed changes to the Board:

Adapt the Executive Committee

It’s challenging to know what kinds of structural changes will accomplish the most improvement in executive effectiveness, consistent with our fiduciary and legal obligations. We could eliminate the Executive Committee; we could expand it; we could assign members 1:1 to co-leaders; we could create a hybrid Board/Exec Committee/Advisory committee structure where Board and off-Board human resources participate together; the list goes on. This is going to require the most thought and work, some of which is underway.

It’s also the most difficult place to carry out experimentation, for both practical and legal reasons, so we need to do the up-front work required to get any changes right the first time. At present, we believe that the right direction for us is to operate as a committee of the whole while keeping the board to a manageable size. Information flow (“transparency”) is going to be key, and the layered structure of an Executive Committee may not work for us to sustain that.

Adopt Supportive Communications Technologies

Such technologies must accurately reflect and enable the increased complexity of communications between the Board, the leadership and the environment. This may sound very “deep in the weeds” but, in a restructuring that’s responding primarily to complex information flows, carefully chosen information technology is a vital high-level concern.

Currently, our entire board communications suite is a Google Group—and we use only the listserv. We need a tool where board members and co-leaders can ask questions of the entire pool of board and leadership personnel and get a response from the person best able to answer (with accountability by all to all). That tool will need to consider the legal ramifications of board work as well as confidentiality and other issues. This will require a bit of time and adaptation by the Board but will pay dividends in helping a global board work effectively, asynchronously, and episodically.

Adjust the Social Contract

The move from a compliance culture to a collaborative culture is a move deeper into being a “working board” where we spend more time engaging in tandem with the leadership team. Such a move would have happened naturally, due to the founder transition, but the new leadership structure has amplified the degree of engagement required and ensured that engagement will persist.

As board members, our expectations about the workload at and between meetings need to be revisited and explicitly reset as soon as the new expectations are clear. These expectations may need to be reset again several times as work progresses—not consistently upward but to reflect the changes in effort needed during transition. (We have a great board: this won’t be a problem but it needs doing.)

Reaffirm—and Redesign—the Governance-Management Split

During this transition, we’re deeper into the daily management of the organization than we want to be. That should end as quickly as is feasible. This is where we want to get the “step up and then step back” balance right.

At the same time, however, the new leadership arrangement implies new Board oversight arrangements as well. “Get out of management” shouldn’t become a justification for not implementing due-diligence on the new leadership; instead, it should be a justification for re-affirming our Board principles while also introducing a new, value-consistent set of practices suited to the new reality.

As we go to press with this, another concern has emerged—that the Board may need to co-participate more effectively in shaping the vision for the organization going forward. A non-unitary CEO necessarily implies a non-unitary vision; consensus may be feasible but unity is not. Many Board-CEO relationships put responsibility for the vision in the hands of the CEO subject to Board review.

Often, CEOs must defend their visions as part of their hiring processes. Under the additional communications challenges endemic to the 4-person model, it may make more sense for the Board and co-leaders to shape vision in a fully collaborative manner—or, alternatively, to agree together in a more ad hoc way about who should curate and continue to develop the vision. We took some steps toward a new agreement about this at the most recent Board meeting, but it’s too early to report anything about them. Stay tuned for further developments.

(Re-)formalize Affected Performance Expectations and Organizational Values

The “web of contracts” concept brings into focus the fact that these co-leadership positions will have stable responsibilities to each other, others in the organization, and the Board. In turn, others in the organization now must handle more complexity in terms of “managing upward.” There’s a huge body of guidance available to everyone in a single-CEO organization on how to do things right and what to do if things go wrong.

We’re largely on our own in this experiment, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse to leave our people adrift. We owe it to them to codify what we can in terms of expectations. And as we’re doing this experiment in part to support our mission of showing other nonprofits a new way, we owe it to them to codify as much as we can, too. (NB: please see our post on how we experimented with evaluation techniques this past year, led by an independent expert who worked closely with staff on a new model)

For the contingency and succession planning:

  • Set clear objectives. Currently, this is an experiment. Does it end when the first co-leader wants to leave? If we attempt to continue it, under what terms? We don’t need or want legally binding answers, but it will help everyone if we agree in general terms on what we’re going to try to do, subject to the specifics of the situation.

  • Plan for the gaps. Our discussions of contingency planning can’t be limited to “do we continue.” Whether we’re going to continue or not, we need to have a plan for how we operate during the interregnum, when we’re “down” one or more co-leaders but not yet back to either a single-CEO or a four-leader model.

    That plan can be, and needs to be, specific to the current individuals, but if we’re going to try to continue the arrangement, it should also establish principles and best-practices for future contingency planning, as well. Moreover, we need to have contingencies for the contingency; what happens if we decide to continue, but then experience an extended delay finding a replacement?

  • Revisit normal contingency planning with an eye to co-leadership complications. The co-leaders are doing this; the Board needs to audit their work explicitly, at least once. This work requires a very high level of candor which in turn relies on a high level of trust, which we have and are working hard to enhance further. Contingency and succession planning with a four-person team takes the form of imagining (but not dwelling on) what happens if the team becomes a three or two person team.

These conversations are best held as part of broader scenario planning, which we have engaged in on a recent retreat. The details are FA-specific but one general insight is worth reporting: it’s now clear to us, as a Board, that the four-person experiment is actually a multi-person experiment. The future may bring departures and arrivals, as well as role transformations among those who join and remain. The number of co-leaders may drop, or could increase. The future may even hold a unitary CEO, sometime, somewhere, and in response to a specific situation. But that unitary CEO will likely be an anomaly. The co-leaders are demonstrating, fairly conclusively, that they are building a model that is resilient to at least planned departures, and as resilient as any succession plan ever is to unplanned departures.

Finally, we recognize that we are stewards of an unusual and innovative culture at Fractured Atlas. As an organization, we are interested in what is fair and we take risks. This experiment is a new take on distributive leadership and it is risky, but that does not deter us. The quality of performance is high, as is the level of expectation inside the Board and throughout the organization. We are determined as a board to see that the experiment gets a fair chance – and that the team is given the best environment in which to thrive.

More posts by Russell Willis Taylor

About Russell Willis Taylor

Russell has held a variety of senior jobs including Managing Director of the English National Opera in London, President and CEO of National Arts Strategies in Washington DC, and Interim Vice President of Leadership and Arts at the Banff Centre in Canada. Currently working as a strategic consultant, she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and serves on the Alyth Development Trust, Hospitalfield Trust, and as Chair of Fractured Atlas. Russell was honored with the International Citation of Merit by the International Society for the Performing Arts, presented in recognition of her lifetime achievement and her distinguished service to the performing arts. She has written a number of articles on arts and nonprofit management and policy issues in arts, society and culture, as well as a book on fundraising for museums commissioned by the British Government. She and her husband have recently moved to Alyth in Perthshire, Scotland and are restoring a Victorian house and its gardens.