How to set-up co-leadership

4 minutes read

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Co-leader set-ups have a bad reputation. At least in the corporate world where the opinion is that co-CEOs – or other shared leadership roles – are prone to destructive power-struggles, constant tensions over strategic decisions, and blurred accountability. And yet there are some good (and some less good) reasons to have shared leadership structures in the corporate board room and beyond. Often in the case of co-leadership the question of how to set it up is as important as if and when to have shared leadership.

Some good (and some less good) reasons to have co-leaders

One reason to install co-leaders at the helm of an organization is politics. Co-leaders can balance claims on leadership and representation of stakeholders. European defense group EADS (now Airbus Group) had co-CEOs for years after its founding in 2000, balancing German and French demands for equal representation. Deutsche Bank was led by two CEOs, who were said to represent global investment banking and the German home market in the top role. But double filling of roles at lower strata in organizations can also serve to balance stakeholder demands from different geographic areas, parts of the value chain, or business divisions. While some may argue that politics is not the best reason to make structural decisions, such arrangements at least shine a spotlight on obvious tensions – and allow them to be managed at the highest possible level, if co-leaders can reconcile the conflicting demands.

One functional reason to install co-leaders is the need to have additional capacity – there is too much to do in a certain role to leave it to just one person – which is frequently the case in start-up settings. Another reason for co-leaders is the need for additional competencies, when there is no single person who brings everything required to successfully fill the role. This reliance on complementarily skilled co-leaders is often found in creative settings where the genius of one leader benefits from a healthy dose of pragmatism and organizational talent of the other.

In other instances, co-leading arrangements grow out of start-up teams. The early line-up at Google may serve as a case in point, although it grew into a more nuanced approach early on (we’ll come back to that). More temporary reasons for co-leadership are transition periods, where in- and outgoing leaders seek a smooth hand-over by sharing the same role for some time. And last but not least, job-sharing arrangements with the goal of freeing up time for the involved individuals to follow other pursuits may even extend to leadership roles.

The human side and the organizational side to co-leadership settings

How should this be done then? Let’s not reiterate all the reasons why co-leader line-ups can – and do – fail (for that, consider the accounts of FT’s Andrew Hill and Schumpeter). Rather, let’s discuss four best practices that may help to make the sum more (and not less) than its parts. 

First, think of the co-leader set-up as a special kind of team. As such, key insights into team discipline apply. In the words of Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, “a team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, collective work product, and approach, including shared leadership, for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”.[i] I suggest that each of these elements is equally important. Have a dedicated discussion about how you score as a team against each of these dimensions. Great teams do not come into being purely through chance, good luck, or chemistry, though these factors all play a role.

Second, invest in and respect the relationship between the co-leaders. The goal is not permanent harmony, which can be rather dangerous to performance in strategically open environments, but rather that the joint team has the skills to have healthy, productive fights.

Third, take a proactive stance towards leadership behaviors, especially with regards to communication and representation. Leaders shouldn’t simply agree on lofty principles, but rather make them concrete in rules and codes of conduct. For example, how leaders deal with each other, how and when they communicate or appear in public.

Fourth and finally, align your co-leader set-up with your overall organizational structure and governance. Individual co-leaders may assume dedicated responsibilities for different geographic areas of the organization, parts of the value chain, or business divisions. The structure may include a formal differentiation of roles, e.g. between CEO and Chairman, or CEO/COO or CEO/CTO pairings, or even teams of three (as in the case of Google). In addition to a deliberate team charter, productive relationships and behaviors, clear joint and individual responsibilities help to prevent members of the organization from “decision shopping” between co-leaders, the way kids seek out the parent whose decision they prefer. Developing collaborative management practices and finding the right organizational configuration for your co-leading set-up is therefore the starting point for productive, consensual leadership arrangements.

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[i] Katzenbach, J. & Smith, D. (1993). The wisdom of teams. Creating the high-performance organization. Harvard Business School Press.