The Rise of Shared Leadership

In Leadership, Succession by Karen Buck

Succession planning is everywhere. Conference sessions, webinars, and articles on the topic abound. Given the number of executive directors and CEOs who are retiring, that’s a good thing. But, many organizations still find it very challenging to fill their top job.

In part, that’s because as few as a third of young nonprofit professionals are “100% committed to building a nonprofit career.” (Good in Theory, Problems in Practice (2011) Young Nonprofit Professionals Network). Bottom line—life is too short for many of today’s program, marketing, and development directors to aspire to become an executive director. (ED = Underpaid. Overworked. Stressed out. And fundraising. All. The. Time.)

Fair enough. No one should have to sacrifice their financial securing, mental and physical wellness, or time with family and friends for a job. So, it’s time to leave behind the model of an executive director who carries the world on their shoulders and move towards a shared leadership model.

We have seen many organizations move in this direction in the past few years, putting in place a leadership team of staff who collectively oversee the leadership and management practices of the organization (e.g., overseeing progress towards strategic goals, managing annual processes like budgeting, resource allocation, etc.)

Sharing leadership has many benefits in addition to making the role of executive director more balanced. We have seen it:

  • Prompt investments in professional development
  • Increase organizations’ leadership and management talent depth
  • Help organizational systems operate in a more integrated, efficient, and effective way
  • Free up the executive director’s time to do higher level work

Creating an Effective Leadership Team

In their April 2007, Harvard Business Review article, The Leadership Team: Complementary Strengths or Conflicting Agendas, Stephen Miles and Michael Watkins defined the “four pillars of alignment” that help leadership teams take advantage of the benefits of shared leadership while avoiding common pitfalls:

  • Commitment to a shared vision and strategies
  • Shared approach to measuring and rewarding progress
  • Outstanding communication between team members
  • High level of trust between team members

In addition, it is important to pay attention to the mix of talents and skills team members bring.

In the words of Tom Rath, author of Strengths-Based Leadership, “What great leaders have in common is that each truly knows his or her strengths—and can call on the right strength at the right time.” Apply that idea to a leadership team—and you need to know your teams’ collective strengths and how they complement one another.

The great thing about a leadership team is that no one person needs to be strong in all areas. The important thing is making sure that the team as a whole has the right mix of skills, strengths, experience, and expertise to do the job of leadership and management that the organization requires.

When building your leadership team, consider each individual’s strengths and how they complement one another. It is possible for a team to have too many strengths in common—leaving critical gaps, or too few—leaving little common ground. If you’re unsure where to begin, using an assessment tool like StrengthsFinder or DISC is a place to start.

Align the organization to the new leadership model

As the team comes together, take time to align the organization to its new leadership model. Good questions to consider include:

  • What are our team’s specific roles and responsibilities (collectively and individually)?
  • Given our goals and current situation, what does our organization most need from us as a leadership team?
  • How do we organize ourselves to do our work successfully? What are our expectations around communication, decision making, etc.? How do we plan to resolve conflicts?
  • What needs to come off of individual team members’ plates to free up time needed for leadership team responsibilities?

Lastly, reach out to your organization’s network. There’s a good chance that many of your colleagues have experience implementing shared leadership models and can offer valuable advice, putting you well on your way to more balanced and impactful leadership for the organization.