S2, Ep. 3 - Co-CEO Model in Action

April 3, 2024

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Welcome to your responsible disruption, the podcast that takes you on a journey through the realm of social innovation and design. I'm your host, Monique Blau, project director of the Social Impact lab Alberta. Today we're talking with Liz Weaver and Danya Pastuszek Co-CEOs of the Tamarack Institute. Liz is the Co-CEO of Tamarack Institute and leading the Tamarack Learning Center. The Learning Center advances community change efforts by focusing on five strategic areas, including collective impact, collaborative leadership, community engagement, community innovation and evaluating community impact. Danya is also the Co-CEO of Tamarack Institute, as well as the director of Vibrant Communities. Danya left her position as Chief operating officer at the United Way Salt Lake in February 2022 to join Tamarack. In this role, she supports communities in their work to end poverty, activate just climate transitions and foster communities where everyone experiences belonging. Liz and Danya, welcome to the show. We're so happy to have you.


Thanks so much. Happy to be here.


Yeah. Thanks, Monique. It's great to be here with you.

01:26 MONIQUE: So to get us started, I think it would be wonderful to give our listeners a bit of information on the Tamarack Institute. So Liz, why don't we start with you, what is the Tamarack Institute and what do you do?

01:38 LIZ: So the Tamarack Institute is a charitable organization that works. We like to say Pan Canadian, we exist on Turtle Island and have colleagues that live, work and play across turtle Island. But we also have colleagues internationally. So we have two main parts of our focus. Our deepest hope is to end poverty in all its forms across Canada, across Turtle Island. And that's our deepest hope in our biggest vision and has driven the organization since its inception. And we do this work primarily in two ways. So we work with a number of place based community wide initiatives, community collaborative initiatives. Danya can tell you more about those and then we take the knowledge, the experience, the learning that is happening in place and share that widely through the Learning Center with folks that are accessing tools and resources and our intention there is to help the work of change makers become more effective, have more impact and so that they can scale their work more quickly and so it's a bit of a practice and knowledge organization and we really do a lot of blended work in that way. So that gives you a little bit of an idea about Tamarack, Danya anything you want to add?

03:16 DANYA: I would just add the focus on place that you mentioned, Liz is really important. We really know and all of us probably listening to this podcast know that there is such brilliance and talent in communities, and there are so many ideas that people could activate to really create the equitable outcomes in their communities that are possible. And often what's missing between the ideas and the talent and then the realization of the things that can come from those ideas and talent, is the ability in the infrastructure to work together. So Tamarack is really about answering the questions of how do we bring people together to work in sustainable and ongoing ways that are joyful and help them build relationships and trust with one another and then use those relationships and trust to do big things to reduce instances of working poverty in their communities, to create the conditions where all young people can thrive in a job or a part of their community that they care about, to activate plans for just climate transitions adaptation and mitigation plans that everyone feels they have a role in. And then, as Liz said, Tamarack's role in that work of bringing people together in place is about supporting people to know how to do that work. It's about amplifying the really great examples all across Turtle Island and beyond of where that local collaboration is happening. It's about seeing the patterns that happen across communities so that we can elevate those patterns and change systems and try to influence policy to create more support for local community work and it's about networking people who might not otherwise know one another, who might live in completely different provinces and territories, but who have a lot in common in terms of their aspirations for their communities and their belief in how collaboration can get us there.

05:14 MONIQUE: Thanks, Liz and Danya. Goodness, it leads me into asking the question of how do you start to think about trust. I mean, and much of our work collaboration is key. Liz, I do know you've written that collaboration is moving at the speed of trust. I think is what you said. And so I'm curious if we can speak to how do you build trust? How do you prioritize that? And we'll talk about the cosmic model in just a little bit. But I'm also curious about how you build trust with each other with your teams, and then with your the communities, it's a big question and we can break it down if we need to go back.

