The saying goes: “two minds are better than one” and AJL Foundation is living this truth with the shift to a co-leadership model that took place in August 2022. We wanted new ideas, broader and deeper expertise and enthusiasm while also creating increased capacity, work-life harmony and overall organizational stability, and almost a year into the model, those are the results we’re seeing. Most importantly, we’re better positioned to serve the communities we serve through this shared leadership model. We’re excited to share the details here.

AJL Foundation Co-Leadership Model

This article is intended to provide insight on AJL’s shift to a co-leadership management structure with the following information:

  • What is a co-leadership model?
  • What are the benefits of a co-leadership model specifically for AJL? 
  • AJL’s co-leader areas of focus
  • AJL’s co-leading is done with intention on
  • Pitfalls we watch out for
  • Disadvantage to the organization
  • Resources we’ve used to map out guidance for, benefits and pitfalls of co-leadership

What is a co-leadership model?

A co-leadership model is shared leadership between two or more people where each individual takes shared ownership over shared outcomes. In AJL's case, this means two Co-Executive Directors equally hold power to influence the organization and shared ownership of successes and failures, while creating space for ongoing learning, innovation and nurturing an inclusive environment. They possess complementary strengths and weaknesses and take a split-task approach to the leadership responsibilities of the organization. 

What are the benefits of a co-leadership model specifically for AJL?

These aspects of co-leadership are top-priority for AJL’s co-leadership model. 

  • New ideas, broader and deeper expertise, increased enthusiasm and connections
  • Diverse perspectives, experiences and understanding brought to the work contributes to more intelligent and strategic decision-making 
  • Increased capacity to improve and further build out grantmaking, direct investing and impact investing strategies as well as add policy/advocacy strategies
  • Deeper relationship building and presence with partners in the San Luis Valley
  • Expanded AJL presence (and thus, impact) through more strategic marketing and communications strategies as well as increased participation in peer groups and local and national networks for deeper field-building
  • Broader and deeper cross-sector and cross-demographic relationship building contributing to more voices in decision-making and programming
  • Added capacity to support the GIV youth fellowship through YouthRoots annually
  • Improved administration and HR based on increased capacity and additional expertise
  • Work-life harmony for staff allowing for full coverage during PTO and time for professional development/learning
  • Faster progress and reduced personal stress
  • Stability and continuity for future transition planning in the event that a staff member leaves AJL or something unforeseen happens and a staff-person can no longer work
  • Increased mental support at a leadership level to vet ideas, process concerns, map out next steps, and build resilience

Areas of focus for AJL’s co-leaders

We’ve established a division of duties while also recognizing that the other is a resource that can be consulted on when necessary. We rely on the lived experiences, personal and professional, of each other to help guide our work and co-create initiatives together. Both Co-Executive Directors are qualified and trained to carry out the Executive Director job description should the foundation be in a position with one ED, and as co-leaders: 

  • Both co-executive directors: Expand AJL’s presence in the field to push for systemic changes in philanthropy. Local and national networking and field-building in our respective program areas. To involve network and peer group participation, presentations and leadership roles. Balance the visionary strengths in each other to lead major areas of responsibility. Build close connections and relationships with the full team that go beyond professional contributions; understand what we can do for each other, culturally, emotionally, personally, etc.
  • Kristi: Responsible for monitoring the Foundation’s portfolio, Impact Investing, Shareholder Advocacy, and Marketing and Communications
  • Alece: Supports as the Integrator with duties including Direct Investments, Support for Grantmaking and Valuation, Policy & Advocacy Initiatives, Board Management, and Foundation Administration 
  • Dianne & Allia: The Community Investments team manages Grantmaking and Valuation 

AJL’s co-leading is done with intention on:

  • Being willing participants in the co-leadership approach. Egos and success over the other isn’t tolerated and we are comfortable sharing our truths with each other. We provide oversight of each other’s actions and recognize the racial diversity we each bring to the table. 
  • Shared trust and chemistry that we are the first team (5 Dysfunction’s of a Team reference) and give grace to one another to learn, take lead, and move with integrity.
  • Leverage our complementary skill sets. We have each other’s back and step up and step back when we need to. We share our knowledge and power. We lean on each other’s personal, academic, and professional knowledge and expertise.
  • Creating unity by setting goals together, having shared values, being accountable to each other, and making decisions together. Regularly sharing feedback and being open to change.
  • Boldly embracing conflict to learn together and be accountable for our own professional and personal growth. We show up authentically and honor our differences while recognizing that challenging each other is healthy and necessary to grow.
  • Share decision-making for the greater long-term good of the organization with autonomy to make decisions in owned focus areas. Celebrate successes and failures jointly.
  • Joint responsibility to lead with empathy, selflessness, flexibility and expressiveness.

Pitfalls we watch out for:

  • Lack of collaboration and communication
  • Increased confusion
  • Slower decisions
  • Potential for disagreements
  • Lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities

Remedy for pitfalls: We regularly check in with each other, stick to our shared vision, and maintain sustained agreement on organizational priorities. We’ve documented specific roles and responsibilities and discuss weekly.

