Leadership in transition

Doe Hatfield

Doe Hatfield

Senior Communications Director

Ecotrust staff, board members, and partners gather at Wapato Island Farms. Photo credit: Jason Hill

We are in an active search for Ecotrust’s next executive director. This is an exciting moment for our organization and it is the result of a generative and sometimes difficult process. For more than a year, Ecotrust staff, board, and consulting partners have worked together in new ways, exploring leadership models and articulating a vision for Ecotrust’s next executive leader. During this period, our interim leaders have guided Ecotrust through continued organizational change with a commitment to power-sharing and transparency. Today as we look forward to welcoming Ecotrust’s next leader, we also have the opportunity to share about the efforts that got us to this stage and reflect on what we have learned.

Exploring leadership models

Our 2021-2026 Strategic Plan includes the goal of being an anti-racist organization with a strategy to implement “a new organizational structure that enables inclusive decision-making and other forms of power-sharing.” When we created this plan, we did not anticipate how quickly it could apply to our executive leadership.

In the fall of 2021, when our former executive director Jeremy Barnicle announced plans to depart Ecotrust in June 2022, staff and board recognized the opportunity to accelerate towards shared goals. Through the winter and spring of 2022, members of Ecotrust staff and board formed a working group and engaged Resolve Conservation to explore a range of leadership structures and assess Ecotrust’s readiness for a different leadership model.

Engaging in this process was purposeful and aligned with our strategic goals. As Resolve described it, “The questioning of traditional leadership structures with the purpose of creating a more equitable system where trust, power, and accountability are distributed differently is an important first step towards dismantling systems of oppression that have been a legacy of colonialism and that may not be serving us any longer.” 

The questioning of traditional leadership structures with the purpose of creating a more equitable system where trust, power, and accountability are distributed differently is an important first step towards dismantling systems of oppression.

—Resolve Conservation

Resolve also noted this process is intensive, “For organizational change to happen, individuals need to acknowledge and accept feelings of uncertainty and discomfort, explore and acknowledge the current reality, and take responsibility for experimenting with and implementing disruptive yet generative interventions.”

Indeed, this was reflected in our experiences.

In the process of exploring alternative leadership models and Ecotrust’s readiness to adopt one, we navigated uncertainty, power dynamics, new concepts, and new ways of Ecotrust staff and board working together (along with heavy workloads). The process was often unclear and we needed more time than was planned to learn and explore these models before making a decision.

Honoring the process and the need to move forward, the working group recommended a co-executive director model and in June 2022, the Ecotrust board approved this recommendation. The board also appointed chief impact officer Olivia M. Rebanal and then chief financial officer Kevin Bumatay as interim co-executive directors to lead us through the transitional period until co-executive directors could be hired. A second working group of Ecotrust board and staff formed with the purpose of drafting job descriptions for both co-executive director positions.

Person smiling with shoulder length dark hair, brick wall background

This leadership transition has been hard, it’s been an experiment, it’s been us learning through doing. It has called to mind our shared agreement to ‘collaborate with humility,’ and specifically to ‘make failure part of the growth process; and commit to resilience.

—Kaitlyn Rich, Ecotrust Director of Community Asset Development and leadership transition working group member

Defining new leadership

Over the summer of 2022, the staff-board working group created inclusive processes to gather input for the co-executive director job descriptions and concerns about moving to a co-executive director structure began to surface. Also during this period, Ecotrust board, leadership, and working group were examining the costs, intentions, and timing related to the upcoming co-executive director search.

In September, the Ecotrust board decided to hire one executive director for Ecotrust’s new chapter, rather than two co-executive directors. This decision followed several days of meetings with expanded staff participation and board-staff collaboration. Budget was a key driver in the decision to hire one leader, rather than two, and this was a point that staff raised early on in the process, among others.

The board-staff discussions about leadership structure surfaced a range of tough issues, including staffing gaps, the immense organization change underway (and the associated discomfort), compensation disparities, and financial instabilities. Staff and board had to lean into their leadership to create productive discussions, move through conflict, and uplift our shared goals. These discussions were challenging and at times painful, but resulted in a clear path forward for Ecotrust.

Ecotrust is looking for an executive director with experience in anti-racist principles and practices, and a commitment to evolving Ecotrust’s decision-making practices towards shared leadership.

