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Shared leadership enhances trust, utilizes skills

Co-Executive Directors at Access of West Michigan say that a model of shared leadership "expands the ability and energy of the organization."
The entire staff at Access of West Michigan is affected by the shared leadership model.

The entire staff at Access of West Michigan is affected by the shared leadership model. /Erika Bland

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To learn more about Access of West Michigan and meet the staff, visit accessofwestmichigan.org

Co-Executive Director Emma Garcia says that their shared leadership model recognizes "the leadership of each staff person."

Co-Executive Director Emma Garcia says that their shared leadership model recognizes "the leadership of each staff person." /Erika Bland

Co-Executive Director Christina Swiney says that "Shared leadership gives you the opportunity to have roles based on gifting."

Co-Executive Director Christina Swiney says that "Shared leadership gives you the opportunity to have roles based on gifting." /Erika Bland

Shared leadership is an innovative, modern twist on traditional organizational structure that turns a strict hierarchy on its end. Co-Executive Directors Emma Garcia and Christina Swiney recently shared how their nonprofit Access of West Michigan has been affected by the shared leadership model, which they say has enhanced trust and better utilizes the skills of their team.

“Shared leadership gives you the opportunity to have roles based on gifting,” Swiney said. “I’m more of the details person, [Emma] is a great visionary. The two of us work well together.”

When Garcia and Swiney walk into their offices on Monday morning and turn on the aging community coffee pot, there is no gold nameplate waiting on their desks. Neither woman has an office entirely to herself, and the doors to those offices are almost never closed. They regularly consult their co-workers on major decisions and hold weekly all-staff meetings to keep their people informed. Garcia and Swiney’s commitment to shared leadership starts with their co-executive directorship and encourages engagement at all levels of the staff, from long-term partners to temporary interns.

Just what is shared leadership? “As a cultural value, shared leadership is more than just having a co-directorship, but has been an intentional shift to a flattened hierarchy and to recognition of the leadership of each staff person,” Garcia said. Access of West Michigan has had co-executive directors since 2015, but Swiney said that for many years the organization has leaned towards a more shared leadership model without the official title.

Shared leadership is characterized by having multiple leaders at the top of an organization while also emphasizing the leadership capabilities of every employee. It often involves increased decision-making responsibilities for the staff members not in a leadership position.

“Shared leadership utilizes the specific skills and expertise of each staff for the best of the organization, which further expands the ability and energy of the organization,” Garcia said. It works by “trusting that everyone has something they are good at and specialize in.”

In fact, Garcia hopes that shared leadership encourages team members to be “more willing to invest their energy, [because] they know they’ll be part of the decision-making process.” Swiney also said that shared leadership breeds loyalty and confirms to staff that they have a “vibrant and impactful role.”

However, there are challenges associated with shared leadership. There is more ambiguity in who is ultimately responsible for decisions. Staff members under shared leadership must be fully capable and willing to take on more responsibility. Inter-departmental communication also becomes more imperative than ever before, because everyone needs to be fully informed in order to make these decisions.

Garcia stresses the importance of “trust, grace, and humility” in the transition from traditional leadership to the shared leadership model. Because it is so different from what most people have known, it can be uncomfortable at first. However, the benefits to shared leadership for Access of West Michigan have far outweighed the costs, and Garcia and Swiney are both optimistic about how it will continue to grow in the future.

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