Many nonprofits struggle with retaining strong executive directors. The pressure, the workload, and the isolation of the position are compounding factors that often lead to high turnover. At my nonprofit, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, this turnover was especially pronounced. We have had eight executive directors (including interim directors) since 1999, each staying an average of just under two years.
In 2012, my executive director, Hyeon-Ju Rho, approached me with a proposal: she asked me to consider becoming co-director. At the time, I had been deputy director for four years and Hyeon-Ju had one year of experience leading our organization. After lengthy deliberations, we decided to try turning our organization's executive directorship from a one-person to a two-person job.
We were both highly motivated to make it work. Both of us saw a need for a massive intervention to address the organization's ongoing issue of executive sustainability. Moreover, as parents of young children, we wanted to challenge the notion that raising a family and being an executive director was incompatible. Finally, we both wanted to innovate a model of progressive leadership that reflected our values. We hoped that by sharing the role, we could actually create more space at the top.
We held discussions with the board of directors, consulted experts, and hatched a plan. Six months later, I officially became co-director. Our new model was met with great intrigue--and probably a healthy bit of skepticism--both internally and externally. After all, we were a venerable, 41-year-old organization run by a bunch of lawyers. But the intrigue turned to excitement once we launched our endeavor.
Ultimately, our co-directorship lasted just one year--but not because of any flaws in the model itself. Hyeon-Ju relocated to another city because her husband was offered a teaching job at a prestigious law school that he could not refuse. Yet while our partnership did not last, I believe that the lessons that we learned through our experiment with co-leadership will prove far more enduring.
1. Trust. Don't even think of transitioning to a shared leadership model if you do not have the base element of trust with the other person. There is no quick and easy way to build trust. But you know that you have it when you are not afraid to show vulnerability to the other person.
2. Over-communicate. Discuss ideas early and often. Overuse the cc: function on your email. Have quick, informal check-ins as well as structured, half-day, off-site meetings. Make sure that you are doing as much as you can to get the best thinking out of each other as possible, and that simply means communicating A LOT.
3. Plan, plan, plan. When Hyeon-Ju and I first embarked on the co-directorship, we developed a 40+ point chart of job responsibilities under eight major categories of work--from board management to fund development to strategic visioning. We decided who would play a lead role on each responsibility, who would be supporting, or if the responsibility should be shared. Our goal was to have clear guidelines for who was in charge of what. Doing this upfront made it easier later to tweak our roles whenever it became necessary.
4. Get a coach. After deciding to pursue the co-director model, our very next step was to hire an executive coach. Both Hyeon-Ju and I had worked with coaches individually in the past. But getting a coach for us a team was a priority. I play a fair amount of sports and know what a difference it makes to have someone who will not only help you get better at your craft, but who believes you can do it.
5. Check in on the state of your co-directorship. One idea that Hyeon-Ju brought to our weekly check-in meetings was using a ratings scale on the state of our co-directorship. One was the lowest and five was the highest. We decided up front that it was OK if some weeks it was a "one." The point of the tool was to open up a space to have difficult conversations if necessary or, on the flip side, to validate something that worked. Reflecting back on this now, I would say that the goal should be to try to get fours or fives from each co-director every time.
6. Don't co-everything. Even though sharing is integral to the co-director position, you still need to develop specialization and a clear division of labor with your co-director. My area of responsibility as deputy director was programs--and that continued into the co-director role. Hyeon-Ju maintained responsibility over all infrastructure functions of the organization. What was different after we became co-directors was the deeper level of understanding I gained about infrastructure functions and vice versa for Hyeon-Ju about programs. It made no sense for us to co-lead programs and co-lead infrastructure. We were trying to create efficiency, not duplication, after all. But the heightened expertise that each of us developed over the other's area actually made us more effective in our roles.
7. Support more shared leadership models in the organization. Why should only co-directors have all the fun? One unexpected consequence of our co-director model was increasing the staff's own curiosity about shared leadership in other parts of the organization. Our decision to pursue a co-directorship sparked a spirit of innovation that helped drive the creation of new structures designed to examine organization-wide issues, such as our strategic planning implementation committee and a new leadership team.
8. Celebrate. Soon after we launched the model, our staff threw us a surprise party. Hyeon-Ju and I were lured under false pretenses into the conference room and greeted by giant-size "Congratulations!" posters. They handed each of us a mason jar filled with individual notes offering well-wishes and encouragement (and chocolates). I was speechless. But it did show me that we were onto something good.