The decision to hire one executive director is not a pivot from shared leadership at Ecotrust, rather it is staff and board’s best thinking about the best leadership for Ecotrust at this stage in our evolution. As the working group noted, this is the first time in our 30-year history that staff and the board have engaged in a search for an executive leader open to external candidates and aligned with equitable hiring practices, and we mark this as progress in line with our strategic plan. Board and staff are using the Building Movement Project recommendations and listening to experiences of Ecotrust staff and board members to prepare for the success of our current and future leadership, particularly leaders of color.

Ecotrust is looking for an executive director with experience in anti-racist principles and practices, and a commitment to evolving Ecotrust’s decision-making practices towards shared leadership. The board has engaged Axis Talent Partners, a firm founded and led by women of color that specializes in placing Black, Indigenous, and people of color leaders in social impact organizations, to guide us in the recruitment and hiring process. We are confident that through this transition and the welcoming of new leadership, Ecotrust’s work to implement shared decision-making and other forms of power-sharing will continue.

A photo of a person with his arms crossed, smiling facing the camera. He has short hair and wears a dark blue collared button-up shirt, with a print of small rainbow motifs.

Kevin Bumatay. Photo credit: Kim Nguyen

Olivia_Rebanal

Olivia M. Rebanal. Photo credit: Kim Nguyen

Vision in the interim

While Ecotrust board and staff were sharing power in new ways and visioning Ecotrust’s next leadership, our interim leadership is growing shared decision-making and transparency within our organization. From June 2022 and October 2022, Ecotrust was led by co-interim executive directors Olivia M. Rebanal and Kevin Bumatay. In Olivia’s words, this team embraced “this opportunity to advance our strategic goal of shared leadership and embody our strategic goals of transparency, communication, shared awareness, and collective vision.”

In late November, Kevin chose to depart Ecotrust after more than three years of incredible contributions to Ecotrust’s mission and culture. Olivia accepted the role of interim executive director, continuing to serve as a visionary and tactical champion of our collective goals. Olivia reflects openly and often, including here on our blog, about the expansive opportunities, incremental changes, and acute challenges she encounters leading Ecotrust through this period of evolution and growth.

Bob-Friedman-at-Wapato

One of the things that was captured for me in this process is that shared and distributed leadership goes way beyond co-executive directors and includes filling vacant positions and nurturing talent at all levels.

—Bob Friedman, Ecotrust board and member of the leadership transition working group

Reflecting on the process

Our leadership transition is not yet complete, and our processes of becoming an anti-racist organization with distributed power and decision making in service to our 3E mission is ongoing. We can look back at the past year’s efforts to understand how we create transformational processes, and what it feels like to be in them.

Bob Friedman, Ecotrust board member and leadership transition working group member shared, “One of the things that was captured for me in this process is that shared and distributed leadership goes way beyond co-executive directors, and includes filling vacant positions and nurturing talent at all levels. Leadership is a positive-sum game. Staff and board alike are stretched thin after navigating difficult few years during the pandemic and a leadership transition. But I am convinced that we are all in this in good faith and believe in the 3E mission of Ecotrust—seminal and continuing commitment to innovative thinking that simultaneously advances ecology, economy and equity—with a strengthened emphasis on racial equity.”

Ecotrust staff member Kaitlyn Rich, a member of the first staff-board working group, reflected, “This leadership transition, and the larger org structuring, including exploring our decision-making processes, has been messy. It’s been hard, it’s been an experiment, it’s been us learning through doing. It has called to mind our shared agreement to ‘collaborate with humility,’ and specifically to ‘make failure part of the growth process; and commit to resilience.’ I’m not saying that we’ve failed in our process, but I do think we’ve learned and grown through it.”

In the late months of 2022 and into the early weeks of 2023, we are building clarity and transparency as a means to generate trust, share power, and create accountability. These reflections hold learnings for all of us, and we hope they will serve our next leader well.

Links

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Resource

This guiding document is helping set the stage for transition and new work across our organization.

A photo of a person speaking into a micorphone

Blog

Interim Executive Director, Olivia Rebanal, shares a reflection on our progress toward our 3E mission and our Strategic Plan.

A photo of a person holding and looking at a framed artwork

blog

Ecotrust staff and board members gathered at the Redd to celebrate the contributions of our departing Executive Director.

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