Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

We have all heard the phrase “two heads are better than one.” Most of us can agree collaboration and communication contribute to growing creativity, but Angela Kisskeys and Sarah Ruzek have managed to put collaboration at the core of their association. 

Collectively, they have headed Associations North for the last three years, an association that identifies itself as “the association for associations.” 

Associations North serves association professionals in North and South Dakota and Minnesota with education, leadership growth and professional development opportunities. 

Kisskeys and Ruzek are often asked about their co-leadership model because it’s so rare. We decided to interview Kisskeys about this model to discover the benefits and drawbacks to this unique style of leadership. 

Kisskeys and Ruzek were in a unique position when their previous director left the organization.When the opportunity arose for one of them to step up into the executive director position, they instead did what they do best: collaborated on a solution. 

Kisskeys and Ruzek realized the potential for co-leadership. The pair compiled tons of research but were surprised to find there were not many associations to look to for examples. 

“We wanted to get all the research and data that we could so we could do our best. Then, ultimately, we created a plan and model that worked for us,” Kisskeys explained.  was up to their board of directors to approve the idea and, luckily, they were open minded and receptive to the research Kisskeys and Ruzek put forth. 

“We created a 32-page proposal, which we always laugh about, but we were so passionate about it,” Kisskeys said

But in what ways has Associations North benefited from this co-leadership model? According to Kisskeys, “at the end of the day, the organization is stronger because a better product is put out.” 

With a co-leadership style, they were able to play on each other’s strengths and overcome weaknesses in most every decision. Instead of one individual needing to be good at a wide array of things, they have two people with unique skill sets working together. 

The partnership also demands mutual respect. 

“No one is above the other, and I think some leaders really struggle with that, but this was a mutual decision that this is 50/50 and we’re in this together. No one has more power over the other. Once that is established, then you can just run with it!” said Kisskeys. 

Still, as Kisskeys said, co-leadership is “not really for everyone.” 

They were in a very special situation because both Kisskeys and Ruzek had established a strong communication foundation with one another throughout their years of working together. When they both took on the role, one of the first things they did was have a difficult conversation about each of their strengths and weaknesses. 

“We really laid everything out on the table,” Kisskeys said.

In addition to having this previously established relationship, they had a board of directors willing to support them, and a small staff at Associations North. Having a small staff allowed Kisskeys and Ruzek to pivot their leadership model with ease. 

Even with these specific circumstances, Kisskeys encourages other associations to try co-leadership to see if it could work for their organization. She and Ruzek both feel their members have vastly benefitted from this leadership model. It allows for better ideas, greater innovation and a sound checks and balances system at the heart of the organization. 

To learn more about their co-leadership model, join us for SURGE Connect to hear a conversation between both Angela Kisskeys and Sarah Ruzek discussing the details of their association leadership model.


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