The current global pandemic has reinforced the reality that we live in a highly complex, ever-changing world, and that if we have any chance of tackling some of the big global challenges ahead of us, there is a need for leadership that is highly resilient and adaptable to meet the inevitable curve balls the future will throw at us.
Any powerful, value-driven social institution such as philanthropy should be subject to close examination and critical scrutiny. Many foundations stick to very traditional, hierarchical, and sometimes even autocratic decision-making models, with virtually all final decision-making power concentrated in one person. The dangerous combination of sole decision-making power and widespread absence of internal and external control mechanisms makes foundation leaders particularly susceptible to hubris and overconfidence.
The Jacobs Foundation’s way to step up is to examine the core fundamentals of how we operate – not only vis-à-vis our partners and grantees which we are also doing – but taking an honest and critical look at the very leadership and decision-making structures within the Jacobs Foundation. As we embarked on this journey back in 2019, we were guided by the key question: What type of structure would position us to be a more agile, inclusive, accountable, and hopefully, more impactful philanthropic actor? With the support of our Board, this careful examination led us to create a Co-Leadership structure which we launched in 2020 and now permeates all leadership levels of the foundation, with each key function in the organisation being led by a pair of Co-Leads, including the CEO role.
Co-Leadership is an equal sharing of the CEO or director-level management role between two people who share ownership of the goals of their team or function and engage in joint decision-making across all major aspects of their work.
As an evidence-based organisation, we looked at what the literature tells us about the benefits of our interpretation of Co-Leadership and the potential pitfalls and challenges to watch out for:
Benefits. At the core, a key advantage of the Co-Leadership model over the individual leader paradigm, is that it brings together complementary styles and skillsets that can provide holistic vision and strategy to an organisation. If done well, it can create stability and continuity at the leadership level as collaboration becomes the focus and the act of sharing the work and mental load with a partner alleviates some of the pressure, especially in crisis situations, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. It can also offer built-in regular peer feedback from one’s Co-Lead and create checks and balances in the form of collaborative decision-making and shared accountability.
Challenges: As evidenced by the numerous examples of failed attempts at Co-Leadership, it is a model that ultimately challenges some of the deeply ingrained ways of thinking and limiting beliefs we hold about leadership – as exemplified by the typical ‘visionary leader’ and ‘rockstar performer’ that we are used to hearing about.
The Covid pandemic was the ultimate test of whether our investment would pay off. Being able to ‘outsource’ key work components to each other for a limited period to focus on other urgent tasks has helped the Jacobs Foundation to be one of the first movers in offering Covid relief to its partners and in providing encompassing protection for its employees ahead of almost all other peers.
There are three main takeaways that we think are important for any organisation that is considering a potential transition to Co-Leadership:
It takes time, commitment, and effort. As with any important personal or professional partnership, it takes constant, intentional work. What this means for us is that we take learning about how to be Co-Leaders seriously and invest considerable time and effort to continuously improve how we work together. For example, we have introduced Co-Leadership training for all Co-Lead pairs and encouraged everyone to work on their relationship by keeping an open communication channel about what works and what can be improved. This is easier said than done, and we are constantly pushing ourselves to step outside our comfort zone and challenge our limiting beliefs and assumptions.
Timing matters. The Co-Leadership model was introduced at a time when the Foundation was going through a new a leadership transition and was poised for change. In this sense, the introduction of the new structure was developed in conjunction with the launch of a new organisational strategy; hence, it could be integrated ‘wholesale’ into the new strategy as opposed to retrofitted into existing organisational structures. It does not mean that it was a totally smooth process, but the fact that we were already on a change journey made it the ‘right’ time to look at the way we were organised. Importantly, most Co-Leads were new hires who could be recruited into the new structure adopting the Co-Leadership mentality from the start.
Culture is fundamental. It would be impossible to operate as a Co-Leadership organisation without a culture of transparency and trust. We have codified this in our core values for how we work together and relate to each other, including the specific behaviours and practices that we want to encourage across our work to continuously nurture and maintain a culture of trust and openness. We discuss these openly and frequently to raise and practice our collective self-awareness across the organisation.
Does this mean the end of the ‘great hero’ model of leadership dominating philanthropy? At Jacobs, we are on a learning journey with our Co-Leadership experiment and there still a lot that we need to get right, but two years in, we firmly believe that the ‘great hero’ model of leadership may simply not be fit for purpose for the problems the world faces. Co-Leadership might just be one promising way to step up to these challenges. As we move forward with our Co-Leadership experience, we look forward to hearing and learning from actors across philanthropy and beyond – from organisations with similar as well as opposing and alternative views, perspectives, and experiences to our own – so that we can challenge and advance our collective thinking on how to be ‘the best selves that we can be’ and ultimately move the philanthropy field forward.
Donika Dimovska, Chief Knowledge Officer; firstname.lastname@example.org