November 16, 2022

How to Make Co-Leadership Work

Nonprofit co-leadership offers many benefits. It can enhance shared decision making and even provide a sturdy on ramp for a successor, among other benefits. But how do nonprofit leaders make co-leadership really work? Five leaders share a handful of practices that have helped.

“Powerful and liberating.” Those are the words Shari Davis chooses to describe her experience with nonprofit co-leadership. Davis serves as co-executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), a national nonprofit organization committed to ensuring that community members can make direct decisions about public budgets, policies, and tax dollar spending. She shares the co-executive director role with two fellow co-leaders – Kristina Banks and Kristania De Leon. By creating an intentionally shared leadership structure, these three co-leaders not only empower and uplift one another, they also embody their organization’s ethos of distributed decision making.

The fact is that co-leadership can bring multiple benefits. As we explored in our first article on nonprofit co-leadership, it can make leadership roles more sustainable, enhance shared decision making across an organization, and even provide a sturdy on ramp for a successor. But how do co-leaders make it work? In the Bridgespan webinar “From Executive Director to Co-Executive Director: How and why many are turning to co-leadership," co-leaders from PBP and ProInspire, a nonprofit that uses consulting, capacity building, research, and thought leadership to help social sector leaders at all levels accelerate racial equity, highlighted a handful of practices that have helped make their co-leadership relationships work.

Build accountability and trust

Davis attributes some of PBP’s success with shared leadership to the fact that the organization has built clear accountability frameworks. “Co-leadership can liberate leaders to do their best work, but you can’t just make it up as you go along,” she said. “When you put frameworks in place that clarify who is responsible for which decisions, then you enable each co-leader to step forward, lean into their strengths, and demonstrate their skills in ways that yield impressive results.”

Monisha Kapila, founder and co-CEO at ProInspire, agrees that clearly defining areas of responsibility is an effective way to minimize disagreements in a co-leadership structure. “We’ve used OKRs [objectives and key results] to define annual goals in a very specific way, and then we identify which co-CEO has responsibility for each of those goals,” she said.

Acknowledge vulnerability

PBP’s De Leon feels that co-leadership carries with it a certain level of vulnerability. “For co-leaders to truly support one another, they need to be able to admit that sometimes they don’t know the best way forward,” she said. “Co-leaders have to trust each other in order to truly interrogate power hierarchies and distribute decision making. A single leader can announce her vision and expect everyone to follow, but co-leaders have to cooperate so that everyone can see where they are headed together.”

“One of the things that Bianca has really modeled for me is how to ask for help,” Kapila added. As the sole leader, Kapila took the time to think about the staff and the board, but not herself. With Co-CEO Bianca Casanova Anderson, there’s more support and more space to bring their whole selves to their work. “One of the things we encourage each other to do even if we can't bring it up everywhere, all the time, at least in our partnership, we emphasize that our whole selves are welcome,” Anderson said. “We do want to get to a place of vulnerability and be able to name our needs to one another,” she added.

Lead slowly

Where disagreements among co-leaders do occur, Kapila says they’re more likely to be over big issues like compensation or whom to invite into an open board position. “In these circumstances, it’s best to listen to each other, take each other’s positions into account, and try to gradually come into alignment,” she said. “You don’t want to rush into those decisions. That’s something that co-leadership has taught me—sometimes slowing down can lead to more thoughtful and better decisions.”

Practice communication

PBP’s three co-executive directors work with one of their board members who is skilled in group coaching. “We spend a lot of time refining and practicing our communication,” said De Leon.

De Leon describes one communication technique that’s been helpful for PBP’s leaders: “It helps decision making when you confirm that you are hearing other people’s perspectives properly,” De Leon said. “You say, ‘This is what I hear you saying, and this is what I think you are emphasizing that we need to consider.’ Then you look for ways to incorporate the other person’s ideas into a shared proposal. Such communication is not only valuable from a professional standpoint, it’s also critical from an interpersonal perspective. As co-leaders, we want to be respectful to one another. Good communication can help us navigate tough conversations, tease out points of difference, and ideally help us see better eye-to-eye.”

Davis, too, emphasizes the value of the group coaching, which she says has helped her co-leaders and herself to reach better decisions. “The coaching teaches us how to build an appetite for objections,” she noted. “Once you understand that an objection is not personal, but about refining a proposal so you can do the right work at the right time with the right intentions and the right people, that leads to a major shift in perspective.”

A new way of working

While ProInspire alighted on co-leadership to eventually pass the leadership baton to Anderson, the arrangement has been so effective that the nonprofit is now looking at how to institutionalize it. “We’ve just started working with a consultant partner to look at what has worked best about this co-leadership structure, what has been challenging, and what needs to be put in place to make co-leadership a permanent part of how we operate at ProInspire,” said Kapila.  

Making co-leadership a permanent way of working, however, doesn’t mean there’s an end to the journey. “It’s a continual learning journey that doesn’t end after you make a decision,” Banks of PBP said. “You need to gather skills, learn, grow, and iterate upon every decision along the way.”


Getting the board on board

When the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) started considering the co-leadership model several years ago, Sharon Davis says that her board naturally had some questions about how it would work. What would the implications be in terms of fiduciary responsibility? How would the board evaluate the performance of three co-leaders? “We worked through those issues and actually deepened our collaboration with the board,” said Davis. “We went through a process of building a couple of small committees where staff members could engage directly in conversation with board members to build protocols around how the board and staff could communicate better with each other.”

In fact, some of PBP’s board members have even become interested in adopting elements of sociocracy: a governance system that relies on consent and not consensus. The board has increased its approval thresholds for decision making, moving from majoritarian decision making closer to using consent models.

“We’ve also instituted a practice of having ‘board buddies’ where each of us is in communication with two board members on a regular basis,” said De Leon. “Having that ability to deepen our relationships with certain board members has been really valuable. It’s created a more equitable and transparent experience for me as a co-leader.”

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.