Shared leadership – Heather Richardson & Shaun O’Leary, St Christopher’s

Categories: Featured, Leadership, Opinion, and People & Places.

At the end of this month, we stand down as joint chief executives of St Christopher’s – a journey of collaboration and shared leadership that started in August 2014.

People have often asked us whether we knew each other well or had worked together in the past when we decided to apply for the job together. The answer to both questions is no. However, we had recognised in each other a similar vision and values related to hospice and palliative care when we had met at Help the Hospices where Shaun was a trustee and Heather an executive director.

We both believed that a shared worldview could shape and cement a relationship in which we would share significant responsibility and accountability for an organisation, its workforce and its beneficiaries. And we weren’t wrong.

We took over the role of CEO at St Christopher’s from Dame Barbara Monroe. We knew at the outset that we had big shoes to fill, but we had little idea about some of the other challenges we might face in the future including most recently a global pandemic. Yet, on reflection we have thrived and so has the organisation. Our shared leadership role has been an important contributor to this in our view, as we describe below.

First, we have encouraged each other to engage in creative activities despite the operational demands of the job that can dominate day to day priorities. Early on in our tenure we led efforts to articulate shared values, define our core business and create a five-year strategy.  Later on, we led a significant capital campaign, oversaw the construction of a new Centre for Awareness and Response to End of Life and participated in a variety of local, national and global efforts to improve end of life.

Our work together has also enabled us to make difficult decisions. At points in our tenure, we have closed a number of services that had failed to deliver on their original objectives or fell outside our core business, redirected protected resources and initiated uncomfortable team restructures. We could do this because we could use each other to discuss the pros and cons, and we could draw on each other’s support to hold our nerve.  Similarly, we were able to make significant shifts in the culture of the organisation, one reinforcing the other in driving change, sometimes against the odds.

Perhaps, most importantly, the partnership has inspired a relentless ambition in us both to do more, and do it differently. When one of us has been tired or dispirited, the other has taken the lead. When one could see no way forward, the other could often see the break. And together we have generated new ideas that we have pursued – some of the best moments of working together in the moment and retrospectively.

Finally, we have enjoyed the diverse perspectives, approaches and skills that each has brought to the job. Initially we were anxious about areas of difference but over time we have come to value them. We recognise the complementary nature of our distinctive leadership styles and have learnt over time to work to our individual strengths. Our colleagues have learnt to do that too. We worked hard, particularly at the outset of our partnership, to deny our colleagues any opportunity to divide us, and to enjoy the productivity of two leaders rather than one, and in the main this has been achieved.

Where hasn’t the partnership been a success? It would be dishonest if we weren’t to make mention of some of the challenges. What is clear is that our original shared aspiration to work less in the course of any one week through a job share is only rarely achieved! Whilst we do enjoy time away from the hospice in the full confidence that the other takes charge, our “part time” work has leaked into home and family life well beyond anything we had anticipated at the outset. We also recognise that a joint chief executive post can unwittingly undermine the close relationship normally enjoyed between a CEO and the chair of the organisation’s board of trustees. So much of the explorative discussion that normally takes place in this relationship happened between us instead.

As we conclude we want to offer a couple of quick top tips about how to make such a partnership work for others interested to do something similar. We were advised at the outset of our adventure together that to be successful as joint leaders, we needed to be able to share power and the limelight without resentment. On reflection we realise the wisdom of that advice – a joint role calls for ongoing generosity.

When we made the time to talk “big-picture” it was always energising and enabled us to lead the organisation with renewed energy and focus. Sadly, we too frequently allowed operational demands to deny us that opportunity, with some strategic loss for the organisation. Finally, we learnt over time how to draw on the individual strengths of each other, made increasingly possible as we noticed and articulated them.  This takes courage and confidence.

Would we do it again? Probably.

Could we have done the job at St Christopher’s without each other? Definitely not.

Would we recommend it? Absolutely


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *