Our nonprofit's founding executive director will be retiring soon. We have a $500,000 annual budget and a six-member staff. When the search begins, the full-time financial officer and the part-time program director would like to be considered for the job as co-executive directors. Assuming they have the skills needed for the position, can you offer advice on the pros and cons of co-executive directors?
It would be very unusual to have co-executive directors, but not necessarily a bad idea. The key is assuring that the two people respect each other, have an excellent working relationship, generally agree with each other on policy matters, and concur on the principal role that each will take in running the organization. We worked with a pair of co-directors who successfully ran a small nonprofit together for more than 20 years following a very simple principle: if either seriously disagreed with a proposal, they wouldn’t do it. We recently saw two business CEOs articulate the same principle on a national television show. Neither of these pairs had higher level authority to report to. In the nonprofit case, they were the sole members of the board of directors. In the business case, they were the controlling shareholders.
It may be a little more difficult if you have an independent – and controlling – board to report to. Factions on the board may pick a dominant executive director in spite of the agreement between the two. It may also be more difficult if the two are not working essentially equal hours. If one is full-time and one is only part-time, the full-time exec may become the de-facto CEO. The other staff may have some qualms if only one is there full time (or if they have very different views of the two people involved).
You may have some difficulty explaining the arrangement to the rest of the world (including your funders). Most of the world doesn’t act with such egalitarianism. But I don’t think that should dissuade you. The world will adjust if you have co-execs. Let these two compete in the search process and see how they stack up against more traditional solo acts. You can make a final decision after hearing more about the available alternatives.