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BRIGHT SPOT: A Shared Leadership Model

It can be pretty lonely at the top - but not if you do leadership differently.

We love looking at how work can be done differently to accommodate a better balance, a healthier combination of work and life. But we all know it’s especially hard to find that elusive balance at the top. The leader of an organization is faced with decision-making, direction-setting and overseeing every single day, often working long hours. The buck stops here. And it’s lonely.

But a recent conversation we had challenged everything we thought we knew and showed us how leadership can be done differently too.

Ashima Sumaru-Jurf is a Co-Executive Director of the Multicultural Family Resource Society in Edmonton. In case you missed that, there was a ‘Co’ in her title. Ashima shares the title of Executive Director with Roxanne Felix-Mah. These two women are co-leading a not-for-profit in what they call a Shared Leadership Model and we think they’re pioneering what the future of leadership looks like.

Ashima and Roxanne both have extensive experience in their field and have worked together “in the trenches” at various points throughout their careers. They first joined forces with another colleague in their first shared leadership position (shared three ways) at the Centre for Race and Culture. This first experience, although it only lasted for a year, laid the foundation for how to achieve shared goals and how to evaluate the partnership and establish shared accountability. After several years of working together on projects and consulting work after that first foray into shared leadership, Ashima and Roxanne decided to move to an organization together and took on the role of Co-Manager at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) where they oversaw six teams spread across four different locations. As much as they enjoyed working with each other and learning how shared leadership could work in a more complex management environment, they felt that there was a different model possible to utilize their full combined skill-set, so they sought the help of a leadership coach to find their next opportunity. In September of 2018, they joined the Multicultural Family Resource Society as Co-Executive Directors.

We sat down with Ashima in June of 2019 to learn more about her experience with job sharing.

How does the shared leadership model work?

It’s all about joint decision-making. For us, that means establishing a list of shared values and communicating frequently to ensure that we can act and communicate as one unit.

We split the work week but always ensure that we have sacred 2-hour meeting time each week so we can do a proper transition and pass on the baton. We also make ourselves available through texts or a quick phone call if a critical decision needs to be made and one of us wants to consult with the other before making the final call.

We share an email address that automatically forwards to each of our inbox. We each read every single email that goes in and out of that inbox. When communicating, a sentence always starts with “we” instead of “I”, and our email signature always has both of our names to reinforce that we are a collective.

What was it like to apply for jobs as a pair?

We put together a proposal with our story, our shared values as a unit, our experience and competencies, both as two individuals and as a collective. Thanks to our experience working and consulting in our fields, we have built a solid reputation about our work and that helps ease the anxiety when people are considering us. Shared leadership is still a very new concept and HR practices and organizational systems are wary of how to hire, assess, and integrate (since very few people have ever seen it in action, especially to the extent Roxanne and I share the work).

We also sat down and came up with every possible question that our future employer may have and made sure that we figured out a way to address those concerns and questions thoroughly. It also helps us determine ahead of time how we would handle various challenging situations that may arise later. Common questions that are asked of us are “Would you split vacation?” and “Would you split the salary” and we think those are the easy ones to answer (of course we would). Some of the more challenging scenarios to work through are “How are you going to ensure that staff don’t get mixed messages or are confused about who to go to for what?” If you haven’t worked in a shared leadership model before,

What spurred the idea of job sharing for you?

Roxanne and I both like flexibility. When we first started job sharing, we both had consulting projects that we work on outside of our job. Job-sharing allows us to continue to build our career within an organization while taking on the variety of projects that we love in our consulting work. In considering the move to our current position, we pitched the idea of establishing a social enterprise under the Multicultural Family Resource Society so that we can bring all of our consulting work there. In return, all the revenue earned through our consulting work will go towards the Society. By pitching this model, we were able to continue our consulting work, which we both love, while contributing to the Society’s budget beyond the costs of our salary. It’s a win-win situation!

What were some of the biggest challenges that you have faced and how did you overcome them?

It is important to manage the employer’s expectations and be conscious of protecting our boundaries. We are definitely more productive than one full-time employee but that doesn’t mean that we should be carrying the workload of two full-time employees.

It takes a lot of work to get not only the employer but also the rest of the team onboard. It’s still a rare way of working and people naturally have questions and concerns about the daily practicality. Ultimately, we just need time and patience to show everyone how it can work and how it can benefit not only us but also everyone else that works with us as they have access to two brains on every problem.

How did your team respond to the shared leadership?

They were skeptical at first as they didn’t know what to expect. Now, they really value it because they know that they get the best from both of us. We take turns doing one-on-one meetings with our team so that we each have the opportunity to connect with our team members. We agree on a template and structure for these one-on-one meetings so adequate knowledge transfer is in place and it’s always consistent for our team.

What advice do you have for others looking to work this way?

There’s no room for being a control freak or ego when you work in a shared leadership model. You also need to be comfortable with not getting individual recognition for your work. You may start on a project and your partner will be the one that takes it to the finish line. Although you know what each person did on the project, others tend to see it as more of the work of the person who sends it out, even though we have a shared email signature, etc.

Make sure you have lots of conversations with each other and agree on a set of values that will help guide your decisions as you move forward together. We’ve gone deep and talk about our feelings, our future plans, and what would happen if one of us wants to leave the job or the partnership. For example, we both have different options when it comes to starting our families and had to consider how we would cover off for each other if we were on leave. We were very honest with each other about our professional and personal plans as that can have a big impact on our partnership.

Last but not least, when you prepare to apply for jobs as a partnership, think of all the possible questions or concerns that the employer may have and make sure you can address all of them. It is also a really good way to make sure you’re on the same page about important logistical details.

What advice do you have for organizations who may be considering this?

Biggest reason to do this for the organization is the creativity you can get. If you’re trying to do things differently and be innovative, there’s great potential here. You will get two brains, two perspectives, two set of experiences and strengths on the same job.

If your organizational values are about teamwork, collaboration, etc. this aligns with the model of shared leadership. There’s even a ripple effect down the organization because we’re modelling that for the team, checking in with each other. It makes staff really think about what collaboration means. We have seen this in action as we’ve implanted our shared leadership model in a few different organizations now.

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