October 27, 2023

Highlights from “The Wisdom of Co-Director Leadership” Podcast Episode

As we get closer to our Co-Directors transitioning out of their roles in the new year, we’re taking every opportunity to uplift big lessons they’ve learned in their five years of shared leadership at Third Wave Fund. 

In the inaugural podcast episode of Leadership Reimagined, a podcast and project of the same name co-led by Elsa Rios and Lisa Garrett of Strategies for Social Change, we hear from Ana Conner and Kiyomi Fujikawa on the value of the co-director leadership model. Ana and Kiyomi get real about what they’ve learned in their time at Third Wave, and what advice they have for folks interested in becoming co-directors or currently serving in that position now. 

Today, we’re sharing an abbreviated version of the podcast conversation to highlight some of our favorite takeaways. You can tune in to the full episode on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

Elsa Rios: So we want to start with the very beginning of this journey that you had together as co-directors of Third Wave. Can you tell us a little bit about how you went about deciding to apply together? What about the possibility of co-leading Third Wave really interested you?

Kiyomi Fujikawa: I think both of us were pretty hesitant around what it would mean to lead an organization on our own. I think if it had been a single model, neither of us would've really entertained it. The idea of a co-director made it feel more accessible. It made it feel more like the stakes weren't quite as much just resting on one person. We knew we needed to grow into these roles, and it gave us more space to lean onto each other's strengths. And also to be able to learn with someone and not kind of have that pressure on your own. Ana?

Ana Conner: I think the Executive Director model just wasn't made for new leaders like me or Kiyomi to come in and feel comfortable to do it solo. So it made it possible for us to have that thought partner, to be able to bounce off ideas that we would grapple with for the first time in our lives as non-profit folks.

Elsa: As you interact with other solo Executive Directors, what do you see as some of the fundamental differences in terms of what it takes to co-lead, and how solo Executive Directors operate?

Kiyomi: I mean, I think it also has to do with leadership style. I think both of us are collaborative. Both of us were pretty explicit in our interview of one person's vision for liberation, two people's vision for liberation, isn't actually what's gonna get us free, isn't going to lead us to liberation. We actually need it to be a largely, hugely participatory project of finding our roles, finding the different pieces, and so I think that piece has been really helpful for us, just in terms of our style.

Ana: How we came in, knowing that the vision and the purpose and what we're trying to do at Third Wave wasn't going to be, and shouldn't be, held by or dictated by one person or two people. Like, it had to be collectively felt and have collective ownership over it. So seeing budgets and finances and all that actually had a lot to do with what we were gonna do in a given year. Budgets obviously hold a ton of value. And seeing that as a clear opportunity to share that with the full staff and our advisory council was a shift and was something we were excited to bring as a part of our co-leadership.

Kiyomi: It helped us pivot the organization in a way towards being more participatory as a whole because there was already a model in place for shared leadership, and less of “this person needs to have all the answers all the time,” which I feel is a stance that leaders are sometimes asked to do. And sometimes put themselves into. And it's actually a setup to imagine that anyone, any team, could be able to know the lessons and know the power of all of those different movements, in one person. I think that is uniquely important for feminist organizations to be thinking about. 

Elsa: What are those kinds of juicy lessons from your leadership journey that you can share that you feel comfortable sharing? What did you wish you knew then that you know now?

Ana: Well, I will say for me, it's hard to think about this question outside of the context of COVID. We started as co-directors before COVID and then you know, it was such a big shift. So, obviously that's not something that we could have known. But there's so much that can shift in a matter of a day, a week, a year. And I think that is a big lesson that I've had to grapple with time and time again at Third Wave as a leader and as a co-director. Like, am I ready? Is the person ready for that? And do they have the reserves enough for themselves to navigate some of the really hard things that we've all just experienced, but then also to be able to hold a team through that, you know?

Kiyomi: Yeah, I think that piece is big. I think also how important it was to just build a base of folks who could support you. I feel like sometimes it's been really important to get out of my head, get out of Third Wave's, sort of, collective head, and be able to sit with folks who might see something a little bit different. I think also as a leader in some ways, you're the one that's charged with setting the boundaries for an organization, too. And it can be easy to say yes to a lot of things. And I think that's something we've been cautious about or have constantly kind of learned. “Hey, this is a cool opportunity, that doesn't mean Third Wave has to do it.” Or, you know, we need to say yes to it. Because there are so many competing priorities. And I think to a large degree, relationships are pretty key to how an org moves and functions. I'm constantly learning how much we need to invest in those to have a thriving organization. 

