Unlocking the Power of Co-Leadership: A Candid Conversation with Rebecca Tye and Camaro West, Co-Executive Directors of Peace is Loud

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Unlocking the Power of Co-Leadership: A Candid Conversation with Rebecca Tye and Camaro West, Co-Executive Directors of Peace is Loud

The following Insights piece is Part 1 of an interview between Rebecca Tye and Camaro West, Co-Executive Directors of Peace is Loud, and Nora Cusanelli, Communications Manager at Philanthropy New York.

Rebecca Tye and Camaro West are the Co-Executive Directors of Peace is Loud, sharing the responsibilities of strategic leadership, operations, and executive coordination. Before joining Peace is Loud in a co-leadership position, they shared a working history and a strong relationship from their time together at World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. 

Peace is Loud is an intersectional feminist nonprofit organization that amplifies the stories the world needs now. Through its Speakers Bureau and film impact work, the organization connects people’s desire for change with opportunities for dialogue and action.

*This is part one of a two-part interview with Rebecca and Camaro. Read Part 2.*

Nora: How did you feel stepping into a co-leadership role and when did Peace is Loud decide that co-leadership was the pathway forward?

Camaro: Peace is Loud transitioned into the co-leadership model after the previous Executive Director left. After working with consultants to help figure out what leadership within Peace is Loud should look like next, the organization decided on a co-leadership model. So the structure was decided before we arrived and we applied as co-leaders together.

I think it felt less scary because neither of us had been executive directors before. So, coming into this type of role that neither of us has ever had and being able to do it with a partner, took away a lot of the scariness that I think we would have felt otherwise.

Rebecca: Camaro and I worked together eight years ago. Since then, we’ve checked in and supported each other's careers at different pathways, and then she approached me with this opportunity a little over two years ago.

At that time, I was interviewing for other executive director roles, and I know Camaro had been looking at leadership positions as well. However, in the recruitment process for these single ED positions, I found that I was often backing out of the recruitment. I would get this nagging feeling that I was almost being set up for failure with an executive director role. Whereas the process for the co-leadership model felt so powerful. We shared the completion of the application process, prepared each other for interviews, and even worked together on negotiating our compensation package. We knew we wouldn’t fall into that ‘it's lonely at the top’ situation.

And something to know about us, we both have young families and we both have other passions in our lives. Camaro is a filmmaker and I do other things so when she came to me with a shared opportunity that gave us the ability to manage the responsibilities in our lives, to also create some space for our passions, and work together in a very supportive environment - it felt like a no-brainer. And I don't think we had any concerns about the actual logistics of the role. 

Nora: How did you approach a shared co-leadership model and divide the responsibilities? What was difficult to figure out and what was the easiest to resolve when beginning this kind of co-leadership model?

Camaro: In the beginning, we didn’t have a very detailed or strategic method of dividing the work. But one of our first approaches was to assess who would manage what departments. It probably took us ten minutes to figure out because we were both so clear on what we were good at, and what we were interested in.

I know the film world more in terms of program management and Rebecca knows more about fundraising so I think we defaulted to, ‘OK, let's look at all the teams, the departments – I’ll manage the film team, our communication staff; Rebecca will manage our fundraising and work around that.’ 

But once we got into the nitty-gritty of the work, we realized that this approach wasn’t so simple and said to ourselves, ‘Okay, fundraising is a big umbrella, we need to break that down more. It couldn't just be one person managing all the fundraising.’

Rebecca: We started to recognize the complexity of running an organization. The interesting part about this role is it gives you permission to really own what you're good at and what you're not good at. Whereas in a traditional ED role, you're responsible for it all. 

We were also mindful of how we were going to ensure that the two of us were on the same page and that we were communicating consistently with the team. A few practices we’ve been doing for the last two years include:

  • Checking in with each other at the beginning of each week to make sure we’re on the same page and consistent with giving the team information, especially if there’s some overlap between the two of us on certain projects.
  • Sending a weekly wrap-up e-mail. Camaro and I have used this as a space to talk about everything from our working styles to organizational updates or podcasts that we're listening to. We’ve found that it really helps provide more focused and consistent messaging from the two of us.

Camaro: Reflecting on ways in which we collaborate, We’ve found that the first thing that gets pushed to the wayside tends to be our check-ins because we know that we have that flexibility with one another, especially if an external meeting comes up.

It’s taken us almost two years to figure out how to protect our time together because it gets eroded so easily but within the last couple of weeks, we’ve begun putting two ‘one-to-ones’ on our calendars where one is for the bigger picture, strategic conversations and the other is more tactical – what's going on, what do we need to know.

Rebecca: A glimpse of the complexity that comes with a shared leadership role can be seen in how we approach fundraising. For example, to support the programmatic elements of the work we have a prospect list of institutional donors. Camaro very much supports the programmatic film space of Peace is Loud which is where all of our institutional donors fund and also attend those film events. 

