Legacy, Strategy, Equity: The Three Aspects of Stewarding Organizations — An Introduction
Posted on March 2, 2022
There are moments in leadership when leaders take a pause to reflect on a large amount of work that has just transpired in leading a team, community, or organization into a new future.
As leaders, you have sourced and created a vision, shared it with people, and taken bold action to get momentum moving in the desired direction. You have done some heavy lifting and are feeling well-used, tired, and inspired. There is still a lot of unknown ahead, yet you are hopeful and assured.
That was us at the end of February 2020. We had recently completed an intense, unique, two-year succession process, replacing the founders and their business partner as Co-Presidents of CTI. We had transitioned CTI from being founder-owned to employee-owned. We had done the work of correcting some strategic and structural mistakes we had made during the first 18 months on the job and simultaneously conceived of a new future for the organization and its mission.
We also had just wrapped up a remarkable executive team offsite process whereby, over four weeks leading up to that point, we had shared the evolution of the vision and structural changes associated with that — all of which had direct implications on the members of our team. Of the eight of us attending that offsite, two were being promoted, three were staying in the same position, one was voluntarily leaving the organization, one was being let go, and one was being demoted. What was most remarkable was the fact that everyone, regardless of their status in the future we had designed, was committed to the purpose of the organization and doing their best to see the first steps on the transition through successfully.
As we took stock in and marveled at this moment, we felt like we had done what was needed to set CTI up for success. And while we knew that there was much to discover in the unfolding of this new trajectory, we were confident we had created the best chance for CTI’s future.
Then March arrived, and with it, a global pandemic. COVID-19 came to CTI.
Like many other businesses, this external factor threatened our core business. Because of our business model, 75% of our revenue-generating activities had to be put on pause. Because of the nature of CTI’s operating and delivery model, and our financial status, we were at risk of losing our business if we didn’t take immediate, intentional action. As Co-Active leaders, we also knew that these dire circumstances could lead to us losing ourselves (our values, our ethos) through a series of rash actions. The situation was urgent and unparalleled. “Make it to August” became a milestone and a mantra inside of the organization.
Leading the company as first-time Co-Presidents through this amount of complexity and crisis put us in the developmental workshop of a lifetime. Looking from the outside in, being first-time Co-Presidents might have appeared to be our biggest liability. It turned out to be our greatest asset. Because we didn’t have a deep reservoir of experience to draw on, we had to lean into our instincts and our exceptionally competent team.
Our survival instincts came first. We knew we needed to focus on the financial and operational risk management aspects of the challenge. Facing the possibility of losing our business got us in touch with how easy it could be to lose ourselves and what was most important to us if we got overly strategical, tactical, or reactive. To fortify our ability to hold both the tough tactical decisions we were going to make and hold onto what was most important to us, we needed a deeper well of wisdom and resource. This is when we turned to CTI’s legacy. Our legacy included the founding principles, beliefs and operating system of Co-Active. What we believed about relationship, action, commitment, and leadership. How no Co-Active Leader goes it alone.
As we got ourselves in relationship with CTI’s legacy, we began to see that it had been a significant element in how we had recovered the business up until this point. Legacy would again be a necessary and vital resource to navigating this unprecedented time. This is when we shifted our perspective to see COVID as a “co-leader,” an opportunity to create from and be created by as opposed to a threat to survive. We committed to not just surviving but transforming as leaders and as an organization given the circumstances we faced.
“Make it to August” became “Don’t just survive — transform.”
We believed that if we included legacy in our courageous, strategical decisions, then we had nothing to lose and only opportunities to create. We also knew that our legacy would create an experience of relationship across our organization that would be powerful and whole, no matter the outcomes. This belief informed everything we did. We got to work creating a strategy that became an active conversation of how we would get to a future we had visioned.
We used the metaphors of the moon cycles — new moon, half-moon and snow moon — to give context to the phases of our strategy and provide us with principles to live by as we moved through the execution milestones. We doubled down on relationship with each other and our entire system and on anchoring our communication style in a rigorous commitment to transparency. We designed an intentional and highly relational process to guide our people through a process of reducing our workforce by 40%, which culminated in a virtual all-company call where everyone, whether staying with and leaving CTI, came by choice to consciously complete this chapter of CTI’s history with each other.
The relationship between legacy and strategy was powerfully weaving the next chapter of CTI in a way that felt more whole. But as the pandemic intensified, it began to reveal so much about how our world is not set up to serve the highest good for everyone. And while our strategy was alive with purpose and meaning, the impact we were having on multiple stakeholders was not aligned with our intentions.
Awakened by George Floyd’s killing in May 2020, we began to earnestly look at how CTI and Co-Active were having an unintended impact on many of our stakeholders. Some of our dynamics and designs were unintentionally propping up systems that Co-Active exists to dismantle. We began to listen differently to many of our customers and faculty feedback about inclusion and diversity and the aspects of oppression that we had not been accounting for as we delivered our work and executed our strategy. We saw that without a frame on equity, our work and our business stood to do more harm than good — regardless of how rooted in legacy and committed to strategy we were. It was not as whole as we thought it was.
Being an organization founded by, managed by, and run by people who live with identities that afford them privilege in most systems, we knew we needed help from people who had more lived and learned experience with oppression and marginalization. We leaned in, we opened up, and we began to center equity as a core tenant to everything that we are and do. In doing so, we realized that equity is as vital as legacy and strategy to a business that wants to be more integral and make a responsible contribution to humanity.
One of the things that we got clear on through this journey is that our tenure as co-presidents and now as co-CEOs is about landing legacy, strategy, and equity as the core aspects of how CTI is stewarded and created. We also assert that it is a frame that all leaders should be applying to systems evolution, whether that is the system of self or systems they are a part of.
Leadership is the process of learning and growing the system of self as much as the system itself over time. In that experience is wisdom. We believe that what we are here to learn we are here to teach. And we also believe that every leader has a story like this one.
We share our story in the spirit of generosity and offer our learning with a bit of insistence. And we hope you will share your story, too. That you will seek the wisdom you have to offer to our generation of leaders who are navigating new complexities and have the desire to shape a more responsible and sustainable future. We are the ones we have been waiting for.