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When Dual Leadership Works, 1+1=3

Category: Leadership
The two co-directors pose next to each other in front of an exhibit at their museum, which deals with wildlife.
Cheryl Donaldson Moses and Donna Jared are Co-Executive Directors of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, a model necessitated by the museum's public-private partnership. They share the joys and challenges of co-directing.

What is dual leadership and how does it work? Recently, over coffee, I asked these questions of Cheryl Donaldson Moses and Donna Jared, the Co-Executive Directors of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery (FCMoD). They shared their thoughts about the realities of shared leadership. The following is a summary of our conversation.

Why did your museum choose Dual Leadership?

The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery (FCMoD) is a public/private partnership. In 2008, after twenty-eight months of negotiations, we officially merged the Fort Collins Museum (municipally owned) and the Discovery Science Center (a private nonprofit) to create FCMoD. Four years later, in 2012, FCMoD opened. FCMoD truly exemplifies the motto “we are better together.”  But how we merged two museums into one and raised $27 million to build a new museum that delivers unique learning experiences that explore the interplay of science and culture is a story for another day.

Because of the public/private nature of our museum, our governance model requires that we have dual leadership in the form of Co-Executive Directors. Each Executive Director reports to one of the governing partners. Our governing document specifies, “The institution shall be managed by the City Director [public] and the Nonprofit Corporation Director [private] …The rights and responsibilities of the Executive Directors…belong jointly to the City Director and the NPC Director.” Simply stated, although responsible to different governing bodies, both Executive Directors are responsible for the overall success of the museum.

What does that look like in reality?

Coming into co-leadership can be confusing because we are used to looking for our defined role. As co-leaders, we’ve come to understand it is the partnership relationship that is leading the institution, not us as individuals. The mission and vision is the driving force, and we work together to resource and operate FCMoD in a holistic manner for the benefit of the community.

What are some of the keys to making co-leadership work for the two of you?

Expertise: each co-leader brings a different area of expertise to the organization. Donna is a nonprofit expert and Cheryl is a museum expert. We each have autonomous responsibilities based on our area of knowledge, for instance Donna manages marketing and development and Cheryl oversees exhibits and collections. But the lines are blurred, on purpose, to allow us to support one another, to bring different perspectives to decision making, and to hold each other accountable to the vision. For example, Cheryl recently hosted a potential donor on a trip to preview a traveling exhibit. This clearly falls into Donna’s area of fundraising, but she knew that Cheryl would be better able to explain the exhibit to the donor. Knowing which skills and expertise to lean on at what moment is part of the secret sauce of co-leading.

Decision Making: in this model you don’t have to mediate every decision. We give each other autonomy to make decisions, through trust, and back each other up.  It is much like a marriage, where we have both autonomous and shared responsibilities based on our areas of expertise and experience.  We communicate continually to ensure our vision and expectations are aligned and we are in sync with what’s happening with the organization. We have some days when we interact very little and others when we can’t get rid of each other!

Personality: the co-leaders personalities need to be considered and should complement each other. First, you have to check your ego at the door and be willing to subvert your ego for the good of the organization. Then, find your yin and yang: Donna is a thoughtful strategic thinker and focuses on implementation which balances Cheryl’s big picture thinking, focusing on vision, and pushing the envelope. Co-leaders need to be open and flexible, have trust and respect. We always come from a position of assuming the best of the other.

What are the benefits of Co-Leadership?

  • Co-leadership expands the depth and breadth of expertise at the highest level of your organization.
  • Leadership can be lonely, and this model is a remedy. We have a high-level confidant, an ally, a peer who knows exactly what you are going through and feels the same level of responsibility to the organization. You can have frank conversations, test ideas, debate issues, and problem solve together. We also take turns talking each other off the ledge or lifting the other up to make a leap.
  • Sharing leadership can decrease burnout.
  • Co-leadership allows you to think bigger and dream knowing you have a thoughtful partner to dream with, and hold each other accountable to always put the organization first.
  • Co-leadership models a flattening out of the organizational chart. If you have two people thinking about the mission and vision, isn’t that better than one? In fact, we’ve given our director level staff the charge of acting as a shared group and hold them accountable for success of the entire organization, not just their area. Now four heads are better than one.

What are some of the challenges?

Everyone likes the idea of a public/private partnership and co-leadership but they don’t always understand how we live it. We spend a lot of time educating people on our model, why we’re greater than the sum of our parts, sometimes expressed as 1+1=3, and that we aren’t just paying two people to do the same job.

It can be confusing for staff. Like parents, we have to be on the same page and have each other’s back. We spend a lot of time communicating with our team, being transparent, and modeling shared leadership.

Can Dual Leadership work for other museums?

We believe co-leadership can work for other museums, even if they don’t have two governing bodies. A museum should determine what areas of expertise are most important for their organization and build a duo to fit that need. It is somewhat unrealistic to expect one individual to have all the requisite skills, expertise and experience to manage the complexities of today’s museum. Co-leadership broadens the expertise and experience at the helm, creates a supportive environment for leaders to be more successful, and brings bigger, balanced thinking to the organization through multiple perspectives.

About the author:

Jill Stilwell is an arts and culture consultant and friend of the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery. She facilitated the AAM Accreditation application process for FCMoD, which the Museum was awarded in October 2018.

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