It became really clear to us that fundraising is a huge element of our job and managing those relationships and building an institutional fundraising strategy was going to have to involve both of us, especially when that institutional work is so close to the film team. 

Nora: Your working relationship is so cool, how dynamic and how well you approach work together. So, co-leadership is more than shared responsibility. What are the additional roles that you both tackle on a weekly or daily basis?

Camaro: Our relationship is the foundation for all the work we’re doing, and we’ve learned that putting in the work together to make sure we’re communicating consistently and investing in our relationship is imperative to how the organization runs.

That's an additional, and really important, job task that we take on that solo EDs don’t have to consider.

Rebecca: To add to that, if we don't prioritize our relationship, it starts to feel chaotic for the team and we’ve seen the downfall if we don’t create that space with one another.

And so, it's so important for us to create that space with one another. There’s a certain insecurity when you're stepping into a new leadership position but having Camaro as my partner to help with ideas, putting them through both of our filters, has strengthened our output tremendously.

There’s this value of building each other up, being each other’s sounding board for our own performance is so important because there’s so much strength in this partnership and this model that even from a business perspective, it sets people up for success if done correctly.

Nora: Co-leadership requires a level of vulnerability and transparency. How have you prioritized that in each of your leadership styles?

Rebecca: We had listened to a Stacey Abrams podcast episode between her and her business partner that sparked the conversation about transparency and vulnerability between us. In the podcast, they highlighted the value of them creating boundaries around each other's relationships - their own individual relationships and their personal relationship.

One thing we took from that is, how do we make sure that we can each shut it off at the end of the day like colleagues while maintaining our personal friendship. And how do we ensure that we both come to the table with differing perspectives?

Camaro: Agreed, Rebecca! Adding to that, I think the biggest benefit of us coming into this role together is the pre-established trust we had which then allowed us to be vulnerable.

The former co-executive directors of FRIDA, the Young Feminist Fund, Devi and Ruby, released a vulnerable report that showed us how being vocal about our insecurities could strengthen our working relationship.

After reading it through, and highlighting what stuck out for each of us, Rebecca and I came together and decided to lean into this new way of working together. For example, if Rebecca shares an insecurity around an aspect of work and what she needs from me for us to be able to move forward or push past those insecurities, we’re then able to tackle an obstacle in a transparent and understanding way, and vice versa.

The report also talked about competition and how that can sneak into a role where two of us are doing the same job. For us to be able to talk about moments where one of us starts to feel competitive or insecure like ‘I'm not measuring up to you’ has been impactful. And I’ve always said a co-leadership model is like a marriage, so that trust and vulnerability we’ve developed in a working environment is unusual but extremely beneficial.

Nora: Can you share moments in your co-leadership experience where you've had to pivot? 

Camaro: The biggest pivot so far has been in how we divide the work.

Initially, we handled tasks informally and split some work on an ad-hoc basis, but we needed more structure. So, we created a chart with what Rebecca was responsible for, what I was responsible for, and identified areas where we both shared responsibility. For example, when we had a fundraising event, we created a chart for our team and board that outlined who was owning what roles and that Rebecca’s really the one who was carrying it across the finish line. 

This allowed everyone we were working with to have a clearer picture of who to go to for different pieces of work, especially when it comes to bigger projects.

Rebecca: When we came into this role, we recognized that everything was new for the team and totally new for us. We didn't have all the answers and were transparent with the team that the next two years would be a trial-and-error period. 

One of us is an introvert, one of us is an extrovert, and so naturally, our styles of leadership are going to be very different. We’ve had to come back to the vulnerability piece of being co-leaders and step into a space where one of us may need more support or show up differently, respecting each other’s working styles, and how we show up as leaders for our team. 

Being able to embrace the newness, pivoting as needed, and being open to discussing how to work differently or better, has allowed us to meet each other’s needs and be successful with the team.

Nora: Are there systems that you created to ensure that both of your needs are being met as co-leaders?

Rebecca: It’s important to note that we had a third-party consulting firm, who led the recruitment process, come back a year and a bit later to do a performance assessment with the team on us, as the EDs. The performance assessment was primarily rooted in our co-leadership how the co-leadership model was working for the team, and how the two of us were showing up in this model: Did it feel effective and consistent? And we received some really, really good feedback to ensure our needs are met.

Camaro: In addition, we’ve made it a habit to schedule retreat days for just the two of us. Since we’re a fully remote organization, we find space away from our families and sit and work together virtually for a full day. We treat these days as if we’re in person together, so we stop at the end of the day, share a virtual glass of wine, and celebrate our achievements.

Co-leadership requires us to be creative about carving out and protecting the time for just the two of us.

Nora: Thank you both so much for taking the time to share your experiences as co-leaders and for showing the sector how changes to organizational structures can be so successful and beneficial for organizations. Do you have anything else you'd like to share with the Philanthropy New York audience?

Rebecca: If any of your members are interested in learning more about Shared Leadership and how they can support their non-profit partners who are interested in a co-leadership model, we'd love to hear from them. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to rebecca@peaceisloud.org