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Wearing the Collective ED Hat

by Susan Grove, with her Co-EDs

Photo credit: taviphoto

First a story: We had limited time to meet for the purpose of drafting a budget for a circle I steward. Our time was passing fast, but we were making great progress clarifying our plans and their financial implications. Then we realized that we weren’t using the budgeting tool that the Operations Circle had provided us in the way it was meant to be used. My heart sank. Budgets were due Friday. I didn’t have time to translate our numbers into the proper format. When one of my circlemates said, “I have a clear vision for how to get this done and would like to take the next step,” I experienced so much relief and gratitude. It was great to be supported and not have the sense that it necessarily fell to me, as circle steward, to move this project toward completion. 

The relief I experienced contrasts with the weight I felt on my shoulders when I previously served as an organization’s Executive Director (ED) for 5 years. At that time, there were a couple of helpful ways of understanding my ED role: “holding the whole” and “gap-filler.” The idea of “holding the whole” came to me via an advisor who invited me to imagine that I was up on a balcony overlooking all the workings of the organization, how each part functioned and interacted with the others, toward ensuring a healthy and balanced system. The “gap-filler” idea emerged from my experience as I interpreted what I felt called to do. It resonates with a quote on servant-leadership that I saw recently on someone’s email signature: “The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” If my unique perspective on the organization revealed a gap that needed filling for the smooth functioning of the whole, it was my responsibility to either fill it myself, or identify a way it could be filled. This role felt inescapable, and was pretty heavy and tiring for one person to always hold. 

In our WSDNP structure, the six of us who serve as Worker Trustees collectively share the responsibilities of being co-EDs. How do we make sure we’re all spending time on the balcony, observing, reflecting on, and tending to the whole, which at times includes noticing, naming and prompting action on filling gaps as needed? For the organization to be effective, each of us has three levels of accountability: to our own work, to the work of our circles, and to the whole. We need to be accountable as individuals to the roles and responsibilities we commit to in our circles and across the organization. We also need to show up to the work of each circle we are a member of, working collaboratively to advance our collective mandate in that circle. If we stop there, our efforts may become siloed and lack coherence, with synergies unrealized; gaps not attended to; and strategic, impactful opportunities not prioritized. This means that, beyond the level of individual and circle accountabilities, we need to be grounded in a strategic, integrated view as co-EDs. 

If you were a fly on the wall, you’d regularly hear one or more of us start a sentence by saying, “With my co-ED hat on…” This mindset is very different from the individual and circle mindsets. It requires us to step back from the goals and intentions of our circles. Because we live most of our days advancing circle-based work, this step back requires conscious intention. In asking everyone to climb the stairs to the balcony, we are asking ourselves to take on a new perspective on our own work; observe the work of others and the interconnections between efforts; and see ourselves as one of six, and each of our circles as one of ten. Moving between the three levels entails moving between multiple identities. For each, we may think and make decisions using different frameworks. All of this is a way of saying, if being a solo ED is tiring, being a co-ED can be challenging and takes practice. A key difference is that, in co-EDship, there is built-in support. 

What follows is a description of how we are approaching inhabiting this shared responsibility in several key areas of GWI. 

Meetings: When six heads, instead of one, are responsible to make decisions that pertain to the organization as a whole, we need adequate time to communicate with each other. The General Circle of Worker Trustees (i.e. the 6 of us who serve as co-EDs) convenes at least 3 full team meetings a month, 8 hours in total. We take our co-ED hats on and off as a fluid practice of individually stepping onto the balcony during our 2 discussion-based, 3-hour meetings. During the final 2-hour meeting remaining is dedicated to governance and decision-making, we strive to all step onto the balcony together as a collective ED. 

Fundraising: In a small nonprofit organization, the ED generally is responsible for taking the lead on generating philanthropic resources needed for the work. If they’re lucky, they may be supported by volunteers, or part-time or full-time staff. In our structure, the Development Circle is responsible for catalyzing and coordinating fundraising, but we view all co-EDs as being responsible for generating earned and contributed revenue. Members of the Development Circle may often take on the legwork of creating goals and a strategy, but very much rely on partnerships with fellow Workers, board members (and others!) to identify individual and institutional prospects, craft proposals, solicit grants and gifts, and acknowledge them.  

Budgeting: Allocation of resources often feels like a place where the rubber meets the road. The first time we approached budgeting as a WSDNP, when our circles were brand new, we approached the process from the bottom up. Each circle prepared a budget, we reviewed, commented on, and tweaked them together, and then combined them into an organizational budget. We just completed our second WSDNP budget. This time, we started the process from the balcony by identifying how we wanted to prioritize our “discretionary” expenses before working as circles to create detailed budgets. The biggest line item in an organization like ours is personnel. This year’s process revealed another opportunity to start from the balcony in determining how we want to prioritize worker time allocated to circles – perhaps next year! 

Accountability: We have no boss to assess our performance. We are only accountable to each other. There are two annual engagements in the peer accountability process we designed to reflect our beliefs that: clarity of roles and relationships with each other are essential to the functioning of our structure; transparent, trust-based relationships are the lifeblood of shared leadership; and accountability is key to building and strengthening these relationships. (We’ll be sharing more about this in an upcoming post.) In between these engagements, accountability may be activated in the ways circles manage their tasks week by week or by following guidance for how to navigate inevitable tensions that arise that is provided by our conflict resilience policy, and supported by a two-person Conflict Resilience Team. 

Strategic planning: It is generally an ED’s responsibility to guide strategic planning to ensure the mission is being advanced by the organization’s strategy. In our structure, we work as a unit of six to ensure this happens. We’re experimenting with different approaches with awareness that this is a learning edge for us. A couple of practices are emerging that are moving us in the right direction. First, periodic half-, full- or multi-day retreats focused on strategic conversations. Second, facilitated / structured conversations in our regular meetings where we can share a broad sweep of ideas, hear all voices, consider multiple perspectives, and weigh in on prioritization.

We’ve started to use the word “mandate” to express how we move through and respect each of our multiple identities within the organization. Mandate is the concept that governs how we practice that movement with transparency and respect. Co-EDship doesn’t mean that we have six independently-functioning EDs, each with the mandate to step into any aspect of the organization and make decisions. Even as we each work within distinct circles and roles, being a co-ED is a collaborative role that we inhabit as a collective in order to continually hold the whole.

We launched this series of articles and reflections in September 2019 to share our journey of moving from a traditional hierarchical nonprofit to a worker self-directed nonprofit. We hope by opening up this transition it might help others take the first steps towards sharing power in their workplaces.

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