Elsa: Beautiful. So, so incredibly helpful to hear you talk about that. Is there anything you would've done differently? Thinking back on especially your first year, let's say, anything you would've paid more attention to, spent more time, pondering? That first year is so important, right?

Kiyomi: I think it is so hard because like, yeah, we had one year and then it was COVID. And so the lessons can't be large enough, but maybe they were unique to that situation, too. There's a lot of decisions that I wouldn't have made now, and I think that sometimes it's worth the lesson, even if it was like, “oops, that was a mistake.” And actually how leaders show up in mistakes matters. How folks pivot or move from places where they're like, “yeah, that wasn't the move” are important. Also some of the things that were the biggest worries in my mind now, [the] same thing will come up and I'll be like, “oh, it's fine.” You know? So I also wonder if not to scare new leaders to be like, “oh, it's gonna get worse,” but I wonder how we keep things in perspective. What do you think, Ana? 

Ana: I think a lot about maybe not what we would've done differently, but I'm proud that we really prioritized building relationships, getting to know the organization, getting to know the staff, getting to know the advisory council, and the history before venturing off into like, “here's our big vision for everything.” And actually, rather than doing that, having a collective process or, you know, a strategic planning process to talk about that. Because I think that was something that we were pushed time and time again on, was what is our vision? And we were both very clear that that couldn't be something that we just came in running with, you know, and that we wanted to actually spend time to get to know what that was for the org. 

Elsa: I wanna touch upon the comment that you made, Ana, about being pushed to have a vision. You know, early on, and this is so typical of what happens to solo Executive Directors and co-director teams. I wonder if you have any advice to share with funders, stakeholders, others that kind of, wanted that immediate gratification of having clarity around your vision. Can you give folks some advice around that?

Ana: Yeah. It's hard because I feel like a big part of it is trying to break this idea that one person or two people are the center of what an organization is. And actually Third Wave is what it is because of the depth of our history and the people who made it up and the people who we resource. And so to assume that two people brand spanking new coming into an org would have and be able to articulate a vision of something that has existed for so long is actually, it's a flag for me. I think that I would want to actually hear how those folks plan to engage with the history and the context of the org and the movements that they're funding to actually be able to state something, or like, have clarity around it.

Kiyomi: Yeah, I mean, part of me wonders where that nervousness is coming from and what it is for. It is interesting, the more we do this work, the more simplified it feels like our mission or purpose is as an org. The more that we get into it, the more I'm like, “we fund BIPOC youth-led feminist grassroots organizers.” You know, like it's plain as day. and in some ways, I think it ties into folks wanting a new shiny framework to lean into when actually the mandates that we've been given are very clear and they're not groundbreaking, right?

Elsa: You are both such amazing leaders. What's on the horizon? What are you thinking about? 

Kiyomi: This is where my collaborative leadership runs into a problem. Because people are like, “okay, now you get to choose what you do.” And I'm like, “oh no, someone help me figure this out.” Yeah, it's a time when the political stakes for social justice are especially high. And I want to plug in the ways that our movements need, whether that's continuing to be in resource mobilization and the philanthropy side of things, maybe. And if it is something different, I'm excited to welcome that too. I also am looking forward to resting and, you know, having a break. 

Ana: I would say Kiyomi and I have both been pretty focused on making sure we're setting up Third Wave to be in the best place it can be for this transition. So I haven't spent as much time thinking about what's next. I've been thinking about potentially, what does it mean to do radical finance and operations work? And how that would be pretty cool to do after Third Wave. Organizations need that sort of support. So, that's where I've been leaning and thinking about, but haven't spent as much time as I will when we have the time to really think about what's next.

Elsa: Well, I just want to thank you both for taking the time to share your wisdom and to share your recommendations for other folks that are thinking about this journey. You have been an extraordinary co-director team, the “Co-Cos”, the Third Wave “Co-cos”. And it's been a joy to have been part of the start of your journey and also honor to be in this place to support the organization moving forward. So, a thousand thank yous. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, you know, with such transparency, honesty, and love.

Kiyomi: Thank you, Elsa. And you were such a huge part of us starting down this role, so just shout out to Strategies for Social Change, both in the original stage of when we were onboarding, and now in this stage of getting ready to pass the baton. Thanks y'all.


Leadership Reimagined is working to build leaderful movements with the vision and power to transform the world. Through their coaching services, peer leadership circles, and learning labs, they’re working to create a safe, joyful, and generative space for social justice leaders to be in community with each other, share strategies, and deepen their liberatory leadership practices. You can learn more about their work at leadership-reimagined.org.