05:54 LIZ: Trust is such an important part of the work that happens and unfolds at Tamarack and in the communities and organizations that we support. It's pretty foundational, particularly when you're bringing together people with diverse perspectives with diverse experiences. From the very beginning in the bold vision of ending poverty in all its forms, we recognize that that could only happen with people, with the lived and living experience of poverty at the table. And they were normally not included in the conversations that were happening around these types of community based tables and in order to have people with diverse perspectives, you've got to focus on building trust because trust doesn't naturally happen. Right. And so we spend a lot of time at Tamarack thinking about trust, thinking about how to build trust and then working with community collaboratives, community organizations and really providing them with some practical tools that they might employ to build trust with around their collaborative table. So that's where the practice of including different perspectives and the voice of people with lived variance can be supplemented by the knowledge of what it takes to build trust and to pull from Stephen Coveys thinking around trust and the speed of trust, we actually heard from one of our communities. Ohh collaboration moves at the speed of trust and so that thought came from a community partner and has really influenced our thinking around this. And so it's the marrying of the two, right, the understanding what it takes to be in and with community and then taking that knowledge, sharing it with others, sharing it with peer communities across Canada and the US and other places and then continuing to evolve and to learn and understand about how trust, particularly in these really difficult times, where so much is coming at organizations and at communities so quickly at a local scale, at a provincial territorial scale and even at a global scale, this notion of trust is so critical for all of us to be focused on.

08:33 MONIQUE: Thanks. Danya, I'm curious to hear from you and maybe you could also then build a bit on how the two of you might be building trust together.

08:44 DANYA: Absolutely. And I'll start by offering a reflection as someone a bit newer to Canada. I've been living in Canada for nine years now. I've been a citizen for five months and what I think many of us realize when we didn't grow up in the context that we that we find ourselves in our adulthood is that there's a lot that has to be learned about the history of the place that we're in. And for me this question around how you build trust has been very based in understanding some of the histories of oppression and othering that are specific to this country that results in many, many groups of people and individual people maybe not having trust in in collaborative processes or maybe not having trust in certain institutions or in the institution of working together. So I think that building trust for me has really been a journey in understanding what are some of the histories of racism, of colonization in this country and how it impacts how we all show up to conversations and doing work as groups. Another thing I think about related is that when we build trust, it really does start, as Liz said, from a place of listening and not just listening to listen, but listening to understand people's experiences, people's interests, where they might have experienced harm in the past, people's gifts and talents and aspirations, and the sources of their creativity and what they're creative and imaginative in instincts are. I think it's about being accountable to what you say you're going to do to signing up for the right work and then doing that work as well as you possibly can. It's about creating space to understand the impact that you've had on people and groups and being open to trying to adapt your impact to have what you really intended to have moving forward. I think we try to hold all of that when we build trust with one another. We have really tried to listen, to understand each other's experiences, working styles, interests, and passions. We have built trust by being accountable to what we have said we're going to do. I have observed that we've also built trust by having a deep deep commitment to what Liz named earlier as Tamarack's core goal at the end of every day. I know that both of us are here because we want to contribute to ending poverty in all of its forms, and this is what I love about holding such a bold vision. It's relatively easy to hold trust for someone or for a process when you know that the North Star of that person or that process is around a goal that you care so much about yourself. The very last thing I'll say about trust is I've learned through these past several years that building trust is as much about internal work as it is about work with other people understanding what are the pieces of yourself that you trust and love, and what are the pieces about yourself that you might wish were different or where you don't have trust in yourself, I think is really critical to building trust with other people. I think it's also critical to have a good understanding of your positionality and your identities, and how those might show up to someone else as you work to build a relationship and ultimately trust, and I think it's important to have some practices of self-awareness and self reflection again so you can understand the impact you're having on people as you work to build trust with them.

12:21 MONIQUE: Thank you for that. I think you've given our listeners a lot to think about. I almost feel like there's a bit of a framework here that we can look at and digest both for our internal reflections, but also how we might approach our work with others. We've mentioned the Co-CEO model when we started and both of you, I think have mentioned it a few times. I think it would be great if we took some time now to actually talk about what that cosmic model is and why don't we start by defining it because I'm sure there are other organizations that have the Co-CEO model, but I'll just open the floor to how do you define the Co-CEO model?

13:05 LIZ: Why don't you start Danya?

13:09 DANYA: To us, the Co-CEO model is this structure that sits beside our values and our culture and our goals around collaboration, it's a way of organizing, reporting and workflows and the distribution of priorities so that the decisions that we make are shared so that the decisions that we make are informed by multiple perspectives and identities, and so that the decisions that we make are grounded in work with community. And I can say a little bit more about that in a moment, very tactically at Tamarack, the Co-CEO model looks like. The sharing of a set of organizational functions so Liz and I share work around resource development around finance and technology and other open questions around people and culture processes and then each take on a portfolio of work in Liz's case, as you mentioned, Monique, around the Learning Center and creating tools that both inform and are informed by work, with community. And in my case, the work of building deep relationships with place based communities across Canada. Liz, what would you add?

14:35 LIZ: Yeah, a couple of things that I would add. One is that this idea of shared leadership or distributed leadership has always been at the core of Tamarack even in the early years. The organization was co-founded by Ellen Broadbent and Paul born and then in the early days, our vibrant communities initiative was Co stewarded by the McConnell Foundation, the Caledon Institute and the Tamarack Institute. So this notion of co-design or inception or shared leadership since our inception has really I think defined us as an organization as you said Danya and it continues today. It that thread continues through the work that we support with community, so we will never go into a community thinking that we have the answers, but rather say, we understand that you have the wisdom of your place and let's Co design solutions with you. And so I think we do that in the organization, throughout the organization, not only in the Co-CEO role, but certainly throughout the organization with our various teams and in partnership with our community. So that's one thing. And then the second thing that I would say is that the advantage to an organization like Tamarack is that we can be really close to the work that is happening in Community and what we're learning from community by having that trusted relationship that we've built with so many and I think that's the thing that has kept me at the organization for such a long time is that notion that it's not just some academic observation that I have, it's actually conversations that I get to engage in on a daily basis with people in a whole variety of different communities that are navigating challenges or are making some really big inroads and are really proud of the things that they're accomplishing together. And then to be able to share that with other communities so that they can see and really know what is possible by coming together and working collaboratively, so those are the two things that I really like about this model.

17:10 MONIQUE: Thanks for sharing that both of you. So I just wanted to clarify, so has the Co leadership structure or distributed leadership structure existed since the beginning with Tamarack?

17:21 LIZ: In different forms, the Co-CEO model particularly has been really the last, I think 7 years, but the fact that the organization was Co founded I think is interesting and the fact that for the 1st 10 years there was this shared leadership group that really looked at the development of the vibrant communities approach and they were deeply engaged in the thinking of the design, really listening to communities and learning from communities, documenting the success and really trying to understand how play space change can really make a difference. And so yeah, I think I would say my assessment is that it's woven its way all the way through and we've landed on a Co-CEO model.

18:19 DANYA: And it really winds its way through the very nature of the place based collaboratives that we support. If you look at vibrant communities Calgary. If you look at and poverty, Edmonton, if you look at the climate partnership that we have the privilege of working with and Canmore all of these collaboratives are also sharing backbone and coordination and leadership functions. It's rare these days to see an established place based collaborative that's really starting to change systems and impact equitable outcomes that isn't sharing the leadership functions. It's rare to have one organization that can hold all the communication, all the facilitation and design, all the data functions that are needed. And so I think it's been important that Tamarack, that not just the structure, but as we mentioned before, the values and the culture around collaboration are built in because it gives us the lived experience of the evidence and the hypothesis we have about how play space change happens.

19:21 MONIQUE: I love that. It does make me think for listeners or anyone out there thinking how do I apply a Co-CEO model in my workplace or if I'm starting an organization that it's really the values, the culture, the way of working that led to the Co-CEO model making the most sense. Would you agree with that? I see you both shaking your head, so that's...

19:46 LIZ: But I think it exists probably more than we even imagine, right? So in arts organizations, there's often a creative director and operational manager or operational director, right? So that model exists in the art sector quite a bit. And you'll often see another organization, they might have a CEO or an executive director, and then an operations person, right? A lead operations person or a second person who works very much at a senior level within the organization or a small team, and so I think there are examples of shared leadership, maybe not Co-CEO shared leadership. But I think you're right, Monique, it's really trying to understand what are the values of your organization, how might a model like this help advance the organization in a deep way so that you can intently listen to your Members and their voices and or in some cases it may not work. So I think it's just exploring another governance alternative.

21:04 MONIQUE: Yeah. And then, Danya, I'm curious because you joined Tamarack a couple years ago now. Had you been exposed to a Co leadership model before joining Tamarack? And if so, can you tell us about that experience and whether or not it's shaped how you were onboarded at the Tamarack Institute?

21:25 DANYA: I felt like I had been exposed. I love the question because it's making me realize what those exposures have been. So because I had done place based work in the states for a decade before coming, I'd had that experience that I tried to describe a few moments ago of working in a set of partnerships where there were some institutions and leaders holding the public policy roles and others holding the communications roles and others holding  the facilitation and conversational and partnership design roles all working in concert with one another, and recognizing that when they could each bring that particular skill set and talent and resource set more would come than if one organization tried to hold it all. So what I've realized the last few years is that if you are in place based work you are experiencing Co leadership every day and there's a lot that can be learned about how to do that, absent what you call the structure, because again, I think it really is about holding the shared result that no one organization or person can get to on their own together and each holding a powerful role toward that result, so that was the first way that I feel like I had lived the model in my later years in in my previous role. I was a CEO as I think you mentioned and worked very closely with the leadership team and with the CEO and had accountability for a set of functions within the organization. So it wasn't a Co-CEO model, but it did give me the experience of working in collaboration on some things that I had authority over and others that I had influence over. And then I will say that I followed Tamarack closely for many years before having the opportunity to join the organization and really appreciate it at the time how much learning out loud Tamarack did about this model and about other manifestations of shared leadership. So we felt that offered some exposure as well, along with work that bridge spam and others have done around Co leadership models in the US that have been very influential and how I've thought about this approach too.

23:36 MONIQUE: Thanks for that. So I'm sure our listeners are curious to bring two brilliant people together. Someone that's had a long history and tenure with an organization, someone that's coming in fresh, new ideas. What did it look like for the two of you in the early days of sharing some of the decisions you had to make to figure out how do we work together? And in fact that you have the decision making authority that is equal. And so I'm curious if you can share a bit of that experience.

24:09 LIZ: Yeah, transitions are always interesting, right? Because you're navigating from one partner to the next partner. Who brings really brings different skills and different knowledge and different experiences, but also the wealth of new ideas and new perspective and all the things that you know you hadn't necessarily considered, and I think in the early days we did something that was I feel really helpful to us, which was to have an external coach walk beside us for the first, I don't know, 4-6 months or so it wasn't every day it was certainly a number of coaching calls that we had set up around how do we communicate? Where do our values intersect? How do we negotiate different conversation or difficult conversations but more difficult ones. And I think that that was really helpful in the to help with the transition. I also think that we came to an agreement about the different parts of our work and what we would hold in common. We also maybe aren't quite 100% there yet, but we've also identified where one person leads and the other person is kept in the communications loop and the other person leads on other things so that we're not always at everything altogether, and I think the most important thing is that if we disagree, we have that conversation with each other and not in front of everybody else, right? And that we try to come to consensus about the things that where we might not be 100% on the same page, but we can be enough on the same page that we can show a shared perspective. The really positive side of all of this from my perspective, is that Danya brings skills, perspective and really good knowledge of areas that I perhaps need to grow in. And so respecting that and I'm looking upon that as an opportunity rather than a ohh I'm not good enough, but it is a real opportunity for me to grow has been I think really helpful and also I think the one shadow side of having two really creative people as Co-CEO is you have 1000 opportunity and we really have to say, OK, So what is core to the work of Tamarack, what is maybe nice to think about but not necessarily core and how do we really focus and that's always been my biggest challenge but I think Danya is helpful in kind of keeping us more focused.

27:17 MONIQUE: Thanks for that, Liz. I appreciate and I can imagine the visionary aspect that you both bring to the role, so being grounded in that. And Danya, how about yourself I'm curious as to how it felt when you joined the organization and navigating this although you've been exposed to the approach and worked in it in many ways, but this is officially on paper. Everyone knows you as two Co-CEOs.

27:45 DANYA: Yeah, and as you mentioned, it's that and then it's a bunch of other things as well that's coming in new to an organization, it's succeeding and an amazingly visionary co-founder, there's lots of dynamics that I think interrelate that are sort of hard to piece apart that, probably make each experience of coming into a Co-CEO relationship unique. So I'll just offer the perspective that I have from that particular set of circumstances at that time, I'll be forever grateful to Liz for all of the time that she shared with me, especially in the beginning, I think we spent an hour a day together for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks and it was open time for me to ask questions, probably the same questions multiple times, but the patience and the time that was offered to help me understand history and priorities and to meet people that she had been in long relationship with, it was and will always go down in my memory as an act of great generosity. I think that one thing I have learned looking back on the experience is that it's very important to listen and to try to understand pattern from the beginning and I asked a lot of questions and I really tried to understand what was strong in the organization, what people's visions were for the network and our contribution to ending poverty in Canada and all of its forms. And at the same time I think I could have done more. I think I came a little too soon and too often with the new ideas, and it's just important to understand what's already been tried and what it was about the context at the time rhat didn't make that the right moment for an idea, or might still need that is not the right idea to try to move forward, but that's something I've learned looking back is that every organization, every network of people has done things intentionally and as well as they could at the time and really paying homage to that, understanding what that is before coming in with new ideas means that the new ideas can be grounded in a sense of what's been and what's been tried and might change the nature of the ideas that you put forward.

30:06 MONIQUE: Thank you for that. Makes me start to think that what are some of the key attributes of a coach CEO, it certainly sounds like listening being able to find the areas that you both have strengths. You're probably good at many things, but what specifically are you responsible for being open to the other person. I think context and time is really important and thank you for highlighting that are there, are there other attributes that you would look for so we're not succession planning today, but if you were saying OK we need a succession plan to ensure that the way we work continues, what would you be looking for in that individual?

30:50 LIZ: Just to go back to our very opening conversation, I do think trust is important attribute and when we do training around trust, they talk about the aspect of swift trust. That you actually when you're first in relationship with one another, there is this notion of swift trust that you can build with each other and then it's followed up with action and conversation and commitment and follow through and things like that, which deepened the relationship of trust. And Danya talked about trusting yourself and then relational trust. Right? And Toby talks about that as well. He talks about the five waves of trust, which I think start with yourself. And so are you fulfilling your commitment to the relationship that you have with each other, and in fact the relationship that you have all across the organization, right, because it's important to each other as Co-CEOs, but it's also important to the whole team. Because that's the reflection of the organization and it's important to our broader network of people that connect with us. And so I think that is such a foundation that you can really build upon in this work. The only other thing that I would say is that you humility for me, humility and empathy are two really important attributes as well. Particularly because even though we talk a lot and we are in relationship with each other, we maybe don't know the whole back story. Because people will only disclose what they're comfortable with and over time, you learn more about each other, but really spending time thinking about, OK, so how do I accept what the other person is saying and how can I be empathetic as well to the challenges that they're facing? Whether they're work related challenges or other challenges because we're all human beings. We all have highly complex lives and sometimes that shows up in our work relationships so I think humility and empathy are two really important attributes in this work.

33:27 DANYA: As you're talking I'm remembering a time because this happens where we had a disagreement and I remember we were both willing to share our stories of how we got to what was true in that moment and our opinions on the issues we were both willing to step away from the conversation for a little while, and then to come back to it and talk about the impact. And I think that you're exactly right about empathy and care for one another because that took time and that took energy. But I think it is critically important in any relationship that's productive to be willing to be vulnerable about where you are to be willing to be open to hearing it and to be willing to be changed by what you hear to have a bit more empathy or understanding for how the other person got to where they are, and actually for where that other person is. That for me is often this stance from which then I can change what I think and believe and feel like it's necessary in the moment. So I think that's really critical what you said was I think that I'll emphasize something else you said which is around having a learning mindset. This is hard if you come into a conversation with the sense of competition of thinking, Ohh, I wish I had thought of that or I wish I had said that that way, if instead you're looking for the sum of what each person can bring in as more than what you could bring in yourself, and you're willing to celebrate the totality of that as opposed to sitting in a competitive mentality around what you don't have. I think that's really critically important to have that learning mindset. And then I'll say again that I think a lot gets easier when you share a result with another person or with anyone that you're in a collaborative governance or collaborative leadership approach with. I know that every moment of the day Liz and I are aligned on what we are trying to contribute to in the most transformational sense of it for this country and for this network and for this organization. And I know that no two people are going to have the same approach in something. But when I can hold the goal that I know we share as opposed to holding thoughts and feelings about the process that that we each imagined to getting there all is OK. And so I just want to just emphasize that I think there's something really special about finding in your own life the transformational result that you think is possible and then finding the other people with whom you think you can get there with.

