By Chol
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Why Chol said ‘no’ to a CEO 

Five years ago we started very real conversations within a very small team about how we would approach the reality that our long term CEO would be stepping down in 2020. Our initial discussions started as you would imagine – do we offer this role internally? Or do we advertise the role? 

So how did we end up making the decision to say ‘no’ to a new CEO altogether? 

As we approach the four year anniversary of the Chol-Operative it feels like a perfect time to reflect on the decision we made to move towards a flat structure with equal pay.

An idea was planted …

During the 2019 Wild Conference (an Arts Council commission curated by Slung Low) we were inspired by a simple message in a talk by Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Chief Executive Moira Sinclair that sharing power does not divide power – it can have the opposite effect – it can multiply it. This really resonated with us and ignited important conversations. Within Chol we already did this informally in many ways and we constantly aimed to shift power dynamics in our creative work in communities and schools. But we questioned how we could reflect this more meaningfully in our company structures and what real change this could make. 

A unique opportunity

We realised that however anxious we were about the big change ahead with our CEO stepping down we were being given a unique window of opportunity to do things differently that comes when change is inevitable. The staff team and the board had a chance to pause and question how we wanted to move forward instead of blindly ploughing ahead with how things are ‘always done’. And the seeds were planted. 

The Board were on board! 

Having a board made up of radically generous, brave, and trusting people enabled us to make the leap. If the trustees hadn’t believed in the team and the vision I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. It is a lot to ask a board of trustees to consider removing a hierarchy within a company staff structure but boy did they embrace this conversation. In fact, the name Chol-Operative was put forward by Suki, one of our inspiring trustees at the time when we set ourselves a task of researching company models across the globe that we were interested in. 

The stars aligned

So the stars did align – the staff team at the time, Susan, Lauren, Jess and myself and the board of trustees, were all in and up for it. We genuinely believed that good could come from doing things radically differently – here are some of the reasons why it felt right to give the Chol-Operative a go! 

The top three reasons why we made the leap

1. We were committed to deconstructing the traditional hierarchy and knew that the best version of Chol could only happen by having a stronger collective voice made up of a diverse group of people with rich life and cultural experiences. We needed a variety of voices with different viewpoints, not just for representation, but to be deep-seated in leadership positions, ensuring that our decisions were informed by a broader range of perspectives and experiences. We believed a new company structure could move us closer to this.

2. We were collectively excited about a company structure that enabled us to practise what we preach. We had spent many years researching and developing our equal playmaker strategies and this was even a focus within my PhD research. We understood and believed in the benefits of co-creating and working creatively as equals with our communities so implementing it into our governance structure aligned with our values.

3. Working in the arts and charity sector is hard work and no matter where you sit in a traditional hierarchical company structure you hold stress, anxiety, weight, responsibility to colleagues, communities, participants, funders, etc. Mental health and well-being is very hard to balance and we wanted to know if there was a way to share this weight more equally.

Getting going

We knew there would be some initial obstacles, for example some people took a pay decrease and some people temporarily took on more responsibilities. The process wouldn’t be simple and wouldn’t happen overnight. The challenge of removing the traditional management would take time and careful consideration however for us the potential positives outweighed the risks and as a team we were willing to give it a go. 

The journey has just begun …

There is so much to share about the journey we have been on as a Chol-Operative over the last four years. It has been hard work and we have been very close to giving up at times. We certainly don’t have a clear blueprint of how to work within a flat hierarchy structure and do not yet fully understand the full impact that this way of working can have on Chol or the wider sector. But as a collective I am confident to say that we are currently feeling incredibly positive about the changes we have made and what impact it is having on ourselves and our work. We now want to start sharing this journey more openly and honestly. For lots of reasons we haven’t felt ready to share our story until now and at times it has felt a little isolating. By documenting and sharing our experiences more publicly we hope to join conversations and build new connections with others who are on the journey of saying ‘no’ to a CEO.

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