While co-executive models are not new in the social sector—arts organizations, medical clinics, and publishing platforms often split the executive role—the recent surge in shared leadership experimentation among justice organizations specifically is part of their larger reckoning with alignment between organizational forms and organizational values. Incoming BIPOC leaders, in particular, are questioning how we reconcile commitments to dismantle oppressive systems externally while practicing a highly individualistic and heroic notion of organizational leadership internally.
At ProInspire, a national nonprofit intermediary that is focused on supporting leaders at all levels to accelerate racial equity, we are part of that surge in experimentation along with a number of our sister organizations in the nonprofit intermediary field. That intermediaries are exploring new leadership forms is not surprising given that we exist as labs for experimentation and dissemination of new organizational practices. This combination of our own experience and co-leadership data1 collected from six additional intermediaries are the basis of lessons for operationalizing co-leadership structures that we offer below.
The recent surge in shared leadership experimentation among justice organizations specifically is part of their larger reckoning with alignment between organizational forms and organizational values.
Lesson One: Moving to Co-CEOs Is Typically Staff-Initiated as Part of a Deepening Racial Equity Commitment
Six of the seven intermediary organizations moved to co-leadership as they brought new Black leaders onto staff. Co-leadership was, for nearly all of us, part of enacting a stronger approach to racial equity generally, and a pro-Black stance specifically. As Dax-Devlon Ross wrote in “When Blackness is Centered, Everybody Wins,” “We want to try something different. We don’t necessarily know what that’s going to always look like, but we know that this thing that we have right here doesn’t feel like it’s nourishing us organizationally, and it doesn’t feel like it’s serving us professionally and personally. What else can we try?”
ProInspire’s own journey into co-CEOs began in 2020 as part of founding CEO Monisha Kapila’s succession planning and in the context of the racial justice awakening ignited by George Floyd’s murder. At that time, Bianca Anderson, who would eventually become co-CEO, was leading ProInspire’s Catalyst Collective, a community of practice for senior leaders of color. In that role, she was hearing about the challenges that BIPOC executive directors were facing and questioning how to change organizational structures so they could thrive. The program participants’ experiences were consistent with Bianca’s own; she too had experienced isolation in a former executive director position. When Monisha broached the subject of her becoming the next CEO, Bianca said she would only want to do the job if it was with someone else. Thus, the seed was planted for co-leadership as a possible structure at ProInspire.
Lesson Two: Moving to Co-CEOs Requires Board Champions and a Foundation of Board-Level Equity Work
While co-leadership is typically initiated by staff, a supportive board and effective board leadership who can steward this type of significant, values-based transition are essential. At ProInspire, then board chair Isabelle Moses, who has helped to articulate what pro-Black means in the social sector, led the board through the process of exploring and ultimately adopting the co-CEO model. This included partnering with external legal counsel to codify changes to the by-laws. Importantly, this work benefited from the fact that board members had built trust with each other through ongoing discussions about racial equity and shared decision-making. Adopting co-leadership was part of a larger equity journey that both staff and board were on together.
Lesson Three: Hiring Co-CEOs Is Different from Traditional CEO Hiring
In all seven intermediary organizations from whom we collected co-leadership data, the co-leaders had worked together before—either as staff, board members, or consultants. Most often, it is the future co-leaders themselves who make the case for shared leadership to the board for approval. Only one of the organizations had a board-led process in which the board identified two staff members to promote to co-leaders. Obviously, this challenges traditional notions of CEO hiring and requires a board willing to share power in the executive transition process.
We initially viewed ourselves as going through one big change.…However, we unearthed three transitions that were happening simultaneously.
At ProInspire, the board agreed to design a rigorous but non-competitive selection process. Bianca was the only candidate considered for the position of co-CEO to serve in partnership with the existing CEO, Monisha Kapila. We established a board hiring committee and engaged an outside human resources consultant to manage the process. The consultant interviewed staff to get their feedback on this shift; their data showed unanimous support for Bianca stepping into the co-CEO position. The hiring committee also interviewed ProInspire funders and partners who had worked with Bianca. The final step in the process was Bianca presenting her vision to the full board of directors. In March 2021, Bianca was hired as ProInspire’s co-CEO.
Lesson Four: Allow Identity and Personal Strengths to Shape the Partnership
Leadership practice is deeply personal, so it’s critical in co-leadership to have space for relationship building and vulnerability. As co-CEOs, we focused on practicing commitments from ProInspire’s Leadership Model for Race Equity Impact, including exploring our identities as they relate to co-leadership. Monisha identifies as a married South Asian woman, a mother of two kids, with a background in business and economic development. Bianca identifies as a single Black woman from the South, with a background in teaching and racial justice in schools. We think about our different strengths to align responsibilities: Bianca leads our internal work around people and our external program work supporting individual leaders. Monisha leads our internal work around finance and our external program work supporting organizations. We share responsibilities around fundraising, thought leadership, and board engagement. We regularly discuss how our racial identities impact experiences with our staff, board, and partners.
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Lesson Five: Co-Leadership Is Often Part of Multiple Organizational Changes
We initially viewed ourselves as going through one big change: moving from sole CEO to co-CEOs. With the support of consultants, however, we unearthed three transitions that were happening simultaneously:
- From founder-led to founder succession
- From sole CEO to shared leadership
- From a race equity analysis to a Black feminist praxis
We have found that that shared leadership is a more humane leadership experience.
Bianca describes these transitions as “being and becoming.” ProInspire exists in one state and is becoming another. All of these transitions are also in different states of evolution. We are currently founder-led and becoming an organization that will last beyond our founder’s succession. We have already moved from sole CEO to a co-CEO model but are also becoming an organization that shares decision-making power and responsibilities in new ways. We center a race equity analysis in all of our work and are deepening and clarifying our politics—becoming a pro-Black organization, an organization that centers Blackness and the nuanced needs of people of color in all that we do.
Conclusion: A Chemical Change
Moving into co-leadership isn’t just about the individuals in that role. It is a “chemical change” for an organization. It can lead to multiple changes around organizational vision, structure, decision-making, reporting relationships, and more. Organizations need the bandwidth and financial resources to invest time in these changes. We have found that executive coaching, deeper engagement from our board, and general operating support are critical components to facilitate the breadth of change we are stewarding.
We have found that shared leadership is a more humane leadership experience. For Monisha, working as a co-CEO has helped her to slow down, make better decisions, and share responsibility in ways that weren’t possible as sole CEO. And Bianca decided that she would only want to continue leading the organization if she had a co-CEO. Indeed at ProInspire, co-leadership will continue beyond the founder succession planning that was its genesis. As Monisha steps down, the ProInspire board of directors has already determined that Bianca will select the next co-CEO with board and staff input. The board will not be the decision-maker.
Choosing a co-leadership model invites the organization into a transformation that has the potential to support greater alignment with equity values. We believe this investment in change is worth it. It is an opportunity for belonging and shared purpose that cultivates deeper impact and sustainability for the organization and its leaders. As more organizations move to co-leadership models, we are excited to see transformation across our sector.
The authors wish to acknowledge the editorial partnership of Jeanne Bell on this piece.
- The data on co-leadership models was collected by KLP Impact from the following intermediary organizations: Building Movement Project, Center for Evaluation Innovation, Change Elemental, CompassPoint, Leadership Learning Community, ProInspire, and School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza.