One Size Does Not Fit All
June 2, 2017

Five Strategies to Define Leadership & Habits in Coalitions

Working in coalitions is an ongoing discussion in the Network. As one Network member said, “There are a million ways we may disagree, but there are benefits to working together.” And therein lies the benefit and the million challenges coalitions entail.

Recently, we discussed some of that wisdom in a post discussing what advocates relay is the single most important investment leaders can make to build strong coalitions: relationships. Some of the wisdom members shared is captured in this playbook and in this blog post, highlighting seven lessons learned.

Right up there with relationships is the operational side of coalitions. While approaches differ, coalitions don’t really gel until leadership roles and operating norms are settled. How this happens varies greatly depending on the size, issue, environment, and organizations involved. In fact, it’s not unusual for an organization to find itself playing a leading role in a coalition working to advance one issue and a supporting or helping role working on a different issue, even with some of the same players involved in both. What that means is advocates need to stay flexible in their relationships with key partners and learn to respect one another’s strengths and capacities.

Here’s some of the wisdom often shared by advocates regarding the operational challenges of coalitions:

1. Find a North Star

Often advocates in a coalition agree on many points of policy, though identifying the most important issues to focus on (and what issues the group respectively agrees to disagree about) is needed to keep everyone around the table. Colorado Succeeds said it best:

“It would be unwieldy if we tried to agree on everything.”

2. Let Leadership Evolve

The strongest coalitions have multiple leaders that move in and out of leadership positions in the coalition, constantly reassessing how they or their partners can contribute according to their strengths and weaknesses. And, strong leaders also need to know when to stand back and follow a different lead, even when it means compromising some on the overall approach. The Connecticut Council on Education Reform (recently renamed the Connecticut Business Industry Association Education & Workforce Partnership) says:

“Understand the coalition’s mission is bigger than your organization. If someone else needs to take the lead to make it happen, it’s for the greater good.”

3. Leading from the Passenger Seat

Sometimes the hardest role for strong leaders in coalitions is seeing work that’s needed when they aren’t driving the agenda. In these situations, seasoned leaders know that thoughtful questions can do as much as directives to move the group further faster. The Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) says:

“Collaborative leadership is about asking the right questions at the right time to inspire action, being willing to give and take, and building up personal trust over time.”

4. Establish Ground Rules of Operations

Understanding how and when to communicate about your work and clearly identifying who is taking what next steps helps coalitions stay informed and unified. Don’t leave meetings without a shared understanding of the next steps needed and who will carry those out. Ed Allies cautions:

“It’s easy for there always to be this lingering question; once we leave the meeting, who is actually going to do the work?”

5. Excuse the Mess

Coalitions are messier than top-down organizations, because multiple organizations mean multiple nodes of decision making. You have to be willing to make compromises and share wins and losses. Democrats for Education Reform Colorado advises:

“Coalition goals are only achieved when it’s about the work and not about the credit. Recognize what each partner brings to the table and honor that in the group dynamic.”

Over the many years the Network has discussed coalitions, as well as insights offered through a formal listening tour, these three insights couldn’t be reinforced enough:

  • Trust among coalition partners is hard to build and even harder to rebuild.
  • Conflict is a healthy and normal part of coalition work.
  • Revisit and refresh your shared vision and roles as priorities and needs change.

For additional details and to see the above examples come to life, members can download the complete playbook. Advocates also shared seven broad tips for strengthening relationships in this blog post, and additional highlights of coalition work across the Network are available on the PIE Network website.




Suzanne Tacheny Kubach

Suzanne is PIE Network's Executive Director

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