Board Insights from ProInspire’s Co-CEO Planning Process

 


During the fall of 2018, Monisha Kapila, the founder and then sole CEO of ProInspire, asked the board to get serious about succession planning. The org was approaching its 10th anniversary in 2019 and Monisha was starting to think about the next chapter of her career. Candidly, the board was not ready to have this conversation. In 2017, ProInspired completed the sunset of its flagship Fellowship Program and in 2018 was updating its vision, mission, and theory of change. 

By the time I became Board Chair in April 2019, several months had gone by and ProInspire was in a more stable financial position with increased clarity about its future direction. ProInspire was transitioning from an organization focused on supporting individuals to one more deeply focused on changing systems and structures at the organizational and societal levels (read more here).

It was time for us to take succession planning seriously and to set the stage for new leadership. I decided to take this on as my mandate as Board Chair during my two year term.  Now that we’ve completed our work and announced Bianca Anderson as Co-CEO of ProInspire, here are six insights from our process:

  1. Make succession planning a priority: We took Monisha’s leadership and willingness to stay on through organizational transition for granted. We’re very fortunate that our delay in getting serious about succession planning did not result in an unplanned transition. With the benefit of hindsight, we might have at least made preliminary strides toward documenting contingency plans in the event of an unplanned transition.
  1. Make senior-level hires with succession in mind: By fall 2019, ProInspire was ready to make senior level hires with the refreshed strategic direction in place and we encouraged Monisha to write a job description that would attract candidates with significant experience, who might become candidates for internal succession.
  1. Build relationships across board members and senior leaders: By mid-2020, it was clear that Monisha had strong talent at the senior level, including Bianca Anderson, who Monisha identified as a potential successor only six months into her tenure. As Board Chair and a fellow Black woman, I made it a priority to get to know Bianca and to learn more about her leadership aspirations and growth edges. We identified that Bianca is highly talented and that becoming sole CEO immediately might be a steep learning curve. We wanted to be thoughtful about ensuring that Bianca was set up for success and not placed in a context ripe for burnout or failure. We are aware of a tendency to treat Black women in leadership as “superheroes” and wanted to be mindful not to place her in an unsustainable situation with excessive expectations in her first appointment as CEO.
  1. Consider shared leadership models: As we continued to explore the best plan for ProInspire, we decided to explore the possibility of a Co-CEO model, where Monisha would start to share responsibilities with Bianca over a one year period,  while creating a pathway for sustainability for both leaders. Monisha was ready for a change and Bianca was ready for more and both were eager to try this on as a way for ProInspire to model its own values of equity, authenticity, collaboration and courage. A number of Board members shared their experience with shared leadership models and recommended we focus the first year on onboarding Bianca into the Co-CEO role, and the second year to consider next steps. Monisha has agreed to stay as Co-CEO for at least a year and then we’ll pause and evaluate how things are going and make adjustments as needed.
  1. Make structural changes to your by-laws: In order to make shared leadership a possibility, the board (led by the executive committee) took on responsibility for revising the by-laws so that the shift in leadership would be in accordance with organizational policies and governance. This was also an opportunity to revisit language that had not been changed since the organization’s founding in 2009 and allowed for important revisions related to making binding decisions via email and virtual board meetings.
  1. Design a rigorous process to vet internal candidates: While we felt confident that Bianca would be a successful candidate for a Co-CEO role, we wanted to be sure that we evaluated her candidacy against clear criteria. We referenced an article by Cyndi Suarez in NonProfit Quarterly, “What Does an Equitable Leadership Transition Look Like”, to inform our process.  We engaged Greater Human Capital, led by fellow board member, George Ho, to support this process, which began by distinguishing between the job responsibilities of the two Co-CEOs in the form of a Division of Labor Plan, a tool from The Management Center. This helped us to clarify which responsibilities would be owned by Monisha and which would be owned by Bianca, if successful in the hiring process. For example, during the first year of shared leadership, we determined that Monisha would continue to own fundraising, financial management, and internal operations while Bianca would own visioning and strategy, thought leadership, and culture-setting for the organization. This enabled the board to evaluate Bianca on these primary responsibilities rather than establishing that she needed to be highly competent in all responsibilities. We also wanted to position Bianca for future sole leadership by ensuring that she was responsible for setting the vision and strategic direction of the organization, while growing into other aspects of a CEO role, such as ownership of fundraising.

Ultimately, we completed our process with a high degree of confidence that Bianca would be an excellent Co-CEO alongside Monisha and we’re thrilled that they are so excited to partner in this new way. We imagine we’ll have more to share as they continue to gain insights about what’s working and lessons learned. As I step down from my tenure as Board Chair, I am so glad to pass the baton to Nancy Withbroe, who has been an amazing partner in the Vice Chair seat. I look forward to seeing how she continues to steward the board as we embark on this shared leadership journey together. Nancy will share additional reflections about our board’s efforts to implement shared leadership at ProInspire, including how we engaged board, staff, and key partners as part of our design process. I also want to express deep appreciation to the full board for taking time to engage so thoughtfully in this process over the last year – onwards!


Isabelle Moses

Director of Talent Development, Faith in Action National Network 


Last week our Co-Ceo, Monisha Kapila, shared her reflections in her recent blog “Holding space when people are grieving.” Read more about it here!

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