Dual-CEOs – does it work?

updates + insights » Dual-CEOs – does it work?

Last week’s ‘top four must reads’ post which included a link to an article in HBR titled “Is CEO a Two-Person Job”, has created a lot of chatter in our business. So, we thought we’d dig a little deeper…

In summary, the article authors contend that with expectations of modern leadership evolving, companies need to rethink existing approaches and structures, to enable their leader(s) to succeed.

This includes the typical model of the “omnipotent” CEO sitting at the top of the organisational structure which can result in an untenable situation for a single person to manage – with demands for setting and leading strategic direction, managing and overseeing internal decision making, the admin of people leadership, as well as being the external face of the organisation. Then overlay that with a global pandemic and business response/recovery plan.

Dual leadership, co-CEO’s or “two in the box” as some describe it, is an approach more common in countries like Germany, with global multinationals like SAP, Daimler AG and Deutsche Bank having trailed the concept.

Great idea…

Global pandemic aside, consider what keeps a CEO up at night – investor/shareholder concerns, global economy, regulatory uncertainty, technological change, operational and safety risks, competition, talent retention – the answer is, a lot. With all of these challenges occupying a leader’s time, having two in the role, particularly two CEOs with complementary skills, can be a real benefit. As well as the advantage of retaining knowledge within a business from a succession perspective, should one CEO move on, as well as the opportunity it presents for senior leaders who can see a path to the top role(s) which may mean you are less likely to loose ‘up and coming’ talent.

Or, recipe for disaster…

The main argument against a dual-CEO arrangement is the obvious challenge of literally having two people in the top role – the potential for split decisions and disagreement, mixed messages and two sets of priorities, as well as confusion from the senior leadership team (and wider business) around who ultimately holds the decision making power. The risk is clearly the potential for the divide in command.       

Yah or Nay?

Like any business decision, it really depends on the individual circumstances and the unique challenges you are facing. If your business is in the early stages of its lifecycle or approaching a critical growth period, then co-leadership could make sense and be absolutely vital to success. Another option suggested by entrepreneur Joe Procopio is a substitute CEO or “CEO2” – having one CEO responsible for the external aspects of the role (board, investors, new business and associated external functions like sales and marketing) and the other focused internally (employees, product/service, operations etc). While its not articulated quite in this way, this is a common model for SMEs that have co-founders who naturally gravitate towards certain parts of a business that is within their span of knowledge and experience.  

Like any relationship, the co-CEO partnership takes work. You need to pick the most compatible partner and be clear on expectations and transparent on responsibilities. On the flip side, consider how dual leaders could make a big job more manageable.        

The Decipher Team      

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