Getting to Know You Series: Meet the Co-Executive Directors of Leadership Learning Community

By Elisabeth Anderson Rapport

Editor’s Note: Today we launch a new occasional series on our blog, “Getting to Know You.” We’ll be introducing you to grantee partners, network members, and philanthropy colleagues who have interesting stories to tell. For this first installment, we were pleased to sit down with Deborah Meehan and Ericka Stallings, Co-Executive Directors of our grantee partner Leadership Learning Community (LLC). Deborah founded LLC 20 years ago, and Ericka just joined her at the helm earlier this year. Together they bring thought-provoking perspectives on leadership development, networks, and embracing an evolving style of management within their own organization. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

Share your thoughts with us about how the leadership development space has been evolving and where it is going. 

Deborah: I think the big change over the last 20 years has been that the mainstream of leadership development had been really focused on the individual—kind of tilting towards this big old model that comes from the dominant culture. I think more recently that people in the mainstream of leadership development have learned from people working in communities of color, and people working nationally for example, that leadership is actually a process by which many people take action on issues they care about. And that it’s shaped by context—things like social identity, racial identity—things that bring people together around some shared aspirations or frustrations. And by focusing on individuals, we’re actually missing how change actually occurs. 

One of the places we’ve learned more about this, too, is from network spaces where people operate with more collectivist values, to great effect. And so I think that we’re seeing changes in the understanding of what leadership is and how leadership is supported. 

Ericka: The most exciting change that I’ve been observing is the extent to which groups are thinking about alignment, specifically values alignment. They’re thinking about how values, and what we're trying to achieve, are incorporated in the work we're actually doing. So I think people used to do leadership development according to the traditional model. And then people realized that you can't do things the same way and anticipate a different result. People are starting to say, we want to see our values, we want to see our goals—so for example if liberation is our goal, asking how we are practicing liberatory practices in our leadership development programs. 

At LLC, what’s coming down the pike that has you excited? 

Ericka: For me what I really want to contribute is my experience on the grassroots and thinking about how we connect leadership development thinking, resources, opportunities to the various places where leadership development is happening. Leadership development is definitely happening in the big, fancy, well-funded, well-known spaces but it’s also happening in church basements, and in community centers, at local organizations. Leaders there are not only being developed and supported, but are redefining leadership and rethinking leadership in different spaces.  

Deborah: One of the most exciting things to me right now is bringing on Ericka! A next frontier for us is to really understand leadership in community and how it’s supported in ways that are meaningful…We’re having some very cool opportunities to dive pretty deeply into what it looks like to activate and support members. The learning in that is very rich, along with the learning around not how you just address the issues of connecting the graduates of your program at the end of your program—but how from the very beginning you understand what it means to support their network leadership capacity.  

The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation is one of your funders. What’s your take on their trust-based philanthropy approach?

Ericka: One of the things I appreciate most about being in partnership with the Foundation is the way the Foundation staff has been a thought partner. They’ve really been willing to engage in conversation and figure out what you’re trying to achieve. They understand that the impacts and the results aren’t immediate, and they don’t happen within a grant cycle. They understand that groups have to adjust to conditions on the ground…

The problems that we’re trying to solve are huge, they’re complicated, and they’re old. Not only does the trust-based model encourage the foundations and the philanthropic world to be courageous—it also means the people who are actually doing the work to address those problems can be more courageous. They’re funded to be more courageous. Traditional models of philanthropy encourage tepid responses to really harsh, really complicated, really extreme problems—which means that we’re not actually moving towards solutions.

Deborah: Everybody gives tons of lip service to innovation. But we all struggle with really being able to take chances and fail, and be bold and courageous. [We need a] cultural shift that would support much more active, rigorous learning—Phil and Lisa are engendering this with a relational approach.

You have recently joined forces as co-Executive Directors. Describe what that transition is looking like.

Ericka: For me, becoming co-ED feels like a good transition from running a program. The area that I covered in some ways was comparable in size to what I’m doing now. But I wasn’t the ED, I didn’t have to keep the lights on! I could still complain about “the man!” (Laughs). But now, it’s really cool to have a partner and know that if I mess something up Deborah can fill in. It’s very much a learning curve, thinking about what’s the additive that I bring.

Deborah: I thought [the transition] was very aligned with our own values and beliefs about leadership needing to be equity-based, networked, and collective. I’ve been a fan of this model for a long time and everything I valued and dreamed about in the abstract has become even more powerful in reality, as I’ve met Erica! I really believe she’s going to help us take our work to the next level. I think the model of the sole ED is very much part of the dominant culture of individualism, and it doesn’t make sense.

I think we’re going to learn a lot, and I have every bit of confidence we’re going to be able to learn really fruitfully together, have the tough conversations, work it through…that we have the same kind of passion around the work driving us, and that we’re going to have a lot to share with other people. This is the transition—I don’t even think the co-director model is where we really want to land, I think we want to land with more distributed models of leadership and flatter organizations, but this is a really critical next step and I am over the moon about it!

A Final Editor’s Note: And we are over the moon that Deborah and Ericka sat down with us—thank you! For readers who are interested in learning more on Ericka’s hiring process and her and Deborah’s lessons learned thus far from the co-directorship, we encourage you to check out this terrific blog post on the LLC website.