By Vu Le, RVC Executive Director, and Estevan Munoz-Howard, RVC Board President
A few months ago, RVC announced the transition of our (cough charismatic, unconventionally attractive, extremely humble) founding ED. The board and staff have been busy finding a replacement. After undergoing processes that didn’t end up working for us, we have decided to slow down the transition. We want to update you on what we’ve been thinking about and share a few lessons we learned.
In many ways, RVC is going through two transitions: a sudden one and a gradual one. The founding ED’s departure is the sudden one, so to speak, as there is a concrete deadline. The gradual one, however, revolves around what RVC has been formed to do: to disrupt systems and traditional ways of doing things, things that have been harmful to our communities. We have channeled our energies into creating a holistic, culturally-responsive capacity building model, a successful leadership program that supports brilliant leaders of color in our area, and a fundraising philosophy that is about ending the Nonprofit Hunger Games and building collective community wealth and power. This gradual transition concerns how RVC will scale up and grow the impact of work in the coming years — and continue to do so in an intentional way.
RVC has thrived by taking on things that our sector has internalized and saying, “Yeah, but do we really have to do it like that? Has it worked for communities of color? Can we try something else?” It has led us to incredible growth in programs, budget, and staffing.
We think this transition is yet another opportunity for RVC to challenge the sector to examine some fundamental things we have internalized about leadership, board and staff roles and dynamics, and hiring practices. Our transition process has slowed down so we can navigate these questions. As we dive deeper into it, here are some of the things we are thinking about:
The sticky concept of the traditional leader
A significant degree of RVC’s success can be attributed to our shared leadership structure, with our Managing Director Ananda Valenzuela serving as an internal ED, and Vu Le as the external ED. However, our sector and society has a deeply held archetype of a solitary heroic leader. The unconscious attachment to the concept of a single leader, defined often as someone who is most publicly visible, unfortunately and erroneously means other leaders in the organization get significantly less credit for RVC’s success. How do we find an ED while acknowledging that one of RVC’s strengths lies in having multiple strong leaders — especially underappreciated leaders who tackle critical but oftentimes unseen internal tasks such as operations, administration, and organizational development? Furthermore, why is it that only the ED/CEO is considered the “leader”? This is a great opportunity for RVC to challenge this archaic notion of leadership and further explore models of shared and distributed leadership.
The complexity of decisions
RVC continues to experiment with an innovative decision-making model: the Advice Process method from the book “Reinventing Organizations.” In this process, the person closest to a specific area makes the final decision in that area, provided they get feedback from all the people who will be significantly affected by their decision and those who may have knowledge that would help them in making the best decision. What this means is that the ED cannot veto another staff’s decision. In fact, the ED makes very few decisions at RVC. This affects RVC in two ways. First, we have to ensure whoever comes in next is not just okay with but actually excited about this model of distributed power and autonomy. Second, the board and staff must figure out how to work closely and collaboratively to make the decision on this hire while navigating this decision-making model.
The importance of board-staff relationships
RVC’s board and staff have each played pivotal roles in our success. Over the course of RVC’s history, our dedicated board has focused on deep strategic directions, serving as the voice of our community and guiding us through many major decisions. Our staff have carried out some incredible programs and services. Now, as the board and staff work closer than ever on this transition process, slowing down is wise because it gives us that time to continue to build and strengthen partnerships. Relationship-strengthening takes time, but the effort will ultimately not only help RVC in the transition, but also for future projects that will require the board and staff to work closely in collaboration.
The unlearning of ingrained hiring philosophies and practices
So many traditional ways of doing things are also hard to shake, including traditional hiring practices. RVC is trying to be thoughtful in hiring in a way that aligns with our values, including ensuring the voices of Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, LGBTQIA+, people of different ages, people with disabilities, those with no formal education, neuro-diverse individuals, people with prior criminal records, and people from other marginalized communities are heard and considered for careers at RVC. This obviously will take more time than traditional hiring processes — and we must put in the time, as our values call on us to spend this time to do right by our community.
How to move from fear to possibility
Leadership transitions often bring with them degrees of fear. This is completely reasonable, and a small measure of fear often can be helpful in spurring us to act. RVC must find the balance in juggling our fears and uncertainty — which are perfectly normal — with excitement about the great possibilities that come with this kind of change.
In a way, it might look like we are ‘behind’ in terms of an ED transition process. Traditionally, we would be working with a consulting firm, would have released a job posting, and would have been fielding candidates by now.
But in a different way, we are actually ahead, as we are thinking deeply, challenging norms, and trying new things.
Looking forward and maintaining our strengths
We have an incredible board, an amazing staff, and we are financially stable, thanks to our donors and foundation partners. We really believe that this is a chance that we’ve never had before — to really redefine leadership, reshape hiring practices, strengthen board/staff relationships, experiment, innovate, and capture lessons that could help the entire sector.
Additionally, while we are exploring what the next phase of RVC will look like, we at RVC are all committed to delivering on the promises of our mission to the fullest. We recently onboarded latest cohort of our Community Impact Fellow Program, launched the first-ever Green Pathways Fellowship cohort, and every week, we are welcoming in new partners into the RVC family.
RVC’s story is just unfolding, and given the level of dedication, brilliance, and thoughtfulness of our board, staff, and community members, we know the next chapter will be just as awesome.