Mar 22 2023
Co-Leadership: A enabler of greater leadership diversity in the cultural sector?
Written by Dr. Claire Antrobus | Coach, Facilitator, Trainer & Consultant
The recent past has seen an explosion in interest in co-leadership across other sectors internationally and new experiments in co-leadership in the UK cultural sector in response to an increasingly challenging operating context and an urgency to increase diversity. Recent adopters of co-leadership in the cultural sector are experimenting with less familiar models including co-CEO part-time job-shares; co-CEO models that avoid the executive/artistic binary and co-AD models. Across the UK cultural sector organisations are recruiting co-leaders for the first time, for example the appointment of Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid at Birmingham Museums Trust who are the first co-CEOs of a major museum. The Royal Shakespeare Company announced the appointment of its first co-Artistic Directors in 2022, following a growing trend that includes Clean Break, Royal Exchange Manchester, Diverse City and Paines Plough among others. Sometimes co-leaders job-share, working part-time around caring/parenting responsibilities or external artistic projects, other times the co-CEOs are both full-time roles.
Internationally co-leadership is beginning to be viewed by commentators in healthcare, higher education, business, and non-profits and as a vehicle for enabling greater diversity in leadership. Others go further still, suggesting co-leadership enables a more inclusive organisational culture and offers an alternative to highly gendered leadership norms. In the business sectorco-leadership has been found to offer competitive advantage and improved profitability and performance by widening the leadership capabilities and perspectives available to organisations facing unparalleled challenges in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) operating environment.
In March The Office for Leadership Transition launched my new research into co-leadership and diversity, funded by Clore Leadership and Arts and Humanities Research Council. Chaired by the amazing Sandeep Mahal MBE at the launch event we heard directly from four of the case study organisations – if you missed it you can watch it here. I also recently presented my findings at a seminar about co-leadership at the University of Exeter Business School, convened by Professor Ciara Eastell OBE. At both these events, and talking to the Clore Emerging Leaders this month, I’ve been struck by the enthusiasm many have for co-leadership. To many of us it feels like such a logical model, both from a business-need perspective and in terms of widening the pool of who can apply for executive roles and I expect it’s a model we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future both inside the cultural sector and beyond it. However, currently, except for the Artistic/ Executive Director model in Theatre, co-leadership still far from common practice.
So whilst I began my research asking the question ‘can co-leadership enable greater diversity in leadership?’ I quickly concluded it could and instead found myself asking why isn’t this model more widespread and what could enable boards to more fully consider this option when recruiting senior roles? If you’re interested in the diversity case for co-leadership then you read more in my recent Arts Professional article or in a longer article on my website.
The six main barriers that emerged from the survey and interviews as limiting use of co-leadership in the UK cultural sector currently are summarised in the illustration below, along with the factors driving change in the case study organisations who’s recently adopted the model.
The barriers are:
- A lack of information about how co-leadership works – co-leadership is not yet widely practised or understood; only 26% of survey respondents had experience either of working in a co-leadership role or for an organisation where the model was in use. 90% wanted to understand more about practical arrangements, including how these roles are recruited. Boards also often have reservations about the model and co-leaders I interviewed had often been questioned in detail about practicalities during the selection process.
Therefore I’ve created some practical resources to address this lack of information:
The Co-leadership Library – https://coleadership.info – an online resource to host the growing collection of case studies I’ve written and articles I’ve written or founds useful on the topic. These cover how roles were recruited and how co-leaders approach working together practically.
The Co-leadership User Guide – a practical free guide to what co-leadership is and how it works for potential co-leaders and their Boards. This includes sections tailored to Boards and potential co-leaders.
- Very few roles are proactively advertised as open to co-leadership – 98% of survey respondents said they did not see many roles advertised on this basis. Within the case study examples only one was externally advertised as a co-leadership role, with another two welcoming flexible applications. Four arose through internal reorganisations and a further two resulted from employers changing their leadership model during, or shortly after, recruitment. The other two were externally advertised as single-leader roles with the applicants proposing a job-share solution. I would urge all organisations recruiting senior roles to consider co-leadership as an option and if they are open to receiving job-share and/or co-leadership applications to make this clear in their recruitment materials.
- Lack of recruitment expertise – executive recruitment in the UK cultural sector is led by board members, sometimes supported by internal HR specialists or external consultants although many organisations lack access to relevant expertise. Too often when an outgoing leader departs, the board rushes to replace them without first reviewing what is needed, or assessing the market and designing an effective and inclusive recruitment process. Selecting the CEO is one of the most important roles for any board and I would advise seeking specialist advice around designing and recruiting the role. The cost of external support can be prohibitive for smaller organisations, but even if you can’t afford a full executive search service some consultants will advise on the role design and recruitment elements.
- Trustee preference for full-time leaders – 83% of survey respondents reported that they felt trustees preferred a full-time leader. Even among employers who have adopted and value co-leadership there were initial concerns about the implications of having leaders working part-time. It’s time we recognise this attitude as discriminatory and hopefully the case studies showing how well part-time co-leadership is working in many organisations will help update how boards see flexible working.
- Fear of conflict between leaders or lack of accountability – some boards fear shared responsibility could complicate accountability. Sometimes awareness of co-leadership arrangement that was not successful is viewed as evidence the model doesn’t work; instead of considering that the recruitment may have been flawed or the arrangement not well-managed. There is no reason why co-leadership can’t work well – and lots of examples where it does, as well as over fifty years’ research into what enables success and what needs to be avoided. The User Guide draws on this research to provide advice about how to approach co-leadership to ensure it is successful, for co-leaders and their boards.
