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Living Shared Leadership: Reflections for the Future (Part Two)

 This is Part Two of a blog story on shared leadership in action.  A little over one year ago, Elissa Sloan Perry (a faculty member in the MA in Leadership Program) and Susan Misra started a new chapter in their journey together.  After careful consideration of how to approach a leadership transition in the 35-year-old nonprofit organization where we were both employed as senior staff, the board agreed to name us CoDirectors of Management Assistance Group (MAG).  Over the last year we’ve been building a shared leadership culture with our partners, staff, and board.  This article was originally written by both Susan and Elissa, and was shared on the MAG website.

There are fundamental mindsets, structures, and processes that are necessary to nurture a shared leadership culture.

Eight years ago, we wrote, with our colleague Mike Allison, Doing More With More: Putting Shared Leadership into Practice, which reflected on how community organizing and policy advocacy groups were building their leadership bench and capacity to flex across a spectrum of leadership – from more directive/technical to more collective/adaptive.  We noted that shared leadership requires trust and flexibility to shift across the spectrum when needed; commitment and time from senior leadership; and basic management and accountability practices.  Putting shared leadership into practice meant changing mindsets, structures, processes and practices, and culture.

Over the last year, we’ve had a chance to implement this framework and it worked! Here are some tips on what MAG has needed to develop a shared leadership culture:

  • Mindsets:

Stepping into CoDirectorship was scary.  Would our weaknesses or mistakes cause harm to MAG?  Could we stick with it through the steep learning curve?  Even when things started to hum along, we waited in anticipation that things would fall apart.

But things keep getting better.  We know that we complement each other. We know we can rely on each other’s support.  Our knowing is grounded in experience, and this has shifted our mindset so that we can fully step into our leadership role of holding the whole of MAG.

It has also been critical to extend this shared leadership mindset across staff, board, and partners.  It gave us the confidence that we – along with a larger MAG team – are moving towards our shared vision in alignment with our values.

  • Structures

We put in place three structures to support shared leadership at MAG.

First, we clarified expectations.  We worked with the board to craft a detailed job description that shows where each of us is “first among equals” and clarifies that each of us are also responsible for supporting the work of the other person. We continually manage these roles, explicitly talking about who should do what based on our responsibilities and capacity. Together we hold the vision and understanding of how the whole moves toward that vision.

Second, we developed a new meeting structure to support strategic thinking, learning, and implementation of our newly refined model.  At the board level we created a Keep It Moving Committee, a Learning Committee, and Resource Generation Committee.  At the staff level, we implemented weekly CoDirector meetings, bi-weekly Strategic Thinking meetings with senior staff, and monthly half-day staff meetings.  In addition to these meetings, which are virtual, we invest in monthly, in-person, all day CoDirector meetings and biannual two-day staff retreats.

Finally, we invested in executive coaching for six months.  Gayle Williams, our coach and former Interim Executive Director, supported each of us individually and joined our CoDirector meetings once each month.  These conversations helped us to step back to see the big picture, supported our individual growth and well-being, and kept us moving forward in a timely manner together.

  • Processes, Habits & Practices

MAG has a track record of aligning management systems with social justice values, and we inherited this legacy from other incredible leaders that came before us: Karl Mathiason, Susan Gross, Inca Mohamed, and Robin Katcher.  Thus, we only needed to make a few enhancements to put this system in service to shared leadership.

We strengthened our decision-making processes.  We used DARCII to clarify how staff and board could contribute to different types of decisions. We created a simple decision-making tree to guide staff on when they could make a decision on their own or needed to get others’ input. Finally, we are explicit about where we are on the leadership spectrum – from the CoDirectors making the decision to having board and/or staff making a decision together.

We have begun shifting our communications processes.  We, as leaders, have strong communication skills, self-awareness, and attention to power dynamics, which are needed to build a shared leadership culture.  We also slow down to surface and address differences of opinion, leveraging these opportunities to build communication skills and the team.  Also, beyond having more meetings for information-sharing and discussion, staff are exploring new technologies to support communications.

We are also working on enhancing accountability processes. We have developed a set of benchmarks to monitor MAG’s success, a set of learning questions to reflect on regularly, and a new performance review system for more frequent feedback.  We also discuss lack of follow-through during staff and board meetings to understand the root of it and come to solutions.

  • Culture & Relationships

While this whole blog is about the shift to a shared leadership culture, we want to recognize the role that Gayle Williams played as our Interim Executive Director. Gayle provided her outside perspective on MAG’s culture and worked with board and staff to lay the foundation for us to develop a leaderful learning organization.

When Susan first stepped into this role, she thought it would be more efficient and save time.  But our experience has been that going beyond two people to a network – a real shared leadership culture – takes more time.  This is partly because the leaders cannot divide and delegate everything; you have to have overlap in the work.  But it is also because when you operate in a networked way, the volume of relationships and work increases.  However, we’ve learned it is entirely worth it because, while it takes more time, it is enabling us to get much closer to realizing the full potential of MAG and each person that is part of this culture. In this shared leadership culture we are truly much more than the sum of our parts.

In addition to these lessons about shared leadership, becoming a learning organization that is committed to practicing what we preach has helped MAG increase our adaptability and accountability.  It is a critical way that we, as CoDirectors, balance our commitment to interdependence with our commitment to following through on our mission.  It is also a way that we broaden beyond two individuals in positional leadership to a wider range of co-creators: board, staff, clients, funders, and partners.  See more about how we’ve built a learning organization that is also a community of practice in MAG’s next post at

About Elissa Perry

Elissa Perry
Elissa Sloan Perry has over 20 years of experience of working with individuals, organizations and initiatives who care about the sharing of resources and power such that all people experience dignity and have ample opportunity to realize their potential. Past clients include Greenlining Institute, Partnership for Working Families, National Alliance for Media Arts & Culture, the Hewlett Foundation, and PICO California. Elissa joined MAG in 2013 became a Senior Consultant with MAG in 2014 and CoDirector in 2015. Elissa co-creates opportunities for learning among MAG staff and with values-aligned partners. In addition Elissa supports MAG clients with leadership development and coaching services for individuals and teams bringing attention to 5 essential elements for transformative change. (1) Deep equity, (2) Flexible Leadership, (3) Multiple Ways of Knowing, (4) Systems & Complexity Thinking and (5) Inner Work. In addition to her work with MAG, Elissa teaches in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College where she facilitates diverse, cross-sector and multi-issue learning communities in developing and implementing leadership plans and practices and recently helped establish a Social Justice concentration.

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