36:25 MONIQUE: Thank you. What a great place to move us to. Probably our last question, because I think there's much that's been shared here today. And I'm going to do a quick summary, but I'm really curious. We have listeners out there that are saying, as I mentioned earlier, thinking well, how do I do this? And you're right, Liz, there are many arts organizations that are doing a very good job of creative leadership and organizational leadership or operational leadership. But what would you say to someone that's thinking about exploring this model? What advice would you give them?

37:05 LIZ: Yeah, so my advice would be make sure your board is on board, so that's a good piece of advice. Do your research. There are some articles and some resources out there and we have collected some at Tamarack. So we're more than happy to share what little articles there are. More in the corporate sector than in the non profit sector about Co-CEO models. The other thing that I would say is to what degree is your intention to be more connected to your members and to the work of the organization versus managing the organization? And that's always a balance for CEO's anyways. But in the Co-CEO model you have more ability to be in connection with your Members because that's how we've built the model at Tamarack. So I think that that's a pretty important criteria. The board on board. Do your research. Think about your organization and what's important to your organization.

38:24 MONIQUE: Thanks, Liz. And Danya, would you add anything? Or what would you add?

38:30 DANYA: I would add, I think the piece around intention is fantastic. When I first heard about the model and was talking during the interview process with people around it, it was very clear to me that the intention of this model was to ensure that everyone in the organization had the time and the space to do the organizations core work which is learning from understanding the context of coaching and connecting change makers. It was also very clear to me that part of this was a deep seated belief that there is no one individual entrepreneur or innovator who can who can activate transformations at the level needed. And so there need to be multiple people with similar positionality and types of power working together, but there could have been different intentions and I think really understanding what the intentions behind the model are is critical. I'd also offer the advice that the structure alone is not sufficient to share power and to create collaborative systems. It is possible to have shared leadership apps and the Co-CEO model, and it's probably possible to have a Co-CEO model and not have it manifest the kind of culture and values that we often associate or that I often associate with the model. The last thing I would say is I think it's critically important to answer the questions of how decisions will get made and not just among the Co leaders, but across the whole team and across other actors as well. We have a brilliant team and a brilliant network and a brilliant board. And it's been important, I think, to determine what types of conversation and work and relationships happen among the Co-CEOs. What happens in other parts of the organization, what happens in other parts of the network and to really think about the structure and not just narrowly as the Co-CEO piece of it, but as the entirety of the network, the organization, and the set of actors that have to be working together, if place based collaboration is going to be one of the things that leads to a plot of land that's results in systems where everyone can prosper and connect.

40:48 MONIQUE: Yeah, wonderful. There are so many great takeaways from today's podcast and things that I'm left with are this notion of a learning mindset. Wow. We could all bring that to all of our work every day, trust. And I do think we'll put in our show notes that Stephen Covey is five ways of trust. I think that's a really good point, Liz. And I think many of our listeners would benefit from that and just thinking about what does it mean to Co design and have collaboration in this distributed leadership? I think this has been a very helpful conversation. Thank you, Liz and Danya. And I'm inspired by your commitment to collaboration and Co leadership and I hope that many of us can learn from what you've been able to create at Tamarack, both within the organization but across all the members that you work with across turtle island. So thank you again and to our listeners. If you've enjoyed this conversation, please be sure to check out more episodes of Responsible Disruption. Subscribe on popular platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and please follow us on your favorite social media platform so you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes. Thank you to both of you.

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