Co-Leadership Learning & Reflections

Back in April of this year, we shared an announcement of Canada Bridges decision to shift to a co-leadership model.  In August, we were excited to welcome Spirit River Striped Wolf to the team in the Co-Leader role, and since then, we’ve been working to collaboratively develop and put in place a Co-Leadership model that works for each of our Co-Leaders,  our team, our partners, and communities.  

Co-leadership for us, is not about dividing up a single role into parallel positions, but rather, embracing a collaborative approach, where we are able to better leverage the strengths, experiences, and perspectives of each Co-Leader, and create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  To do this, the co-leaders share a common role description, and are ultimately responsible for the overall leadership of all aspects of the organization, but we have divided our roles at an operational level to allow for the most efficient use of our skills and talents. This model allows each Co-Leader the opportunity to dive deeper into some areas and provide a broader perspective to others. We are navigating trying to find the balance of sharing the responsibilities of leading a complex organization, building communication structures and processes to enable effective shared leadership, and giving space for each of our individuals strengths and perspectives to come through.

After 5 months of co-leadership together, we wanted to share some thoughts and reflections on the process so far, and what we are looking forward to for the future.  We’ve had several organizations reach out to us, to learn more about our structure, process, and possibilities that Co-leadership has opened for us and hope that our learning can help others to navigate similar questions and challenges.  

What do we appreciate about the Co-Leadership model?

Alyssa: What I appreciate most about the co-leadership model, is being able to be collaborative in all aspects of my role.  This doesn’t mean we do everything together, but it does mean that when you’re stuck, or something challenging comes up, or you just want to talk through something, you’re not alone.  In our previous structure, while we tried to be as collaborative as possible, with our team, board, and community, it often felt like they were all connected through a central point, and that my perspective held a lot of power in that space.  With co-leadership, there’s someone to bring those important decisions to, who’s also holding all the same considerations, and work through them together.  It also gives increased capacity to strengthen connections outside of that central point, and develop better connections, processes and linkages throughout our network.

Spirit River: I appreciate how co-leadership makes me think more critically about decisions I make without burdening me with more work. I have less work because I don’t have to oversee every aspect of the organization, but I do have to think about how the decisions I make will impact the work on Alyssa’s side of the fence (not just my own). This means that I must take my check-ins with Alyssa seriously. We help keep each other accountable on our quarterly workplans, and the decisions we make to address emerging issues in the organization are more well-rounded due to our collective expertise and our deep mutual understanding of Bridges’ current positioning. Co-leadership is really the next level if you enjoy the process of building consensus, finding acceptable compromises, and negotiating in good faith with others. Further developing these skills is especially important for us this new year as we seek to build more meaningful connections with youth, organizations, leaders, and philanthropists in our community to enhance our work.

What have we been learning through the Co-Leadership model?

Alyssa: I’ve been learning about creating space for new ideas and ways of working and how to balance that with my own perspectives and strengths.  In one of our very first meetings, Spirit River and I realized that we were exact opposites on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and I think have both consciously invested in trying to find ways to leverage those differences ever since. It involves a genuine value and interest and learning of where the other person is coming from, and being able to let go when things don’t matter, and make sure to dive in when you feel that they do.  

Spirit River: I think there is a lot of wisdom in personality assessments like Myers-Briggs, not necessarily about how accurate it reads your personality (which then makes it feel more like a horoscope), but rather the lessons it teaches us about how to honor our differences. I’m the type of person who values continuity and structure, but these personality assessments tell me that I do not know best, which is not only humbling but it also leaves you with a lot to learn from others. The fact that Alyssa and I are opposite personality types means our mental frameworks will be challenged and so thoroughness is baked into the process for us. If my approach starts getting rigid, Alyssa can interject and provide vision and empathy to expose new ways, and if things become too idealistic or stagnant, I can interject and help make things more accountable, specific, and grounded.

However, if you have a co-lead with a similar personality as you, then I imagine you might get things done quick, but your effectiveness might be poor if you don’t have a clear idea of the different preferences the stakeholders have in your organization. In either situation, having someone to build an idea with, or to strategize with, is a great opportunity to learn, but also a great way to not get overwhelmed with big decisions.

What opportunities do we see going forward for Co-Leadership?

Alyssa: I’m excited by the opportunities for us each to be more connected with community going forward, as we share some of the more operational aspects of the role.  I’m sure there will always still be more great things happening and amazing youth to connect with, than we’re able to, but it has started to help already.  I’m also excited about the space it will create to think about how to do more things differently.  Not just by bringing in new perspectives from Spirit River (which is great), but when you have to keep someone else in the loop of what you’re thinking all the time, it forces you to do a better job of articulating, and reflecting on what’s happening, and helps you to develop your own ideas in better ways.    

Spirit River: We have some big challenges in the new year, some by our own choice that we’re excited about (e.g., launching our social enterprise), and others that are out of our control, like the impact that the economy has had on the non-profit sector. For a small charity, this year would be overwhelming for one Executive Director, and so I’m curious to see what doors open and what the rate of our growth will be with the capacity of two co-leaders. If we play our cards right, we will have plenty of great opportunities that will be challenging yet rewarding while, hopefully, being enjoyable and less overwhelming.

If you’re interested in learning more about our Co-leadership model or have experience and perspectives on co-leadership that you’d like to share.  Please reach out and let us know!  We’re looking forward to continuing to build and develop this model together with others.