Reimagining Leadership: The Co-CEO Model at ProInspire
by Bianca Anderson and Monisha Kapila
January 17, 2023
Since publishing our Leadership Model for Race Equity Impact in 2021, our work has centered around supporting organizations and leaders with embodying practices that accelerate race equity in both outcomes and experience within their organizations. We’ve also been looking for ways to demonstrate the core commitments of the model internally within ProInspire (for examples of some of the ways we’re aligning our internal processes with our values, read COO Kristen Lucas’ blog post here).
In addition to aligning values, we’ve also been trying to reimagine work itself—practicing the core commitment Collective Reimagining to think beyond white dominant norms like individualism, power hoarding, or urgency. In 2021, ProInspire shifted to the co-CEO structure. And last year, we took time to reimagine the experience of leading ProInspire. During a retreat, we asked ourselves: How could leadership of this organization be a more supportive and sustainable experience for womxn of color, in particular Black womxn leaders? We noted how much we were enjoying the co-CEO model — we both appreciated the camaraderie; space for reflection; and sharing of the workload. We left that retreat with the recommendation that ProInspire keep the co-CEO model, which was initially envisioned as a temporary structure to support a smooth succession when Monisha departs.
We felt that maintaining the co-CEO model should be an organization-wide decision, not just something that the two of us decide. With the help of KLP Impact, we began a 6-month research project to understand how the co-CEO model was landing within ProInspire: What was working and what was challenging? What would need to be in place for this to continue beyond the current configuration? We also had a number of conversations with peer organizational leaders who are in similar co-leadership configurations to learn more from their experiences.
Initially, we thought that there was one major change ProInspire was experiencing: moving from sole CEO to co-CEO. But as the research continued, it became clear that what we were experiencing was more complex than that. We were able to use this research for discussions with our staff and Board at the end of 2022, and they are shaping the internal work we are planning this year.
We are leaning into transparency because we believe these findings will be valuable for our community that cares deeply about ProInspire’s transformation. We also want to contribute to expanding the body of work about co-leadership models.
Here is the executive summary below and the report is on our website. We will share more from our learnings with peers in co-leadership configurations later this year.
ProInspire contracted with KLP Impact to help explore what it would mean to permanently move from a Founder, solo-led CEO organization to a Co-CEO structure. This report explores the shifts needed both internally (at the board and staff level) and externally to transparently document this journey and process.
The goals of the project encompassed the following:
- Review the first year of ProInspire’s Co-CEO leadership structure.
- Explore curiosities around what is working, challenges, benefits, tensions, and helpful context to inform ProInspire’s Co-CEO leadership structure and shared leadership across the organization.
- The findings of this project will support ProInspire Board and Staff to align around the next steps of the Co-CEO leadership structure, inclusive of decision making roles and change management needs.
KLP Impact used a combination of methods for gathering and sharing out information as a part of the research project. Internally, a series of one-on-one interviews, focus groups, team meetings, and board meetings/retreats were utilized to gather information and perspectives on bright spots and challenges with this new model and to then share themes from interviews that helped inform meaning making and potential organizational shifts.
In an effort to get at the root cause of the change, we have identified three key transitions. Shifting to a Co-CEO structure for ProInspire is not just about moving from a single CEO to a two person CEO team, it is also a founder transition and a move to being Black-led. Each of these transitions alone would be a lot for an organization to tackle. Taking on all three as part of this shift requires a more complex set of dialogues, change management protocols, and systems building.
What we heard from all interviews and focus groups is supported by what we already know about organizational change and transitions: they can be hopeful, messy, complex, and cannot be reduced into a single objective experience. The sibling organization interviews helped to normalize these transition pain points and offer a perspective on how they tended to similar organizational culture and structure shifts.
Recommendations are organized into three major areas of focus:
- Bring Black Feminist Philosophy into our culture and approach, and shift organization policies and practices
- Embrace and practice generative conflict, focus on inner work, normalize cultural practices around feedback, and examine intersections of personal trauma story and habits of white supremacy and anti-Blackness
- Align on transparent decision-making protocols at all levels of the organization
- Recognize that a Founder’s exit is more than just a new hire
- Re-map roles and responsibilities throughout the organization
- Align on business model and revenue streams to enable time and space to focus on centering relationships, building shared leadership muscle, and nurturing political education and solidarity
- Keep learning from and strengthen connections with sibling organizations going through similar transitions
- Shift to a permanent Co-CEO leadership structure
- Shift narrative from “change is happening to me” to “I am consenting to playing a role in our transition and transformation”
- Deploy liberatory structures in the selection process of the new Co-CEO, by ceding decision-making power to the remaining Co-CEO and have board play an input role
- Make radical choices when it comes to compensation and lean into an abundance mindset