Disadvantages to the organization

  • Payroll investments will be seen before bottomline benefits and experienced co-leaders recommend being patient for a year  
  • Initial implementation requires quite a bit of onboarding together
  • Literature review asserts the risks of co-leaders that don’t like each other and the onboarding process is important for building a rapport
  • Succession planning will take time to fill vacant positions with specific complementary skills or one ED to assume additional roles and responsibilities

Resources we’ve used to map out guidance for, benefits and pitfalls of co-leadership:

Gratitude to Metro Caring for their announcement about co-leadership and resources researched by Co-leader Teva Sienicki, CEO-Visionary. Here’s the literature review and reading resources, also listed here:

  1. Russ Banham. Co-CEOs: Are Two Better Than One? 
  2. Meera Chary. Three Nonprofits Share Their Approaches to Co-Leadership 
  3. John Gerzema & Will Johnson. Is CEO a Two-Person Job? 
  4. Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries. Two CEOs, No Drama: Ground Rules for Co-Leadership 
  5. Stephen A. Miles & Michael D. Watkins. The Leadership Team: Complementary Strengths or Conflicting Agendas 
  6. Gwen Moran. Are Co-CEOs a Great Idea or a Total Disaster? 
  7. Rebecca Newton. How to Co-Lead a Team 
  8. Joe Procopio. Here’s When It Actually Makes Sense to Have Co-CEOs 
  9. Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters. Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business, (book) see details from the literature review link 
  10. David K. Williams & Mary Michelle Scott. Leadership Teams: Why Two Are Better Than One 
  11. Additional Reading: The Surprising Benefits of Co-LeadershipA Guide to Co-Leadership, Why It's Hard, Why It's Good, and How to Make It WorkCo-Directors in Action: A Joint Interview with All* Above All and ReproactionAdaptive network models of collective dynamicsThree Nonprofits Share Their Approach to Co-LeadershipCo-CEOs Are Out of Style. Why Is Netflix Resurrecting the Management Model?Making a Co-CEO Leadership Structure Work5 Reasons Why Your Organization Should Be Thinking About Co-LeadershipReinventing Organizations: An Illustrated Invitation to Join the Conversation on Next-Stage Organizations (book)

Co-Leadership: The one thing you must get right: Great tools and kits but they do cost money

How to Make Co-Leadership Work: This outlines some key areas that are foundational for co-leaders to build together (accountability & trust, acknowledge vulnerability, lead slowly, practice communication, and a new way of working)

Shared leadership: Fundamentals, benefits and implementation: There are three dimensions of shared leadership mentioned (shared purpose, social support, and voice)

Is it time to Consider Co-CEO's?  Has a great outline of what creates success with shared leadership (willing participants, complementary skill sets, clear responsibilities & decision rights, mechanisms for conflict resolution, an appearance of unity, fully shared accountability, board support, shared values, and an exit strategy)

Donika Dimovska, Simon Sommer, Fabio Segura, Can Co-Leadership be the future of philanthropy?

Cyndi Suarez, Experiments in Liberatory Leadership  

Daryl K. Yankee, A Measure of attributes and benefits of the co-leadership model: is co-leadership the right fit for a complex world?

MOCHA system: a helpful framework to determine ownership of responsibilities

More Nonprofit Organizations Are Hiring Co-CEOs. Tackling economic equality challenges as significant as America’s growing racial wealth gap will require our institutions to embrace new economic models that expand power, choice, and ownership over our economy—including organizational co-leadership.

Inside a Leadership Transition That Included 2 Years as Co-CEOs. Tulaine Montgomery and her predecessor, New Profit founder Vanessa Kirsch, say shared leadership requires careful planning and frank conversations.

No Longer Lonely at the Top: A Growing Number of Nonprofits Hire Co-CEOs. Shared leadership helps organizations find the skills they need and can be an answer to candidates’ demand for greater work-life balance.

Learning Through Co-Leadership. The Bridgespan Group recently convened a Co-Leadership Learning Circle to provide a place for peer learning and to share emerging best practices for leaders curious about the co-leadership model. This is the first in a series of articles intended as part of that sharing.

Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Announces New Co-Executive Directors, Gladis Ibarra and Henry Sandman. The Co-ED model, new for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, reflects an intentional and strategic step forward for the sustainability and well-being of both the team and the broader movement.”At a time when the immigrant rights movement faces relentless challenges, our organization stands strong and resolute. The critical work we undertake remains as vital today as ever before,” affirmed Gladis Ibarra.

Our reflections on the co-leadership model so far

"Proximate leadership is more needed than ever and if we're going make the paradigm shift to do better as a sector, we need broader life experiences at the core of our decisions and more authentic relationships with community. Doing business differently requires more time than one person has. This nurturing and flexible shared leadership approach has already helped me feel more human in a leadership role while also allowing me to connect with people on a deeper level and dive into and learn more about every aspect of the organization." - Alece H. M. Montez, Co-Executive Director

"When I look around, it seems to me that our world can't afford 'heroes' anymore. No one person can lead us or be responsible for the shifts that need to take place for survival and sustainability. Instead, we need competent collectives - groups of people who know how to think, move and do collectively - and leadership needs to be shared."  - Kristi Petrie, Co-Executive Director