Sustaining Performance Over Structure

In November of 2020, representatives from the CNO presented at The Ontario Nonprofit Network’s (ONN) Nonprofit Driven 2020 conference. Along with Kris Cummings from DO/ABLE, Samantha Esmeralda and Joe-Ann McComb shared the CNO’s learnings from Our Sustainable Network project for advancing skills for stronger networks and organizations.

Our network often revisits the “Big Why” (Figure 1) when we scope and calibrate our collective actions.

Figure 1: Our “Big Why”

Sharing in leadership for this “Big Why” did not come right away. As 8 leaders of individual agencies, it was and can sometimes still be tempting to pull away when we feel we are losing authority and even more tempting to try and “pull boss.” The benefits of coming together to co-create are what make the discomfort of sharing leadership and collective decision making worth it in the long run. Each member in a network is there to contribute and comes to the table with different strengths and lived experiences; trust that as a network, we have all the ingredients to contribute to a shared solution and no one person has the “right” solution. 

The benefits of coming together to co-create are what make the discomfort of sharing leadership and collective decision making worth it in the long run.

The key learnings that we have observed through Our Sustainable Network have become the key tenets of our co-creation moving forward.

Shared Leadership

What makes the CNO different from similar organizations is that we participate in a shared leadership system where all 8 of our senior leaders come together as equals. Each neighbourhood is represented personally at the table and the table is able to represent the collective externally. Working through an iterative process, the CNO has been able to address the culture of sharing decision making and control around the table in order to be a network able to co-create.

A Stance for Change

Change is inevitable when you bring different agencies together. This can be difficult, especially understanding the overlap between your individual agency and the network. Remember that your agencies have come together for a reason; you are better together. Stay focused on the bigger picture of what you are trying to accomplish collectively, scope out a course, action your plan, and learn together.

Distributed Responsibility

As a member of an individual agency, it can sometimes feel as though the effort that you are putting into the collective network could be better spent internally. To benefit from shared leadership, you must share responsibility. As a network, we have found the greatest success by delegating intentionally, playing to the strengths of the members around the table. To remain on target, you must find the areas where your agency’s plans and goals overlap with those of the network and make the network a top-3 priority.

Act Once for the Benefit of All

Focus on why you have decided to come together as a network. For the CNO, our driving force was mapping out the duplication between our agencies and creating shared strategies to address this. We created a strategy management model to scope, plan and implement these. At first, our efforts to reduce duplication created more work as we found the balance between strategy and action; our need to plan impeded implementation. The CNO has learned that being adequate gets the job done the first time.

We hope that our learnings will be helpful to you in your journey with shared leadership. If you are considering or implementing shared leadership to your network, you are not alone. As the CNO, we have only learned how to best work together by doing. We all have elements to contribute which helps us to navigate to a shared solution. And when all else fails remember that you’ve got to implement, evaluate, reflect, and decide together whether your initiatives are successful and where to go next.

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