Pivotal Leadership with Jessica Nunan and Monisha Kapila
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
Pivotal leadership is about courage and fostering capabilities that allow you to reimagine yourself or an entire organization. Over the last three years, we have seen many examples of pivotal leaders that quickly shifted their work to save lives, sustain jobs, start new services, or keep organizations afloat in the face of a crumbling economy.
Before the double pandemic disrupted the world, Jessica Nunan and Monisha Kapila had the foresight to strategically transform their organizations using a co-CEO operating structure. Each leader embodied pivotal leadership in a way that strengthened their respective organizations and individual leadership capacity.
Jessica Nunan, who dedicated her life to continuing her mother's legacy of developing Latino-specific approaches for violence intervention, took on a co-CEO to increase the global impact of Caminar Latino-Latinos United for Peace and Equity (Caminar Latino-LUPE). Monisha Kapila, the founder of ProInspire - a nonprofit dedicated to helping individuals and organizations achieve their potential for social impact - recruited a co-CEO to support succession planning and operationalizing a culture of equity.
Kapila's and Nunan's unique leadership pivots tell stories of courage and examine non-traditional opportunities for building executive teams in the nonprofit sector to create more unifying and sustainable scopes of work. As you read their stories, I hope it inspires you to consider ways to shift your leadership style for the betterment of your organization or for your own personal growth and development.
Adopting a new strategy
Both CEOS, Nunan and Kapila, were at critical points in their organization's development cycle and humbly chose to pivot to a co-CEO model to support growth, succession planning, and developing a culture of equity. For Jessica Nunan, merging Caminar Latino with LUPE in 2018 resulted in the exponential growth of their budget and scope of work. Caminar Latino-LUPE adopted the co-CEO structure in 2020 to ensure the organization had the leadership bandwidth to support rapid growth.
Monisha Kapila and ProInspire's reasoning for bringing on a co-CEO was slightly different. After nine years of leading her organization on her own, Kapila began to think about her succession plan. She and her team explored new leadership structures that would better align with ProInspire's racial equity strategy and settled on co-CEOs. Through ProInspire's work with Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) Executive Directors and CEOs, Kapila knew that many organizations rushed through executive transitions and often left the incoming CEO without the proper support. To support institutionalizing equity values and developing a succession plan that would strengthen leadership capacity, ProInspire adopted a co-CEO model in 2021.
Picking the right person
When deciding who to select a co-CEO, Kapila and her team decided to lean into each of their strengths and increase focus on areas where Kapila had not been able to put much attention. Kapila hired Bianca Anderson in late 2019 as a Program Director and thought she might be an ideal co-CEO candidate because Anderson played an essential role in helping navigate the critical challenges ProInspire faced in the wake of the double pandemic. While exploring the co-CEO model, ProInspire's HR partner facilitated a retreat where Kapila and Anderson developed a division of labor document for the co-CEO model. The leaders went through the various responsibilities Kapila held as sole CEO and identified what would be held by each person in the new configuration. Now, after 18 months, ProInspire is looking at how to institutionalize the co-CEO model so that it will continue after Kapila leaves and build the organization's capacity to deliver on its commitment to create and sustain racially equitable experiences and outcomes within the social sector.
Nunan chose to co-CEO with Ruby White Starr because, at the time, Starr and several others were planning to start their own national nonprofit. When Starr saw Caminar Latino's goal of going national, she contacted Nunan and proposed the idea of merging organizations. The merger facilitated a win-win, giving community roots to LUPE and national wings to Caminar Latino. Nunan and Starr also benefited from leaning on each other's strengths. Nunan has 25+ years of history with Caminar Latino, and her risk-averse personality creates stability. In contrast, Starr has 20+ years of experience in national work in the family violence arena, and her willingness to take risks enables the organization to grow. Together they make a well-balanced team.
Adjusting to change
With any change, there will naturally be adjustments. When Starr initially joined as co-CEO of Caminar Latino-LUPE, she felt she did not have the same power and recognition as Nunan, who had been leading solo for over a decade. At the same time, Nunan struggled with sharing the responsibility of honoring her mother's legacy, who had co-founded Caminar Latino. Even though both women entered the new arrangement trusting the other person's intentions, it still took a leap of faith and many hard conversations for the relationship to operate smoothly.
On the other hand, the transition was easier for Kapila, who was overwhelmed by her many responsibilities and gratefully shared the load with her new co-CEO. The division of labor document for the co-CEO structure created clarity around roles and responsibilities and improved culture, collaboration, and, ultimately, the performance of ProInspire.
Was it worth it?
Kapila would say, yes! The new leadership style helped ProInspire introduce shared leadership as a goal in their organization and inspired them to see how they can embed shared leadership more deeply at all levels of the organization. For Nunan, Caminar Latino-LUPE's trajectory has grown exponentially since taking on a co-CEO. Caminar Latino-LUPE more than tripled its budget and doubled its team, yet the organization continues to work in a manner that honors and respects its roots and community. The new leadership structure has allowed both ProInspire and Caminar Latino-LUPE to grow in ways they are proud of.
There are many reasons why leaders choose to pivot, whether it's for succession planning, growing, or deepening cultural values such as equity. Pivotal leadership is intrinsically linked to personal growth and organizational transformation. As the world continues to change and the needs of the people we serve evolve, I hope you will lean into examining new leadership structures and inspire new beginnings that motivate people and drive organizational change for greater impact. Have you had to pivot in the way you lead? If so, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.