When Ruby Johnson was first hired at FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund in July 2013, she was the only full-time staff member. With the support of incubating partners AWID and FCAM, and FRIDA Advisors, she quickly recruited Devi Leiper O’Malley in November 2013 to join her in FRIDA’s first co-leadership structure. Since then, Devi and Ruby have been working in a virtual office, with Devi living in Cambodia; South Korea; and now Rabat, Morocco; and Ruby based in Oaxaca, Mexico; her home city of Sydney, Australia; and many places in between. In less than three years, they have built a team of seven young women throughout the world, working with fifty advisors and over ten part-time consultants, established FRIDA’s first board, granted to over eighty young feminist led groups around the world, and grown the organization’s budget from 250,000 to over 1,000,000 USD.
In this dialogue, they share their tips and reflections on how they make the virtual co-leadership structure work.
1. Claim your spirit animal: Understand your unique contributions, accept your limitations, and build a collective leadership style.
Ruby: Early on, Devi and I did a personality test. It was kind of funny as we realized our “types” were actually polar opposites, although we both bobbed in the middle, and much of our tendencies mirrored each other. We have found it is important to try and reflect on your own challenges and strengths and work out how to support the other person in theirs. It is helpful to work out where you are being a bit crazy or unreasonable and reflect on that practice and try to shift it a little, being aware of your effect on other people.
Coming into the leadership role for the first time, it has also been about being comfortable with what is our collective style of leadership. That it doesn’t have to be like everyone before us or everyone after us, and that it doesn’t always have to be about us stepping up, or being in the limelight, or being the face of FRIDA. Because in our case, it has been about being deliberate about opening space for our other staff members, advisors and grantees to take up space. Our leadership is about showing that is OK to be a bit shy, apologetic when you speak publicly—or, as I call Devi, the “quiet dragon,” as you can channel a power that sometimes you didn’t even know was there. It is also about sharing power and modeling collective leadership. The main thing for us has been about finding your flow, working out what you bring and holding that, strong in your heart.
Devi: If I’m the quiet dragon, then I’d call Ruby the “meticulous dolphin”—excited to explore new possibilities and to turn over every detail. I have distinct memories of when I have felt ready to give up or say “no” on a task, but Ruby picks me up and says, “Come on!” I am grateful for this because it has resulted in amazing things (like winning the biggest grant ever for FRIDA!) Meanwhile, I try to help us remain calm as we navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of dealing with different personalities in the people we have to work with.
One of the mantras I’ve picked up during this time has been, “Exhale your fears and breathe in your courage.” As I’ve walked this journey, I’ve learned to share my worries with Ruby, which, to be honest, was hard at first, because if there is anyone I want to prove myself to, its my co-leader! Through the ups and downs of our work together of overseeing one of the biggest participatory grantmaking funds, working late in the night to submit a concept note by morning, and trying to select awesome new team members from a stellar pool of candidates, I’ve been able to draw strength from Ruby’s passion, dedication, and openness.
Our leadership is an ongoing project of sharing and trading power. Dragon and dolphin together; I think we make an amazing beast!
2. Get clear on what decisions you share and which you do not.
R: We are still working on this one, but I think it has been really key to mastering the working virtual as co-leaders. Devi’s core area is resource mobilization and communications, while mine is in programs—FRIDA’s grantmaking and capacity development. We share the advocacy work and all the management pieces such as finances and human resources, splitting things here and there.
D: We’ve made use of different charts and tools to help us map out where each of our responsibilities and accountabilities lie. Especially as we have grown the staff team, this has become imperative so that people know who to go to for approval and consultation. Often, we find ourselves regularly turning over decisions together, and if the conversation goes on too long, we tell each other, “This is what I think, but it’s your call.” Having this clarity supports our own efficiency as a team, and enables us to trust each other on a regular basis.
R: One thing unique to FRIDA’s virtual situation that we’ve had to manage is that co-leadership across so many time zones can slow us down. Decisions take longer when you need to wait for the other person—and, in our case, literally; we need to wait 12 hours until the other person has woken up—to decide.
In addition, matching our energy, focus, and mood over a 12-hour time difference is hard when we need to connect on important decisions. We have learnt to be stricter with our time, blocking periods in our calendars where we cannot have calls. We also use some core platforms to manage our shared work, such as SmartSheet, Asana, and Slack. As a virtual organization, things like this have been essential. I have also tried to spend more time in a closer time zone to Devi, and this has helped us have intense periods of closer collaboration throughout the year.
D: There are definitely times when face-to-face communication cannot be replaced by a webcam and microphone. We try to add extra days to be together (like when we go to the same conference), and we specifically plan 1-2 weeks together each year to do long-term planning and strategy (which has allowed us to enjoy a delicious meal together and even the release of baby turtles in the sea!)
R: Of course, it has its challenges, but working so closely with someone, and having equal decision-making opportunity, has been one of the most beautiful experiences of professional and personal journey yet. Even though Devi and I are worlds away geographically most of the time, it really feels like Devi is next to me. I always wonder what she would think.
3. Look after each other: Prioritizing our collective well-being.
D: We are both committed to the principle of self-care and try to make sure our entire team prioritizes this. Our movement is full of examples of activists that have put their work above their health and well-being. Though their passion is incredible, it can create a culture of burnout, and this is something we definitely want to change for our generation and the next.
Admittedly, I haven’t always been the best at this. Even though I am aware of burnout and the slippery slope that leads to it, I found myself suddenly in the depths of one in 2015. Without Ruby’s unwavering support and generosity (as well as life coaching and some time off from work), I have to wonder whether I’d be here today!
R: Be kind to yourself, listen to your body, and remember, although it might feel like a life-or-death situation, when you wake up tomorrow, it might be