When we tell people that we have moved to a four Co-Executive Director model, often the first reaction is a mind-boggled stare: “You have four people doing the Executive Director job? How does that even work?!” The truth is that this “shiny” aspect of our organizational structure is an outcome of implementing much deeper organizational and leadership practices. In short:
RVC is a liberatory, leaderful, self-managing organization where power is distributed in natural hierarchies.
An Overview of our Model
We say liberatory to center equity and justice in our work every day. We want to orient towards liberation by, in the words of the Liberatory Leadership Partnership, inviting ourselves and each other to “assess, reflect on, unlearn and discard relationships that center power based in supremacy, division and dominance, and invite in models based on equity, community, and self-determination.”
We say leaderful to convey the fact that everyone at RVC is a leader. The web of interconnected relationships is crucial to our success, and we actively build leaderful ecosystems, where we invest deeply in the professional development of each staff member, cultivate an experimenting culture, and value multiple ways of knowing.
Within that, we have both shared leadership (where executive leadership is shared internally by two or more people) and distributed leadership (where decision-making is consistently and methodically pushed across all levels in the organization). Both of these intertwined are crucial to the success of our particular organizational structure, and we appreciate the Building Movement Project for defining these terms so clearly. At RVC, we intentionally build job descriptions so every position is a lead in at least one decision-making area, and support our team members in taking on more decision-making responsibilities as they grow.
We say self-managing to mean that our staff are trusted to make important decisions, initiate necessary changes, and organize more fluidly. We recognize that each person in the organization has different wisdom and skills to offer, so each person within the system is trusted to make decisions within their realm of responsibility. And for us, self-management is about more than just that. We are guided by the concepts laid out in the book Reinventing Organizations, that sees self-management as one of three core, interlocking tenets, the others being wholeness (set of practices that invite us to reclaim our inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work), and evolutionary purpose (that the organization has a life and sense of direction of its own). Together, these building blocks set a foundation for a different way of running an organization.
We say natural hierarchies to honor that power is real, and our structure is not truly “flat,” because we do not make all our decisions by consensus. The goal is to make everyone fully powerful within their role. Imagine a healthy natural ecosystem where different kinds of plants and animals and insects collaborate, each one having different kinds of power and showing up in different sizes and shapes, flourishing in the niche that best fits its needs. The natural world is incredibly complex, with millions of living organisms interacting with one another every day. And yet, nature flourishes, and can adapt to changes with incredible speed. The author Margaret Wheatley would invite us to use the term “self-organizing,” meaning to have the capacity to walk on “the edge of chaos.”
Our Model in Practice
Our work is centered around what we do for our communities, so we organize into programs that fit the main realms of our work, which are the petals of the flower. This was inspired by Change Elemental’s concept of lily pads and a hub – yet again inviting the natural world into our day to day life.
In order to ensure we are well-coordinated, we have two Hubs. Our Hubs are not primarily decision-making spaces, but rather spaces to coordinate, get feedback on decisions, support each other, and hold each other accountable. Anyone can choose to have a decision be made by a group, be it a team or a Hub, but it’s not required to have decisions go “up” to an oversight body. We don’t see the need to have a single “right” way to make decisions (e.g. voting, consensus, or other methods). Instead we support our staff in choosing the right decision-making structure fitting the importance of a given decision, and ensure that folks always use the advice process in making that decision.
Our Co-Executive Directors are not at the center of our organizational chart. That was purposeful. The core of our work is our programs, so we put our program directors, who all sit on the Program Hub together, at the center. The Program Hub coordinates the day-to-day work of RVC, and supports the programs in making excellent decisions.
Instead, our Co-Executive Directors sit in the Organization-Wide Hub, which coordinates to ensure that organization-wide aspects like fundraising, budgeting, organizational culture, and thought leadership are all moving forward effectively. Since our Co-Executive Directors have program responsibilities in addition to organization-wide responsibilities, they are located within that specific programmatic base. Co-Executive Directors have limited decision-making responsibilities, but they play really important roles in tending to the whole of the organization and representing RVC externally. We held onto the “Executive Director” title not because it is necessary internally, but rather because the outside world sees it as important, and somehow that title emanates an aura of Authority and Importance. Hopefully this won’t always be the case, but in the meantime, this title gives us the ability to navigate the nonprofit industrial complex!
Reactions Thus Far
Recently, we spoke to Niloufar Khonsari, Co-Director of Pangea Legal, who is writing a book on shared leadership structures, and she told us: “I’ve spoken to many people at staff collectives or organizations with shared leadership structures, and RVC is the most advanced, well-formulated, and well-structured.” We’re on a constant learning journey, but it’s definitely looking promising!
These past couple of years, our talented organizational development consultant Kad Smith played a key role in facilitating us through this organizational transition process. He shared, “RVC has done an exemplary job as an organization that’s striving to live into their values. They’ve demonstrated how leadership can be realized in acts and interactions, rather than understood solely by a position. I’m so excited to see how the organization evolves and continues to iterate on what’s already been done.”
And what do RVC staff think of it all?
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