Leadership

Can a Co-CEO Structure Work?

By / Sep 9, 2013 (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Putting more than one person in the corner office has a checkered history. But it may be the kind of leadership style our times increasingly demand.

History and corporate lore has made the singular CEO into America’s unofficial folk hero: Behold, one magnificent polymath who sets the vision, knows the business inside and out, rallies the troops, and, if things go sour, nobly accepts the blame. Such leaders aren’t doing it all alone, of course—they distribute responsibility among VPs. But the idea of sharing power at the top has a way of seeming structurally unsound. Think about it: Jack Welch or Steve Jobs or Meg Whitman letting somebody else take some of the reins is so anathema to our concept of leadership that it has a vaguely un-American ring to it.

But it happens. Whole Foods has not just one but two CEOs. So does Chipotle. And as a recent article in Fortune noted, the successful architecture and design firm Gensler has three people at the top, each of whom shifts roles every few years to oversee a different aspect of the company. “The cross-pollination of expertise really is what spurs innovation here,” co-CEO Diane Hoskins told the magazine.

The dual- or triple-CEO model seems unworkable because it runs counter to much of what we know about human nature. Ask two people to share and one person will want to share just a little bit less. (Presumably there’s scientific research on this, but raising a two-year-old boy has provided ample enough proof for me.)  And the co-CEO model has a mediocre track record at best. SAP, BlackBerry, and Daimler Chrysler have all recently given up on it, at didn’t go well at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. “Let’s face it, the dominant model for over 5,000 years of human history is a single leader at the top,” Bob Frisch of Strategic Offsites Group wrote, rolling his eyes at the demise of BlackBerry’s co-CEO experiment.

Ask two people to share and one person will want to share just a little bit less.

A co-CEO model might be awkward for your association too; I wasn’t able to find an association that uses it, and according to ASAE research only 17 percent of organizations have the closest analogue to one, a deputy CEO. But I can think of three reasons to at least consider such a radical change to the org chart:

1. The world is getting too complicated to pretend one person can manage everything an association does well. Association leaders need to be better-schooled in finance, globalization, and technology than they’ve ever been, as each of those arenas become richer opportunities for success or failure. A co-CEO can bring deep knowledge in a particularly important topic and have the leverage to be decisive about it as well. In the case of Gensler, a global company, three CEOs allows it to have a leadership presence in the 15 countries where it has offices.

2. Co-CEOs exemplify the personalities we’ll increasingly demand of organizations. Communication, collaboration, and transparency are the order of day for staffs, who are increasingly encouraged (for better or for worse) to work together to solve problems. A co-CEO structure can be a powerful way to model that behavior and show that such an arrangement can be effective when it comes to making major decisions about the direction of an association.

3. Standalone CEOs crash and burn too, you know. In the Wall Street Journal, Gartner analyst Donald Feinberg scoffed at the co-CEO model, saying, “Are you married? And have you never had a fight? Friction, of course there is friction when two people spend that much time together.” But no sensible person would dismiss the idea of marriage just because couples will inevitably have spats. Singular leaders will have their conflicts too—with VPs, board chairs, and members. Indeed, it may be that a common reason for a leader’s failure at the top is an inability to successfully manage such conflicts. Co-CEOs will disagree too, of course, but working together they might also serve as a team that can respond effectively to the challenges that circumstances and stakeholders present them with.

Are you part of an organization with a co-CEO structure, or know of one that’s worked well, or didn’t? Share your experience in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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