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Not So Lonely at the Top: Lessons from a Co-Executive Director

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By Connie Veates | 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.

Read more at www.gcn.org

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