Not So Lonely at the Top: Lessons from a Co-Executive Director
Written by Connie Veates, Co-Executive Director & Chief Operating Officer, Trees Atlanta
Originally Published by Georgia Nonprofit NOW, Fall 2016
Last month, Greg Levine and I celebrated our five-year anniversary as Trees Atlanta Co-Executive Directors. We originally pitched this leadership model to our board of directors while planning the retirement of founding Director Marcia Bansley. It made sense to us: We had known each other for many years, Greg was a long-term Trees Atlanta employee who had run the program side of the organization, and I was a corporate executive who had spent 10 years on the board at Trees Atlanta, including five years as president. Our skills were different, but complementary: Greg has a detailed knowledge of trees and plants, a big vision for protecting our urban environment, and an expansive community network, while I had strong organizational skills, financial acumen, and the drive to accomplish goals.
Understandably, some board members were hesitant. They asked how we would divide our job responsibilities, resolve the disagreements that were bound to arise, and decide who would be the “face” of the organization. We answered their questions deliberately: Our job responsibilities would align with our strengths, meaning Greg would be in charge of programs and I would handle administrative and operational duties; our collaborative nature as individuals and our mutual passion for the mission would lead us to resolve any differences of opinion; and the Trees Atlanta team would present a diversified face to the community, with careful attention to who best represents our position in any given situation.
By all accounts, the model has worked beautifully. We have exceeded our goals in terms of the mission and finances, growing the organization and its impact. As evidence of our success mounts, we’re often asked by donors, sector colleagues, and board members from other organizations if this structure could work well for other nonprofits. The answer, in short: It depends.
To give you a sense of the conditions under which a shared leadership model excels, consider a few of the lessons we’ve learned in our five years as co-directors: Check your ego at the door. Shared leadership between two strong individuals will not work if one person always wants the recognition. (And if both want the spotlight simultaneously, it will become a bloodbath!) We figured out early on that we need to decide who will be in charge publicly and organizationally for particular projects and issues, and work together to enable that person to shine. We realized that leadership is not a single event, but a culmination of many decisions and actions.
Arranged marriages add to the challenges.
There may be some situations where a board wants to appoint two strangers to share leadership, but I don’t think it is an ideal approach. Our relationship has worked in large part because we had already established respect and admiration for each other, and had worked together to fully vet the structure and decide how we thought it would work. In our minds and our actions, we carry out the idea that our success depends entirely on the success of Trees Atlanta. It is never about us, but about the organization.
Value each other’s differences.
I’d be lying if I said that we dance into work every day completely in tune with each other. Greg is a visionary, while I’m all about execution. Sometimes it’s hard to find the common ground, but we don’t give up until we do. We know that we can accomplish more together, so we always try hard to understand and value the other’s point of view.
Two people can accomplish the work of three.
When we first started as co-executive directors, many people remarked that it took two of us to take the place of the original ED. In fact, we have found that two of us can get more done than the sum of us both. Not only can we attend simultaneous meetings separately, doubling our presence, but we are more efficient because we can focus on work that we do best. Also, we don’t postpone work that may be cumbersome for one of us, because typically the other one will find it interesting and keep the momentum going.
Someone’s always got your back.
One of the best perks of shared leadership: You are never alone with your problems. Regardless of who is responsible for a particular issue, we are both ready to jump in and assist. We each work hard to evaluate problems and identify opportunities, but it’s difficult for one person to match the energy and ideas we can generate when discussing things jointly. And on those days that don’t go the way we want them to, there’s always someone you can share a meal with (or a drink!) who can understand your frustrations and help put them in perspective.
Shared leadership may not work for everyone, but with a considerate approach it can work wonders. I am thankful to work with a dedicated partner, and feel rewarded every day to see how our joint efforts make the community a better place. Here’s to the next five years of co-directorship – and to your own thoughtful investigation of the possibilities.