- Concerns about additional cost – Boards assume co-leadership involves doubling leadership costs. But whilst most co-leadership arrangements involve some additional cost, usually by 20% in a job-share with two leaders each working three days a week, it can be cost neutral. And in case study organisations which had increased leadership costs they had often been able to create savings elsewhere in the wider staff structure.
What is driving uptake of co-leadership?
Where co-leadership has been introduced the Chair has often been instrumental. In several case studies the chair had championed the model, persuading stakeholders that the benefits outweighed any potential risks. They had also supported the change process when a new model had been introduced, helping ensure internal and external stakeholders understood and had confidence in the new ways of working. The chairs I interviewed had also been willing to accept the responsibility and additional support that working with co-leaders meant for them, partly as a result of the appointments being first-time CEOs.
Hopefully, given the benefits co-leadership offers – including that it enables a larger and more diverse pool of applicants – more Chairs will be willing to accept the challenge of introducing a new leadership model. Others may also find themselves forced to consider new models – three of the case studies initially had difficulty recruiting into their executive vacancies and either had to re-think or re-advertise. Several found themselves having advertised for single roles but realising that they needed to appoint two people instead.
Increasingly, boards are recognising that the way leadership roles have been configured needs to change, to be more inclusive, if they are to attract the leaders needed for the future. Co-leadership is definitely an option more boards are advised to consider when recruiting senior roles, although they will need to capacity and ability to support co-leaders well.
Jul 21 2021
Curiosity is the renewable power-source for Dynamism
Richard Watts, CEO at people make it work, one of the most established and effective organisations supporting the cultural sector to change and develop, explores why a dynamic culture is at the heart of a dynamic organisation.
For me, dynamism is about who you’re listening to, what you’re noticing and what impact this data has on how you work. We are at our most dynamic when we’re in an active relationship with our environment – scanning, exploring, curious – seeking out and divining an understanding of the needs, perceptions and challenges of the people and communities that we exist to serve. I suppose we’re at our least dynamic when we’re listening to ourselves, referencing our own past, traditions and ways of making, or listening only to the trusty audiences whose passive acceptance and support for what we’ve been doing has kept us safe in the past.
We are in a changing world with pressing challenges of systemic racism, widespread social injustice, environmental emergency, inequality, economic disruption, and a global pandemic so the need for disruptive innovation and ongoing digital transformation is very real and present. Dynamism in this context is about being properly equipped to respond – an entrepreneurial instinct, an innovation instinct, an instinct to use our skills, assets, relationships and insight to meet the needs that we feel compelled to address.
Dynamism drives new responses, new creative interventions and new experiences.
At this moment, when so many of us are exploring our organisational strategies and the world is in such need of culture, what is our dynamic response? It feels like it has to be driven by an understanding of need, an awareness of the strengths and assets we can bring to bear on the problem and the powerful drive of a social justice mission. It means that at people make it work, our focus is changing, our programmes are changing our are changing, our partners are changing and the impacts we are committed to are changing too.
So, in this version of dynamism we are asking, how are we letting in the insights and experiences that will trigger innovation? How are we reading our environment? How do we connect with and understand the world through data, technology and relationships?
In this version of dynamism we are asking, how does our culture and the skills and behaviours we exercise make innovation insights inevitable (rather than really unlikely)? What is our default mindset, and how do we ensure we dial up curiosity, relentless refinement and the instinct to regenerate? How do we create a culture of confidence with change, refinement and modification?
In this version of dynamism we are asking, is our mission or our model in the driving seat? How do we ensure that we prioritise our mission and beneficiaries over our own stability, over our relationship with ACE, over our own growth or security? How do we make sure our innovation and dynamism work in the service of our communities not at the cost of them?
In this version of dynamism we are asking, how are we understanding our value? How do we ensure that we create what is valuable to others, not just what we value? How do we take the social impact we can have as seriously as health and safety? How do we find ways to translate our impact so that organisations outside the sector can understand our value as easily as they do other sectors?
Our organisations can often be machines for maintaining the status quo, they form habits that repeat, proposing answers, rather than exploring questions. Cultures ossify, and as Peter Drucker noted, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, so a dynamic culture is at the source of a dynamic organisation. Dynamic organisations seek the risk of uncertainty, the reverberation of the unknown, the knowledge that curiosity is the renewable power-source that fuels dynamism.
At people make it work, dynamism has delivered a shift in our strategy from a focus predominantly on organisations to a focus on the sector as a whole – we now see our role as to support the cultural sector to change and develop. Because we have come to understand that we can’t restrict our focus to those organisations who can afford to pay for our work. To our traditional work of strategic consultancy support for individual cultural organisations and cities, we have added free tools and resources accessible through our website for anyone to use, and we focus more on transformational programmes often delivered in partnership (Change Creation, Culture Reset, Coventry City of Culture Leadership Programme, Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries Development Programme, CEP National Leadership Programme). That shift in strategy means collaborative initiatives are at the heart of our future impact (watch this space for an Organisation Development programme with and for cultural workers of colour, which Suzanne Alleyne is devising in partnership with me, The office for Leadership Transition, developed with Sandeep Mahal, and a Transforming Governance programme with Anisa Morridadi and Beatfreeks) These feel to me like manifestations of dynamism – responses to (in this case, systemic) needs, built on data, with a focus on people and culture – being developed collaboratively so that insight and ownership is built in across our sector.
Asking these questions about who we are listening to, how needs are changing, how we are fuelling our entrepreneurial instincts, what skills and culture we need to be able to read society and generate our essential response – these questions generate insight and suggest shifts in practice, culture, skills and process – changes that will in their own way regenerate your organisation by exposing yourselves to the case for change, and giving you the insights that imply innovations and shift your impact.